I was born in 1963, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the heart of what many would consider to be "liberal Catholic land." For example, I was a teenager before I realized that "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" were not originally written as official Mass music. And the homily at my youngest sister's First Communion dealt with the complexity of moral decision-making. Specifically, it addressed the topic of French kissing. I found this quite fascinating and asked my parents straight-away -- as soon as we got home -- what French kissing was. My father rolled his eyes. My mom explained. She was pretty forward-thinking. My father was pretty forward-thinking, too, but he left certain subjects to my mom.
Our parish was on the small side -- in both building size and number of members -- and I feel that I was blessed by this. Most of the parishioners considered each other to be friends, and we were all well-acquainted with the pastor and associate pastors. The atmosphere was very warm and intimate. The smaller size of our parish also allowed for many wonderful social occasions that felt more like family gatherings than official church functions.
One of these social occasions was the annual potluck dinner that was held in the church hall after the Holy Thursday Mass. Right after the altar was stripped and the Holy Eucharist was moved to the Altar of Repose (in the sacristy behind the main altar), we all proceeded to the church hall for this meal. It was great fun! Everybody was in a festive spirit. There were casseroles (which I adored) and salads of all types (including of jell-o, which I also adored). There was punch and coffee and many kinds of desserts -- cakes and cookies and pies. My favorite part was to make my way around the food tables after everybody was done eating, and busy chatting, and help myself to the radishes that nobody ate. There were always MANY radishes. And I ate them all. I still love radishes. And I still get them all, because nobody in my family cares for them.
Now, some of you may look at all this with a disapproving eye. Because -- as all good, traditional Catholics know -- after the Holy Eucharist is moved to the Altar of Repose on Holy Thursday, everybody is supposed to be solemn and crowd into the room in front of the Holy Eucharist and pray. The last thing there is supposed to be is a PARTY, for Heaven's sake!!!
Well, frankly, the Holy Thursday shenanigans at the progressive parish where I grew up turned out to be one of the very best things for the preservation of my faith over time. Because -- sometimes -- I just get fed up and want to throw in the towel. And when I do get fed up, I am always drawn to the following memory:
Every year, after polishing off the radishes, while everybody else was chatting up a storm, I would wander over to the Altar of Repose in the sacristy behind the main altar. It would just be me -- all by my lonesome. I began doing this when I was probably about 7 or 8 years old. I had been well-instructed (by my progressive Catholic nun teacher, nonetheless) in the Church's theology of the Eucharist, and I believed (and I still do believe) in the Real Presence. The Altar of Repose was always quite lovely. There were candles and Easter lilies and lovely altar cloths. There was a little kneeler in front of the whole thing. The room was dark, except for the candlelight. And I would kneel down, the sweet smell of the lilies filling the room. And I would just be quiet and think about how Jesus was there right in front of me and how cool that was. I would think about how He loved me and how we were just hanging out together. Just Him and me. And I would just feel calm. And -- believe me -- I was not a calm little kid. I was always sort of anxious. My mom was seriously ill when I was fairly young, my dad had some significant work issues (that did work out over time, but were quite stressful when they were occurring), there was alcoholism amongst some of my extended family members, and certain people in my life could be rather fiery in their temperaments. I also hated school. As much as I loved my progressive nun teacher, I hated school. Especially math. So, just being quiet with Jesus in the candlelight and feeling calm inside was quite something. I felt incredible peace -- maybe Divine peace. I don't know. All I know is I just knelt there and felt like Jesus was my friend, that He was on my side, that He would stick with me, no matter what.
So, when I get all fed up with what I see going on nowadays -- with the "holy" people bashing the "not holy enough" people, with all the judging, with the massive failings of the Church hierarchy -- and I want to just give up on the whole "formal religion" thing, I remember the times I spent with Jesus on Holy Thursday. And I know -- I know for sure -- that no matter what, no matter how much I fall and fail and doubt, that He won't leave, that He won't look at me harshly, because He gets it. He really does. He gets all of us. And He won't leave us alone. This I know. I know it for sure. I know it because I learned it directly from Him on those Holy Thursdays spent all alone in front of the Altar of Repose. After eating all the radishes.