I don’t often have the pang to go to church.
My relationship with religion is rocky, an unrequited-love story that goes back to my adolescence. I stopped trying to get what I needed from church — big “c” and small — some years ago, but the impulse to crack open those dark doors still floats up, bringing the longing, the childhood associations that still cause confusion and pain.
Today, not surprisingly, I woke with the hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” reverberating in my head. I watched a YouTube video
so I could remember it accurately, and now I am flung back into memory.
While both of my parents took us to church, and my father remains a devout Catholic, it is my mother whose presence dominates my memory of religion. She took Catholicism and her responsibility to raise us in the Church very seriously, a holy calling as sure as that of any man who was compelled to the priesthood. This was the fabric of her childhood; the parish expressed the boundaries of her imagination, the sacred music she sang in her gorgeous soprano conferred the soundtrack, her classmates and family and attendant nuns and priests providing the color and texture of her world. Her existence was defined by her Church, and being Irish was a subset of that worldview.
It was against her father, the strict pragmatist, that her artistic and musical spirit rebelled, but the Church held her devotion and adoration until the day she died.
So when I wake on Easter Sunday, I am taken back to Easter with my mother, whose sunny but defeated beauty rallied in its brightest form on this holiday. I don’t remember her wearing special Easter clothes, but she always wore a beautiful hat, and she would proudly pin the corsage my father bought her, cool from the refrigerator, onto her coat just as we left for Church. There was always a picture on the lawn, the cold Chicago wind lashing our clothes around as we tried desperately to keep our hats from flying away.
Church was where my mother’s love shone the strongest. She was so proud of her brood, the five of us lined up next to her in the pew, brushed and polished within an inch of our lives. We smelled like the vigorous spit bath Dad had given us just before we left the house. She’d lean her tiny frame against the pew in front of us and sing better than anyone in the whole church, turning heads every single Sunday. Especially on Easter, though, when the music resonated in her core. When she opened her mouth, it was, in fact, her heart that came pouring out, and it was stunning.
In retrospect, I am certain now that the reason I started playing piano was an effort to be close to her. I would return from Church, go to the keyboard and try to replicate the hymns we had just sung. She saw my interest and immediately got me into piano lessons.
I broke from the Church several years ago, a severance I haven’t sorted out yet. I tried non-denominational churches, but the music has all left me cold, the hollow wish of a melody striving to express the joy and fervor my mother sang into existence every Sunday.
My distance from my mother happened many years before, but I went to Church for many years every Sunday, in my parish 300 miles from where she lived, in an effort to regain some connection to her. I would sing her songs, my heart full not of the joy she felt for her faith and devotion, but longing, a desire to once again have her beaming in the pew next to me.
Church and my own faith is a facet of my life I’ve determined to sort out this year. But it will be ever entwined with my mother, her voice rising to the rafters. Singing was, she insisted, praying twice. Today I won’t be going to Church, conflicted as I am about both the faith in which I was raised and the structure of the Catholic Church as it stands today. But I will sing, in my feeble impersonation of my mother’s voice, and lift my voice to the sky in the hopes that she might hear me.
PS–I am aware Ave Maria is not an Easter hymn, but it will always be my mother’s; she made a recording of this song (back when making a recording was a big deal) when she was a young woman.
PPS–I listened to Josh Groban singing Panis Angelicus (also not Easter, I know) and Ave Maria as I wrote this. His voice brings me the closest to the experience of listening to my mother in Church. So if you want the full experience, put those songs on repeat.