I am of course a devout Catholic but spend a fair amount of time reading and commenting on Mormon blogs, where I have been kindly welcomed and sometimes treated as a friend and ally in the “culture wars”.
Of course it’s natural that Mormons would wonder why I have so much interest in Mormons and Mormonism since I am evidently not a “seeker”. “What’s your story?”, they ask. It’s just as natural that I would eagerly sieze an opportunity to talk about myself at great length. So in the interest of spreading the happiness to all concerned, here is my story.
I will post it in chapters since it is apt to be lengthy. Not having had much practice at organizing large amounts of written material, the narrative may end up veering off onto other paths. I hope it doesn’t become entirely aimless.
My mother comes from a Catholic family of 10 children. Her mother, my grandma, was born into an Irish-American Catholic family in 1916.
My grandfather was a Protestant who later converted. I have learned that when he went to meet with a priest for the first time, for the purpose of telling him off — something to do with the requirements for having my mom baptized, I believe — his anger was disarmed when the priest started out by offering him whiskey and cigars. We now keep a portrait of this priest on our wall of family photos.
Anyhow, my grandpa became a fervent Catholic, who actually ran sort of an apologetics club out of his home, together with my grandma and some other Catholic couples. They would publish ads in the local newspaper, consisting of a question about the Catholic faith together with an address to which people could write for the answer. The club would get together to answer the letters that came in.
He and my grandma, being good Catholics, did not believe in birth control, and therefore had 10 children, of which my mom was the eldest.
My mom, unfortunately, fell away from the faith after leaving home and marrying my dad. My dad converted in order to marry her, but never really did believe as far as I could tell. My mom later told me that she had a genuine faith as a child and a teenager, but sort of suppressed it when she attained her adulthood. I think she was convinced by the zeitgeist of the time (the early 60s) that God was dead and the Church was passing away.
As a result, I was raised without the faith. My sisters and I would attend Mass only when visiting my grandparents, who lived a couple hours’ drive away. I therefore had some exposure to the faith, but no moral training or religious instruction to speak of.
And yet when I visited my grandparents’ home, there was an atmosphere which I experienced nowhere else. There were icons of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, and little statues and so forth; a rosary here and there; a holy card. When we rode to Mass in their car my grandpa always had the local classical music station playing. He would sometimes sing opera or old romantic ballads, kidding himself and us that he was a “golden tenor”.
It’s hard to express, but there was just this whole culture in their household that seemed to make sense of life; there was a purpose for everything and everything had its place, and we knew what we were doing and where we were going and why we were here — not that I knew these things personally, but I had the sense that they did. What I did know was that in their house, and indeed wherever they went, there was a beauty and flavor in life that was unknown to me elsewhere; at least this was how it struck me at the time.
All this was in stark contrast to my own childhood home, where there was little beauty or joy, and no sense of a goal in life other than doing what you were told, for reasons you little understood and for no overarching end or purpose that I could discern (other than avoiding punishment). I don’t say that I was abused or badly neglected. My mom did everything she felt needed to be done: Providing food, clothing and shelter and making sure I went to school. I understand she also took the time to teach me to read before even starting kindergarten, which I’m sure played a big part in fostering in me a love for reading and writing.
But my mom, I later found out, was extremely unhappy at the time. Further, my parents split up when I was around 4, and from then on she was a single, working mom who supported us entirely on her own. I didn’t get a lot of attention and affection from her, compared with some of my friends and their moms, or so it seemed. But I had no realization of the reason: that she was overworked and stressed out, and furthermore had lost the sense of a purpose and meaning in life, so that perhaps she wasn’t even sure why she was laying herself out in that way. She just had the sense, I guess, that this was what she needed to do, and so to her credit kept plugging away, going to work day after day and enduring the grind and the stress and worry and the sense of the futility of it all.
Of course it’s hard to know how accurate your childhood memories are, but I recall feeling that I was sort of on my own, with no one looking out for me or guiding me, no one teaching me to play sports or fight or what it was to be a man (I was the youngest of four and the only boy), how or why to be good, and the importance of integrity and honesty, let alone chastity and sobriety.
Forget about faith, hope and charity, which were concepts utterly foreign.
[To be continued…]