Friday, May 7, 2010


[image: a church in Lvov]

I went through a phase of great piety in my early teens. By mid-teens, I left the church, angry with the clergy and nuns for having poisoned my childhood with the fear of eternal damnation, making me feel worthless (and especially so as a girl – I overheard a priest say, "Girls are so stupid"), defining me as a sinner who at best would spend several centuries in the fires of Purgatory, etc. And the strange cult of suffering: God sends suffering to those He loves. If you suffer here in this life, perhaps you won’t suffer as long in Purgatory. The body was obscene, and a woman’s body especially so.

Eventually those beliefs and attitudes struck me as insufferable. The Church’s strange obsession with “impure thoughts,” which were to be confessed: the type and the frequency. As adolescence progressed, the burden of it all was too much. I was attached to the ritual, and the figures of Mary and Jesus were dear to me; but the church doctrines struck me as increasingly absurd, embarrassing, and psychologically and socially harmful. (As a friend who converted in adulthood said, the church is a crumbling shell around a radiance.) 

Daughter of the Church

The nun rustles, black robe,
the starched December of her headdress,
teaching a row of seven-year-olds
to kneel on the stone church floor
and beat their chests: my fault, my fault,
my most grievous fault.
She shows us colored slides of the Crucifixion:
Each time you sin, you drive a nail
into the flesh of Jesus.

At eleven I confess to impurity.
With boys, with girls, or by yourself?
The question intrigues me.
The confessional gapes,
a dark mildewed ear. 
With a sinner’s bravado I whisper,
With boys, with girls, and by myself.

After communion I cross my arms
to keep the miracle inside me.
I collect pocket pictures of the saints.
I pray to Our Lady of the Sorrows,
seven swords plunged into her
delicately bleeding heart.

Holding a lit candle, repeating the novena,
I stand last in the row of girls.
Wax sweats opaque tears.
The priest looks so unhappy,
I fall in love with him.
God sees every thought
in my impure head.

The priest dips his fingers
in a golden bowl,
and draws a cross of ash on my forehead.

~ Oriana

(Everyone loves the second stanza – yes, it’s a true story!)


The fact that only men could be priests, and only boys could become altar boys, was certainly not lost on me. The poem below is part of my “Grandmother’s Laughter” sequence:


“Why are there no women priests?”
She shrugs: Because men rule the world.
Like we have to listen to the Bolshevik.
We are doing Stations of the Cross.

She lingers before the Sixth Station:
Pale wisp of a girl, Veronica
presses through the jeering crowd,
the whips of snarling executioners.

She holds out her white veil to wipe
the condemned man’s face,

streaked with blood and sweat.
My grandmother Veronika

greets her patron saint.
She has seen the executioners.
Only the uniforms are different.
She does not bow her head.

In the kitchen, making beet soup
with botvinka, not wasting
the tiniest leaf, she laments:
As soon as I close my eyes,
you will never go to church.

~ Oriana


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