Sometimes, when I think about my childhood, I realize it’s a wonder that I’m religious at all. For instance.
I was about four years old. It was a springtime Sunday. Dad and I had been outside, but a thunderstorm threatened, so we came back in. And in the living room, while the sky turned dark as night, Dad told me about how Jesus was killed by the bad men.
We didn’t go to church in those days except for Christmas and Easter, but Dad still tried teaching the basics. He’d already explained how I actually had two fathers, both him and another in heaven. I’m sure I had no idea what he meant. Even so, Dad thought it was time to move on to the next part: Jesus. And the bad men.
I assume the Cross was part of the narrative. Yet somehow I gleaned the impression that, like in the ’80’s crime dramas we watched, Jesus had been overtaken in a city alley by leather-jacketed enforcers bearing knives. My eyes got wider; the leaden sky grew more ominous. Finally I made Dad stop so I could take a bathroom break.
As I toddled down the hallway, lightning exploded right behind the house. I screamed and ran back to Dad. Such was my first conscious introduction to Christianity: Jesus, murder, and thunderbolts of biblical smiting.
Then there was the Easter Vigil when I was traumatized by blood-spattered artwork. I think it was actually the same year, the same month. We arrived and took our pew. Curious, I pulled a book from the rack. I immediately started wailing.
It was a Holy Week-themed missal. The cover image was a pale, stylized hand, affixed to a wooden beam by a spike. Fountains of blood gushed out of it. Red. Lurid red.
I squeezed my eyes shut for the rest of the three-hour Mass. Later, I distinctly recall laying in bed at night, dreaming that my parents said it was okay not to go to that church anymore.
By First Communion time, I was less allergic to Catholic imagery. Crucifixes were almost cool. But then it came to pass: besides regular CCD, we had special sacramental prep sessions. In one, we watched a film entitled “Grandma’s Bread.”
It opened with a child sitting in the kitchen with his elderly Italian grandmother. She was making bread dough. She told the boy all about her special family recipe, how it was prized by relatives in the black-and-white photos she pulled from a wallet.
The scene was familiar, reassuring. My mom’s parents were immigrants, Polish and Russian. My grandma didn’t bake, but she famously kept her house stocked with store-bought Gonnella bread and chleb mazowiecki, from which she sawed great hunks with a butcher knife.
These people felt just like my family. So I was terribly stricken when out of nowhere, as Grandma brought the finished bread out of the oven, her legs started shaking. She heaved herself onto a chair, putting her head in her hands. She cried, “Get your mother! I need her!”
The film abruptly cut to a shot of paramedics wheeling Grandma away, frantically fitting her with an oxygen mask. Then the boy sat stunned in a living room as his parents laid their hands on his shoulders. I held my breath as they intoned: “Grandma is with Jesus now.”
My stomach swerved over a cliff. Perhaps tomorrow my real-life grandma would fling a loaf of rye down on the kitchen table and shout: “Justin! I’m dying! Get your mother!” (As it happened, she lived another seventeen years.)
The point of the movie, the reason CCD kids were obliged to watch it, was still to come: before Grandma randomly died, she had promised to bake her bread for the boy’s First Communion celebration. So he and his mom figured out how to do it themselves, and “Grandma’s Bread” ended with luncheon guests adoring a fresh loaf while the father proclaimed: “We are family!” Like Jesus, Grandma was unseen, yet still present and gathering her people via baked goods. But I remained deeply disturbed. Why kill Grandma? Why?
I could tell more tales of the borderline Catholic macabre, though after First Communion such tales would be increasingly self-inflicted. Long story short: my faith life did not have an auspicious beginning. That I emerged from it a would-be theologian is a surprise.
“In the beginning was the Word,” writes the author of John’s Gospel. Christianity is a story, one we tell each other and our children. It contains sharp edges and volatile imagery. It requires skillful handling. Told well, the story brings us life. Told badly, it oppresses and repels us, especially when we are vulnerable and young. We who tell the story need to do so with great care.