This Boy's Life: Lessons from a Catholic childhood
I write at the same desk where I did my homework decades ago as a parochial school boy. This marred, mahogany desk is small, but it has indispensable drawers and cubbyholes and elegantly carved legs and a folded-back top that gives me a second tier for books and papers. It has withstood many moves and the weight of several typewriters, countless student papers, the writing of several books and, in the 1950s, my boyhood efforts to carve my name for the sake of posterity. Now, centered between my computer and a side table, it continues to play an important role in my writing life. It is where I remember.
When I was in the seventh grade and in training to be master of ceremonies at solemn high Mass at our church, I used this desk as a make-believe altar. On it I placed a votive candle, a few plastic statues and some of the “holy pictures” the nuns gave us when we did something remarkable. These little picture cards, edged in gold, were the closest thing I had to fine art; they were florid portrayals of saints with their halos highlighted and their eyes cast heavenward. I prized these pictures much more than my baseball cards because of their pious beauty and because they pointed to a vaguely understood sense that behind all such religious trappings was a reality more substantial than the everyday world around me.
Off and on I would forgo games with my friends to play priest at my “altar.” Rehearsing the ceremonies Sister Noella taught me, kneeling, bowing and genuflecting, I could escape into my own private chapel and imagine I had priestly powers. This infatuation did not last long. But with it came something more enduring and valuable: a lifelong belief that prayers are not a waste of time but are somehow heard in an invisible world, mysterious yet real.
Rituals of the Heart
Over the years, I have often asked myself why I have remained a Catholic when many of my contemporaries have not. The answer is to be found in my parochial upbringing. It has nothing to do with doctrines or dogmas but much to do with the way the church prays—that is, how the liturgy expresses a mystical core more ancient than the faith itself through rituals that still resonate in the heart, not just because of their beauty but because of their seriousness. They were (and are) reminders of the timeless present woven into the daily fabric of life. To recall them is to evoke a lost culture, a kind of Catholic shtetl transported from Europe to my hometown of St. Louis, to the city’s south side, where mainly German-Americans worked hard all week, scrubbed their front stoops faithfully on Saturdays and prayed earnestly on Sundays.
I grew up in a world of Masses and Benedictions and perpetual adoration. We had novenas, scapulars, sodalities, first- and second-class relics, plenary (and partial) indulgences, corporal and spiritual works of mercy as well as ember days, fast and feast days, rosaries and retreats and the Forty Hours devotion, with Stations of the Cross in Lent. Every day seemed to be special in some way, as we were always celebrating or preparing for a saint’s feast day or holy day. We were taught the seven sacraments, the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, the seven sorrows (and joys) of Mary and other lore unfamiliar to most Catholics today. However great my life in the ordinary world was, I sensed it was somehow secondary in importance to my life at Holy Family Church.
To grow up in that parish was to be immersed in an insular culture with its own private language of Latin feast days (Septuagesima Sunday, Corpus Christi) and saints that seemed as real as the American presidents. In a way, the Middle Ages were alive in that parochial world of centuries-old rituals that appealed to my youthful imagination. The use of church Latin added to the impression that none of this could ever change.
Part of the appeal of that Catholic world was the taste it gave me of European culture, which seemed more exciting than anything the American Midwest could offer. We Catholics were linked to Rome, going back to the ancient empire. I felt important, too, because I was in a spiritual network with countless millions of others, past and present, who said the same prayers and did the same things.
So I was part of history, part of a living tradition in which the past was sacred and still alive in the present. Catholicism meant the stories of heroes and virgin martyrs, popes and kings, as well as contemporary victims of Communist oppression. We listened in silent amazement as the nuns told stories of miraculous adventures and happenings: the stigmata of Padre Pio in Italy one day, a terrifying case of exorcism in St. Louis the next. Who needed to read adventure stories? The stories we heard—of violent beheadings, inexplicable healings and gruesome penances—unlocked the doors of the imagination. I was being made aware that the supernatural was real in a tangible sense, no matter how far-fetched and gruesome it sometimes seemed.
This education put too much emphasis on externals and prohibitions, but the mysticism of Catholicism was so powerful it could not help but be manifest. Not too surprisingly, I chose to study (and later teach) the work of writers who probed the mystery of things, writers like Milton, Dante and Shakespeare. Introduced to symbolism at an early age, I learned to look for meanings that were not apparent. To be taught that Christ was physically present then, just as he was in every other era, was to be introduced to an expansive notion of time that included the timeless.
I carry with me the memories of certain days in the eighth grade when I was pressed into early morning service as an altar boy at St. Elizabeth’s Academy, a school for girls 20 minutes away from Holy Family. The nuns needed a young male attendant to serve the priest who came for daily Mass.
It was an effort to get there on time, catching the bus at 5:30 a.m., but I felt honored to be chosen. The best part was the breakfast afterward, which was brought to me in silence by a sister whose rustling skirts and quick steps over the gleaming linoleum hallway were all I could hear on those chilly mornings. As I ate alone in a room beneath the chapel, I strained to hear the sounds of the girls, but they had not yet arrived for school. All I heard was the nun softly saying, “Thank you, Jerry” before disappearing. At 7:15, I had to abandon that quiet world—with its smells of polish and starch and soap—and return to the more familiar but equally cloistered parish school. The essentially feminine quality of all this became fully apparent to me when I entered the Jesuits’ prep school for boys (St. Louis University High School) in 1954, which provided a needed dose of masculine realism.
In both schools, we sensed that everything we learned had a higher purpose, the service of God. We learned of infinity, not just as a mathematical idea but as part of eternity. We learned to ask impossible questions about God, evil and the afterlife. My Jesuit instructors posed the Big Questions because they saw life from the eternal perspective (sub specie aeternitatis). If these questions led to certain fixed truths, they also kept alive a sense of life’s mysteries and the importance of probing the unknowable.
Finding God in Silence
The importance of the inner life was clear in both school and church. The daily Mass was a quiet affair, with the priest facing the altar. His voice reciting the Latin prayers was barely audible, but we in the pews could read along in our bilingual books. Our participation was mostly interior. The silent atmosphere was helped along by the quiet of the early morning; the absence of music at Communion provided an ideal time for contemplative prayer. Along with the grandeur of the liturgy, then, came something more important: the humility of silence.
Reading about the film director Martin Scorsese serving Mass on Mulberry Street in New York reminded me of my own experience. To be an altar boy, he says, was to be the only one to hear the sacred words whispered in Latin, Hoc est enim Corpus meum, the only one to see with the priest the daily miracle of bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood. The altar server witnessed a precise ritual of transformation, marked by the interplay of silence and bells. I would ring the hand bell three times, each ring signaling a deepening level of silence, a recognition that something transformative was (or should be) occurring in the inner life of everyone present.
I am grateful that a love of liturgy and silence was implanted in my impressionable heart, that I was part of a way of life so special that I assumed that everyone who did not share it knew all about it and secretly envied it. Fifty years later, I find myself exploring the meaning of God and silence as I write and speak about Thomas Merton and contemplative prayer, re-appreciating my Catholic roots.
There are many reasons why people leave the church—or stay. For me, the decision to stay has to do with hope and forgiveness, but also with the distinctly Catholic legacy of prayer. I value the living tradition that cares for the world through public and private prayer as well as through active ministry. I cannot ignore the imperfections of the Catholic world; but if I keep my focus on what really matters, the daily effort to experience the reality of God, I can be faithful to my heritage.
Although Holy Family Parish has closed, I am grateful for the many seeds planted in me there; it was a place where I developed a taste for mystery, a thirst for spirituality and a love of learning and prayer. My writing desk is the only physical token I have of those days, but it is enough. Its role as a mock-altar long forgotten until now, it is where I continue to focus on other sacred functions, each a marker on the journey through time to eternity.