Entering Christ the King Catholic Church in Oklahoma City, Christ on a cross that touched the ceiling. At his bleeding feet, pumpkins, autumn leaves, gourds, pinecones, apples, abundance of the season. I thought of accounts of Athena in her temple with meat and milk and honey laid before her golden sandals. Some evangelists think of Catholicism as pagan also. Our roots touch and intertwine in the ancient world.
Friends invited me. I was late. The church hid itself in an unfamiliar part of Oklahoma City, though to me, a southern California girl, it was all unfamiliar. I felt more comfortable in the church than I did in the city. Here all the people with lovely brown faces congregated. It felt like home. I am white, but because of my SoCal upbringing, I am often uncomfortable with too many whites in one place, especially the whitest of whites, such as live in Oklahoma City, and such as do not attend Catholic church.
One empty pew in the back meant I was lucky. The service began, or is it mass?
Perhaps my discomfort with church and too many whites in one place and not knowing Catholic terms all stem from the same place. I was raised Mormon, though it is disrespectful to say Mormon. I was raised LDS. My mother was and is faithful. I was also faithful until I started puberty and began to question my body and all that lay beyond. It bothered me that in the teen classes, in Young Women’s, mostly the girls were taught that the best thing they could do was have babies and keep a clean home where their husbands would be comfortable and happy.
I stopped going to church somewhere around fifteen, though I continued to study the doctrine intensively until I was twenty-eight. I knew and know LDS doctrinal and cultural terms backwards and forwards and smack dead in the middle. I can talk like I still believe and no one would know I’ve gone apostate. I do not, however, know many terms used in other churches, which all have languages of their own.
I went to an evangelical church once and went to dinner with some evangelists after. They talked a lot about “The Roman Road”. To this day, I have no idea what that means. I kept my mouth shut and looked down at my tacos.
It wasn’t The Roman Road though that kept me away from that church. The singing maybe: “God I love you. I love you God. You are my God. I love you God. God I love you,” set to bad pop. My arms got tired waving them in the air like I just didn’t care—for anything but feeling the Holy Spirit. In all honesty, it wasn’t that either. Toward the end of the service, the pastor (?) asked everyone who had tithed to hold their little gold envelopes in the air so the tithe-takers (?) could collect them—a disgusting practice meant to guilt and humiliate those who did not, or, more likely, could not tithe. I sat in my pew with a sour face. The pastor announced they would be spending the tithes on a new sound system. My face became more sour and my heart went dark to that place.
Before The Roman Road, I did try to go back to the LDS church a few times in my early adulthood. LDSers do this thing called “fellowshipping”, which means they do their best to be super, super nice to wayward members come home and new recruits. I couldn’t stand it. The niceness, the tone of it, from everyone, felt to me like how teachers at a school for the profoundly disabled talk to a severely developmentally challenged child. Too many white people in one place. Too much mayonnaise and white sugar and Jell-O salad and funeral potatoes in their veins. They couldn’t help it. I don’t blame them for it. The niceness was sincere I think, just too much, too quickly—an ice-cream headache that lasted three hours.
Also there was some cultural weirdness about how I was getting up there, (mid-twenties), and hadn’t yet gotten married and had babies. The weirdness was subtle, but it was there. I wasn’t quite a first class LDS lady without a man or babes or a man and trying for babes. Again, it wasn’t their fault and I don’t blame them for it. Too much Young Women’s training in their veins, years and years of it.
The place of my birth and rearing, the church in which I was raised, The Roman Road all made me wary of other churches and mostly ignorant of their various patois. All of this to apologize for the butchering I am about to do re: a Catholic service, or mass.
The congregation began to sing a hymn. The hymn was on page something something. I flipped and flipped through the little book in the pew pocket, which I have since learned might be called a missal. I found the page but there were only words, a homily maybe. No music. I frantically flipped more. Did I have the wrong book? I looked around and no, all the others were using the one I had, singing happily along to a real hymn that had far more than six words.
I must have looked like I was drowning. I felt like I was drowning. An usher stepped forward and took the rock of a book that was weighing me down out of my hands. He flipped near the back of the book and handed it back to me. There also was a page something something. The book was split into halves. I didn’t see that coming. There was the word half and the singing half. I felt like an idiot. The gray-haired usher smiled at me and stood by my side. When the priest began to speak, he turned the pages for me again so I would not get lost and stay lost. He stepped back and looked forward, soaking in the words of the priest. He smiled still. God must have smiled on him.
At times like this I wish I were still a Christian. Part of me believes that God acted there, or maybe Jesus, and he was calling me to him, to the Catholic faith. He was using metaphor. The book was my life and I didn’t know where to turn. His representative kindly shed a light on my path. It is terribly romantic.
The Catholic church has always spoken romance and adventure to me. Romance in the cathedrals and gothic churches built by poor townsfolk. Romance in the mysteries they say openly are mysteries, such as transubstantiation, (now there’s a big one I did know). Mystery in the darkness of the confessional. Adventure in admitting all my sins. I wish I still believed in sin. I wish I could relieve myself of it. I wish I could lay it on someone else’s lap.
Romantic as an old-world Latin lover, such is and was the Catholic church to me.
I admit I was a little disappointed the Oklahoma City church did not look like a Mexico City church, or what I imagine Mexico City churches look like. The Oklahoma City church was a simple church church. The roof was pointed, the walls were plain, the pews were simple save the kneeling thing. But that usher and the pagan crucifix more than made up for the physical church’s standard average churchiness.
The homily or mass or sermon was something about God’s children, wheat and chaff, reaping and sowing, ancient Jewish people. The message was positive towards both Catholic children of God and Jewish children of God. I believed the lesson must have been taught a long time ago in a different church in a different time before John XXIII, before Vatican II, and maybe the message re: the Jewish children of God was not so positive. There could have been some blame for Christ-killing inserted between the lines. I was glad I was not of that time, before John XXIII, before Vatican II, where I would have to hate the church.
The excellent things about my LDS upbringing stay with me. Mormons are taught to revere Jewish people as the chosen ones that, by the Bible, they undoubtedly are. We gentiles can be grafted onto the tree, but our corporeal blood does not run back to Abraham’s sacrificial son. The antisemitism that may have wagged long-gone priest’s tongues was all gone, washed in the blood of a more open-minded lamb, and I sighed in relief.
I know two words for what happened after that and I’m not sure which one applies. I know “eucharist” and “communion”. In the LDS church, it is called “sacrament”. I believe that’s another word that might apply. A goodly number of the congregation lined up for the body and blood, for the miracle and mystery of transubstantiation to melt on their tongues and trickle down their throats. The Christian God must have innumerable hands to touch each wafer, each goblet of wine, each mouth, each throat, in every Catholic church, in every place. I admire him for that. So many hands, too many hands. No wonder not all of them are clean. There is not enough soap in heaven and Earth.
I was told, visiting with my Catholic friends after, that the original church had burned down not too long ago and the huge crucifix, once behind the priest, now in the vestibule, was the only thing that had survived. Miraculous thing. I had been wondering why one side of the crucifix was blackened. I hoped it was a metaphor for the dark side of God the Father—the tornado, famine, flaming angels side—the unclean of innumerable hands. It wasn’t. The fire was not poetic. All the poor families lost their place of worship, though, miraculous thing, were left with the object of their deepest devotion. I was pleased. Everyone deserves miracles, even pagans, even white people in white churches, and especially kind people in morally complicated churches who show you the way.
What about you? Do you have experience visiting a Catholic church? Tell me about it.