I have a picture of Sean in his baptism gown -- silvery white with puffed capped sleeves and lace trim. We took him to the church, waited in line with the other parents, to have him blessed in the cleansing waters, bathed in God’s benevolence. It was not so critical for me to participate in the sacrament but more about keeping a promise to my Irish mother that Sean would receive the sacrament -- God forbid he die in infancy and succumb to living out eternity in limbo caked in original sin. She had already administered her own baptisms of sorts on each of my children. When seeing her grandchildren for the first time she wet her fingers in holy water that she had brought back from Ireland. She did the blessing herself. It was no harm to me or the boys and I am a sucker for tradition and ritual. Besides, my mother’s brand of Catholicism fascinates me -- a mix between scripture, mythology, superstition and folklore.
As a child, if I lost something, my mother would say confidently, “I’ll pray to St. Anthony.” If it was a small miracle needed she would pray to St. Jude. If someone was having trouble selling their home then it was an appeal (and a statue burial) to St. Joseph. Saints were housed like a spice rack in my home -- sprinkle one to flavor a moment in our lives. I am drawn to stories, real or not. This idea to explain life’s mysteries through religion or mythology, literally or metaphorically, from a literary standpoint is appealing to me. It is a part of who I am. It is the core of my imagination.
We were raised to go to mass every Sunday unless the Chicago Bears were scheduled to play a game. Then my brothers were allowed to miss or go on Saturday evenings -- for them God ranked right behind the Bears. My brothers, sister and I would try to attend the mass with the priest who chain-smoked. His masses were quick, succinct, his nagging nicotine addiction hurrying things along and we were out in no time. We also would go to mass over at the chapel in the Catholic hospital. Afterwards, we would go to the hospital cafeteria and get donuts and orange juice.
As we grew older, we found ways to cheat out of church. One of my brothers would drive us to the parking lot of St. Julian’s Church. My sister or I would get out of the car, take a look around to see who was at 11 o’clock mass, check which priest was scheduled to say mass, grab a church bulletin and head back to the car.
“It’s Father Stephen and the Driscolls and Pat Edson were there. Let’s go get breakfast.”
Back at the house, we could hand over the bulletin (our proof that we went) and pass our mother’s quiz about mass. My mother used to go to mass everyday. When her mother died she stopped going pretty much all together.
There is no St. Kathleen, my given Christian name. Obviously, I won’t be filling those saintly slippers anytime soon -- I'm certainly not vying for the title. Not to mention no one could confuse me for a Saint, that’s for sure. There was a St. Catherine of Sienna who, for three years in her youth, received celestial visitations and had conversations with Christ. She later went on to care for the sick and dying. I don’t know much else about her butI know for certain that I am not named after her nor created in her likeness.
What I do know, is that from an early age, Sean has been drawn to water -- whether it be the highly chlorinated pools, rocky rivers, muddy lakes or the salty ocean. When he swims, his arms slicing in out of water, I imagine the sacrament of baptism, that he is drenched in enlightened waters, bathed in God and Mother Earth’s mercy and grace, immersed in healing, and his disability, for a moment, shedding from his skin and mind. Then I imagine him emerging in new light, in a new day, a new world where he is not thought of as a broken child or a throwaway, but rather a sage of sorts, a boy who can teach us to be kind and tolerant and loving -- to really capture the essence of Christianity that is so often missed in organized religions -- to be understanding and charitable, to practice tolerance and compassion, without judgment and to love freely without conditions. Leave the fire and brimstone in the hearth where it belongs, not in the minds and on the tongues of the angry and misguided. I'll take my faith sunny-side up.
9 months ago