Above: John Dickson Batten, “The Family” (1886)
I have no recollection of ever seeing my parents pray when I was a child. We never prayed the Rosary together as a family. I probably knew well one prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray to Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
My mother always made sure that I said it before I went to sleep, but the words had no more meaning to me than “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” We weren’t a pious family. I remember attending Sunday Mass during which my dad would mysteriously disappear and reappear to serve as an usher. There were a few unobvious religious articles in our house: a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a small statue of St. Joseph, a reproduction of The Pieta. I understood these objects as belonging to my father. They comprised just a handful of precious items that he brought with him when he immigrated to America from Italy. As a boy, they seemed distant and mysterious. Then when my father began his own business, he too increasing became a figure in my life that was always just beyond my reach. He worked what felt like endless hours. Eventually, he was an infrequent intruder into my daily routine. For awhile, regular Mass attendance became a pretense. Later, by the time I was a teenager, we stopped going altogether. The little prayer my mom constantly reminded me to say before bedtime – I forgot about altogether.
When I was a boy, my dad would give me a home buzz-cut. In the 1970s era of men with fashionably long tresses, I kind of hated it. But I also strangely enjoyed having the same hair as my father. When I started school, we went together to the local barbershop. They knew my dad there and the place was a jovial throng of loud guys and Barbasol. A big man took an electric razor and gave me a more refined super-short cut than what my dad could manage on his own. The barber would squeeze my shoulders and smack me on the back when he was done. I quietly looked forward to these monthly trips. Then, they stopped. Dad was too busy. So my mom took me to her unisex salon; a woman delicately snipped my hair with tiny scissors and left it long.
Although I attended Catholic parochial schools for twelve years, religion was a barely perceptible influence in my life. The Jesus Christ presented by the religious sisters in lay clothes was not mysterious, but mundane. Christ didn’t die because of our sins, but as a protest-martyr for social justice. He was a model for political action and reform; a cross between Che Guevara and Mahatma Gandhi. He was a historical figure and a spiritual teacher in the tradition of the Buddha. But Jesus seemed less than even those men, because of His unexplained ignominious death. In school, we never prayed. Instead everyone raised their arms and sang Simon & Garfunkel.
In high school, religion classes were an odd mixture of Liberation Theology and pop-culture; one day we studied the heroic virtues of the Sandinistas and on another watched “The Breakfast Club.” Any notion of morality was solely placed within the conscience of each individual. All discussion of truth was relative. Even as a day-dreaming adolescent, I instinctively loathed the indecisiveness of it all. The Church could offer a basic guideline, but those directives were subject to our own inner voice. During that time, my inner-voice was primarily telling me that I was “gay.” Slowly I became increasingly comfortable with my personal identity that was only known to me. Therefore, in my case, homosexuality was entirely acceptable.
My father forced me to attended instruction so I could receive the Sacrament of Confirmation; I protested what I perceived as a blatant hypocrisy because outwardly their involvement in Catholicism was sporadic at best. But he was insistent. I swore that this overreach of parental control would be their last. Although I would never admit it, I secretly admired him for being so obstinate on the issue. However, to show my disdain, I grew my hair out and wore bright pink and baby-blue to the Mass.
By my late-teens, my parents were doing financially well. We had a beautiful home. I drove a new convertible. The little religious keepsakes my dad stubbornly hung onto all those years, except for the icon of Our Lady, were no longer around. Artwork hung on the walls. However, my father maintained these peculiar customs, like making the sign of the Cross before the image of the Madonna and Child, which I thought were simply quaint eccentricities from his peasant upbringing. I occasionally noticed when he would do these curious things, thought less of him for it, and prided myself on being above such superstitions.
While away at college, I intermittingly drifted in and out of my parent’s house. When I did arrive for a visit, my father and mother were consumed in a continual whirlwind of banquets, wine tastings, and charity events. In the midst of their activities, I think they sensed that I was struggling. I had always been a slightly eccentric, rebellious, and sensitive kid and I think they believed that somehow I would grow out of this difficult life-long phase. During one weekend at home, my parents hosted a large dinner party. An inconspicuous guest was a liberal-minded slightly inebriated street-clothes wearing priest. I sort of surmised that my mom and dad wanted me to talk with him; and so I did. Late in the evening, slightly sequestered from the other guests, we both drank an after dinner liqueur. He said it was fine that I was “gay,” after all that’s the way I had been born. Only, I needed to be careful so no one would needlessly worry. I assumed my parents knew what he was going to say – I didn’t know why, but I was disappointed. I thought of them as acquiescent largely due to their own preoccupations. I made less of an effort to make the trip home.
No one ever spoke to me about it again. But slowly I began to push the boundaries of even what my recently worldly and sophisticated parents could tolerate; because, regardless of their ongoing diversions and wealth, there remained a Christian ethos at their core. And, I think I wanted to outrage them – especially my dad. Therefore, I purposefully returned home with noticeable multiple piercings; then tattoos; and lastly a menagerie of similarly outrageous looking friends. My mother looked stupefied and in suspended animation. She didn’t know what to do while my father did a slow burn in the corner. Later, he said they weren’t welcome in his house. I was immediately outraged. For a long time, I stayed away. Only, while I adamantly despised my father, at the same time I inexplicably believed I had a home where someone loved me – where someone cared enough to say the truth that I didn’t want to hear.
In my new San Francisco home of the predominantly gay Castro District, I found a retro-barbershop that strangely reminded me of the one my dad used to take me to. The guys that worked there were primarily thick framed and deep-voiced men; they endlessly gave their definite opinions on a variety of subjects from politics to Madonna. Sitting and waiting for a hair-cut, their confidence made one who overheard feel secure.
Who prays for the damned?
When I did return home, I arrived by myself. Why I eventually acquiesced to my father’s demand – I don’t know. Was it out of a sense of respect for him? Because I didn’t want to provoke a confrontation? Or did I know deep-down that he was right?
In my abscess, things had changed once again back at my parent’s house. Out of nowhere, there started to appear religious pictures and statues. My dad and mom were going to Mass every Sunday. They invited me and I steadfastly declined. As an excuse, I would usually pretend that I had to head back to San Francisco early Sunday morning. For awhile, I stayed away.
During another visit, I discovered that my parents had organized a sort of community Rosary group whereby an ever increasing number of fellow parishioners and other Catholics from the surrounding area joined together to pray. I was horrified. On a particular weekend, I couldn’t make a quick getaway so I was forced to reluctantly participate from a distance. The goings-on were laughable: the calling out of intercessory prayers for an array of lapsed Catholics and drug-addicted family members, the never-ending repetitive monotony, the false hope by the faithful that somehow passing a few beads through your fingers would change the life or mind of those not even there. Afterwards, I talked to a few of the attendees. They were kind, but simpering and simplistic. Some said they would pray for me – Whatever.
“Pride goeth before destruction…”
The next time I would return home, I walked through the door a broken and bloodied man. I took notice of nothing new, except that there were a few more religious articles around the house – including a large statue of St. Joseph tenderly holding the Baby Jesus. I quickly looked at it as I struggled to reach the bed in my old room. Such intimacy between father and son; I was semi-revolted and fascinated. This is truth.
The following Saturday, my parents hosted their weekly recitation of the Rosary. I was too sick to attend, yet I managed to eavesdrop from another nearby room. I didn’t know any of the prayers. Suddenly, I had a vague memory of First Holy Communion and the “Our Father.” A few words behind everyone else, I managed to say the entire prayer – involuntarily lingering on the last line: “…deliver us from evil.” For what seemed like nearly an hour, I sat motionless and listened as the prayers continued. What sounded stupid before, now had a melodious resonance.
Towards what I assumed was the conclusion of the Rosary, I could faintly hear my father thank everyone for the continued prayers on behalf of his son – me. My dad said – I was home. I cried.
I began to understand how much my parents endured when it looked like I was hopelessly lost. As a consequence, Christ finally made sense, as did His Passion, and the sacrifice He made for us all. In their small way, the redemptive suffering and prayers of my parents, through Jesus Christ, helped to save me. Without them, my chances of surviving were highly doubtful.
My conversion would not have been possible without my parent’s conversion. The Prodigal Son returned, not to a drab home of mourning, nor a house filled with heedless party-goers, but to a place of prayer. I prayed the Rosary with my parents for the first time; in that moment I knew love and I could accept love – and I could also accept the truth.