Sometimes I run across things. Virgin of Guadalupe cards, St. Jude, St. Francis of Assisi. My rosary, tucked away in a jewelry box, lying silent in a soft leather purse. I hold it to the light. Deep red stones, drops of blood flow across my palm like stigmata. I rub my hand against gold-leafed picture frames and enter soaring dark spaces, quiet flames of intention. I touch the hem of Mary’s blue gown resting on her sandaled foot in the sacristy. My house is a reliquary of broken shards and slivers. A certificate of baptism, a photo of a tender 7-year-old bride of Christ, a name—Therese—written in a looping, curvy 14-year-old hand, above the signature of the bishop.
I left the church long ago, for a marriage that eventually ended. The lessons etched into me by the catechism at Sacred Heart Catholic Church have been washed away over time, leaving a clean smooth place. They have been replaced by a catechism of my own making, one that has evolved over time, unlike the ancient and enduring mythos of the church. But I confess that I still have a bit of a connection left, still a tiny bit of religious umbilical cord. It’s triggered when I see a bit of gilt, or a votive bearing the image of a saint. I am drawn to it as surely as I was once drawn toward the altar, mouth open like a baby bird for the body of Christ. I run across these items in lots of places, but none more than a local Catholic bookstore. Every so often when someone I know requires a holy medal or a christening gift, I browse a little. I am distracted and then angered by what I see as propaganda—brochures about abstinence that are patently shaming to women, booklets about “The American Holocaust” of abortion, which insults both the victims of the Jewish Holocaust and the women who struggle with this decision. But then my gaze finds something, and I touch it, handle it with tenderness and a quick intake of breath. The holiness is still there, present in the simple beauty rather than the message. And, I still love the saints—that array of gracious and concerned helpers. St. Anthony’s my main man, keeping his eyes peeled for my car keys, a bracelet, a favorite book. I turn each totem this way and that, weighing its aesthetic appeal against my disputes with the Pope. Sometimes I buy, taking home a tiny piece of my childhood in a crinkly paper sack. These items are Sanctus ornamentum; items I first associated with a state of grace.
My ornamentum is now much more diverse—trees, warm skin, flowing water, smooth stones, faint moonlight, pen and paper, rising bread, a furry black dog, the scream of a kestrel in the pasture outside of town. These things are my holy trappings now. But there is a satisfaction to creating my own holy place, a place that has just a hint of Sacred Heart. Sadly, there are no vaulted ceilings, no marble floors; but on the other hand, no hard wooden pews either. The closest thing to a confessional is my bathtub, where I make long-distance revelations to my sister or mother. Lying in the steamy water, I dissect my transgressions and triumphs—the latter, sadly, are left unexplored in the dark recesses of the church’s confessional. And then I wash away my sins. And oh!—the resurrection of the body.
I have left it all behind, mostly: the incense, the chanting, the myopic patriarchal dogma. But there’s nothing like a little gilt to catch the eye of an old Catholic girl.