When I was a kid, I was Catholic—-my head filled up like a chalice with holy mysteries. When I was an infant, my parents clothed my small body in a white dress and baptized me with the name Shannon Elisabeth, a good, strong Irish-Catholic name. At seven, I stood in line with the other second graders, waiting to enter the confessional for the first time. I hid a little hand-written slip of paper in my shoe, so I wouldn’t forget what to tell the priest. In the spring of that same year, I wore daisies in my hair and a simple white dress as I knelt, ecstatic and overly solemn, during my First Communion Mass.
I learned to sing in Latin and English, to kneel before the crucifix, to whisper the prayers of the Rosary, to explain the mystery of the Trinity with a construction paper shamrock, to move my body into the postures of the fluid beauty of Mass. I listened to the swishing sound of the priest’s vestments and the tremor in his voice as he chanted prayers. I prayed for the poor souls in Purgatory, wondering at and afraid of the mystery and suffering. Every night I went to sleep by the glow of my ceramic Virgin Mary nightlight, as it illuminated the holy cards stuck in the crevasses of my mirror. Sometimes I dreamed about being a nun. Sometimes I dreamed about the baptism of my children.
I was engulfed, held still and safe in the beauty of that ancient ritual, a strength even more assuring than my mother’s words or my father’s arms. The beauty felt tangible, solid, like smoothed stone remaining even after years of erosion. And in that sturdiness I felt a pull, stronger than gravity, towards intimacy with the God of all that ritual-—the triune God with whose sign I marked myself before every prayer.
But the ritual would change on me, or it would be changed. I watched the liturgical world that had become my foundation twist and alter like buildings crumbling in an earthquake, like mountains pushing themselves higher towards the sky.
As I approached adolescence, my parents began to go to prayer meetings in the social hall of our church. I remember going with them a few times. The music was loud, with former hippies playing guitars, tambourines, and a drum kit. Later, with the cynicism that plagued my college years, I would refer to these events as hootenannies. My father would dance with me there in the same room where I had my Girl Scout meetings. I would wear my favorite navy blue dress, blue for the Virgin Mary, and spin and twirl around my father. I remember how happy he was, how happy they all were as they danced and bounced to the rhythms of the music proclaiming the gospel of joy–or at least how happy they seemed.
When the singing was over, they would break into twos or threes and pray, sometimes in a strange language. They called it speaking in tongues. Too young and a little frightened, I would walk through the social hall alone, the way I walked around the playground at recess—-dreamy and sad because of the isolation I felt from the other children, an isolation that then and even now I don’t completely understand.
The large room smelled like stale grilled cheese sandwiches, lingering odors from our Catholic school lunches, where I was also often alone and sad. In junior high, the school dances were held in that room, while I stood along the wall, too shy to move my lanky body to the music.
But on those evenings with my parents, the room turned into a makeshift church complete with music, prayers, even a preacher, if I remember correctly. As a child I did not understand the necessity of such a gathering. I kept thinking of the beautiful stained-glass and brick structure just next door, where the priests spoke quietly in confessionals, where Jesus waited for the faithful to come pray in the silence and solitude, where the residue of sacraments lingered like drops of holy water on the pages of my missal.
The prayer meetings became somehow necessary to my parents and their friends, but the meetings lacked sacrament and liturgy, and though I now understand and cling to the desire to make Christianity an all-encompassing part of life, I wonder about the method of these meetings. Looking back, the gatherings feel cliquish, strange, sectarian, even cultist. And even if I know now that not all such Catholic Charismatic gatherings are so problematic—-some bring people to a deeper appreciation of their Catholicism, to a deeper love of Christ and his people—-I also know that some are far stranger than that which my childhood memories evoke, involving “ecumenical” pseudo-communion services and hierarchies far outside of those established by the Church.
But I knew none of this then. For me what came to be called the Catholic Charismatic Renewal was a once-a-week chance to see my father laugh, and I loved any opportunity to dance with him and to see him happy, which rarely happened in those years of our slow descent towards poverty.
My father, an electrician, was hustled from one construction job to another for most of my childhood. Sometimes there would be months between jobs. He drove taxicabs then, but the income of a cabdriver is unpredictable at best. I remember counting pennies to buy bread and milk. I remember giving the dog away because we couldn’t feed him. I remember entire months without a telephone.
In that environment, the pressure of these prayer meetings and their greater international movement, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, pushed against my struggling family. Our poverty and sadness made us long for joy and healing, no matter what package it came in. When I was thirteen, already confused, isolated and still attached to my God and his ritual, we left the prayer group and the Catholic Church, seeking something less dogmatic, something more joyful and spontaneous. My parents had begun to believe the myth of modern America: Catholicism had become too archaic, too oppressive, it was too far from the original Church of the apostles and too far from modern American life. And they had witnessed its abuses, watching horrified as adolescent girls danced to pop songs before the altar and tabernacle in a sort of pre-game show before our Christmas Cantata.
So we became Pentecostals, holding our breath and running into a world of boisterous guitars and bombastic preaching that all but ignored the sufferings of Christ and his people, a world of awkward and eerie happiness. I remember the first day that we went to the new church. As we drove into the parking lot, the massive beige stucco building towered up out of the Florida landscape.
“Now don’t tell anyone you’re a Catholic,” my mother’s Southern voice cautioned. “When my Pentecostal friends found out I was marrying your Daddy, they stopped talking to me.” She trotted my brothers and me off to Sunday school for the first time with those words reverberating in our ears.
It took me five years to summon the courage to reclaim my Catholicism, and in those years I felt like a volatile fault line with two systems of belief colliding and jarring and shaking foundations deep within me. I kept trying to reconcile the quiet stillness of Catholicism with the noise of Pentecostalism, trying to create a theology that made sense. I jammed old ideas into new like forced puzzle pieces, and this collision sent the entire puzzle tumbling to the floor-—and I did all of this as a poor, artistically-tempered introvert in the midst of the emotional nightmare of an American high school.
When I was fifteen, the earth shook again. A traveling preacher came, changing the entire method of worship, which had been different from Catholicism, but mostly calm. It usually began with some praise and worship songs, then some tame preaching, occasionally fire and brimstone calls for repentance and salvation, and once in a while a shouted message in “tongues.” But this traveling preacher—-an evangelist, they called him—-altered the form. Instead of preaching tamely, he was bombastic and forceful. There were more messages in tongues, more warnings filled with fire and brimstone. Sometimes the praise and worship songs lasted the entire service. And the services always ended with people standing in long lines that stretched through the corridors and around the balconies, waiting for the preacher to touch them, heal them, cause them to sink slowly to the floor in the peaceful ecstasy they called being “slain in the Spirit.” When he came, he stayed for a year and a half, packing the church like a celebrity, holding two services a day. Often my Pentecostal high school cancelled classes to attend the morning sessions. They called this “revival.”
The evangelist’s voice rang strong and clear as he spoke, holding the Bible sturdy against the podium set in the middle of the stage. “Jesus is here; can’t you feel him? He wants to heal you, but you have to enter in. Jump in the river. Stop standing on the shore and watching the others. Jump in. Some will say that this is evil, but I tell you that is blasphemy—-Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: the unforgivable sin.” He used his favorite metaphor—-the river, the river that was supposed to be the Holy Spirit and “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” His message was one of joy, of prosperity, of healing. His message was what my family had sought for years, and my father and I, the two most emotional, sat in the pews nightly waiting to be filled up with such rapture.
All around me, there were strange signs of this infused joy: women cackling hysterically in their pews, grown men rolling around on the floor in three-piece suits, holding their sides, children dancing and jumping in the aisles. The church looked more like an eerie, inebriated street party than a house of worship. But we were supposed to appear drunk. While preaching, the evangelist would say things like, “Drunk in the Holy Spirit.” When he prayed for people and they slowly fell to the ground, caught gently by those carefully positioned behind them for this purpose, he sometimes said, “Have another drink.” The worship of God had become a gluttonous carnival.
And in the midst of all of this “joy,” I was still sad, grappling with the loneliness and near-depression I had known for most of my life: the loneliness of the silent playgrounds and the empty lunch tables and the unread poems I wrote in my journal; the depression of isolation, of hating my ugly body and my odd mind, of the rejection I felt from everyone around me. I would sit in the pews, surrounded by my classmates, who often fell into this strange laughter, while I cried, unable to laugh the way they laughed, thinking that if God loved me, he would make me laugh too, and all the while feeling uneasy with such a bizarre method of worship. My father always remained silent and left each night looking dejected as we drove home in the darkness of nightfall.
In the New Testament, Jesus heals a man at a pool called Bethesda. There an erratic spring stirs the waters once a day, and the first person to touch the fountain is healed. The five porticoes surrounding the pool are filled with the dying, the lame, the blind, and the broken, all hoping to be the first to reach the pool. I tried to see church as my Bethesda, my healing from the depression and the loneliness, and I came to touch the waters weekly, sometimes daily, waiting for the spring to trouble them, but I was always too late to reach the regenerative pool, always too far away, nestled into the crevice of some unseen portico. I would watch others, so happy in their laughter, so peaceful when they fell to the floor after being prayed for. Apparently, my faith was not as strong as theirs. I was not as good as they were.
But I fell anyway. I laughed anyway, knowing that I was not good enough to be healed from the loneliness or the pain of poverty and rejection. I knew, but I didn’t want anyone else to know. I thought that if maybe I pretended, in the midst of the pretending it might all become real and the earthquakes might stop. The windows might stop shattering; the streets might stop heaving.
I felt rejected by the God I had stretched towards for my entire life, the being I had always thought loved me. This rejection ripped hope away from my already wavering soul, and my depression began to creep towards suicide the way autumn creeps towards winter. The loneliness grew stronger, fed by my hesitancy to accept this new form of worship, nourished by voices that echoed my unworthiness with every word of faith healing, sustained by the unrequited love so often found in adolescence. In desperation, I began to pretend small miracles like the odd laughter and visions, as I tried to ignore my skepticism and the pricking of my conscience each time I pretended. I kept praying God would give me the joy and peace he seemed to be giving everyone else, and I kept hoping the preachers would leave me alone.
I once began laughing in the middle of English class and was soon placed in an unused classroom, where I rolled on the floor and imagined visions. Soon other students joined me, all girls, all laughing. That day ten of us missed all of our classes. We saw visions of heaven and hell, wept, laughed, spoke in tongues and laid peacefully on the carpet after praying for one another, our red plaid skirts spread out across our legs, our heads or hands often touching to create a surreal, kaleidoscopic image and an illusion of intimacy. It was mass hysteria… at least I think so.
People began to call me holy. They would pat my back and laugh and call me their little drunkard. As I walked through the parking lot someone would shout, “Shannon, have another drink.” The preachers made me their poster child. I kept laughing and speaking in tongues and falling and “getting drunk.” I even began to preach.
My life became a confused, frantic, desperate lie, and I faked healing and happiness like I was faking everything else, praying I would stop wanting to die, begging for God to heal me, pleading to feel joy or sorrow or anything at all. But I felt only the dull ache of numbness … and Christians were supposed to be happy, at least that was what all the preachers said. So I kept performing like a good church girl, giving testimonies and sermons, smiling to crowds in small Bible studies and from the platform of the massive church on Sunday mornings. I only half-knew I was feigning.
I even conjured up healings in an attempt to be holy—-a game I learned as a Catholic child and further refined in my confused, irrational years spent in this chaotic ritual called revival. In the solitude of my bedroom I would lay in the dark, stare at the ceiling and remember my childhood. I could still hear my little girl’s voice struggling to pray a jumbled Rosary at three o’clock in the morning because a nightmare had jolted her awake. I listened to her crafting her little miracles and believing in their validity the way a child believes in any make-believe. I remembered the gentle massage of my broken arm when I was eight years old. In the silent darkness of the night, fingers worked between the fiberglass cast and my skin, mending the separated bones. I remembered dreams of heaven. I wondered if they had been real. I wondered if I was making it all up now, if all of the laughter and weeping and falling to the floor were real. Perhaps I only thought that I was doing it. Perhaps I was as holy as everyone said. But I felt desolate, and it was hard to see the truth in so much confusion. I wanted so desperately to be a child of God—-a favorite, a saint, like the children whom the Virgin Mary appeared to at Fatima or the ones the evangelist said raised the dead in Africa. I didn’t understand that already I was one of God’s favorites. I didn’t understand that we all are.
In those disordered years I listened to too many voices-—to preachers, would-be prophets, street preachers, faith healers, youth pastors, and the voices from my isolated reading: Noam Chomsky, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, T. S. Eliot, Henry David Thoreau. To the voice of my father, who was unable to laugh like everyone else, unable to give in to the pressure of the preachers. He sat still in the pews reading his Bible, looking dejected every time he left the church. And my own voice, afraid and trembling with so much seismic activity, not ready to tell anyone that I still had my First Communion rosary or that I tried to whisper forgotten prayers over the beads, or that those times I fell when the preacher placed his hot hand against my forehead, I was faking it.
The Pentecostal faithful (teachers, my principal, friends, enemies, random men who blew through the church like a holy hurricane) had such expectations; they all thought I was so holy, which, in their terms, meant laughing in the Holy Spirit in the middle of chemistry class and speaking in tongues and falling onto the hard floor and street preaching to the lost souls downtown as they came out of the bar.
They never knew that I faked it all, or at least I think I did, not out of a desire to deceive but out of desperation-—because I wanted to be holy. They never knew that I thought God hated me, and when my senior class at the small Pentecostal school voted me “Most Spiritual,” they never knew that I was suicidal and almost an atheist. Almost, but not quite, because I couldn’t quite shake the mark that had been placed on me at my baptism: the Sign of the Cross, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That seal was all that I had left, and at rare times I could even feel it burning like the little flame of my baptismal candle. But usually I thought that the great triune being to whom I still clung hated me. The mystical child who had nearly wept during her First Communion, who held conversations with Christ on her lonely ramblings around the playground, had transformed into a mendicant, begging for a bit of faith healing to stop her soul from spiraling and who couldn’t remember the sound of her own voice, much less God’s.
When I was seventeen, I listened to the evangelist for the last time. “How dumb can you get and still breathe?” As he told this joke, the anger and pain that had been brewing in me for two years boiled over. I couldn’t endure his insults any more. I could no longer blindly accept his revelations or his rantings about the Holy Spirit and prophecy and drunkenness and joy. I got up from my pew in the middle of his sermon and practically ran down the aisle to the back doors.
As he spoke, the now-familiar laughter echoed in the pews, in the bleachers of a three-ring circus. Faces contorted and twisted in sorrow or ecstasy; hands waved like palm branches; people jumped to their feet and shouted and occasionally someone ran like a sprinter around the perimeter. And all of these activities displayed the participants’ holiness, reflecting what must be spotless lives. But so little emphasis was placed on morality or integrity or even honesty. Instead holiness had become a performance art, like the worship band and the preacher’s sermons.
As I fled down the aisle, an ancient man, a forever follower, with graying hair and tired eyes, raised his hand; his palm nearly collided with my tortured face as he shouted, “AMEN!” And I hated him. In his voice I heard again the incessant call to the prayer lines—-those rows of the faithful, which surrounded the octagonal church building following the three-hour long services. We were herded into neat rows to await the powerful, sometimes too powerful, touch of this holy man who ran in front of us, coattails and tie flying as he waved his hand and shouted, “Filled,” calling for the Holy Spirit to saturate us with power and healing, prodding us on in our shallow spectacle of spirituality. In these lines we all fell to the floor “slain in the Spirit.” If we didn’t fall we were pushed or, if we held out honestly against that and stood penitent, murmuring our prayers the way my father did, we were labeled as inherently flawed.
In that single, shouted “Amen,” I also heard the bellowed prayers of the healing rooms, cubicles where the sick would arrive with eager hope and pleading faith. But they would return home with the cancer still thriving in their devoured bodies, and the healers blamed it on disbelief. I heard the murmured incantations of the prophecy teams, schooled in their art, and so unlike Ezekiel and Jeremiah, who were known for their confrontation. Instead, these would-be fortunetellers announced inevitable marriages or forthcoming riches, providing the same opiate of false hope as telephone psychics.
I remembered the voices of those who a ttempted to use God to make me what they wanted: “Why are you writing poems? If you aren’t going to witness, you should at least be praying for those who are.” I couldn’t explain that the sacraments and their steadiness still tugged at my beliefs concerning salvation. Forcing complete strangers to discuss instant, one-time conversion tugged in the opposite direction. “You don’t write enough about God. Where is God in your poems?” I couldn’t explain the anger inside me, the earthquakes rattling my walls. “Why aren’t you raising your hands in worship? You shouldn’t be ashamed of God.” I couldn’t explain that I didn’t even know who God was anymore.
I began to boil over like an unwatched soup pot. I, who was once a Catholic child, finally stopped going to church regularly, though occasionally I would wander into another church, always a more formal church, try to pray with the faithful, and then leave, never feeling comfortable.
By the time I went to study in Ireland during my junior year of college, I was emotionally exhausted, mentally starved, spiritually dead. But I could remember the way it had felt to pray, to kneel on cloth and wood, hands folded like grace, fingers interlocking in a dance, in consummation.
I used to sit coiled on the radiator, nestled easily against the window of my Dublin room looking down on the dreary, damp street below me. October’s prophetic chill would come like the immigrants’ children across the Irish Sea as the warmth rose from the old metal coils. I would gaze at the tired businessmen, slowly emerging from the office buildings surrounding the boarding house where I lived. All of this with a dull resonance, a stale interest. Somehow, even the Ireland of Yeats and Wilde and St. Patrick had become mundane.
Still, my thoughts inevitably reverted to my stint in Pentecostalism, to the shame of warm Florida evenings spent rolling on the floor in holy laughter, to my attempts at speaking in tongues. I spent my twilight hours in Ireland alone, almost praying, walking the gray streets or hiding behind the windowpane. Later I often went to the pub, but always at dusk, I chose pensive isolation.
After nearly a month in Ireland, I started to go to Catholic Mass at Trinity College with my friend Patrick. It didn’t take much persuading. I had been thinking of Catholicism for months, trying to remember what it felt like to kneel before a crucifix in silence or speak to the priest in confession, trying to remember the Mass. Patrick took me further than I had anticipated, motioning for me to sit with him near the front of the church one Sunday. Only when Mass started did I realize I was sitting with the choir. But the next week I continued sitting with the choir. Every Sunday, then part Catholic, part Pentecostal, part nothing, I sang the songs that radiated from my childhood. Nearly seven years had elapsed since I had last sung such songs in Latin and English, and as the words hesitantly left my tongue, I wondered if I was just another singed temple like so many others who had lost their faith, the remnants of something once radiant—a dimly lit cathedral where prayer candles smoldered and failed.
Patrick knew little of my strange religious life, though I continued to assure him that I was not properly Catholic. He could not completely understand this distinction. He was not American and had no concept of the American redefinition of Christianity where denomination upon denomination split and split again. In his mind, if one were Christian, one would be Catholic or Anglican. He had no perception of the free, evangelical church or of Pentecostalism. I struggled to explain my memories and fears—my hesitancies—though he rarely asked about such things and pretended not to notice that I never received Communion at Mass.
But I was beginning to want to take this sacrament again, to feel the host on my tongue. Every week as I entered the chapel at Trinity, I felt immersed in the familiar mementos of my childhood. Dolls and rosary beads, confessions and plaid Catholic-school uniforms created a surreal menagerie of the imagination that housed the holy with the mundane, giving the ordinary an ethereal glow as normal childhood objects laid juxtaposed against the sacraments. The smell of the Irish cold and the lingering remains of burning incense filled my nostrils as the wooden aroma of the pews and the colors of the stained glass swirled and seeped though my memory like the smoke in the pub Patrick and I walked to nearly every night. I felt like I had come home at last.
At first, I was awkward and unknowing at Mass, like a small child struggling to read her first book. But I sang songs I remembered from primary school and began to feel God again, as every week I knelt beside my friend and allowed relief and hope to enter my wounded spirit and somehow set ablaze a smoldering ember. My cynicism began to fade into a newfound trust, and the expanse between my childhood faith and my angry—-always so angry—-questions began to shrink.
As I observed Patrick at Mass, quietly praying, simply listening, he became a symbol of a certain, elusive peace. With confessions and crucifixes surrounding him from the moment of his christening, he had remained untouched by the surgical instruments of cynicism; while I, descending the steps of these two adjacent cathedrals, could not always see the pearls he discovered in pigsties, or the single tree he found, which had survived so many blazes, burnings set to light both by and for heretics.
As the consuming cold enveloped us, Patrick and I walked to Trinity in December to sing Christmas carols with the Protestant Christian Union. I am still not sure how he talked me into that. Our hands were stuffed in the pockets of our coats as we hoped snow would fall across the luminous beams of the streetlights, but knew that it would not come, because snow, like peace, is rare in Ireland.
“The girls are great. They raise their hands and all. It’s good fun.” He said a little bit sarcastically, a little bit mockingly, not knowing he had just described the past seven years of my life.
“Really?” I said, not exactly asking a question. I paused for a long time. “I may have to leave if this gets too crazy. I still feel uncomfortable at these things.”
He turned his head quickly, still walking, looking straight into me with his gray-blue eyes. Half-laughing he said, “We are just going to sing and drink mulled wine. What are you afraid of?”
I simply stared back, carefully rummaging through my mind for an answer. “I don’t quite know—maybe some great lie that has existed since the serpent whispered in Eden.”
Later, we walked home in silence. I had sung, hands placed carefully at my sides, eyes on the songbook, only occasionally looking around to see others do the same. No one had spoken in tongues; no one had fallen to the floor. A few girls did raise their hands, just as Patrick had said, and a boy, an American, had preached in an attempt to raise enthusiasm. Luckily, he had failed. The experience was safe, if not exactly comfortable, a facing of fear I suppose, but it paled in comparison to the sacramental miracle I witnessed every Sunday at Mass: the changing of bread and wine into the very body and blood of Christ.
Over a year later, I stood ecstatic and solemn, clothed in white once again, as the deacon moved gingerly down the carved, simple aisle in the small Catholic church, chanting the words that announce the Easter Vigil, illuminating the dim room with the solitary, fresh flame of the Paschal candle: “Christ, our light.”
“Thanks be to God,” we, the congregation, responded as the light moved slowly through the darkness towards the sanctuary.
“Christ, our light.”
“Thanks be to God.”
“Christ, our light.”
“Thanks be to God.”
And there I returned to where I had begun twenty-one years earlier, far from Ireland, recovering from the cynicism, standing on the steps before a Franciscan altar, awaiting the anointing of oil and the descent of the Holy Spirit. I had spent the year after my return home studying Catholicism, reintroducing myself to the God and the faith of my childhood, preparing for confirmation, the ancient version of Pentecost, the public declaration and acceptance of the Roman Catholic Church. I breathed in the wooden, warm, exotic smell of chrism on the priest’s hands as it poured over my forehead, and I was sealed again with the Sign of the Cross as I took a new name, Francis, for the saint of peace and earth. In one sense the acceptance was complete; in another it had only begun.
Candles surrounded me, dismissing the shadows from the dark glass, awakening the congregation from its ascetic three-day mourning of the death of Christ, proclaiming the love of a God who would send his Son to be murdered by all of humanity—-a distant, reticent race of manipulation and lies.
In the sacred glow, I felt the kinetic energy of eternity, and I heard the quiet whisper of the God of Elijah, only audible in the stillness. In his good navy blue suit, my father watched with my mother from the balcony as he held the card they had bought for the occasion. Months later they would both follow me, stepping back into the world of sacrament, humility, ritual, and astonishing forgiveness.
So there the two galaxies coalesced within me, uniting the one positive aspect of my time as a Pentecostal—-a personal relationship with God, no matter how distorted and confused—-with the still-unexplored depths of Catholicism. They merged into a single religious universe whose stars shine more brightly and whose black holes are scattered throughout, but can trace their existence to the gravity of the human sin circling at both poles. I knelt between the two, my knees pressed to an ethereal equator, and said reawakened prayers to a Savior whose image is always before me, hanging above the altar in the sculpted figure of the unassuming conqueror upon the crucifix. But I knew that even that very act of kneeling pushed me to one side of the divide. I knew that I was Catholic.
Shannon Berry is a graduate of Southeastern University (B.A. English-2000), Northern Michigan University (M.A. English-2003), and the University of Notre Dame (M.F.A Creative Writing (2005), M.A Theology( 2005). She is currently living in Rome and teaching English as a foreign language.