Wednesday, February 25, 2009

VanGoghGirl's First Ash Wednesday

Last week, VanGoghGirl asked us if she could go to mass with her best friend on Ash Wednesday. I was okay with it, but The German was a bit wary. He doesn't consider himself a member of any particular denomination. The church we usually attend is non-denominational and doesn't really require you to profess any certain beliefs or go through any particular ritual in order to participate in the services. He likes it that way and so do I. My daughter really enjoys going and is always looking forward to the next service. It's really an uplifting place. Of the times I've been there, I've only unequivocally disagreed with something the pastor was claiming less than a handful of times. I figure I'm not going to get much better than that at most of the churches here.

Last night when he and I sat down to talk about it again, it turned into a really interesting conversation. The German had some concerns because he doesn't want VanGoghGirl making a mockery of the services or the religion by going and participating even though she isn't Catholic (yet). His grandmother was Catholic and his mother was raised Catholic, so he really has a lot of complex feelings about the Church.

He was never baptized and he never really went to mass after his grandmother died, but she was a very strict Catholic and she was quite religious. By "quite religious", I mean that she brought her two daughters up as Catholics. Both were baptized and confirmed, too. The German also has many memories of the presents she gave him and his siblings, like their first Bible, his sister's first rosary, et cetera. He said that he could see himself perhaps becoming a Catholic one day in the future. He was brought up to see his faith as something that should be mostly expressed inwardly, so the quiet and calm nature of Catholic services appeal to him.

I grew up in a church where enthusiastic physical expressions of faith were derided as pure emotionalism. There were no accepted or appropriate outlets for those who wanted that sort of component to their worship. I think that's why I really enjoy going to a congregation where there's a lot of singing and live music and uplifting of arms and even some dance. I feel like I'm making up for lost time. I just want to let my spirit be free to feel and express those feelings and the congregation we go to gives me the opportunity to do that around others who also enjoy the same sort of expressions of worship.

Even though that's what I prefer, I can definitely understand why that might not really appeal to others. Some people find that sort of environment too distracting from the quiet contemplation that they seek to do when they worship. Some people just don't like to sing and dance and clap. Where we congregate, you can see folks who stay seated much of the time or don't sing that loud. It's a big enough congregation that you can do any of that and not draw much attention to yourself. The people in attendance tend to just leave others alone to worship however they need to.

Anyway, it was really interesting to hear more about The German's feelings on Catholicism and the possibility that VanGoghGirl would be one when she is an adult. He's a bit worried about whether it would be problematic to have a child with a different religion. He's concerned that she might start looking down on our beliefs because we aren't Catholic. What if she started trying to proselytize us? Would she start to think that she doesn't have to see us as her guardians in God's eyes?

My feeling is that becoming Catholic doesn't really represent a change in religion. To me, it's more of a change in traditions, kind of like a different flavor of ice cream. I'm more concerned about her not feeling close to God at all. I spent a lot of time feeling as if there was a angry God who was constantly displeased and disgusted with me. I felt like I could never get my behavior in line with what would required of me. It was drilled into me that our way of worship was the only correct way and that leaving the religion meant abandoning my relationship with my Creator.

I don't want that for her. I want her to feel as if her Creator is here to help her, to be there for her when she needs someone to turn to, when she doesn't have the words to express how she's feeling. I think we've given her the skills to view Catholicism with reasonable and compassionate eyes. I think she can understand that anything that someone tells you is from God is still limited by their own understanding and shaped by their experiences, and that she should keep that in mind when deciding how she feels about what they claim.

The German worries that she might still be too young and that since we aren't Catholic might make it harder to keep up with what she's being taught, so that we can help her process it in a healthy manner. After all, he's already seen us through our process of recovering from one set of unhealthy religious beliefs. I don't blame him for not being all that eager to start over with that. Still, I'm willing to give this a try.

I've been trying to learn as much as I can about Catholicism. I've studied Islam for about a decade now and I still feel like there's a lot I don't know, so I'm figuring that this is going to be a long process. However, if this is what it takes for VangGoghGirl to retain a feeling of connectedness to her spiritual self, then I down with that. These are the years when so many parents lose their children. The kids start turning to people who really can't give them the sort of advice or support they need. I can't let that happen. If I have to choose between her putting her energy towards being a good Catholic or her putting her energy towards trying to be what a lot of other folks tell girls they should be, I'd choose the Church.

Today, VanGoghGirl went to mass with her best friend and her mom. The mom checked the girls out of school and brought them to church. VanGoghGirl said they explained the steps to her and that they even had little pamphlets that showed you just what to do. She told me how she put her hands across her chest when she went up to the priest so that he knew she wasn't Catholic and couldn't take communion yet. She was really excited about being blessed by the priest. She still had her ashes on her head and said she told me that she was keeping it on until she took her bath tonight. Most Catholics I know rub off the ashes soon after they leave church, so I was a little surprised. She said a few of the kids at school questioned her and teased her about it when they got back to school, but she sounded really confident when she said that she can handle them. I was really proud of her. It sounds like she's prepared to defend her decision. I like that.

I don't know where this journey is going to take us next, but I think it's going to be okay. I haven't told The German but VanGoghGirl has mentioned to me that she'd like to take confirmation classes soon. I guess we'll have to see what she needs to do to make the next steps towards her goal.


JGH said...

When I was growing up I wanted so much to be Catholic because my best friends were and they made CCD sound like so much fun. I wanted them to take me to confession with them because I envied their "cleansed souls." We didn't have the same type of confession in the Episcopal church that I belonged to!

When my kids were born I refrained from baptizing them because I didn't want to impose any religion on them. I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision and how I'd feel if they wanted to become Catholics. You and your partner have a good thoughtful and balanced approach, I think.

bint alshamsa said...

I was never baptized and I didn't have my daughter baptized, either. I feel like religion is something for adults. To me, children are innocents and that no loving Creator would sentence them to eternal damnation for something they do.

Unknown said...

I was raised a Catholic from the time I was 7 till I was 16 and decided to leave the church. I was baptizez, had communion and confirmation and have the cheesy picture to prove it. Now my spiritual practice is more rooted to who I am and where I come from. Pero now la Mapu, 11, wants to be a Catholic. She wants baptism and everything else.

I also made a decision not to force any religion on my children. They could see my spiritual practice and join or not pero I wanted the decision to be theirs. I wonder if 11 is old enough to make your own decision pero so far I am respecting what la Mapu wants.

Daisy Deadhead said...

I never rub the ashes off either....know what this means? She is serious. :)

Good luck, it is so wonderful that you honor your child's own choice. My child chose differently too (agnostic) and I try to be supportive and know that I taught her to think for herself.

(((purple Lenten kisses for VanGoghGirl)))

bint alshamsa said...


I think you're right. She is serious. This is scary and exciting for me. I am worried about whether I can figure out how to get everything right. For instance, I bought hot dogs for dinner on Ash Wednesday but I didn't realize that she wouldn't be eating meat. We didn't have fish in the fridge or any other seafood. I didn't know what to do, so I asked, "Well, since you aren't Catholic yet, you can eat hot dogs with us, right?" That was not the right thing to say! She didn't fuss. She just made it clear that she was NOT eating meat. That's my obstinate daughter! ;) I told her that she could have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some ramen, but she decided to go to bed without any supper. She said she wasn't hungry but I think the fact that I suggested she have a hot dog might have contributed to that. :(

bint alshamsa said...


It seems to me that we don't have many rites of passage in our society. The only ones left seem to be associated with religion. I think that there's something inside of us that seeks to mark the transitional periods in our life. Baptism and confirmation and first communion might fulfill that desire for some people.

In my old religion (which was actually a cult), getting baptized carried some pretty severe consequences if you ever decided to leave later on, so I would definitely be against my child trying to become a full member of my old religion at the age she is now. However, I don't have the same feelings about her becoming a Catholic.

I know a lot of people have had very bad experiences with Catholicism and I'm not going to pretend as if I don't have a serious problem with some of its teachings. At the same time, I have no problem attending the church I go to now without feeling absolutely free to follow my own conscience and understanding of the divine when the pastor says something I don't agree with. I feel like it's only fair that I allow VanGoghGirl the opportunity to decide how she will handle things like the Church's teachings on birth control and abortion and papal authority.

Hopefully,La Mapu will still feel free to join in with your religious practices if she wants to (or at least respect them) no matter what she chooses for herself.

Anonymous said...


Somehow landed on your blog. This is a very, very interesting post, and personally close to my heart.

I was born and raised Catholic, and while I definitely don't agree with the church on everything (all the stuff you mentioned above) I feel this is my spiritual home, and I also know that all human attempts to commune with God have their failings. So, as they say, I am a "cafeteria Catholic"...pick and choose what I like.

Now I have married a wonderful man, who respects my religion, but is agnostic of Muslim cultural heritage himself.

We will raise the kids Catholic, but like the German, my husband worries the kids won't think of him or his parents as spiritual guardians. On the other hand, I worry that because my hubbie is not religious, our kids will lose faith and just become atheist because of the confusion!

I do think it is important for young people to be raised in faith. I am not someone who thinks just any old belief in God will do - I think I am on the liberal side of religion, but there are certain churches and religions which I simply think are unhealthy for children to grow up in - namely the most conservative.

ah well, there are my two cents. It is really, really amazing to see a parent let go and be confident in their child's choices, especially in something as irrational and emotional and cultural as religion! Very inspiring!