Is it sacrilege to be thinking about the writing material a hymnal offers while you’re attending a Jewish ceremony for a friend inside a Christian church? Because, if it’s not, then I at least broke the commandment that states, “Thou shalt not find humor in the song title ‘Eternal Christ, You Rule'”.
The roomies invited me to their synagogue tonight to celebrate the recent conversion of our good friend. (Congrats, Josh!) And while I was able to follow the Hebrew along for most of the ceremony (the phonetic pronunciations were mercifully printed below the Hebrew letters in the booklet), my mind started to wander there at the end of the ceremony when I lost track of what page we were supposed to be on. Instead of nudging CLH and asking where we were, I picked up a hymnal tucked into the back of the pew in front of us and started thumbing through it. And, lo, there came upon me the most incredible hymn titles I had ever seen in print.
I was raised Catholic, in a very small church. I would not say I was raised in a church. I was raised by my Catholic parents who felt it was their duty to drag their four unwilling children away from their Sunday morning Abbot-&-Costello-on-public-television-routines to go to church, probably so they could be imbued by the priest with some sense of right and wrong (umm…. sorry that backfired so horribly, mom and dad). I can probably count on one hand the number of hymns I can remember being sung in church. And I say “being sung” because if there was anything worse than being dragged to an eerily lit, cold, cavernous building on Sunday when all you wanted to do was eat scrambled eggs and stay in your pajamas till three in the afternoon, it was having to sing in that eerily lit, cold, cavernous building. Singing was for the single old ladies at the back of the church… and Vicki’s mom, whose singing God could probably hear from Heaven, it was that loud.
The hymns I remember were the ones we had to memorize for First Holy Communion… hymns like “Here I Am, Lord”, and also the ones we sang during the mass like “Let There Be Peace On Earth”. Stuff that sounded like, when accompanied by the slow pipe organ about a mile above us in the balcony, mules in their death throes.
The one that always made my heart catch in my throat, even as a young kid, was “Ave Maria”. Maybe it was that I’d made the connection between the organ-led drudgery that was our church’s version and the final chapter of Disney’s “Fantasia”… when I understood, for the first time in my life, how songs can have multiple interpretations… or maybe it was that my mother’s eyes glazed over and she smiled a little every time she heard it, and it was the only time in my life I ever really saw her in a state of silent reverence… or maybe it was that, after mindlessly following along in the hymnal for so many years, at age 15 (having passed Latin I in high school) I could finally understand that “Ave Maria” meant “praise for Mary” and not “Maria Street”… but that song always brought me to tears. Of course, most of the other hymns brought me to tears too, but that was because I was so bored at church, crying seemed like a good alternative to crushing my feet for fun in the hinge of the kneeler.
The hymns I found in the hymnal tonight were actual songs of praise. They seemed like something someone might sing when excited about their god. Definitely not the obligatory “wearecatholicandwesingbecausethisisthepartofthemasswherewesiiii-iiiiing” songs. The titles of these things were amazing. At one point, I mistook the words “eternal splendor” for “eternal spider” and I almost asked out loud, “WHERE HAVE THESE SONGS BEEN MY WHOLE LIFE?”
There were so many songs from different countries, too! Spanish songs, and South African songs, and one from Japan, titled “Ah What Shame I Have To Bear”.
After I’d cleared out of my head the image of a giant arachnid seated at the Right Hand of The Father, I stumbled upon my favorite: “Behold The Host All Robed In Light”. I don’t want to admit just how spiritually bankrupt I am, but I think the fact that I thought of, first, a dinner party I throw where I am wearing nothing but light, and secondly, a parasite making its victim all glow-y, might indicate that I have lost my religion entirely.
When I really think about it, I guess still believe in the basic tenets of Catholicism. I didn’t really know I still believed in them until just recently when I had the opportunity to really compare them to the belief systems of other types of Christianity; but the guiding principals of my life (do unto others as you would have done unto you, love thy neighbor as thyself) are still actively guiding my adult decisions. What the Catholic church is going through right now with the sex scandals is horrific and understandably devastating. But, I never (thank Flying Spaghetti Monster) had any inappropriate experiences with priests… nor do I really identify with the guilt that most folks associate with Catholicism, nor was I taught to snub any of the other religions out there. My Catholicism was pretty kind, and humble, and considerate, above all, of others.
I don’t go to church, and I don’t do much else on Christian holidays but eat candy, but I am thankful for the groundwork my parents laid for me. I have to believe that all those years of having to endure Vicki’s mom belting out “Hallelujah” into the stratosphere, and missing the Sunday Early Movie left me with some moral fiber. Just not the kind that considers snickering at hymnal titles in church a sin.