Oh Come On, All Ye Faithful

"My one-girl betrayal of the Catholic community was something I kept to myself."

"My one-girl betrayal of the Catholic community was something I kept to myself."

As I walked into St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Closter, New Jersey, on Christmas Day, 2001, the organist was playing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a hymn I know every word to. The air, as always, smelled faintly of frankincense. My sister, father, and I took our favorite seats in the pew at the back of the church, next to the stained glass window of the Virgin Mary in her standard blue gown with a yellow halo over her head; the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the Doctor Doolittle of Catholic mythology, was in the corner behind us. For all 28 years I’ve been alive, we’ve always occupied the same spot. Across the aisle and about ten wooden pews ahead of us, I spied my Grandma May’s shockingly bright bulb of silver hair hovering over her cranberry-colored coat. She lives by herself in Ireland for most of the year but spends the winter months staying with her youngest son, my dad’s brother, Bernard, and his wife, Ita. Like my dad, they too live in Closter, the town I grew up in. My red-headed aunt was on Grandma’s left; my salt-and-pepper uncle was on her right. The church was filled to capacity, peopled not only by the usual supplicants — parents with little babies, senior citizens, and immigrants of all ages — but also by a swell of twice-a-year churchgoers like me. We only showed up for the two big Catholic holidays — the other being Easter.

Everyone was decked out in honor of the occasion. Middle-aged women wore furs. Patriarchs had on dark suits. Tiny girls bobbed in red and green plaid dresses with black satin bows — just like my sister and I wore when we were kids. Boys in their early teens fidgeted with their cheerful ties. Old ladies wore bejeweled broaches over the top buttons of their high-necked blouses (in order to hide their elephant-wrinkled throats, as 92-year-old May once explained to me) and remained bundled in their winter outercoats to protect themselves against the draft from the entrance doors.

But except for the festive outfits, a multitude of red poinsettias, and the familiar Christmas readings — no room at the inn, unto us a child was born, they laid him in a manger, you get the picture — it was mass as usual. I’d been going to St. Mary’s ever since I was born and nothing interesting had ever happened during the service. Well, except for the time when I was five and wore my Winnie-the-Pooh bikini top to mass underneath my shirt — as a bra — because I wanted to be like my mommy. It fell off in front of the whole congregation, as my mother and I walked back to our seat after she had received her weekly communion wafer from the priest.

So before the mass even began, I was bored and impatient for it to end. Though I’d been a truly pious kid — earnestly saying my prayers and always doing my best to make sure God would approve of every action I took and every thought I had — I stopped believing in Catholicism as an adolescent, not long after my mom died when I was eight.

My one-girl betrayal of the Catholic community was something I kept to myself until, at some point in high school, in a heated moment of impatient rebellious-kid angst, I informed my dad — a fervent Catholic and old-school Irishman — that I didn’t believe anymore. I wanted to wound him: Take that, Dad! I warned him I was never going to believe again, no matter what he said or did. I expected him to respond angrily with the totalitarian parental power he had, to say something like, “You are going to believe and go to mass, whether you like it or not, because I say so!” Instead, he surprised me with a calm reasoning. It was fine, he said, if I couldn’t accept the tenets of Catholic faith anymore, but he wanted me to keep going to church on Sundays. He used the time at Mass to reflect on his week and his life, and would like me to do the same. Moreover, he simply liked for our family to be together on Sunday mornings. Unprepared for his well-spoken and rational response, I couldn’t refuse him his wish. So until I moved away for college and whenever I came home for a visit, I went to Church every Sunday to keep my dad happy, even though being there made me feel as out-of-place as an alcoholic at a dry wedding reception.

For years, I thought about the big questions in my life during the mass. In high school, those included: Will I ever get my period — or, more importantly, breasts? Why doesn’t my crush, John Healy, like me? Will my dad notice I am totally hung-over today? As time passed, my church musings also helped me think about more serious issues. Shortly after I graduated college, they helped me to decide that since death was inevitable, the only way I could protect myself against it was to create something that would far outlast me. I decided I would become a writer.

But that Christmas Day, there weren’t any pressing existential matters I needed to attend to and I was bored. I began looking around for something to entertain or interest me — A misbehaving child? A snoozing grandfather? Nothing naughty happening. All I could think was how much I wanted a cup of coffee and how perturbing it was that a silly ritual was keeping me from my morning fix!

As I struggled to keep my under-caffeinated crankiness in check, my flitting eyes fell on the old woman in the row in front of us. For as long as I can remember, that had been her spot. She was such a fixture, in fact, that I barely noticed her at first. But something about that day — maybe its proximity to September 11 — made me wonder what her life might be like. She must be in her late 80s, I thought, though that seemed to be the same age she had always been. I studied the profile of her sweet fleshy face. Her eyes were so round, dark and vigilant, her face lined and folded in such a way, that she reminded me of an owl. I noticed a gold band, dulled from so many years of living, on her wedding finger. Her wrists, like her digits and nails, were thick and square. She was wearing the requisite high-necked white blouse, a black knit cap and a heavy black overcoat. I could hear her reciting responses to the prayers in her high-pitched voice, warped with age and further distorted by a foreign accent that sounded Eastern European: Her “Lord Have Mercy” sounded like “Maw Ha Mawa.” We’d never said much more to each other than “Peace be with you” — a blessing Catholics wish each other during my favorite part of the Mass, aptly called “The Sign of Peace,” when everyone is supposed to shake hands with each other. (Granted, it sounded more like “Paw Ba Wawa” when she said it.)

I wondered if she had done a lot of praying during World War II. And how it was possible that this woman, after so many years at it, was still so devoted to God and the Church. Like a typical non-believer, I marveled at how she could be so diligent in her faith and so blind to all the ways in which Catholicism — and just about every religion I can think of — does not make sense and denies logic. How could she believe something for so long for which there was no proof? How could she live her life according to an unproven system whose greatest pay-off was supposed to come after she died? I wasn’t thinking about her with hate or disgust, but more with the kind of amazement that I might have for a Picasso painting or Peter Greenway movie: She saw the world in a way that was totally foreign to me.

I think my response to the elderly warbling woman might have wandered closer to condescension if she hadn’t reminded me of my grandmother. (We forgive the people we love many things.) See, May loves to pray. Every time she flies to America, because her sight is failing, she passes the seven-hour flight by endlessly worrying the beads of her rosary, half-whispering and half-gasping her sets of ten Hail Mary’s followed by a single Our Father at a barely audible level with her eyes closed. And whenever we part, my grandmother’s words, spoken in a heavy brogue, are always the same: “God bless you, Maura.” My status as a worldling notwithstanding, I always feel surrounded by an invisible force-field for a few minutes after she says that.

In Czeslaw Milosz’s “On Prayer,” the speaker is much more understanding of religion than I am. “All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge,” he says, in a translation by Robert Hass. “And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,/ Above landscapes the color of ripe gold/ Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun….” His point is that the routine of prayer — and by logical extension, the habit of faith — is something that builds its own strength, its own power, out of nothing. The act itself both requires faith and multiplies it, thereby transforming the small seed of belief into something real, something majestic. Sort of like the leap of faith required for marriage. Or to keep living. Or to keep believing that some day the long struggle to write something that will comfort and give hope to others will pay off. Maybe I was not so different from the believers that surrounded me.

But I didn’t come across that poem till recently; and my thoughts that Christmas morning were a little more mundane. How much longer would the priest, knee-deep in his sermon, keep droning on? The sooner the service ended, the sooner another Kelly family Sunday tradition could begin: breakfast at the local diner. As visions of steaming mugs and omelets danced in my head, I noticed the old woman’s arms were flailing, moving jerkily, at the elbows. She reminded me of a Hasidic Jew I’d seen praying once, at the end of a long hospital corridor. Wearing a shabby black suit, he had been standing with the upper half of his body bent at 45-degree angle. With long curls of dark hair hanging down from his head, he flapped his arms in what seemed to be gentle self-flagellation.

Snapping out of my daydream, I looked more closely at the woman and thought: That’s wrong. That is not the way Catholics talk to God.

Abruptly, as if her batteries had been yanked out, she stopped moving. A few seconds passed and, as if some final surge of electrical power pulsed through her, her head fell forward onto her chest.

“Mommy,” whispered a brown-haired middle-aged woman next to her. I noticed how similar they looked.

“Mommy?” she whispered again, more worried now. She shook her mother gently.

“Mommy,” she said, raising her voice to a normal level. “Mommy.” I couldn’t believe the daughter wasn’t panicking. I felt paralyzed with fear and I didn’t even know the old lady. She just had some kind of seizure and now she’s dead, I thought. What the hell was happening? Why was the priest still talking? Why was everyone else in the church still listening to him? Why isn’t someone screaming? Why wasn’t I? Please don’t be dead, I thought. Not in front of me: It would feel too much like a curse. Not on Christmas Day. Not this year. Not NOW. Almost instantaneously, I was pissed off at myself for being so selfish. You’re a worthless, despicable ogre, Maura Kelly, I thought. (Yes. You don’t find people much more guilty than ex-Catholics. Despite our personally enforced commitment to secularism, deep down we all feel like a bunch of Judases.)

“Take her teeth out,” the daughter’s husband said quietly. He was on the other side of his wife, farther away from the emergency. His nonchalance made me think there was no need to make a scene, yet there was dread in my stomach. Maybe he was just trying not to disrupt the mass? His wife loosened her mother’s bridge and let it sit awkwardly in her mouth, peeking out from under her limp upper lip. Oh, please don’t die, old lady, I love you! I thought. My emotion came from that basic instinct: People should live! We root for life, urging it to beat out death.

“Mommy, Mommy!” The daughter was shouting now, and shaking her mother more vigorously. A few people around us started to notice what was happening: the daughter’s worried face, the old woman’s closed eyes and the chin resting on her chest. But most either didn’t or pretended they didn’t, and the mass continued on. I thought of Bruegel’s painting, “The Fall of Icarus,” and the Auden poem it inspired, “Musée de Beaux Arts”: “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters; how well they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along….” Or while a priest is preaching, I thought. Or while one secularist is looking helplessly on.

“Call 911!” someone behind me suddenly shouted. That seemed to startle my dad into action, or at least movement. He stood up and stared at the scene in front of us, as if to signal he wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. The contrast between the anguish on his face and the confusion of his body made me want to laugh; his in-action seemed to add to the anxiety of the situation. Of course, judging other people’s reactions was all I was good for: I remained motionless.

A short, fat woman with pixie-cut dark hair dressed in black velour sweats came forward from a seat behind me — she was probably sitting so far back because she wasn’t dressed for the occasion — and stepped into my row, her eyes on the hushed mayhem in front of me.

“I’m a nurse,” the portly pixie said. I slid over so she could be directly in back of the unconscious woman. It was all happening so calmly and slowly. Maybe two minutes had passed since I first noticed the flickering hands. From behind, the nurse gently slapped the old woman’s cheeks; felt for a pulse in her neck; then announced, “She’s not responding.” We needed you to tell us that? I thought.

“The EMT’s are on their way,” said a male stranger behind us. Just then, my aunt, a private nurse who cares for an old man in a wheelchair, entered the pew in front of me. She sat down next to the motionless mother and took her wrist.

“She has a pulse, though it’s very weak,” Ita told the daughter. Thank the pagans she’s alive! I thought. “Maybe she passed out because it is so stuffy in here. Why don’t we get her coat off?” My aunt and the daughter pushed the heavy black wool off the woman’s shoulders. I caught the attention of an old man in navy pinstripes, holding a stiff black fedora; he was hovering along the wall nearby with a terrified look on his face. I gestured at him to open the stained glass window behind him — I could move! Finally! He obliged.

And at that moment, the woman started to stir.

“Mommy?” the daughter said. “Are you okay?” The old woman looked at her daughter in a way that seemed to say, “You young people get so worked up over the silliest things.” Then the mother nodded and turned back to the priest, giving him her full attention.

Then a couple of cops showed up. The daughter told them her mother had had a series of strokes in recent years and that this was probably another minor one. One cop put an oxygen mask around the old woman’s mouth and nose, leaving the tank next to me. Next, a young male EMT, pale with sandy hair and glasses, walked in and, with the daughter serving as his interpreter, started doing a vital statistics test on the woman. The patient seemed, more than anything else, annoyed that her participation in the mass was being disrupted.

Equally unfazed, all those in attendance rose from their seats for the next part of the ceremony: the recital of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Though the EMT was still holding her wrist and the oxygen tank was still attached to her face, the old woman tried to stand too. The EMT held her back. “You’re not going anywhere!” he said, smiling. “Sit down.” Though he said she seemed fine, he thought she should go to the hospital for a thorough check-up, just to be safe. Minutes later, when a few ambulance men arrived with a stretcher, she began to climb on top of its white sheet while simultaneously joining the congregation in singing “Hallelujah, hallelujah, ha-LEY-lou-ya.” She kept her eyes steadfastly on the altar as if all the medical attention and accoutrements were invisible, and I could hear her voice raised loud and clear in song until the stretcher passed through the church doors and they shut behind her.

Maura Kelly is a writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Rolling Stone, Vibe, Salon, Slate, Lingua Franca and elsewhere. She also has an essay in the collection Before & After: Stories from New York. She is currently editing a literary anthology of stories about mothers, as well as a novel and screenplay.