I was born and raised Roman Catholic. Let me be more precise: I was born to an unmarried Catholic college-girl, whose only wish for her daughter (whose face she never saw: the anxious nurses in the Philadelphia hospital had placed a washcloth over my face when she was “permitted” to hold me, just once) was that she go to a good Catholic family.
My mother and father but slenderly matched that profile. My dad was the son of Russian and Latvian immigrants, who had been Catholic until a priest refused to bury a stillborn child in consecrated ground; then they all went Pentecostal. Dad was the next baby born; to this day he has not been baptized. My mom was “lace curtain” Irish Catholic, raised in the church but somehow always existing in a vaguely alienated state with regard to its teachings. She attended Catholic school, grades one through twelve. Still, more than once a puzzled nun, on hearing my mom ask a question (usually the gist of which was, Why should we believe that?), queried, “Are you a convert, dear?” My parents were married by a Justice of the Peace because my mother was insulted that my dad would not be permitted to darken the door of the church because of his non-baptized status. An angry phone call from her mother, and the priest let my dad into the church. They always celebrated the first date as their anniversary.
But oh they wanted a baby. A second baby. They had adopted my brother two and a half years earlier, and their pediatrician, in observing the hyper-attentive anxiety with which they parented him had urged, “Why don’t you two adopt another baby?” And so my parents had their good friend, an Ob/Gyn, on the lookout for young unmarried girls who might want to surrender their babies for adoption (which, in 1961, they just about all did).
In late April 1961 I was born, and five days later my mother and my Aunt Natasha went to the hospital to collect me. Mom carried a bag of baby clothes they had bought (all white: my mother dressed me in white exclusively for about three years). My birth mother, Nell, held me in her arms, washcloth and all, and wept. At a certain point Aunt Natasha became fearful that this transaction was not going to happen. She grabbed me and made a run for it, leaving my mother patting Nell on the back. Mom said the sound of Nell’s wailing haunted her dreams for years.
About a month after my birth I was baptized, and my mother and father proceeded to hold up their end of the bargain. I was raised Roman Catholic. During my childhood my mother made various attempts to deepen her own faith, but my sense of her was always that it was a struggle. When I was very young—Kindergarten perhaps?—my mom presented me with three little books, “The Lives of the Saints,” which she had picked up in a retreat center gift shop. I sensed a sorrow in my mom—I think those little books were all she brought home with her. It is not an exaggeration to say that those little books sparked something, started something in me, that is still unfolding. They set me on my spiritual path.
Here’s what I remember of them (I could actually consult them: they are in a bookshelf in my dining room as I type this). Romantic, rather insipid watercolors of the various saints (two of the books were of women saints, the other of men), accompanied by a single page description of each life, complete with Feast Day. I remember reading about Saint Agatha, whose breasts were torn off, and Saint Cecilia, who was the patron saint of musicians. Refusing to marry was a common theme: many of the women had consecrated themselves to Christ, and were willing to endure torture (burning, cutting, ripping, beheading) rather than submit to marriage. I remember reading about Saint Clare, whose story was, somehow, different. There was no torture, but much joy. There was a life consecrated to Christ, to be sure. The thread that ran through all these mini-biographies caused me to wonder, Who is this Jesus, that these women want to be married to him? Who is he, that they are willing to be tortured and die for him?
Before long, as a friend in high school reminded me long after I’d forgotten, I was, annoyingly, wearing a rosary on my belt and dreaming of life as a nun. My first role models for this were the nuns in the parochial school I attended. The next was Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, which I saw no fewer than 13 times in the theater. The next was Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story. (Fascinating that several of these role models eventually left the convent, either for love or out of alienation.)
Fast forward to 1973. I am a bored seventh grader who is roaming the house, in the days before computers and iPods and text-messaging and DVD’s. I have not yet heard the music from “Godspell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar,” both of which will be powerfully formational for me. I am disgruntled, and in need of something—anything!—to read. My mother picks up a book by one Sister Mary Francis, a cloistered Poor Clare Nun, and places it in my hand. And I can’t put it down.