The first time I spoke in church, I was around three years old. The priest processed down the aisle wearing a rose-colored chasuble, which they wear only once or twice each year. My mother says that I remarked loudly enough for the whole church to hear: “My, God is wearing a pretty dress today!” Everyone laughed.
I like this story for two reasons. It demonstrates that I had a clear and insightful voice as a young Catholic female. And it reminds me that I come by my confusions about God quite honestly and from a very early age.
My childhood memories of Catholic priests are generally good. I’ve always loved the liturgy of the mass, with all its display and poetic ritual, the changing colors of elaborate vestments, the bells and exotic scents, the beauty of the priest intoning the Latin words, the solemn bows and the dramatic blessing that forgave our sins. I admired the grace of the priest as he swished through the classrooms of my Catholic grade school in his long black cassock with about a hundred perfectly round black buttons. Priests were kind to me. I was smart, and I did what I was told.
However, when I prayed, I did not pray to God the Father, who for me was a far-away Father with a stern and disapproving face. Nor did I pray to Jesus who was, frankly, a great puzzle to me. Sunday after Sunday, I could not escape the certainty that his body (the communion wafer) was a lot like flimsy cardboard.
When I prayed, I prayed to Mary. This was not without its own confusions. Like how she got pregnant through the ear with an angel. But Mary was kind and loving. She was the mother I longed for. In the statue in our church she stood on a snake. She eternally looked down at the infant in her arms with love and patience. I stared at her statue for hours and prayed to her and felt heard. Mary was not God but she was very close.
The other interesting people in my life who wore long dresses were nuns. I’m sure it never occurred to me to accuse any of them of being God. Nuns were the hardest working people I knew, besides my mother, and they suffered a great deal. They suffered when Father swished in and took over the class to ask us our catechism questions. We all stood up immediately and said in chorus, “Good morning, Father!” We sat straight and alert in our desks. It was the best we ever were. We were not so pliable with the nuns, and we made their lives difficult. We knew they did not have the same status as the priest. No one had to tell us.
Priests were men with long, sometimes spectacularly beautiful, robes. Later on, I understood that they stood in for God. You could see how a three-year-old would conflate the two. For a toddler, standing in for something was as good as being the thing. “Men wear the pants in the family!” Which was something else we heard all the time, but priests were men who did not wear pants. They wore dresses, which was what seemed to make them God. Especially when they wore the really pretty ones.