Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On childhood faith: Remembering Ash Wednesday

It’s Fat Tuesday. A day of worldwide gluttony and pursuit of pleasure before Ash Wednesday and the season of lent. Growing up in a very diverse neighborhood in SoCal, many of my friends at school were of Mexican heritage, which also meant Catholic. They went to catechism. They came to school every year on Ash Wednesday with a smudge on their forehead, a secret symbol for an exclusive club. Until my mother went through her revival of religion when I was in high school, my family worshipped the TV and observed nothing but commercialism at Christmas and Easter.

In those days we were simply protestant. Shortly after my parents split up, my mother dragged us to a church within walking distance of our apartment in Pomona. A small, A-shaped sanctuary housed the Gospel Tabernacle. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a Pentecostal church of roof-raising proportions. Prior to attending the Gospel Tabernacle, I’d only been to church once. I was about five and all I remember was a man standing in front talking, talking, talking, my mother trying to listen, my two sisters and I fidgeting on the hard wooden pews. My Daddy picked us up afterward and I asked him why he didn’t come with us. He said, “Oh, I don’t believe in that Mickey Mouse stuff.”

That church certainly wasn’t Disneyland, not that I’d ever been, even though we could see the Disneyland fireworks every summer night from the front yard of our house in Santa Ana. Still, I wondered what Mickey Mouse had to do with church. So when the music and the singing began at the Gospel Tabernacle, the voices would cry out across the room like animated voices from a Saturday afternoon cartoon. Rounds of “hal=le-luuuuuuuu-jahs” lifted over the singing, while “Praise you, Jeeeee-sus” filled the space in between songs. Gospel Tabernacle wasn’t a placid Mickey Mouse church like the one in Santa Ana, it was a wild ride through the jungles of joy where Tarzan was expected to show at any time.

Yes. Tarzan. I really didn’t know what Tarzan had to do with church, but surely as my name was Carolyn, I heard it loud and clear over the top of the praise fest, “The king is coming! Tar-zaaaaaan is coming!” I looked around, expecting to see a wild man in a leopard loincloth swing before the faces of the faithful. When Tarzan never appeared, I chalked it up to another cartoon fantasy, as if the lady who called out for Tarzan preferred a wild human god to a talking mouse.

Years later, at a roof-rocking church in Laguna Beach, I heard about the swinging king coming again. It wasn’t Tarzan. It was Hosanna: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

So anyway. We stopped going to the Gospel Tabernacle after only a few weeks and didn’t go to church again for years afterwards. I listened to my Catholic friends talk about catechism as if it were a secret club and I wished for an invitation that never came. They bragged about the fancy white dresses they wore for their first communion and primped up the fanciness when they made their confirmation. On Fat Tuesday they feasted on ham sandwiches and Hostess chocolate cupcakes, because they knew there’d be no meat for 40 days and they were giving up chocolate for lent. They would go to mass on Wednesday morning before school to receive the secret mark of the sacred.

When I was nine, I asked my mom if we could go to mass in the morning before school to get ashed. Her eyes shot forth in horror like I’d just asked if I could go to school naked.

“We are not Catholic,” she said. “That’s all hocus pocus stuff.”

I took my faith into my own hands that year, showing up in Mrs. Vargas’s fourth grade class with a great big smudge across my forehead. Several of my friends remarked that they didn’t know I was Catholic and they didn’t see me at mass that morning. I told them I went to a different parish with my dad—a boldfaced lie. In truth, I had my own private mass on the way to school. I reached into the barbeque grill beside our front door for a fingertip of ash and smeared it on my forehead.

I spent the day feeling like an insider, one of the Smudged for Jesus crowd. Knowing I couldn’t give up chocolate, I gave up TV for lent and expected to observe it. As the day wore on, I became oblivious to the smudge on my forehead. Upon returning home, my mom looked at me with wary eyes and asked what was on my face.

“Oh this?” I said, running my finger across the smudge on my forehead. “It’s my ashes.”

My mom's face went hard. “I told you we are not Catholic. Where did you get that?”

“Not in church. It’s from the barbeque. I put it on myself.”

My mom threw her pointing finger toward the bathroom. “Get in there and wash your face this minute.”

I slumped off to the bathroom and stared at myself, just as I had in the bathroom mirror at school. I licked my finger and wiped the smudge around until it faded into my skin. It was no longer visible, but I knew it was still there. My ash Wednesday was a rebellious act of faith and it was mine alone.


Patry Francis said...

You made me laugh. You made me think. You made me remember. THAT'S good writing. Happy fat Tuesday!

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

Thanks, Patry. I had no idea this was inside me until I sat down to write this morning. I love when that happens.

Rebecca del Rio said...

Oh, Carolyn! This is a classic. Not only is your writing lovely, as always, but it´s funny and touching. I can so, so see you with that greasy, bbq smudge.

Barb Ezell said...

VERY GOOD! Perfectly captures the wonder of Childhood & the mysteries of adult church culture. We celebrated Mardi Gras yesterday at our staff meeting (Tongue in cheek) and talked about excess before confession (as if that is all Catholicism creates). Not many practice fasting now-a-days for 1 day, let alone 40. I have seen 40 days of His Presence promoted this year, which seems like a great call. Fasting can be about re-connecting with God through emptying our selves, rather than penance. Are you practicing the 40 days still?