Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
I was fourteen, walking into the gym for my first day of high school summer basketball camp. Switching from a small, Catholic middle school to a huge county high school was terrifying, so the night before I had stayed up late, weaving colored ribbons through two metal hair barrettes. Red, white, and blue—the team colors. I wore those to practice because I wanted to let the natives know that I was friendly. My hometown was the seat of the first diocese west of the Appalachian mountains, established in 1808 by Pope Pius VII. Our diocese ministered to Catholics between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River until 1841. In many areas of the South, Catholicism is shunned, but where I grew up, it was revered. Tourists would come from all over the world to visit our cathedral.
I had grown up Southern Baptist, so I was accustomed to free-flowing emotions, pot luck dinners, and lots of hugs. “The priesthood of the believer,” was more than just a doctrine–it was a way of life. We were congregational-led and democratic. Sunday School classes left room for debate, and because we felt personally responsible for guarding and giving the truth, we opened our Bibles and wrestled over nuance.
None of that had prepared me for the first time I would attend Mass at St. Joseph’s basilica. The vaulted ceilings seemed to lift my soul up and out of my body like a balloon full of helium. Even before my classmates began to kneel and genuflect, I felt a compulsion to fall to my knees. I wondered if we entered in silent reverence to keep us all from shouting out in awe.
So much was foreign to me there—the stations of the cross, the holy water that first dripped then clung to the fingertips of my friends, the statue of a kind-eyed saint I did not know, the recitations, “Lamb of God, take away the sins of the world. Lamb of God, take away the sins of the world. Lamb of God, take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.”
The artwork on the walls was holy, serious, and dark instead of bright and jovial like Baptist classroom posters. My heart pounded. I didn’t know that I was a poet then, but this sanctuary fit my instincts. I knew the purpose of liturgy without having to be taught. What they were doing here made sense to me.
I held my breath when the ancient songs were sung. The Catholics were happy to have moved past Latin with Vatican II, but I drank up every bit of the good old stuff that they had kept. Mass felt like wandering into Lothlorien, or like reading George MacDonald’s Lilith, an enchanted world. Older Catholics spoke out of love for mystery instead of on fire with certainty. The part of my soul that responds to the transcendent quickened.
During those years, I grew close to a nun and a priest. Father Bill would dress up like a clown, red-nose and all. He was different from a pastor, undivided by family demands so that his focus was singular. I loved his levity and his humility.
Sister Theresa was maybe 4’9”, Italian, fierce. When the boys were terrible, she’d let out a string of foreign words that I was glad I couldn’t understand. Once I saw her throw a hardback grammar book at a kid named Doug. Honestly, he deserved it.
With me, she was ever gentle. She asked me what I believed during catechism class, knowing good and well that I was Southern Baptist. When my classmates dared to giggle, she told them sternly that Baptists knew how to study their Bibles and that Catholics had a lot to learn from them.
She told us stories of saints and miracles that delighted me, even if I didn’t fully believe all of them. She was probably close to 70, but her countenance lit up like a child’s when she spoke about the Eucharist. I had been taught the sufficiency of Christ for over a decade, so there were times when I thought Sister Theresa was too focused on working to please Jesus. Other times, however, I heard “faith without works is dead” ringing in her devotion. Her influence on my heart was like the book of James balancing out the book of Galatians.
Every day at lunch, Sister Theresa would eat half a grapefruit with a spoon that had a jagged blade on one side. I would watch her work out the sections, worried that she would cut herself to pieces. But she was old, agile, and unafraid. She let me section out my doctrine with a blade, too. She relaxed around me, creating a barrier of protection around our dialogue, and I loved her for it.
It was in this Catholic school that I learned to play basketball. I was a moderate little player, not squirrely enough to play point guard, and not tall enough to play center. But I made a solid forward, and I could play second guard in a pinch. My biggest strength was that I hustled. Every single game, I gave it all I had.
The same love and support that filled our catechism classes ruled our court. Coaches were thorough and engaged. They corrected us and believed in us, insisting on good sportsmanship. We learned to cheer for one another and reach a hand to our enemies when they fell. I stumbled; I learned from my mistakes; I thrived.
God, if you want me to be innocent, why did you leave me here where that’s impossible?Rebecca Reynolds
But in ninth grade, I switched to the big county school, and county was a different planet. Bloody fights in the hallways. A constant reek of body odor, and pot, and stale denim. A smoking area for teachers and students. Field parties on the weekends. Apathy. Metallica. Giant mullets and black eyeliner. A different cadence. A different vernacular.
When I walked into the gymnasium that first summer, I knew in an instant that everything had changed. The first thing I noticed—high school girls moved like the boys I had always known, throwing themselves at hard angles between steps. Their jaws were clenched, and several of them kept a sort of permanent snarl on their faces. I had seen television shows with rough street gangs, but the saunter, the taunt, the threat, the dare—I had never seen any of this in a living female.
Earlier that summer I had practiced walking up and down underneath the long tunnel of catalpa trees, my head up and my shoulders back, learning to plant my heels so that they came down softly and with dignity. Nearly every toddler learns to walk, of course, but as a child becomes a woman, her weight begins to collect in different places, so she has to learn to walk a second time. If she doesn’t, she won’t know how to hold her chest or her hips; she will let her breasts fold in, and bend over, and sort of clunk along. I wanted to float, so balancing a thick novel on my head, I had walked back and forth under those catalpa trees, squishing black and yellow caterpillars that fell en masse onto the asphalt below.
Even though I was scared to death to walk into that high school gym, I remembered the grace I had practiced. Held my head up. Held my shoulders back.
“Get them damned ribbons outta your hair, Princess,” one of the seniors barked.
“I don’t know what kind of f***** world you come from,” said another, “But this is serious ball here at the County, and the next time I see you wearing s**t like that, I’m gonna up and rip them out myself.” Apparently the upperclassmen held some sort of authority. The other freshman laughed as I scrambled with the clips. “Damned rich private school kid,” I heard somebody whisper.
The other seniors glowered, which silenced the freshmen. They looked around nervously to see what they should do instead, then took a hard jaw line.
When the coach walked in, I saw something in his eyes I haven’t seen in many people since. It felt like a liquid hatred, the sort of hatred that feels like it’s doing you a favor by despising you. On bus trips, if we hadn’t performed well in a game, he would stand at the front, arms on two seats, swaying back and forth with the motion of the bus, and pointing out girls one at a time. He would say, “Thomas, I know your momma. I know your daddy. I know what kind of s**t they are. And you played like s**t tonight because you came from a s**t family, and unless you get your s**t together, you’re always going to be s**t just like your s***ty people.”
I’d never heard anybody talk like that in my whole life. I looked down at my knees, hoping he wouldn’t notice me.
One by one he would work through us, berating us, trying to figure out what would hurt us the most. I will never forget the first time he addressed me, “You, Kelley, you wish you were back at that prep school don’t you.” (It wasn’t a question.) “All those rich folks baby their kids like precious little treasures. Well you’re not precious here, Kelley. You’re nothing here.”
My parents weren’t rich. We didn’t even go to restaurants. I didn’t tell him. I didn’t say anything but, “Yes, sir.” None of us ever said anything but, “Yes, sir. No, sir.”
Some of my first exposures to sexual talk were among this crowd. In the locker rooms, the girls would laugh in smoky, harsh voices, telling stories about man bodies while they pulled up their knee socks and tightened their high tops. For them, sex was about conquest, about exposing men as fools. Sex was power—something that gave teenage girls the right to call grown men by their first names. The Apostle Paul once said, “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil,” but I didn’t know how to be innocent there. To be naïve was to be slaughtered. I learned how to cuss, learned how to throw an elbow, learned how to deflect attack with a cold stare. I learned how to stop acting like I cared because caring was weakness, and predators smell blood in the water from miles off.
“God, if you want me to be innocent, why did you leave me here where that’s impossible?” I prayed.
– – –
When our teenagers are about to fly the nest, we fill them full of strategic training programs that promise to defend them from the wicked ways of the world. But no matter what information you’ve given a kid, it’s going to be overwhelming for him to walk into a cultural current so strong that he can’t keep his balance. A person can’t think her way out of a tsunami when she’s dodging broken trees, and floating cars, and metric tons of water force full of jagged edges of metal and wood.
I was thrown around. Cut up. Knocked half silly.
But floating in the top of the flood waters, God sent mystery once more to sustain me. He gave me an art teacher, and her room was my oasis. I fed myself from that garden, spattered my clothes with acrylic paint and clay, found refuge in that concrete prison with no windows.
My teacher had formed a little posse of thinkers and dreamers, teachers who met in the early mornings and saw beyond the walls that held us in. They talked about literature, politics, philosophy, ideology, plays, exhibits. They were my foretaste of The Eagle and Child—my first introduction to The Rabbit Room.
Sometimes on the weekends I would drive over to the basilica after Mass. I would pull the doors open and sneak in, genuflecting clumsy as a Protestant, then sliding in the pew to pour my heart out to God. The physical act of kneeling felt good after working so hard to be vulgar and violent.
When I was finished praying, I’d sit and look up at all the saints staring down at me, wondering if I would want to talk to a beatified human if I thought I could. I decided no—even if I had the option, I’d rather talk to Jesus directly. I came to that conclusion without feeling judgment or pride. It’s just how I wanted things to be.
Behind me were rows of candles folks would light, praying for their beloved deceased. I didn’t believe in praying for this either, but there was something about the intimate silence of that practice which stirred a fierce homesickness inside me. Homesickness that would become a homing device.
“Peace of Christ be with you,” whispered an older woman, leaving the candles to give me her hand. I took it in mine, feeling her soft, thin skin rolling around on her bones.
“And also with you,” I responded, though I wasn’t sure if that was right.
Thirty years have passed since those days. My high school memories are now filtered through a heart that has been broken and humbled. I don’t remember which year it was when I stopped wanting to hide from those older girls who barked and bit and started wishing I could have just adopted them.
And now when I think about my old angry coach or the Metallica-loving, pot-smoking crowd, all walking with their heads down and their hearts full of shame and fury, I want to lift up their chins and look them straight in the eyes. I see how the enemy of the imago Dei prowled around the poor and the abandoned, telling all of them from birth that they would never amount to anything. He provoked them with hot irons. He lied to them. He lied so persistently. He lied until we all believed him.
Now I also see that I misunderstood the Apostle Paul’s expectations. When he wrote that he wanted Christ’s followers to be wise and innocent, he wasn’t calling them to be withdrawn from the world. He wasn’t holding a high, moral hoop for them to jump through. He was wanting us to work out our identity in Christ, smack in the middle of the darkness. He was showing us what was possible for lonely, scared kids stuck in a concrete country school.
The Greek word for “wise” describes someone who is skilled, cultivated, learned. But this is not just cognitive knowledge, it’s a strategic, practical sort of wisdom. It’s about comprehending our surroundings with honesty and insight, then naming what we find without bias, projection, or exaggeration. Once we understand the facts of the matter, we’re to be discreet. You might even call it street smart. We don’t bulldoze with the truth—we are artisans.
To be “innocent” means that we are unmixed. The innocent are pure like a pure metal or an undiluted wine. Innocent people do not live in denial or in hiding; they don’t giggle and flush with a maidenly ignorance. Like a bolt of cloth can be pure linen, the innocent are woven from one fiber. No matter where you place linen, it remains linen. The innocent are also authentic like that friend who tells you the whole truth without flinching. Regardless of their surroundings, they have learned to embrace the truth Christ has declared about them, and so they walk in it.
Reflecting on all those years helps me see that something inside me was hungry for wisdom and innocence like this. While I walked through the catalpa trees longing to balance the newfound weight of a frightening world with grace, I was looking for the ability to hold steady and poised, no matter what names were thrown at me. When I found places to kneel amid a culture that sauntered and throat punched, I was eager to live a life of artisan focus. When I felt that sharp homesickness—even while the bus tires jolted and shuddered with the angry roar—I was looking for the discernment of one who walks eagerly toward her own telos.
I was ashamed of those inclinations when they first came to me, ashamed to be a holy fool. But I shouldn’t have been ashamed because these were longings of mystery. These were leaps of a soul into the vaulted basilica of the heavenly places. Pilgrims had gone before me, extending their bare, bony hands to me, whispering, “The peace of Christ to you,” and in offering this much, they had created a pregnant pause. A vacuum.
“And also with you.”
“Lift up your hearts to the Lord.”
“It is right to give him thanks and praise.”
Father, all-powerful and ever living God, we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Through his cross and resurrection he freed us from sin and death and called us to the glory that has made us a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart.
Everywhere we proclaim your mighty works for you have called us out of darkness into your own wonderful light.
And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise:
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
Father, You are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives You praise. All life, all holiness comes from You, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of Your name.
Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.