Perhaps I was eight years old, perhaps it was June. Not too hot yet, but summer vacation. Our small town Catholic church, St. Bartholomew’s, had the honor of nuns coming out from the city to teach us catechism for a week. We brought our breakfasts – this is what I remember with joy! There was a grove of trees with picnic tables throughout, sun shining through. The grass was still a bit dewy. My mother sent my younger sister and I with little boxes of cereal and milk. The boxes, rice krispies or cornflakes, would open along dotted lines forming a bowl with waxed paper lining; we’d open the milk cartons, pour the milk in, and have our breakfast. All the tables were filled with children together eating this special outdoor breakfast. Everything seemed shiny and lovely.
After breakfast we went to class outdoors, which also seemed special. We sat on folding chairs on the grass in the open sunshine. I’d barely ever seen a nun before. They seemed alright, not mean or scary, but not as personal as our classroom teachers at school. They were intent on teaching us ideas they felt were very important, and those as much and clearly as possible in this short time. We memorized the catechism and were given holy cards with pictures of saints as rewards. The catechism explained all about life and how we should live. They told us how Jesus had suffered because Adam and Eve had eaten an apple when they were told not to and so we were all born in sin and couldn’t go to heaven when we die. Jesus had made things OK for us with God again by his terrible death.
After class we went into the church to do the Stations of the Cross alone and go to confession. Doing the Stations was very painful for me physically. I didn’t know if it was the same for everyone else. I did it because I was told to. I’d go to the first picture on the wall: “Jesus is tried by Pilate”, and read the story, then kneel down as the book said to and read the prayer of love for Jesus. I’d stand up and move to the next picture, “Jesus is whipped”, look at the picture, read the story, kneel down and say the prayer of thanks to Jesus. There were fourteen pictures, each more gory and sad than the one before.
After doing this spiritual exercise I’d try to go to Confession. I was raised to be a “good girl” so I didn’t do much of anything others’ thought wrong, so going to Confession was hard. I usually had to repeat the same sins over each time: “I forgot to say my night prayers. I was mad at my sister.” Maybe I’d add a general “I disobeyed my parents” but actually I never did this. Confession was also lots of kneeling and physically hard for me, but I never told anyone about how my body hurt. I supposed everyone experienced their bodies the way I did. Besides, I’d learned that it pleases God for us to suffer silently. The example of Jesus’ suffering and dying to please God made this clear.
Many years later when I was sixteen it was finally discovered that I have a severe curvature in my lower back; my spine was almost falling off my pelvis! Many, many times I had to do things that felt too much and were painful and exhausting, but I had meditated many times on the story of Jesus’ sufferings so I never complained about my own suffering.
At summer catechism, after confessing our sins we were done for the morning and my mom would pick us up for lunch. I did like learning about life and religion and the promise that God loves and cares for us. It was fascinating to be close to these unusual women all covered in black with only their faces showing. I dreaded doing the Stations of the Cross though the story touched me deeply. Confession made me feel guilty because I mostly had to lie to do it, not seeing anything clearly sinful in the way I lived. Eating breakfast outdoors in the sunshine and dewy grass with other children still brings me joy to remember.
All of these experiences were the ground upon which much thinking happened as the years went forward. I endured suffering I should not have. Finally it became too much and I spoke my true experience of my body and was able to get relief through surgery. It took much more suffering yet to learn that The Source of my Life really is trying to lead me towards happiness and out of lifestyles and beliefs that value suffering for its own sake. It would take much, much more experience and reflection to figure this out….