There isn’t a timeline to my jumbled childhood memories of spirituality. It’s a mosaic of wooden pews, Catholic statues, memorized prayers, Methodist hymns, and religion classes, so that’s how you’ll have to read it.
If I had to name the god of my childhood, I would name it Obligation.
My dad’s side of the family was Catholic. And by Catholic, I mean Cajun. The two go together, just like Italian and Catholic, or Mexican and Catholic, or Filipino and Catholic. At least we Cajuns get alliteration out of the deal.
My spiritual identity was firmly rooted in the Catholic Church when I was a kid. During the week, I went to mass at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Lafayette, LA. White adults in businesswear and (mostly) white kids in school uniforms gathered inside the marble floored church to pray. Saints set in stained glass and painted on walls and ceilings looked down on us as we said our weekly mass. My dad’s patron saint was painted across from my patron saint, his dressed in peasant robes and mine in pristine garb.
During the weekends, the faithful in the rural community of Judice, LA gathered at St. Basil Catholic Church. Tiny wooden Stations of the Cross set on paneled walls looked down on us as we took our weekly communion. We dressed significantly more casually at St. Basil and there were actually people darker than non-bleached paper in that church. Black people sat on one side of the sanctuary and white people sat on the other. That still confuses the hell out of me… we all lived next to each other but we segregated ourselves at church. My neighbor, Eva, would replace her normal headwrap with a fancy wig to go to church. I liked her headwrap more but you could tell she felt really pretty in the wig. As a bald transwoman, I totally get it.
Whether at a school mass or on a Sunday, I measured the passage of time by how many times I had knelt, sat, and stood. When the bells rang as the transfiguration happened (when the communion mystically became Christ’s body) I wasn’t mesmerized by the mystery, I was excited because mass was almost over. Rote activities like learning how to genuflect (right knee quickly to the floor with a super-fast sign of the cross), the correct order to make the sign of the cross (head, belly, left shoulder, right shoulder), and how to place my hands in order to receive communion (right over left even though I’m left handed) were drilled into me both at school as well as every Sunday.
From what I remember, none of my teachers or priests ever taught me how to converse with God. I was, instead, taught what to say at God. The Apostles’ Creed, an Our Father, and a few Hail Marys were what my prayers consisted of. If you want to know what child-like joy feels like, it’s when you hit the Glory Be when praying a rosary. You only say those in the home stretch of a rosary. That means you’re about to get up off of your knees and get back to something as exciting as sitting in a desk and learning how to multiply.
I doubt this is what was taught but what I believed was that prayer was a transactional process. I give God a rosary’s worth of prayers and maybe he’ll give me something. I don’t remember asking God for anything when I was a kid, other than asking him to kill my dad when he would punish me. Sorry, Dad. That was an asshole move on my part. If it’s any comfort, he didn’t kill you and I’m glad he ignored that prayer.
I remember one mass in particular from my childhood. This was what I defined as a “country” mass at St. Basil but I was in a blue suit. Even Catholics have Easter Best clothing. In the middle of mass I had to use the bathroom, so I told my dad and walked outside. There was a covered concrete walkway maybe fifteen feet long between the sanctuary and the other building with the bathrooms in it. About halfway across that walkway, the whole world started spinning.
I woke up in the grass. Still needing to drop a deuce, I went into the building with the bathrooms and felt everything start spinning again. “Please God, help!” I screamed as I fell to the floor. When I woke up on the cool floor of the building, I turned tail and ran back to the sanctuary. From what my dad remembers, I threw the door open and half the church turned to look at me. I stood there in my blue suit with absolutely no color to my complexion and grass all over me. I never told anyone until today, but I was certain that the devil had attacked me. In my childhood mind, he was angry about Easter and he took it out on me once I left the spiritual safety of the sanctuary. The fact that my blood sugar had probably either spiked or dropped from Easter candy had nothing to do with it.
The most intimidating spiritual memories of my childhood Catholicism involved Confession, the act of telling a priest your naughty activities and thoughts. I totally fucked up my first one. I sat on top of the thing I was supposed to kneel on. The priest had to hold in a laugh. After he composed himself, he pointed to a chair that I could sit in. I don’t remember much of my first confession after that bit. Maybe I should have confessed that not better explaining to me what I was supposed to do pissed me off.
Later in my childhood, probably Junior High or early High School based on which priest it was, I remember NOT telling that priest about masturbating, looking at the half-naked ladies in the lingerie section of the Sears Catalog, or wearing my mom and sister’s clothing. When you’re a kid, there are some things you think a priest shouldn’t know about you, being some weirdo who feels at home in women’s clothing is at the top of that list. It must have been a pretty boring confession to hear, hence the short act of contrition.
Acts of Contrition are pretty fucking cool in concept. Do something bad, say a rosary, and God is cool with you again. Wouldn’t it be awesome if everyone acted like that? “Dad, I drank some of your liquor in Junior High and stole some of your chewing tobacco in high school. I’m going to say ‘I’m sorry’ 72 times so you’ll forgive me.”
One time a priest came over for gumbo after mass. I remember feeling deeply uncomfortable with this turn of events. This dude was just supposed to subsist off of rosary energy, holy water, and that really big communion wafer he broke in half every week. What was he doing in my house eating gumbo? I think he might have talked about gluttony or something during his homily because, after he left, my dad pointed out the priest’s hypocrisy in having two huge bowls of gumbo. That made sense to me since I never got a piece of that big Eucharist wafer… he must have kept it all for himself on top of eating so much gumbo.
My mom’s side of the family was Methodist. And by Methodist, I mean WASPs. And by WASPs, I mean aliens from another planet. Oh, and my grandfather was a Methodist minister, so I was the grandchild of an alien leader. However, these aliens weren’t trying to take over the planet. They were just really, really nice to people.
St Paul’s Methodist Church in Bay City, Texas is the church I remember most from my grandparent’s spirituality. As a Catholic kid, I was struck by how loud it was in there. Those people talked to each other before the church service began. They smiled and laughed. They tried to talk to me as they introduced themselves to The Reverend’s Family. I remember shaking their hands and smiling but not much more. Didn’t these dumbasses know that they were supposed to be quiet in church?! Jesus would get pissed off or something because they were making so much racket! I was going to stay quiet so he wouldn’t be angry at me… only those Methodists would receive his wrath.
I remember the music from my grandparent’s church. As a kid, those weren’t boring hymns they sang… especially coming from a Catholic background. There were harmonies, melodies, rhythms, and -above all else- my grandma’s voice. The music echoed around the room and pulled on my heart strings in ways that a Catholic Mass never did. Soaring higher than all of them was my grandma’s soprano voice. I remember her voice being just as beautiful and warm as she was in person. I didn’t like singing because I was self-conscious about not knowing any of the songs, not knowing how to read the sheet music, and because I was insecure about the sound of my own voice; but I loved listening to those people sing and loved how it made me feel.
After lots of singing, as well as things I was familiar with like shaking hands and offering peace, my grandpa would get up in his black robes and teach. I remember thinking he looked like a giant in those robes. Just like in Catholic mass, I tuned grandpa-in-giant-form out and let my imagination roam just like I did in mass back in Louisiana. You can easily pass 30 minutes by staring at every detail of a stained glass window. I really only remember that grandpa had a good speaking voice but I don’t remember any topics, jokes, or anything else that he said from the pulpit.
I also remember going to a smaller church he presided over in Markham, Texas. It was SUPER small and only met every other week. They did communion weird there. I think I had to kneel in a long line of people to receive communion but I got grape juice too so it was worth the kneeling. As we knelt, this one woman was weeping and that seemed so strange to me. Why would someone cry in church? I asked my mom about it after and she said something about Jesus meaning a lot to that lady. I’ve never forgotten that old woman’s sobbing.
To a certain extent, I felt pity for those Methodists. Why couldn’t they just be Catholic? That was what you were supposed to be because the Pope said so. I think. Maybe the Pope said something like that at some point. As a kid, I didn’t worry about what the pope said because I let my parents, teachers, and priests worry about the theological big picture. My mental bandwith was reserved for trading baseball cards with Kevin Lestage, playing in Bernie Watson’s backyard, being completely envious of how many legos Billy Charbonnet had, and repressing my gender identity.
Part 2: A God named Nothing