The Easter weekend always brings back a lot of memories for me, some of them pretty intense. The Catholic Church was a pretty big influence in my life growing up. It always played some role in my life growing up. My family was very religious.
Growing up, my parents liked to go for long drives to pray the rosary. I remember several nights, falling asleep in the backseat to the rhythmic droning of their prayers. Road trip songs were often Latin religious rounds, although we also sang a lot of Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel.
Everything related to Polish culture that I experienced and absorbed was related in some way to the Church. Among all that, the most important time in the Catholic Church is Easter. It is the basis for the existence of the church altogether: Christ’s death and resurrection and thus conquering of death. But Easter is not Easter alone but also Lent.
It starts with Ash Wednesday, which for my family was a fast day. The light version of this fast was avoiding meat products for the day, while the more intense side saw one small meal followed by nothing else for the rest of the day. You were allowed to drink, but that’s it. We would still go to work and school during this time. The Catholic school I attended, participated by not serving meat in the Cafeteria. After my first communion, I was expected to start participating in at least the light version of the fast. After my confirmation, the more intense one, as I was now considered a full adult member of the church. I grew up knowing that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from burning the blessed palm fronds from the previous year.
I’ve always hated fasting. It’s not the hunger. Truth is that I often have to be reminded to eat, and will go most of the deal without food. It has to do with a sense of discomfort over the reasons for fasts. The stated purpose of fasting is to mortify the flesh.
‘The Rev. Michael Geisler, a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in St. Louis, wrote two articles explaining the theological purpose behind corporal mortification. “Self-denial helps a person overcome both psychological and physical weakness, gives him energy, helps him grow in virtue and ultimately leads to salvation. It conquers the insidious demons of softness, pessimism and lukewarm faith that dominate the lives of so many today” (Crisis magazine July/August 2005).’ – Wikipedia
Basically, by reminding themselves of their mortality and weakness through pain, they were to give up fleshly or earthly pursuits in pursuit of freedom. As someone who struggles with daily reminders of weakness through ongoing pain, I find this idea to be profoundly insulting. There is this nearly fetishistic obsession with suffering as being a conduit to holiness: Christ suffered of the cross and in the hours prior; many saints are martyred in gruesome ways, the beatitudes canonize this by promising rewards for different types of suffering.
It paints suffering as something to be desired, as something that elevates. These suppositions just ignore the realities of what it is like to endure on going pain, or depression, or hunger. It isn’t some elevating holy experience. It’s not uplifting. Quite the opposite. Pain drags you down. It clouds your mind, frays your temper, it makes you sleepy and unable to concentrate. I’m sure those who experience hunger would say the same.
To intentionally inflict a form of suffering on yourself as a form of seeking enlightenment strikes me like those people who temporarily expose themselves to some form of oppression: wearing a hijab, pretending to be a woman in certain spaces, poverty, etc. and then claiming that you understand the oppression. These actions often ignore that their “sample” misses the reality of what it is like to have no escape. Not to be able to just step back and not have to deal with the results of this oppression. Fasting feels similar to me. You dip your toes in, you experience one day of hunger, and because of that it is supposed to make you humble. It reminds you to be grateful for what you have. Of course you celebrate the breaking of this fast with an elaborate meal. You go back to the same lives you were living before, only now with a vague sense of superiority as to your righteousness.
There’s more of course. By choosing to see suffering as worthwhile and as holy, it makes it easier to ignore suffering or even to inflict it on others. It doesn’t matter that the church expects gay people to remain celibate and live without love, or not have access to marriage rights, because the suffering will be good for the soul. It’s ok to oppose stem cell research on ideological grounds because the suffering of those who would be otherwise helped brings them closer to god. A woman forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy is doing penance with her suffering for her ungodly behaviour.
Ash Wednesday is not even the only fasting day associated with the church. Good Friday is another mandatory fast this, and this one mandated the intense fast. Even on Holy Saturday you are encouraged to continue the fast or at the very least avoid meat.
The Holy Week meant a lot of church trips. One on Holy Thursday, to commemorate Christ’s capture. At our church, this meant that the Gospel was a telling of the story of the crucifixion: the Passover supper, the trip to the olive garden called Gethsemane, how the apostles fell asleep as Christ prayed, how Judas betrayed him with a kiss. The whole story is told with a narrator and key members of the parish reading certain parts. My father always had a role to play.
At the part where the crowd folk called out Barabas name as their choice of which prisoner to release, that line belonged to the whole congregation. Good Friday, is the only day of the year when no masses are held. Instead we gather at the church to follow the Stations of the Cross, culminating at 3 o’clock, the time at which Christ died on the cross. The bells are silenced and replaced with clappers until their joyful return on Easter morning.
In Polish culture, on Holy Saturday we pack a basket with goodies: hard boiled egg, sausages, deli meats, sometimes fruits and veggies, salt, pepper, sugar, and even small cakes. We bring it to the church where the baskets are all blessed. The food is then saved for the big breakfast on Easter morning/early afternoon.
Easter was always a time steeped in tradition. It was never a holiday I looked forward too. Even the lure of chocolate wasn’t enough since I knew that any candy or sweets consumed would invariably come with shame and scorn.
When I went away to university, Easter became even more of a burden. Often right in the middle of exam time, it often meant that a trip home was as much spent hitting the books as it was celebrating or enjoying the trip. It was also heavily steeped an anxiety and fear as ultimately, every trip home was.
Now sitting here desperate for a change of scenery, Easter leaves me desperately wishing that my parents loved/liked me enough to make a visit home relaxing or beneficial to myself.
Easter was also the time that I came out to my parents as a bisexual atheist. Perversely, at the time coming out of the closet to them seemed to go well, ignoring my father’s problematic comment of “just don’t have a threesome”. It was one of the most honest visits home I had ever had. I still remember the conversation I had with my dad regarding sex education. We spoke as equals, and he trusted my knowledge regarding matters he was unfamiliar with such as contraceptives. He trusted and respected what I had to say. It is strange that such a positive experience, would later prove to have been the source of further strife.
My mother telling me that my atheism was killing my father. The accusations of hatred and of hiding my face from god so as to engage guilt free in sinful behaviour. The way my father seems incapable of talking to me like he once did. Every time I try to have a conversation with him, he just seems to want to get out of there as fast as possible. Always promising that he will make time to talk to me later, and ultimately never doing it. His rejection hurts so much considering that his love was the one that I had always been previously sure of.
Thinking of Easter and of the fact that it was at this time that I came out to my parents, I am forced to face and consider what will happen when Alex and I finally come out to them. When they learn that my children will have two mothers. That my marriage, my wedding, is one that they oppose even being legal. If me just being bisexual and an atheist was enough to make my father pull away… how much more so will his being faced with his daughter’s queerness? This is the man who always said he felt ill at the sight of gay couples being affectionate with one another.
Or the mother who says that she has nothing to be proud of me for? What will she say? Will this be just another strike she holds against me? Will this be the thing that finally makes her lose all hope of turning me into her trophy daughter?
What will my grandmothers be told? Or will I cease to exist in the family memory? I, who have already been painted as being evil and bad to the paternal grandmother who raised me. My sole defender my artistic aunt, the other black sheep of the family.
Will I get to dance with my father at my wedding? Will he agree to walk me down the aisle? Will he even come and if he does, will he see it as a joyful occasion?