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Extreme Unction

There is comfort in ritual.

When my sister died, we gathered around her.  My family–usually stoic and unexpressive when it comes to emotions–sobbed openly in front of one another.  We prayed.  We sang.  We had the priest come and perform the Anointing of the Sick–the last of the seven sacraments.

And then the nurse withdrew life support.

When I was a child we called the sacrament Extreme Unction.  The definition of unction is “The act of anointing as part of a religious, ceremonial, or healing ritual.”  I cannot get in the habit of calling it the Anointing of the Sick.  But I digress.

As we stood around her hospital bed, crying, feeling so much pain and sadness and vulnerability, it was a relief to see the priest come in to lead us in the familiar, odd prayers that Catholics know by heart.  

There have been so many episodes over the past several years where I have attempted to return to Catholicism, out of my need to experience my spiritual self in the context of community.  Time and time again I have come face to face with the oppressive, rule-bound culture of the church that prevents it from being a truly loving, radically hospitable body.  I do not belong there.

But, by God, when I am on my death bed, call the priest!  I want that last sacrament, for the sake of those who love me and are in need of the comfort of it.

I found myself praying as I drove, “Mom, did I ever make you cry when I was an irascible kid?”  visible only through the rearview mirror to my son in the backseat.  Had he been able to see my face more clearly he might have detected tears welling in my eyes.  But he was too self-consumed to perceive how I was feeling, and I was bound and determined to contain my feelings anyway.  Just as my mother would have done.  Just as my stoic, Irish-Catholic mother would have done.  He had made a large, unreasonable request out of the blue, and I said, “No, you can’t have that.”  He immediately went into an angry tirade that began with, “I hate you.  I hate you.  I hate you!”  A reaction that always leaves me shocked and confused.

We were out shopping for school clothes.  An outing that I had looked forward to all day.  I love spending individual time with my beautiful son.  But frequently these outings are marred by his tests, protests, and tantrums.  I see my impulse to cry as immature, and for the first time I wonder if my mother, who died before I had children, ever felt like I did in a similar moment.  I was an irascible kid too.  If she did feel similarly, I never sensed it.

His anger and his wilfulness filled me with self-doubt in regard to my authority as a parent.  Of course I assumed it was my fault that he possessed this terrible flaw of a quick temper.  He either inherited it from me, or I spoiled him as an infant and therefore he has no sense of delayed gratification.  Not to mention any predisposition for longsuffering–a fundamental trait for any good Irish Catholic and one my mother possessed perfectly.  In that moment I knew that I was never going to be successful in getting him to attend several months of boring religious education with the end goal of getting baptized.  So I started to persevorate on a strategy.

As always, he settled down eventually, and we were able to enjoy each other’s company.  When his mood brightened I took the opportunity to ask if he wanted to be baptized in the Catholic Church or in the United Church of Christ where we usually attended services.  He asked, “Aren’t I already Catholic?”  I explained that a person wasn’t really Catholic until they were baptized in the Catholic Church.  I further explained that his two best friends and half of his cousins were baptized Catholic.  He thought for a moment and then said, “Okay then, I want to be baptized Catholic.”

Nevermind that I failed to mention that he needs to attend Mass every Sunday, followed by an hour of religious ed for the next nine months.  That hurdle will be addressed in the next phase of my strategy.

However, there is a second chapter to this story.  Today at work I received a follow-up communique from the priest that I met with last week.  He started out just fine, but by the third paragraph he was dismissed.  He basically said that even if my kids attend religious ed all year there is no guarantee that they will get baptized.  Everyone involved would need to “discern” (I read “judge”) if there is a “true desire” for baptism.  And he encouraged me to call him if I had any questions.

My response was:

“Dear Father,

Thanks so much for your time.  All my questions were answered on the evening that we met.  My husband and I want our children baptized in a hospitable church community that embodies the warmth and embracing love of Jesus Christ.

Yes, each step along the way, each conversation, each face to face encounter is an opportunity for discernment.  And what I’ve already discerned is that I need to look further….”

I left the meeting asking myself, “Why do I want to get my kid’s baptized Catholic?”  Why?”  The meeting embodied the reason why I am a lapsed Catholic.  I was depressed all last week and it only occurred to me today that it was that meeting that did it.  And yet I still want to get my kids baptized in the Catholic Church.  Am I crazy?  Am I crazy?  Am I setting my kids up for neurosis?

I try to remind myself that I am neurotic not only because of my Catholic upbringing, but also because of my stoic, rigid, Irish-Catholic family, and therefore a simple year of religious education and the sacrament of baptism will not make my children neurotic.

As I drove to the meeting I gave myself a good pep talk, reminding myself that I have good reasons for being a Lapsed Catholic, and that I’m not a bad person because of it.  The meeting wasn’t about me anyway, it was about my kids, and getting them baptized.  I coached myself to not have any preconceived notions about how the priest & director of religious ed would talk to me as a Lapsed Catholic.  I was going to have an open mind.  I was going to receive them.  I was going to be an adult in this meeting.

The priest, who looked to be about 12 years old and struck me as someone who would play a guitar and lead hip spirituals around a campfire, greeted me warmly.  I was actually impressed by his youth.  The Director of Religious Ed made a different impression altogether.  She was in her fifties, and although polite, I wouldn’t call her warm.  In fact, she carries the aura of a habit-wearing nun.  The meeting started with them asking questions about my lapsed-ness, and what was my level of commitment to bringing up children in the Catholic Church.  Well, I tried to keep it friendly, explaining that my beliefs had broadened beyond the Catholic Doctrine, but I still believed in the sacraments.  Yes, I believed that Baptism was the welcoming of a child into the Christian Church, but I believed in it a little more broadly, “But!” the Director of Religious Ed interjected authoritatively, “the Sacrament of Baptism is the initiation into the Catholic Church.”  I shut up at that point, but fixed her briefly with a steely gaze.  I wasn’t here to debate my beliefs.  She didn’t have any problem with me not talking.  She filled the silence with her own talking–explaining the religious ed curriculum.  The priest asked, “What would you do if your son asked after he was baptized that he wanted to continue to attend mass?”  Well, I would take him to mass, of course.  The priest liked that answer and felt better about the prospect of baptizing the children of a Lapsed Catholic.

So some readers might think to themselves, this is an easy problem to solve.  She needs to just go to a friendlier, open-minded protestant church and get her kids baptized.  Others might say, she needs to just find a friendlier Catholic church.  And those readers would be surprised to know that I’m still thinking of taking my kids to a year of religious ed at this particular church in order to receive the Sacrament of Baptism on Easter.  Why?  When I know the answer I’ll let you know.

I am an American, Working Mother who writes about the struggles of everyday life from a spiritual perspective.  I write to help myself process my daily experiences, but I hope that someone else might also be helped by my ramblings.

Isolde Van Garac is my nom de plume, as you might have guessed since Van Garac is not very Irish.  I work in a field that requires I maintain my anonymity.  Other than my nom de plume, all posts are nonfiction and written from the heart.