A Lapsed Catholic Throwback

Note:  I hope this post does not offend any Catholics, practicing or lapsed or otherwise. This is my own tongue-in-cheek account and completely separate from the religion in and of itself, which like all others I duly respect.

Ash Wednesday this year was a really strange day for me.  I was aware of it only because, if you get into celebrating Carnival, you will invariably feel like a truck rolled over you on Ash Wednesday–and you will invariably reconsider your relationship to higher powers/God if they can soothe your broken-down hip flexors and sad crampy calves and fill the void left in your life by the Carnival preparations. (Note that the naughtiness of wining on trucks, cars, and contraptions does not need to figure into this particular intercession session–that’s between you, your conscience, and your washing machine).

Though my immediate family is of the relaxed, chill, ever-accepting Episcopalian kind, and I am of the there-must-be-a-reason-for-everything-otherwise-how-else-am-I-to-explain-what’s-become-of-me-and-where-I-am persuasion, I had a beautifully idyllic dalliance with Catholicism in my youth.  And I mean youth:  between the ages of 8 and 10, I attended an all-girls, nun-run Catholic school in Seville, Spain.

When I jump, I jump headfirst and hard.  So it should come as no surprise that your girl here put the same rigor and effort into being a model young Catholic girl that she put into being a model Carnival diva.  When my parents wheedled the nuns into letting us attend their very prestigious school for the daughters of the classy, pious, and rich of Seville, little did they know that Little Laura was going to absorb Catholicism like a sponge.

And how could I not?  I was going to be taught by REAL NUNS, with REAL habits, who lived on the grounds and did their grocery shopping in pink and yellow Vespas that they drove faster than anyone else, surely convinced that their habits marked them to other drivers as being of God (and therefore, as far as traffic was concerned, like the police and firetrucks–to be let through and not run over).

From the beginning, I loved the fact that there were so many rules and injunctions.  If you are going to have a religion, at least put 1,000% effort into it and make people feel like they have to work at it, no? Especially when the rules were so many and so strict that it was impossible not to break them.  I felt put-upon, and pious, and more-than-slightly better than other kids for having so many limits from Him Up Thurr.  What did the other kids know, running around chucking balls and rocks at each another, peeing behind the bushes in the park and throwing tantrums at their moms in the supermarket?  God saw everything, I was forbidden from doing any of that (though where is the Biblical injunction against peeing in the park bushes?  never found it), and I was clearly MUCH better than them for not making God, Jesus, and the poor ever-weeping Virgin Mary cry more on my account.

And oh, the rules, rules everywhere… Our skirts were not to be shorter than our knees, and the school’s designated uniform seamstresses knew that so they made them extra long, which invariably led to all the girls rolling them up and getting great delight in getting past the nuns:  get through front door, roll once; get past nun in the schoolyard, roll again; get past the nun at the stairs up to the classroom, give your skirt a final roll.  Voila!  Short skirts for none to see or care, except for God, but a confession-worthy infraction committed.  Score!

Why score?  Because one of the best parts of Laura Catholicism circa 1988 was confession.  I loved the fact that you were supposed to have something to confess, and to assume that you didn’t meant that you were either a) lying, or b) thought too highly of yourself.  I didn’t want to be a liar or think too highly of myself, so I purposely did things for which I’d need to confess.  No biggies, mind you:  usually it was thinking that Little A was annoying enough times for it to count as a sin, or telling her I saw a spider just to freak her out, or just taking the better Ken doll and saying so to her.  You know, harmless stuff, but just enough to have some good confession material.

When confession time came, holy be–I was in smug nine-year-old heaven.  I knew that I had enough to confess to make God happy(but that it was not as bad as peeing in the bushes), that I’d get to talk to an actual male specimen even if it was a priest (other than my father, or the two boys downstairs–going to an all-girls school makes you hyper-aware of interactions with the opposite sex), that I’d have the slate wiped squeaky-clean, AND that I’d get to eat a yummy papery wafer to boot.  What is not to like?

Apart from the rituals pertaining to me on a daily basis, there were rituals that came once a year.  During Holy Week in Seville, the city would be bursting at the seams with tourists and Spanish folk who’d come to see the religious processions parade through the streets, inching and worming their way through their devotion to the Cathedral.  If you were a good Catholic woman, you’d wear all black (so grown up and glamorous) with a peineta and mantilla (black lace veil arranged over a huge headcomb contraption to hold it upright on your head, creating a headpiece-like arrangement), and would get to spend all week dressed thusly, following the processions in your high heels and dramatically shaking your head at the suffering of our Lord–and at the impudent impious hussies who came out in jeans and flats to witness the spectacle.

Needless to say, I was ALL OVER THAT, and was all googly-eyed admiration when my mother (Episcopalian interloper!  Go Spy Mami go!) would don her black garb and rock it like the Sevillanas on the street.  Right then and there, I knew that, if my future as a Catholic included that level of glamour, I had picked the right religion–nay, I was one of the chosen ones, lucky enough to someday shake my head and dab my eyes gently with a black hanky for all the city to see.

As if such a ritualized and sartorially-influenced take on Catholicism wasn’t enough for my eight-year-old self to go all Vatican, there was the culmination of my year:  Good Friday dinner.  Was I Cuban in a past life (and doesn’t that demonstrate my lapsedness)? Clearly so, because I could eat black beans and rice three times a day for the rest of my days, even back then.  In Spain, my mom struggled to find the black beans for this, the delicacy of my soul, but she made an extra effort and always found them for Good Friday, stewing them up and serving them with her codfish salad, hardboiled egg and cruet of extra-virgin olive oil on the side.  I would pray that I’d forgo meat all week long, all year long, if only my mom would make this every Friday.  Clearly, neither the supermarkets nor my mom had a direct linkup with God on that one–beans were hard to find and my mom couldn’t be induced to look through hell and damnation to find them each week.

But that was another great thing about Catholicism as I saw it:  your prayers would not always be answered.  Therefore, you had to persevere, and pray hard, and keep confessing (and doing stuff to confess) if you were to get a one-on-one audience with the Big One.  And this made smug little Laura very happy indeed.

Much like any other crazy fervor, this all died down when I moved to Puerto Rico after those three years in Spain and saw that normal children did not act thusly for the sake of papery wafers.  The Bible went away and was replaced by Babysitter’s Club books, the skirts were made short and needed no rolling, and my mom didn’t wear her mantilla and peineta anymore.  But oh, those black beans and that codfish salad….  They remain the only vestige of my great Catholic days, and are completely  non-negotiable on Good Friday.

So, 38 days from now, you know what I’ll be eating.


But I’m not eating it yet.  Instead, I’m having scrambled eggs with ham and toast with guava jelly:

A salad (oh, how I missed these  earlier in the week, despite the delicious Trini fried food parade) with red kidney beans, peppers, tomatoes, green onion, lettuce, and a cumin-mustard-hot sauce vinaigrette:

And that British stalwart of comfort food for the tired (or overly affected by Carnival heartbreak and grease), a baked potato with tuna salad and a green salad on the side:

When I first saw someone eating that on my second day in England, I almost hurled, but I got over it and ate my fair share (and then some) in the subsequent four years there.

Happy Friday night, peeps!  Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do…