My sister Mary’s First Communion photo with my brother Mike and me reminds me of my Catholic heritage. In awe of rituals—and pretty clothes—I entered fully into a religion grounded in contradictions: no joy without sorrow, no fulfillment without sacrifice, no resurrection without death.
While the Church’s teaching was a solemn guide, my everyday life possessed its own set of upside, inside-out experiences. My mother taught me how to carve a bird out of ivory soap, a lasting treasure to be dissolved in water. From age ten to eighteen, I swung a club too many times to count, but kept coming back because of a memory of one great golf shot. And for my friends and me, the delicious nonsense we recited aloud:
I stand before you to stand behind you
To tell you something I know nothing about.
This Thursday, which is Good Friday,
There will be a mothers’ meeting
My father’s interpretation of paradox was the joke. And what a repertoire he had. Jokes to share on the golf course, the funeral gathering (whoops), and the dinner table. I laugh at the recollections. Why the punch lines didn’t grow old is a contradiction in itself:
A lion pounds through the jungle. He snarls at the snake, “Why aren’t you King of the Jungle?” The snake slithers away. The lion eyes the elephant. “Why aren’t you King of the Jungle?” The elephant escapes through the underbrush. When the lion pounces close to a meandering mouse, he asks again, “Why aren’t you King of the Jungle?” The mouse looks up, “Who me? I’ve been sick.”
This February has been packed with paradox and joke. The old family photo reminds me that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” even for those of us who no longer attend church. The month itself is the longest shortest month of the year, but at least Ash Wednesday (a time of Catholic penitence) does not land on Valentine’s Day (a time of candy and roses) as it did in 2018.
The rose pot holder and Valentine cookies for visitors reminded me to prune the rose bush. And I did that, pruning so that no wounded branch thrived, no straight growth crisscrossed the bush’s empty bowl. Strange how celebration and clipping mixed and contradicted one another; guilty sugar now and green shoots later. Then, after an unexpected snowfall, I watched the anti-social bird of spring summon a “round of robins.” They pecked for fruit in icy soil.
Returning once more to Catholic roots: in the early 1960’s, my professor, Sister Theona, read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover” to us young nuns, waiting for us to “get’ what it means to soar down into resurrection.
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermillion.
She reminded us, too, of God’s sense of humor, the juxtapositions found in nature. Why else the giraffe and hippopotamus? I’d add the sloth.
Contradictions do not necessarily result in waving placards and screaming “Liar!” across red and blue barriers. Maybe one Lenten resolution (March 6 this year) could be to admit that since I am both puffed-up, silly lion and clueless, wise mouse, better to enjoy absurdities that tickle my funny bone and pull my leg, but also confound me.
Maybe carve a robin in ivory soap, but keep it away from water.