Tag Archives: catholics

Saint Catherine’s Day

26 Nov

Today is the feast of Saint Catherine, a fact which really means nothing to me now that I’m a bonafide adult living in a secular, anglophone world. When I was a kid attending French Catholic school, though, St. Catherine’s Day was one of my red-letter days. Back then, every month seemed to have a holiday or feast day; these little celebrations and diversions helped us make it through the long school year. For anglo kids, the big November holiday was probably Remembrance Day, but for those of us at École Cardinal Léger, November 11th was always overshadowed by November 25th. This was true for one reason and one reason only: candy. Lots of candy.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria is mostly famous for the terrible way she died. Born to the (pagan) king and queen of Alexandria, Catherine converted to Christianity at the age of 14. The reason for her conversion was a mystical vision in which the Virgin Mary gave Catherine to Jesus as a wife, and the two of them joined together in a holy union – I mean, you know, the usual. Catherine went on to convert hundreds of pagans to Christianity which, naturally, angered the Roman emperor at the time, Maxentius. Maxentius, a big fan of persecuting Christians, decided that the solution to his problem was to marry Catherine. When she refused (because she was already married to Jesus, duh), he tried to break her on the wheel. God, naturally, destroyed said wheel, so Maxentius just beheaded Catherine instead. I’m unsure as to how God could destroy the wheel but still allow her to be beheaded, but, um, I guess he works in mysterious ways?

Naturally, you want to know what the hell this all has to do with candy.

Relax. I’m getting to that.

The key to our modern celebration of Saint Catherine’s Day is Marguerite Bourgeouys, a nun who came to Canada in the 1600s. Marguerite opened a public school for girls in Montreal in 1658 (yay!), which marked the beginning of public schooling in Montreal (double yay!). She then decided that the First Nations children should also attend her school (problematic?) and began to devise ways by which she could lure them to her schoolhouse (definitely problematic). Her solution was to make taffy and then leave a trail of said taffy all the way from the local First Nations settlement to her schoolhouse (SUPER PROBLEMATIC). Oh, and apparently she made this taffy on St. Catherine’s Day, and young French Canadians have been doing so ever since.

I mean, at least her intentions were good? That has to count for something, right?

Marguerite Bourgeoys and her First Nations friends: 99 Problematics

Anyway, Marguerite Bourgeoys is a saint now, so at least she’s got that going for her.

My sister was born on November 24th, 1988. I remember the day of her birth pretty clearly; my mother came into my room early in the morning to tell me that she was going to the hospital to be induced, and then my principal pulled me out of class around noon with the news that I was now a big sister. My principal let me sit in her office and make my mother a card, probably assuming that I would produce the standard “YAY BABY” Hallmark-type fare. I, naturally, had other ideas in mind. Most likely influenced by the fact that Christmas was only a month away, I ended up drawing my mother as the Virgin Mary and my new sister as the Baby Jesus. Being a student at a Catholic school, I, of course, had heard the term virgin thrown around. However, being only six years old, I had no idea what it meant. I thought that “virgin” was synonymous with “good person”, which helps explain why, on my card, I wrote, Maman, tu es une vierge [Mama, you are a virgin]. I think I remember indulgent smiles from the grown ups at my school; at any rate, they didn’t immediately seize my card and burn it, so it couldn’t have been too blasphemous.

That night, I went to visit my mother in the hospital. There was an earthquake while we were there; a small one, but big enough that it made the glass tremble on my mother’s bedside table and the tacky framed prints sway on the wall. My parents laughed, and joked that it was an omen portending that my sister would accomplish great things. That one remark was a watershed moment in my life; for the first time, I experienced that complicated, emotionally charged state that we call sibling rivalry. What did they mean that she would accomplish great things? Had they said the same thing about me at my birth? What had my omens been?

I asked if there had been an earthquake the night I was born. No, my parents said. How about a full moon? A thunderstorm? Anything? My parents just rolled their eyes and laughed. Meanwhile, I glared at my fat, red, wrinkled nemesis.

The next night, when my father brought me back to the hospital for another visit, I proudly announced that we’d celebrated St. Catherine’s Day at school by making candy. My parents, who hadn’t yet come up with a name for my sister, gave each other this look like, WHOA, ARE YOU THINKING WHAT I’M THINKING? WE ARE FOR SURE GENIUSES.

Needless to say, they named her Catherine.

Catherine, which I thought was probably the bossiest name I’d ever heard.

Catherine, the perfect name for someone who would accomplish great things.

As if to rub salt in the wounds, my parents insisted on telling everyone that my sister’s name had been my idea. Whenever they said this in my presence, I would yell, THAT’S A DAMN LIE, I WANTED TO NAME HER SOPHIE, and then, naturally, immediately get sent to my room. I spent a lot of time in my room after my sister’s birth, mostly because I couldn’t understand how my parents could equate my casually mentioning a name in their presence with suggesting it as the word that we would ever use when referring to my new sibling. In retrospect, I’m sure that my parents were trying to help me adapt to having a sister after spending more than half a decade as an only child; at the time it just seemed like they were wilfully ignoring everything I had to say.

When Catherine started school, her teachers went out of their way to make St. Catherine’s Day a big deal for her. They would make her a paper crown, and spend the day treating her like a princess. At the end of the festivities, she would bring home a bigger pile of candy than anyone else.

Did I have a special saint’s day that gave my the chance to wear a crown and bring home an exceptionally large pile of candy?

No. No, I did not.

Probably because I wasn’t destined to do great things.

Throughout Catherine’s early years, I found various ways to torment her. I stuck clothespins in her hair. I called her ridiculous names. I made faces at her at the dinner table. Nothing I did was overly terrible, but then, it didn’t need to be; Catherine threw tantrums as if she had a calling for it. Catherine screamed and kicked as if it was her vocation; she once had a legendary meltdown over the fact that her toast was cut  vertically instead of diagonally. This meant that it was both easy and satisfying to provoke her.

When I entered my teen years, my mother developed a fascination with mediums and psychics. She began having her tarot cards read on a regular basis.

“The psychic says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles,” she told me once in the car, as she was driving me to a dance class.

Naturally, I was more interested in what she’d had to say about me.

“Oh, she says, you’re boy-crazy,” my mother replied dismissively, “as if I didn’t already know that. But she says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles.”

“What does that even mean?” I asked

“I don’t know, but I’d better not hear you making fun of her for it,” my mother said in her most threatening tones.

Why would I make fun of her for it? I knew exactly what it meant. It meant that she was destined to do great things, while I was destined to be a pathetic, boy-crazy teenager forever.

Catherine and I continued to have an adversarial relationship throughout the rest of my time in high school, and my first few years of university. I can clearly remember bringing Matt home to meet my family for the first time, and whining to my mother about how Catherine was being rude to him. I don’t remember what she was being rude about, mind you, just that I didn’t like the way she talked to him. Catherine told me constantly that I was old and boring, and that my music sucked. While I was nearly always single and lonely, Catherine had a steady stream of boyfriends from the time she was 13. Instead of abating, our rivalry seemed to be heating up. On top of all that, I was deeply embarrassed by that I was jealous of someone who was six years younger than me.

This continued on for several years, until, sometime in my early twenties, we had a fight. Like, a big fight. I don’t even remember what it was about, I just remember yelling, even screaming at her. I was furious. Beyond furious. Somehow, having run out of things that actually had to do with what we were fighting about, I got around to the anger and jealousy that I’d been harbouring all these years.

You don’t even like me,” I yelled at her. “Why do you even bother talking to me? You don’t have anything to talk to me about! You think you’re better than me! You think you’re going to do great things!”

At this point, Catherine burst into tears, which, if you knew her, you would know how highly unusual that is.

“What do you mean I don’t like you?” she wailed. “I love you! You’re my big sister! I look up to you for everything!”

That stopped me dead in my tracks. How could it possibly be that my sister, my destined-for-great-things, Queen-of-Pentacles sister could ever look up to me, failure that I was, for anything?

That night was a turning point in our relationship. We’ve been close ever since; she even lived with us for a few months this year. Now that she’s back living three hours away, I miss her, even though we talk all the time.

I hope she had a good birthday.

I hope she knows how proud I am of her.

I hope that this year she continues to do great things.

I hope that she had some candy today, in honour of St.Catherine.

Catherine with her cat, Chairman Mao

Happy birthday, little sister.

p.s. Here is a recipe for St. Catherine’s Day Taffy, if you want to try making it yourself.

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On Faith

20 Nov

A few years ago, when we still lived on the east coast, Matt and I drove to Prince Edward Island for a long weekend. We booked a room in what was maybe the coziest bed and breakfast of all time, and in spite of the raw, grey November weather we were ridiculously excited by the chance to explore and get lost in a city that wasn’t our own.

Matt was still a student back then, and I was making minimum wage working retail, so little getaways like this were few and far between. This meant that I’d planned for our three day mini-break with the same focus and attention to detail that others might apply to a two weeks tour of Europe. I bought a guide book and filled it with highlighter marks and post-it notes. I spent hours poring over travel websites, trying to plan our every little detail of our trip. I talked to (at?) Matt endlessly about the things I wanted to see, trying to convince him to use the highlighter and post-it notes with as much enthusiasm as I did. My excitement grew to such a level that I was basically banned from mentioning the words “Anne of Green Gables” or “Gilbert Blythe” in his presence.

One place that I knew I definitely wanted to visit was the All Souls’ Chapel, which is attached to Charlottetown’s St. Peter’s Cathedral. All Souls’ Chapel is designated National Historic Site and, I learned from my guidebook, a good example of the High Victorian Gothic style of architecture. I especially wanted to see the interior of the chapel, whose walls feature sixteen paintings by local artist Robert Harris. The only problem was that the chapel was only open during services, and the only service held in the chapel was evensong. We decided to sneak into the back and ogle the artwork during Saturday’s evening service before heading downtown for a romantic dinner.

Late Saturday afternoon, Matt and I fell asleep on our room’s giant, king-sized bed. We woke up to find that it was dark outside, and realized with a start that it was nearly time for evensong. We thought that if we hurried we might still be able to make it. We were wrong, a fact that we realized as soon as we stepped into the chapel’s entryway and heard someone chanting inside.

We peeked in through the door, and before us lay one of the loveliest, heart-in-your-throat sights I’ve ever seen. The room was lit by just a few candles, leaving most of the chapel still in darkness. The flames flickered and occasionally grew strangely, eerily tall in the close chapel air, throwing grotesque, menacing shadows on the painted walls. In the middle of this little cave of light stood an old priest, his long robes faded to a greenish-black and his collar slightly wilted. He was all alone, this priest; no one else had come to evensong. Still, though, he stood in front of the lectern and recited from the huge crumbling book that sat there, repeating the same words he must have said on a near-daily basis for years and years and years. They were nice words, too – the text of the Anglican evensong is strikingly, intricately beautiful, a sort of poetry, in a way.

I thought about this man who, in spite of his lack of parishioners, went on with his service and turned it into a private communion between himself and his god. I wondered what he thought of the words that he was sending out into the darkness, and what personal meaning they might hold for him. I watched this man, who, unaware that he was being watched, slowly wended his way through the service, speaking at length to a god who never seemed to answer him. I thought to myself, this is what faith looks like.

I grew up in a pretty secular household. My mother usually dragged us to the local United Church on Sundays, but that was more boring than it was religious. I spent my time there sprawling out on the shiny wooden pews, making up stories about pictures in the stained glass windows and harassing my mother with whispered demands to know when Sunday School would start. Sunday School meant a craft, a game, a snack, and little else. Oh sure, we would read Bible stories, but they didn’t seem to me to be much different from Grimm’s fairytales, or the stories found in my giant Hans Christian Andersen book. Meanwhile, my father, an avowed atheist, would stay home to sit in the basement and burn incense while listening to classical music on vinyl.

I went to a Catholic school, so I did receive some religious instruction there, but because I was Protestant, no one really thought that it was necessary to indoctrinate me. I was often left out of things, either because my teachers didn’t think it was appropriate that I be included, or because they thought I didn’t care. I was curious, though –  and to be fair, who wouldn’t be when your classmates’ religion means that the girls get to dress up in lacy white dresses and partake in a secret ceremony to which you are not invited? After my class did their first communion, they got to eat the strange, flat, holy bread and drink real wine – meanwhile, in the United Church, there was no special initiation ceremony, and our communion was nothing but regular bread and boring old grape juice. School made the Catholic religion seem mysterious, fascinating and a little dangerous, whereas my time at the United Church had taught me that that institution was the opposite of all those things.

Super secret confession time: I have a thing about churches – a dark, guilty, secular thing. I love churches, especially old ones, especially Catholic ones. The right kind of church makes me feel quiet and awed and sort of holy. Maybe it’s because I love history, or maybe it’s the antiquated architecture. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for symbolism and ritual, or maybe it’s my love of Latin. Maybe I’m a closet Catholic. Whatever it is, it made me drag Matt into church after church when we went to Paris; it made me stand in the middle of Sacré Coeur Basilica, eyes closed and totally blissed out, listening to a choir of nuns chanting, well, I’m not quite sure what, but whatever it was, it was beautiful.

If I were Catholic (which I’m not), I would basically be the worst Catholic ever. I’m pro-choice, I use birth control, I had sex before marriage, and I think men and women are equal. I hate the Catholic church’s backward stance on pretty much everything, and I can’t stand the Pope (although, much like Kate Beaton, I have a great deal of fondness for JPII):

You know what’s terrible, though? Even though I know that the Catholic church is awful, even though unspeakable things have been done in its name and its leaders have been complicit in terrible crimes, I still love a lot of things about it. I love the singing, and the smell of the incense. I love the big old stone churches with their colourful windows and dark, mildewy corners. I love the priest’s fancy outfits, and the slow procession down the aisle at the beginning and end of every mass. I love going into an empty church and lighting a candle for the sick, or sad, or deceased. I love the tacky religious statuary. I love communion, even though one of my grade school teachers told me that if a Protestant eats a host that’s been blessed by a priest, it will burn a hole in their tongue. I love the idea of midnight mass, of staying up with a group of strangers until way past my bedtime; there’s something so ancient and lovely about staying awake with a group of people, waiting together amidst wreaths and bows and candles and music to make sure that Christmas Day is, in fact, going to come.

The thing is, if I’m a bad Catholic, then I’m an even worse atheist. Even though I know, logically, that there’s nothing out there, that science and evolution explain life on this planet, not some faraway magical spirit with a beard and a white robe, I still sort of believe. Even though I know that religion is awful and whatever good there is in the world comes from people, not from some godly presence, I still sort of believe. I’ve tried really hard not to believe. I’ve dabbled in other religions; like most people, I had a pagan phase in high school which involved chanting nonsense in the woods and spelling magic with a k. My childhood best friend was Jewish, and I tried my hand at that, too. But I still, embarrassingly, kept coming back to the Catholic church.

Why is this? I mean, the fact is that I disagree with their stance on, well, just about everything. Public religious displays make me deeply uncomfortable, and people who try to preach at me annoy the crap out of me. Once, a few years ago, Matt and I went with his mother to a Good Friday service at the Catholic church in Keswick, and they did this bizarre thing where they brought out a giant crucifix and made everyone line up and take turns kissing it. People were looking at Jesus and sobbing, I kid you not. I wanted to yell out, SPOILER ALERT BUT GUESS WHAT YOU GUYS HE GETS RESURRECTED THREE DAYS LATER. It was ridiculous. But still, I sort of believe.

We had Theo baptized in the Catholic church, and my reasons for this were pretty lame. I wanted an excuse to dress him in a frilly white dress and throw a big party for our family; I guess we could have had a special Baby Transvestite celebration, but a baptism seemed like something my grandmother was more likely to understand. I also know that he will likely go to Catholic school, and I don’t want him to feel left out like I was. Another thing is that in a weird way I think that it’s important to raise a kid with religion, so that they have something big to question later on, when they go through their philosophical existentialist phase in high school. Also, I sort of believe, so there’s that, too.

Sometimes I think about Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and how Sarah, the unfaithful wife, becomes strangely, almost unwillingly religious. There’s this really beautiful passage near the end of the book, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it really resonates with me:

I believe there’s a God— I believe the whole bag of tricks, there’s nothing I don’t believe, they could subdivide the Trinity into a dozen parts and I’d believe. They could dig up reasons that proved Christ had been invented by Pilate to get himself promoted and I’d believe just the same. I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.

Mostly I just wish that I believed in something, anything as much as that Anglican priest on Prince Edward Island did.

Plus, you know, Theo looks really, really good in a dress.