Have I mentioned that I grew up Catholic?
(1) the infamous guilt complex;
(2) a lingering fascination with pain; and
(3) a shload of religious jewelry.
Birthdays. Christmas. Baptism. First Communion. Confirmation. I have a cross necklace for every day of the week. There’s a delicate gold one:
A big scary crucifix:
It’s a St. Brigid’s cross, a Confirmation gift from my godmother in honor of Brigid of Ireland — the personal patron saint I chose myself. I love St. Brigid, who was a beer-swilling proto-feminist, and I like to brag about my Irish roots. The cross is a neat shape and an unobtrusive size. I wear it all the time.
But back on Ash Wednesday, I chose a different necklace from my jewelry box. It’s about the same size, a very simple silver design:
Was it the bangs? No. They’re silly-looking (growing out bangs is hard work), but my coworkers are used to them.
My outfit? I was no more slovenly than usual.
Even in my ultra-secular workplace, no one ever pauses at the sight of the Brigid emblem. But something was different about this plain little cross. When I got home, I asked my fiancée about it.
Fiancée: Did you get ashes this morning?
Me (clawing at the bangs): Of course I did. They’re under here somewhere.
Fiancée: Have you considered getting a haircut?
Me: How come I feel so self-conscious when I wear this necklace?
Fiancée (thoughtfully): Well, with the other one, you could be saying “God,” or you could be saying “I’m Irish,” or you could be saying “I’m all Celtic New Age.” But with that one, it’s just like, “God.”
The next day, I wore a turtleneck.
But I kept thinking about it. I wear all my leftover sacramental kitsch for a reason, and it’s not just ethnic pride. It’s like that old chestnut from C.S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen — not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
I’m not a good Catholic girl anymore, and by most standards, I’m not even a particularly good Christian. I’m terrible at praying. I believe in moral shades of gray. I swear during church meetings and yell bad words when my bicycle gears stick. I am bad at poverty, worse at chastity, and a total disaster when it comes to obedience. If you took it upon yourself to picture the whole of the body of Christ, you probably wouldn’t picture me.
But that’s okay. Because, for me, faith is not the picture. It is the camera lens.
I worship a God who was poor and homeless, who was born to a frightened teenage mother, who had no access to medical care. He worked for a living and entrusted his life to his friends. When the dregs of society came running to touch his cloak — prostitutes riddled with disease, tax collectors who had sold out their own families, lepers whose hands were covered with oozing sores — he didn’t flinch away. Mine is a God who can forgive me because he forgave Cain, who will never give up on me because he never gave up on Israel, who, if he found a use for Balaam’s ass, can surely find a way for me to serve him too.
Without this context, the rest of my life crumbles away.
It’s hard to know much else about me if you don’t know this.
So I advertise. I’ve kept on wearing that plain silver cross. I haven’t found an outfit to match the Bedazzled one yet.