I was in Catholic school, in Los Angeles. I was nine. I was just starting to read newspapers and magazines about current events.
My teacher, Sister Jude, had shocked the hell out of her little charges one Monday, by showing up in class without her strict habit, and with her hair showing. Nuns were traditionally covered from forehead to foot with long robes and veils— it was incomprehensible to imagine they had figures or hairlines.
Sister informed us there was going to be an open-air Mass against the war the very next Sunday. She no longer wished to entertain the top religious issue of our fourth-grade class, which was whether you could go to hell for playing with Ouija boards. No, she wanted to talk about Vietnam. She was questioning the big picture, and I loved her so much, that I wanted to read whatever she was reading, hear whatever she was hearing. I wanted to touch her hair.
I wonder if Sr. Jude still believes in God today— since she was the one who set me on my path of wondering, "If there is a God, why doesn't He stop the killing?"
I'm sure many of you remember the first time in your childhood that you became aware of mass suffering, and the way your little heart broke in incomprehension. As a sheltered white-kid American, I was only watching genocide on TV, or reading about it in books. My prayers and rosaries at night turned almost entirely to world events, and I barely managed to squeeze in my conventional pledges to not think bad thoughts about my chores, or to obey my mother without complaint.
The nuns in our school, St. Rita's, were under the sway of Sister Corita and the Immaculate Heart Order in Hollywood. This group was far to the left of what were called the "lay" teachers at our school, who were exemplified by our Parish Girl Scout Troop Leader, "Mrs. Scott."
Mrs. Scott, for example, was purple with rage— and also a little tipsy— over John Lennon's comment that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus. She demanded that our entire troop organize a record burning.
(I must insert here: although I was a Brownie and Girl Scout for three years, I never once went on a camping trip, nor learned one knot, or any outdoor activity. We took up no cause besides burning infidel materials. We were taught to knit, and set the table correctly— that was it.)
But when Mrs. Scott would occasionally go AWOL, we played our Beatles albums in the parish basement, and danced and screamed ourselves into what can only be described as an erotic frenzy. I peed in my pants to "Ticket to Ride" one afternoon, things got so out of hand.
I had three LP's and two 45's which I had bought with my own babysitting money— and there was NO way I was going to burn them. It wasn't my beloved John's fault that his music was more talked about than Jesus; he was just noting the obvious!
My last blog story about modern religion is currently reprinted on Alternet's news site, which has a much bigger pool of readers than we do here at my journal— including many liberal and self-described Left-Wing Christians. Like Sister Jude, perhaps!
One of them responded to my story with this critique:
It will take Christian insiders to reform the church. The fundamentalist bashers, like [Susie], will do little to change the Christian mind. It's easy to sit on your high horse and bitch. Go do something! Join a church and reform it.
I found this remark unintentionally humorous— and very Protestant! I truly do enjoy the variety of perspective, don't get me wrong. But this particular comment made me recall my 1967 "conversion" all over again.
I definitely was influenced by people inside the church— Sister Jude, for example, and my own mother's criticism and doubts of her strict Catholic upbringing. I was also influenced by people I despised in our church community, like Mrs. Scott, or the notorious Principal Sister Corinna, who one day smeared every 4th-grade boy's face with dog feces— no lie— as a punishment for insubordination. If they were what "Godliness" was about, I wanted nothing to do with it.
But I was also influenced by outsiders. Lots of them, most of whom I can't name, and almost entirely in print and music. Little pitchers have big ears, and they also read under the covers with flashlights. I read newspapers and magazines with anti-war critiques, and some of the authors were crystal on the subject of their non-belief. They despised the imperialist displays of God and Country, and they recruited my sympathies. They were smart. They poked holes in things.
At the same time, I was only eight. I have a clear memory of getting on my knees, clasping my jump-rope-calloused hands together, and speaking to God one night at bedtime:
"I don't know if I believe in you anymore. But I am talking to you just in case you are. If you're really there, then I'll be sorry, and I'll join a convent when I'm grown-up, and make it up to you. But for right now, I'm not going to to Confession anymore, and I'm not going to believe in you anymore, and I hope you don't get too mad."
I kept that promise rumbling in my head for years afterward, that if my nubile agnosticism proved wrong, I would join the gnarliest convent ever, and scrub a million floors to get back in God's good graces.
It wasn't just Vietnam. Or John Lennon. It was everything, from my growing awareness of my own family strife, to discovering masturbation, to being inspired by the counter-culture breaking out all around me. I just didn't see what God had to do with it— it seemed like people themselves were the ones making our destiny, however glorious or tragic.
After years of hedging my bets, at fourteen, I had a turning point. It was an unprepossessing occasion: I was taken one evening by an older family friend to some kind of Unitarian Jewish get-together in Santa Monica— don't ask! It was a potluck.
Something about the onset of puberty, and speaking to a number of eclectic-thinking adults that night, it struck me that many of them didn't believe in God; they believed in what you might call "right livelihood," by a progressive perspective. They didn't have any lingering doubts. They had a heritage, but they didn't have a "faith." They were activists, not prayer-folk. As much as they were Jewish atheists, I was an Irish Catholic atheist. You could be both at the same time! I climbed out of my foxhole; the relief was palatable.
I had my last little "chat with God" that night. I spoke to myself, walking out into the Ocean Park air:
"Uh, this is ridiculous, but for the record, since I made this promise in a prayer, I'm breaking it in a prayer. I am not building or joining a convent. There is no there there. Thanks for the memories."
The critics who tell people like me to "go join a church" crack me up. I am a product of Church! I spent more time on my knees than they can ever fucking imagine. I told Jesus everything! Look at that earnest picture of me going my first Communion, and you can see everything you need to know about my faith.
I didn't get "off a high horse." I tearfully, and painfully, stepped off a cliff. I was terrified of going to hell, but even at my age, I'd had enough glimpses of people's private hell, and public blood-thirsts, to wonder if there was anything worse than the fire we create here on earth.
I was profoundly influenced by the nonbelievers who spoke out around me. Thank... goodness! — they were outspoken when my reality began to unravel. To grow up around writers and speakers who defied "God," and defied God-belief, saved me, truly. I would've been eaten up by despair, fear, and self-loathing without them. Thank you Sister Jude, thank you John, Paul, George, and Ringo, Thank you, L.A. Free Press!
Science, history, and art, picked me up off the floor and gave me so much to hope for— a touching salvation if there ever was one. I'll never be an "outsider" to the Catholic religion— old cult members never lose the twitch!— but my years as their child-exploited soldier and victim are over.
I wonder, have any of you had a "Come to Atheism" moment instead of a "Come to Jesus" moment?
My lover, for example, was brought up atheist, and finds my history to be quite Gothic. And of course, I have many friends who are spiritual in various respects, but don't go to traditional churches, or proselytize. I even have friends who are Jesuits— wow, talk about great conversationalists.
—Just to be clear, I'm not interested in converting or "reforming" anyone— tolerance is my bag— but I'm eager to hear your stories of when you might have realized you didn't carry traditional "faith" anymore, or when your childhood notion of "God" exploded.
Did you pray when you were a child? Did you stop? Why? Are you in or out of the foxhole? I still have my Communion rosary.. and since today's the eve of All Saints, I think I'll wear it!
"Susie received our Dear Lord in Holy Communion on April 30, 1966, at the Church of St. Isadore from Father Benson, Age 8."
Macy's, San Francisco, 1964, where I am telling Santa Claus ALL ABOUT Baby Jesus.
Catholic Girl Scout Troop, Sierra Madre, 1967. Note lack of badges.
I was rarely photographed outside of Sunday Mass preparations. This is Easter, Riverside, 1966.
"Susie said her First Prayer, "The Our Father," with Mother's Help when 7 Years Old."
"On April 29, 1966, our Dear Lord showed His Mercy when Susie made her First Confession to Father Benson at 8 years old."
All text from my Catholic Baby Record, "published with ecclesiastical approbation."