Sometimes, a seemingly innocent question from my children can be jarring to me.
“Who was Jesus?”
It’s even stranger when they follow that question with, “Is he dead? Did he die?”
At the age of six — raised in an Irish Catholic home and with two years of Catholic grammar school under my belt — I already knew the answers to those questions. There was no need to ask.
It catches me off-guard sometimes when they ask such questions. That’s because my husband and I are following a different path, and our children are learning about the life of Jesus in a different way than I did as a child.
As an adult, I came to my own decision to leave the Catholic Church and embrace Unitarian Universalism (often known as “UU”). UUs aren’t Moonies, I swear. (I’ve actually gotten that question once. Not even kidding.) Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian, as were John Adams and John Quincy Adams. William Howard Taft was as well, but I’m not sure how often he got to services, since he may have gotten stuck in the bathtub once or twice.
I married my husband, who was Jewish by birth, in a UU ceremony at an outdoor garden in Westchester. We now attend services at a local Unitarian Society, and our children attend religious education classes there as well. At home, we offer reverent nods to our respective heritage, and embrace both Catholic and Jewish rituals, but our children were neither baptized nor given naming ceremonies.
We have a seder every year at Passover, and my children read the four questions in English because they’ve never studied Hebrew. On Christmas Eve, we make a birthday cake for Jesus and sing “Happy Birthday” to Him, because I wanted my children to understand the historical significance of the holiday, and not be consumed solely with presents and ugly candy cane sweaters. We usually go to a UU Christmas Eve service and sing “Silent Night” by candlelight, and my eyes always well with tears at the beauty of shared voices amongst the flickering candles.
At services, we sit beside many people who have come from blended families and traditions, or who have married into them, and are looking for language and practices to maintain the morals we were raised with. I will be forever grateful to my father’s old friend, Reverend O’Neill (or “Uncle Paddy,” as I knew him), for showing me this alternate path. It’s not a path for everyone, but it is mine to take.
I’m often aware, however, of the rituals and shared family history that I left behind. I know my husband feels that pang as well.
My in-laws had to process this departure from their legacy as well. My husband was the fourth child to marry outside of the Jewish faith, so the blow wasn’t as forceful, but it was still deeply felt. I fondly recall my mother-in-law noting at our wedding that the Unitarian minister who had married us was from a Jewish family and even “knew Rabbi Goldman when he was a boy,” so somehow, he was on the up-and-up.
We find our answers where we can.
It’s often a difficult and tender moment for a grieving family, to witness relatives and friends walk solemnly past the their loved one’s covered casket, with heads bowed. Some of them reach out to touch each other’s shoulders or gingerly stroke the pall, its gilt embroidery glinting as the mourners shuffle past. The ritual calms us in our grief, and binds us, reminding us of our commonality, our connections, our tribe.
I grappled for a moment with my decision not to receive communion at my aunt’s funeral mass. I wanted to honor her memory and participate with the rest of my family in the ritual, but if my aim was true, I believed that I should abstain. Patty was a devout Catholic and would not approve of my taking communion if I had chosen to leave the Church. I hadn’t gone to confession in many years. I had married outside of the Church. I had made my choice, and this was the clear and understandable consequence, which I readily accepted.
God bless my cousins. One — who is especially dear to my heart but shall remain nameless — sidled up behind me as I knelt, and announced in our unmistakable New York accent, “Kaaaaahth! Whaddaya doing? Geddup and take communion!” I’m taking a guess that the organist at the neighboring parish, five miles away, heard my cousin’s “discreet” remark. I also believe that John Patrick Shanley, the “Moonstruck” screenwriter, has been following my family around for years, taking copious notes. We’re that funny.
I tried to explain, quietly and calmly, that I was showing my respect for church doctrine by refusing communion. But she was having none of it.
And she let me know that. Loudly.
“Kaaaaahth! Only say da word and I shall be healed! Now get your ass up!” She was referring to a prayer, spoken at the most reverent moment in the mass, when, as Catholics believe, transubstantiation takes place and the symbolic wafer becomes the actual body of Christ. No offense to my Catholic brethren, but it sounds far less reverent when “get your ass up” is the antecedent to those words.
My cousin was now blocking other mourners from exiting the pew and moving into the center aisle. A small traffic jam was forming near the casket. That’s Code Blue at a Catholic funeral. Especially among the 75-and-over set.
I sighed and stood up, realizing that the continued commotion was far more embarrassing to my family members than the actual act I was about to commit.
I touched the pall and silently asked my aunt to forgive me. She knew my cousin. She loved my cousin. She and Aunt Pat shared some of the same traits, actually, and I guessed that if Aunt Pat was watching all of this from the afterlife, she must have somehow understood. At the very least, her sister Maureen, my other beloved aunt who had passed away almost twenty years earlier, and who was often called upon to calm my aunt in her moments of legendary Brooklyn-ese panic, would have told my aunt in no uncertain terms to zip it if she had any objections.
I walked towards the altar and thought of the teachings that many good nuns, priests and lay teachers had taught me at Sacred Heart, my Catholic grammar school in Queens. I moved past my father and my mother, now divorced and sitting far apart in separate pews. I received the host and remembered practicing the same ritual at the same church many years earlier when my Uncle Billy, Aunt Pat’s husband, had died rather suddenly. His many nieces and nephews had packed the pews, shocked at his sudden loss, at an age that seems far younger now than it did then.
I returned to my seat and knelt down, covering my eyes. I was thinking of Aunt Patty, but I was also overcome with the realization of who my family was. I thought of lots of things — so many things that I began to cry. I thought of how my family had embraced my husband from the start, how another cousin, after meeting my then-boyfriend and asking how he would celebrate Christmas with his family and hearing — “ah, nothing, really because I’m Jewish” — stuck out his hand and loudly congratulated him, with no irony whatsoever. I thought of the whiskey — the God-awful gallons of whiskey — that my father and male cousins have gotten my beloved to drink, while they’ve joked on the front porch or talked about his intentions with me. I thought of my aunt and grandmother, all of my cousins, every one of them RSVP’ing to my wedding with “will attend,” even in the face of such secularism, of such unintended transgression in our clan. They were proudly present on the day I was married, took home the centerpieces, and went back to my parents’ house for cold cuts on rolls and one last toast to our new lives together before we left for our honeymoon. I thought of my bagpipe-playing, New York City firefighting cousin taking my husband aside, when we were newly married and announcing our move to San Francisco, and telling him that he needed to do the thing that we all had been afraid to do — to live somewhere far from New York City’s unforgiving streets. I thought of how my extended family has shown their love for my husband by teasing him mercilessly in rough New York Irish fashion, a fact which he wears as a badge of honor, because he knows that he’s finally been brought into the fold. I thought of us all, here together in one place, to bury one of our own, to raise a glass at the repast and say, “To Aunt Pat” and need say nothing further.
They were — and are all now — practicing Catholics, and to me, they embody one of the greatest lessons that Jesus taught: love thy neighbor as thyself. I’m sure they didn’t agree with my choices, and some have voiced them to me, but with kindness and concern, never with anger or disdain.
We are all sinners. We are all prodigal children, yet we are all God’s children, deserving of love, and offered the gift of redemption, in whatever form we can find it.
We find our answers where we can.