I made a deal with my parents when I was a teenager. If I got confirmed Catholic, I could stop attending mass. I hear a lot of other kids who were raised Catholic were offered the same deal.
Confirmation is a ritual that normally happens in the teenage years (around 14 or so). It’s the bookend to baptism, and it’s essentially the marker that you’re an adult in the eyes of the church. I have vague memories of my own confirmation, which happened when I was 15. I know I wore a navy blue dress with pink flowers on it and that my grandmother was there, that she was my sponsor. But that’s because of photos from the event and not raw organic memories of it.
The problem is that there’s not much to remember, really. You basically kneel and you’re given a blessing by the bishop. This is done with the sign of the cross on your forehead and oil. And I remember being told that when the bishop laid hands on me that I would feel the holy spirit by an older friend who had been through the same ceremony himself a few years prior.
Truth be told, I do remember feeling something, but I was also pretty dizzy at the time of my confirmation because I was nervous.
That’s about all I remember.
Anyway, my confirmation was the moment at which my mother stopped worrying about whether or not I went to church.
It was funny to me, this bargain that so many Catholic parents offered their children. “Get confirmed, and you don’t have to go to church.”
Because a lot of us children who took this bargain did so because we were having serious doubts about the church, about organized religion, about the practitioners, about how politicized sermons could be.
Many, many doubts.
And the only way to escape this doubt was to publicly affirm that we had none. To become confirmed.
Belief As a Servant of Anxieties
A decade or so later, when I no longer considered myself a Catholic, I would have my confirmation ceremony thrown back into my face. Whenever I’d truthfully admit that I didn’t consider myself a Catholic anymore. Or if I went to mass with family over the Christmas holiday (since everything would be arranged logistically so it was difficult to not go) and didn’t go up to get communion, thinking it would be inappropriate for me to do so.
“I don’t care what you say you are,” my mother would say. “You’re confirmed, so you’re a Catholic. Now and forever. There’s no taking it back. No becoming anything else.”
As though a deal made when I was 15 and agreed to, hoping that it would help diminish the strife and cognitive dissonance present in my spiritual life, could be eternally binding.
“Eternally” was key, however. Over the years, that would emerge as the primary reason that my family members, and particularly my mother, would insist that a confirmation at 15 had the power to overwrite everything that came later. Because my mother couldn’t bear the thought of a heaven without all of her family there.
In bits and pieces, over the years, she worked out lots of exceptions to the normal rules to make this possible. There was the confirmation loophole of course. But later there was the idea that she could go to church on behalf of her entire family, that her prayers would extend to them and that she could confess on their behalf.
She did this in dribs and drabs, rotating one idea and then another, shaving off bits that didn’t appeal to her, until the pieces all fit the way she wanted them to. “If you get to heaven, your entire family goes with you,” she told me excitedly one day, as though none of the struggle had happened, the times when she had wanted this to be true but couldn’t quite manage it.
No, now it was easily true. And to her thinking, it always had been. She easily rewrote both past and future with this present belief.
And as she did, I finally began to understand. A lot of what people believed — and wanted those around them to believe — was not objective truth but simply a servant of their anxieties, dressed up in the official-looking raiment of The Way Things Actually Are.
The Best I Can Do Is Admit It
I’d like to think I’m exempt from this effect. But I know I’m not. I know that I, too, likely have strange strains of logic and blind spots that serve me in ways that I’m unwilling to acknowledge (for whatever reason).
I’d like to think I could find these areas and examine them and banish them forever from existence. But that’s probably a futile endeavor. New ones would likely crop up in the interim when I once again needed them to ease the difficulties of life, which can be unpredictably and fiendishly challenging.
No. I don’t think those are realistic goals.
The best I can do is admit it when I see it. And be honest that it happens — to me, to you, to everyone. And do my best to patiently work through the complexities of whatever illusory comforts we’ve all built for ourselves.
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