My home state of Louisiana will have its gubernatorial runoff next month. It’s a contest between a female Democrat of Cajun descent and an Indian-American male — a Rhodes Scholar with an accomplished political career despite being only 31. I would be excited to vote for the Indian-American candidate — I think at the very least a non-white governor would say positive things about my state — but he’s a Republican. During his campaign he made a big issue out of his conversion to Catholicism and his strict adherence to Christian values. A major part of his platform is “Defense of Marriage.” What’s a gay man to say but, yikes! Looks like I can keep my wedding dress in mothballs a few more years.
You can probably tell I am not religious, and am highly suspicious of “Christian values” as a whole. My family is supposed to be Catholic, but we aren’t. I was about eight or nine when I went to my first Catholic Mass, not with my parents, but with a childhood friend whose mother had gone to Catholic school with my mother. She naturally assumed we Eagans went to Mass too. She was, of course, wrong. We drank a lot of wine, and my brothers and I knew every word to Jesus Christ Superstar, but that hardly made us good Catholics. The first time I actually read the Gospels, in a class at Yale, I was shocked that, “Should I bring him down, should I scream and shout, should I speak of love, let my feelings out?” was nowhere to be found in the text. Apparently Tim Rice took some license with the Bible.
My first Mass was also, coincidentally, my first Communion. I hadn’t meant for it to happen. I was sitting in a pew next to my friend, trying to follow the proceedings, and suddenly everyone to the right and left of me was walking down the aisle to the priest, who was dispensing these hermetic white discs to their open mouths. My friend and his family, including his little brother who had only recently graduated to solid foods, all stood up and followed the crowd dutifully to the front of the church to get their wafers. Shame, and the allure of washing down my wafer with wine — which by eight I had already acquired a taste for — but mostly shame compelled me to follow the masses and eat one too. When I first tasted it, I got excited because I was sure it was a Ritz Air Crisp and I could buy them at the supermarket and not have to go to Mass ever again. But I didn’t dare say anything to my friend’s Mom, who chewed on hers so serenely she looked like she could ascend to Heaven right then and there.
I learned a year or two later that this bland wafer was called “the Host.” My mother, out of guilt for having raised four godless children without giving them a chance at religion, had hired two Tulane students to tutor us privately in Catholicism. They taught us that “the Host” was supposed to represent, or actually be, the body of Christ, which He offered to the faithful at the Last Supper. This made the entire experience a whole lot more terrifying. Communion is a pact with God, and you aren’t supposed to take it until you’re ready to make some sort of commitment to Christ. Which I wasn’t.
We rehearsed the Lord’s Prayer, making the sign of the cross (left shoulder, then right), and other rules of procedure every Catholic must know before he can get on with the worshipping. It would have been edifying, I suppose, if it didn’t remind me so much of play practice, and my siblings and I were terrible actors. The drills were easy enough to carry off, but the spirit eluded us, and spiritual earnestness is very difficult to fake. We were moral, law-abiding citizens, and we had never once prayed or made the sign of the cross. It seemed pretty silly we should start now.
Out of the four of us, I was perhaps the best at feigning excitement in our rote exercises. This was not because I believed deeply what I was reciting, but because I had developed an innocent, yet intense, crush on one of our tutors, a cute college sophomore with a gentle voice and bright eyes. I would have recited one hundred Hail Marys for his sake. At one of the sessions, I remember looking at my sister, Emily, who rolled her eyes at my obedience, as if to say “Snap out of it!” She was afraid that I was turning Catholic before her very eyes, but she had nothing to worry about. Religion had nothing to do with it.
A few weeks later Emily went to my mom, complaining that she was “too old for this,” and Mom took us out of tutoring. She must’ve seen Emily’s point. For us to find religion at our age, when nothing seemed especially askew without it, was an unrealistic expectation. Content that she had tried, and that we had at least learned enough so we wouldn’t embarrass her at weddings and funerals, Mom never once brought it up again.
I would have kept going, if only to get in my tutor’s good graces, but a few years down the road I would have wanted to get into his pants. My crush would have developed into something quite incompatible with the Catholic Church, and the star pupil would have a lot of confessing to do. I’m not about to change, and neither are they, so it’s for the best that we didn’t become better acquainted.
Needless to say, I’m voting for the Cajun chick. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Eric Eagan is a tough edit.