My Heathen Soul
by Rhonda Mullins
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
According to Catholic doctrine, and my grandmother, I am headed for limbo. In limbo I will enjoy inferior blessedness, which is to say it’s not as good as heaven, but it’s not as bad as hell. It’s the afterlife equivalent of taking seat in economy: there’s no free booze or wide seats, but at least you don’t go down in flames.
The reason that I am bound for limbo is that my lapsed-Catholic parents decided not to have me baptized. I was born in the sixties, and they thought that I should choose my own religion once I was old enough. This religious laissez-faire shocked my unlapsed Catholic grandmother to the core of her spiritual being, and she threatened to kidnap me and have me baptized. My grandfather, a lapsed Lutheran, didn’t care one way or the other.
My grandmother never made good on her threat, and I got through my childhood undampened by holy water. My early school years were spent in a Protestant elementary school, or at least I thought of it as Protestant because it wasn’t Catholic, and in my world at the time, anything that wasn’t Catholic seemed Protestant, unless of course it was Jewish. It was in fact your run-of-the-mill non-denominational school, but since there was a Catholic school system proper, my mother was worried that if it became known that I was the progeny of Catholics, even lapsed, I would somehow be forced into a Catholic school. She told me that I was Protestant so that I wouldn’t give myself away, but she neglected to tell my unlapsed Catholic grandmother that her grandchild was a Pretend Protestant. And at one of our essentially non-denominational Christmas dinners, I had a sudden flashback to kneeling in church with my grandmother, so I asked her in all innocence what we had been doing kneeling in a Protestant church, since to my knowledge at the time, that wasn’t Protestant practice. Needless to say, she got a little biblical on my mother for denying me my religious heritage. I now know better because I was at my grandmother’s funeral, which was definitely Catholic, complete with flowing robes, holy smoke and guilt.
My grandfather’s funeral, which came to pass some years before my grandmother’s, was also Catholic. He was a lapsed Lutheran who didn’t like Catholics, but my grandmother didn’t know where to get a lapsed-Lutheran Catholic-hating funeral, so she got him a Catholic high mass instead. My father was worried that my late lapsed Lutheran grandfather would get up and walk out of his own Catholic funeral. That would have made me a believer.
In spite of my confused early religious indoctrination or lack thereof, I did go to church for a time. I went to a Presbyterian church because my best friend’s father was the minister, but I stopped going after a couple of years. One Sunday morning as I was getting dressed, I was suddenly filled with profound church ennui, so I woke my mother to tell her I didn’t want to go that day. Head still on the pillow with mascara smeared under her eyes looking like a football player on a sunny day, she said, “Church is a commitment. You either go or you don’t go.” So I went that Sunday and never went again.
That, however, did not end my religious education. At my Protestant, or non-Catholic high school, we had a course called Moral and Religious Instruction, but the teachers were too afraid to talk about religion, it being controversial and all, so we studied geography instead. After I graduated from high school, I went to a private college run by nuns with a large Jewish student body. I took a slew of religious studies courses while there, but no matter what the course description, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, we ended up studying the New Testament. Aside from that, and the school’s application form that listed the choices of religion as “Catholic; Other; None,” you wouldn’t have noticed the sisters were in charge of the college. Except for one day when the student paper published an article critical of the Pope. Never-before-seen nuns came running out of their offices and went flying down the halls snatching copies of the paper out of the hands of students. I wasn’t sure at the time what all the fuss was about, but I had seen Pope paraphernalia littered throughout my grandmother’s house, so I knew he was some sort of sacred cow.
After I graduated from a non-denominational university with a heavy Jesuit presence, I went to work for a software development firm run by Christian fundamentalists. No amount of praying could get new versions out on time, but secular software developers weren’t doing much better, so we didn’t blame God. It was there that I met a charismatic Catholic software salesman (charismatic modifying Catholic, not salesman) who baptized me in an upscale Chicago restaurant with a bottle of San Pelligrino (“san,” being Italian for “saint,” so I guess that makes it holy water of sorts). It was, however, a guerilla baptism so I’m not sure that it counts. We were discussing religion, and he asked me a couple of questions, including whether I could conceive of a historical character named Jesus. I said yes, and he whipped out his thumb, dipped it into his San Pelligrino, did something on my forehead and told me I’d been saved. Just then the heavenly Matt Dillon walked in (divine intervention?), making me forget about the whole baptism thing until the next day, when I asked him (the salesman, not Matt Dillon) whether he thought that he could just go around baptizing people like that and expect it to take. He told me that Catholics believe that in an urgent situation and in the absence of clergy, laymen could perform the sacraments. I’m still not sure what the urgency was, but I guess the charismatic Catholic guerilla baptizer saw some evil lurking in my heart about to burst forth, of which I was unaware.
While I don’t think it was entirely on the up-and-up, I do somehow cling to that guerilla baptism. It’s like an insurance policy. I’ll be happy to whip it out in a moment of need, a moment of judgment, if what they say is true. Lame as it was, if it gets me through gates only open to those select few who unbeknownst to them accept the Lord as their Saviour in a San-Pelligrino-in-an-upscale-Chicago-restaurant-just-before-Matt-Dillon-walks-in ritual, I’ll take it. Especially if the alternative is reserved for those who pledge allegiance to Lucifer in a Hooter’s in Columbus, Ohio just before Steve Guttenberg walks in.
My Heathen Soul