Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past

Devon praying
I was obsessed with Bernadette Soubirous when I was a Catholic schoolgirl. You’ll recall, or perhaps you won’t, that the Mother of God appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858. Or so Bernadette claimed.

Filled with unbelief and not wishing to delude the gullible faithful, the church hierarchy convened a Council of Enquiry to check out Bern’s story. Oh how the Bishop wrestled with his monumental burden!
“But if Bernadette does not want to deceive, was she not deceived herself? How could she believe to see and hear what she did not see and hear? Was she not the victim of hallucinations? How could we believe her? The wisdom of her answers reveals in this child a spirit of goodness, a quiet imagination, good sense beyond her years. Religious feelings never showed in her a spirit of exhalation; nobody could prove in the young girl neither intellectual disorder, nor change of mind nor unusual personality nor morbid feelings which would allow her to give way to a creative imagination.”

The Bishop of Tarbus, after only four years’ deliberation, decided that Bernadette was worthy and the people were given permission to believe her. The divine presence revealed, because of the moral purity of one young girl. Hmmmmm.

Upon hearing this story as a ten-year-old I determined to be the next Bernadette. I was certain I could be as holy and pious as she was. I secreted myself in my room at night and quietly recited the rosary, lingering over the Hail Marys. Surely the Blessed Virgin would take notice of my glow-in-the-dark rosary beads and appear to me as I lay in my little bed. I worried about my response. Should I feign surprise? Perhaps a sense of peaceful recognition? What if she expected tears of joy? Would I be able to produce them without delay? What if she appeared and my acting was deemed inferior? What would happen to poor Mary?

I enrolled in a Creative Dramatics class to ensure my success.

Despite years of piety, countless novenas (guaranteed to work! follow instructions exactly or no money back!), mental sojourns along the Via Dolorosa, Easter vigils, midnight masses, prayer flags, candles, medals–still no Mary. After learning that Marie was synonymous with Mary in the eyes of linguists everywhere, my final act of radical devotion saw me refuse to take a confirmation name. There could be no saint that I hoped to emulate more than the Mother of God. Mary, are you listening?

I finally gave up hope the summer after my sophomore year. I burned my uniforms and transferred to a public school. I decided that if Mary was too good for me, I’d find another other-worldly persona that liked my obviously flawed self. Who could be bad enough for me? Perhaps Satan?

After a short stint as a bad girl I found Jesus and stopped grieving my fractured relationship with Mary. I was drawn to the fundamental purity and wisdom of that most-revered and infallible document, the Holy Bible. In my youth, the Bible was clad in white leatherette with garish gold writing and a big picture of Jesus. It was placed in a prominent place in every Catholic home. But read? I was sure the Pope would not approve. Popes are popes and have need to pontificate. This requires a certain degree of cooperative ignorance on the part of the pontificatees, does it not? Feeling like a teenage boy with his daddy’s Playboy magazine, I sat in my room and studied the Bible. I could not believe how deceived I had been! Satan himself had been standing between me and the Holy Spirit, the only true path to peace and enlightenment. Jesus had been there all along, quietly knocking on the door to my heart, and I had been so caught up in my works-based salvation, my meager attempts to be holy, that I missed his call. Fuck.

Thus began a twenty-year stint as a religious fundamentalist. I will spare you most of the details of my quest to reconcile my inherently sinful nature with my holy and perfect god. I will say that I had a team of prayer warriors beseeching god to reveal himself to Dave, my militant atheist husband. I begged the Lord to allow the scales to fall from Dave’s eyes so he, too, could see as clearly as I did. It turns out that it wasn’t only Dave who was in grave danger. It was pretty much everyone I knew. And every unreached person in the four corners of the earth. It was up to me personally to pray without ceasing for each and every one of these lost souls. Their eternal destiny depended entirely on me. Holy fuck. I had wasted a lot of time on Mary.

Try as I might I could not suppress my rational nor my spiritual side forever. An academic approach feels safe when treading in parts unknown, so I embarked on a study of comparative religion. Surely most of the world could not be held accountable for truths that God in his infinite wisdom had not chosen to reveal to them. And surely it could not possibly fall on me and a handful of the idiotic chosen to make certain that the world had a chance to hear the good news. While I was sporting my hard-won Mind of Christ, my mind developed a mind of its own. What a crock of shit! was the refrain that replaced the time-honored Praise the Lord!

I’ll cut to the end. I believe that there is something more knowing, more powerful, more permanent, more loving than me. But to attach a personality, a gender, a shape, even a part of speech, to a universal force is not only foolish, it’s often tragic. If you want to see human frailty in action look no further than organized religion.

Spiritual reality has been a part of mankind since the beginning. We do our best to give our ephemeral understanding structure. We fashion an idol that resonates within us. Where food is scarce and money more so, perhaps god resembles a golden calf, the highest and best we know. Where women suffer together and depend upon the earth’s bounty to bear daily burdens, perhaps she is a goddess who permeates the natural world. Men stripped of their voices and forced to serve a capricious master create a suffering servant who will rule heaven and earth one day. When our basic needs are met and we are perched on the top of Maslow’s ladder, we have nowhere to go but inward. Divinity resides within.

At the deepest place we are the same. We are one tribe. We are protected and loved by a universal force that knows no bounds. We are free to define it as we will. Our understanding of it may change over time, a reflection of our growth. We must give others the same freedom to be, to know, to discover, to change. I am thankful that I have had that chance. That I still have that chance.

6 thoughts on “Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past

  1. AvatarTony Logan

    I am always glad that my parents were abstainers from religion. I have heard so many tales of tortured lives grappling with what was done to them as children by ‘Believer’ parents that I have come to think of organized religion as a form of child abuse.

    It takes, for many people, a lifetime battle to come to grips with themselves and their over religioned family’s teachings, and begin to deal with their own fears of magic curses that were given to them when they were kids. Relax. You have nothing to fear from a good god and with a bad god, it’s going to be Hell anyway. So don’t make Hell for yourself even if your parents might want it that way?

    Thanks for a good read, Marie.

  2. Avatarjacques

    Nice to find someone that remembers Bernadette Soubirou…and do you remember Dominique Savio? his male counterpart from northern Italy. While driving through Turino a couple of years ago, I almost bought a piece of his first communion armband for $2000L , something I could have put in my collection next to the piece of Curé d’Ars cassock and a 1 cm2 piece of Bernadette Soubirou’s white head scarf, all of it faked in Italy of course. But these trinkets are cheap and make good conversation. Seriously I left this at the ski cottage in the Adirondaks, I think, if it isn’t lost or discarded . If it is found by my sister, I am sending it to you.

  3. Avatarjacques

    I forgot to ask. Is that you, Marie, in the photograph? Or your daughter?
    And tell your ex-hubby how much he is missing in the quaint bizarre department. He must be bored silly.

  4. AvatarMarie

    Hey Jacques! I want a piece of Bern’s white head scarf. That will probably start my whole obsession over again….a special amulet to conjure Mary….nice….

    That is my daughter in a cold lake in upstate NY. She is praying that the damn picture will be taken soon so she can get out of the water!

    And of course Dave is bored silly 😉

  5. AvatarMalliobiana

    Some day, before you pass over, it would be a refreshing journey for you to go to the vicinity of the original apparition, try to see beyond the commercialization, and you will see what you are destined to see. You cannot have a wannabe experience, just look around the edges.

  6. AvatarK

    Hi Marie,

    This is pretty bizarre, but I wanted to ask your permission to work from this photo to create a drawing. I’m a drawing/painting major at a university in Illinois. It would not be an exact rendering of the image, but I’m working with themes of prayer and disappointment so this would be perfect.

    Best,

    K

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