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and in the end

This is a long one, folks - several different tangents converging here. Funerals do that to you.

When we arrived at the church for the funeral mass, there was still another funeral in progress. We waited outside, talking amongst ourselves and reminiscing about Aunt Jo and her sisters.

After a while, the other funeral started to let out. It had been for a man who was hit by a car while crossing a busy street. He was a New York City police officer, though it wasn't clear whether he was active or retired at the time of his death. What was clear, however, were these facts: He was recently divorced and homeless.

What struck me about that was the amount of people who came to mourn him. A mother, a brother, what appeared to be young grandchildren - all crying, all obviously very upset. I looked around at the mourners and thought how was this man homeless when all these people seemed to have loved him so? It occurred to me that he was probably homeless by choice, as most of these stories go. That made the mourning that was taking place, especially by the children, even sadder.

And there I was, ready to enter the church for a mass for Aunt Jo, who was 85 years old when she died and never let a day pass her by when she didn't live to the fullest. I was sad, but not mournful. I was glad for the life she had, for the children she brought into the world, for the love that she showered her family with. There are so many different kinds of mourning; so many ways to accept or deny a death.

As an atheist, I am almost always uncomfortable in a church. The ritualistic nature of Catholicism, the imagery scattered throughout the church - it leaves me uneasy. Many years ago, I had joined up with my church again in the hopes of filling a void in my life. By the time I turned heel and left, the void had become larger and my unease with the church led to me to face the fact I always believe but, due to my Catholic guilt and fear, never verbalized: I was an atheist. I did not believe in God, in Jesus, in any doctrine the church holds to be true.

So now, here I was, sitting in the church pew once again, facing another hour long mass. I looked aroud me at all the friends and family there. Few know about my atheism. My family is a religious group for the most part and quite judgmental. My parents know, my sisters know, but none of the cousins or aunts know and I choose not to reveal it because frankly, it is none of their business.

So the mass begins and the priest comes out. Now, you have to understand one thing about my Aunt Jo. She was devoted to the church. She went to mass every day, sitting in the same spot, with the same people. She belonged to prayer groups and particpated in everything the church had to offer.

I don't know if you've ever been to a funeral mass, but you can always tell when the priest giving the mass did not know the deceased. They tend to read from a script provided by the family, but the warmth and depth of the loved one never comes through. With Aunt Jo, there was no need for a script. Not only did this priest know her, he thought very highly of her. He gave a warm, wonderful eulogy for Aunt Jo and choked up enough a couple of times that he had to stop and gather himself. As I listened to him, I found that I was no longer squirming as if I was sitting on a bed of nails being tortured. I listened to him with my heart.

As the mass went on, I watched my family members and I realized something. All those things I don't like about the church - the rituals, the imagery, the symbolic gestures - were the things that were giving comfort to Aunt Jo's family. The familiarty of the hymns, the bringing of the gifts, even the constant kneel down-stand up-sit down rythmn of the mass was like a comfortable blanket of compassion to them.

For some, religion brings peace and comfort. To believe that loved ones are in the hands of God or just the act of reaching out your hands and saying a prayer over their draped coffin can do so much for someone in emotional pain. I don't begrudge my relatives their religiousness at all, nor do I envy it. It is not for everyone, most certainly not for me, but the comfort it gives to others in turn comforts me.

It came time to receive communion and I panicked. What do I do? If I sat in the pew while every other person -save for my Jewish brother-in-law - went up, they would know. I know, this should not bother me so much, but I didn't feel this was the time to call attention to myself and my non-belief because, believe me you have no idea what my relatives are like. I would be the talk of the day. So I asked myself, what would Aunt Jo want me to do? Well of course, Aunt Jo wouldn't want me to be an atheist to begin with. I figured she would want me to go up and receive communion and just play nice. So I did.

When I got back to the pew, my sister was furious with me. I realized then what a mistake I made. I don't know what I was thinking. I should have stayed put and let everyone else go up, but I acted selfishly. I worry endlessly about what other people think about me; I didn't want the tongues to start wagging. I'm already a black sheep as it is, I didn't need to be pushed out further. I was wrong, I know this and I apologize to anyone who is offended by a former Catholic turned atheist accepting communion to save face.

Later on, at the cemetery, Aunt Jo's son talked about the four sisters. Aunt Jo, Aunt Louise, Aunt Anna and my grandmother Millie. They are all gone now, every one of them. Chip looked around at the people gathered by the gravesite and said (paraphrasing for lack of full memory):

Many years ago, two immigrants came to this country with nothing but one suitcase. They gave us four daughters who in turn gave us all this (looking around at all the relatives). The daughters gave us sons and daughters who in turn gave us more sons and daughters. My mother was part of that; she and her sister brought so much joy and love into this world. You are what they have left behind.

And it's so true; we are our parents' legacy, just as our children are ours. From life comes more life and in death, love and joy are left behind. At least that is what we all hope for.

No, no sappy ending here about how I learned today to live each day to the fullest. None of that. Just that we are more than our paychecks and our toys and our jobs. What we leave behind is so often measured in money and belongings, scattered among relatives. I believe if you instead measure it in love and joy and comfort, you will find people are richer than they know.

In my high school yearbook under my picture is this quote:

And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make

22 years later, that belief is still with me.


For reasons that are no one else's business, I don' t receive communion. When asked, I tell tell people that I cannot receive communion at this time with a clear conscience. Since very few people have a clear conscience, it tends to end the questions.

When my Grammy passed away after 10 years of Alzheimers, The Heathen Horde (Me and Sis2 and our families) were seated in the front row at the mass. It was somewhat awkward as we'd all forgotten the appropriate stand up-sit down-kneel portions of the mass. Hopefully, the folks sitting behind us passed it off as grief.

I have been through 12 years of Catholic school, I was raised catholic, and my Aunt who is extremely understanding and realistic when it comes to religion is a sister of the church. I however consider myself an Agnostic, I do not practice Catholicism in any way shape or form, and if I were to return to religion I most definitely would not choose Catholicism to follow. Now that that is all out of the way, I will offer my second biggest peeve with the Catholic Church, and it pertains to communion. The idea of "Transubstantiation" or "The doctrine of real presence" which means during the eucharistic celebration the wine and bread actually become the body and blood of Christ... they do not symbolize the body and blood but literally transform into the body and blood of Christ. I most certainly do not believe this.
The reason I tell you this Michele is because I don't believe you should feel you made a mistake by receiving communion. From a Catholics viewpoint, watch out for falling brimstone, and realize that you are going straight to hell (forgive my dig on the Catholic Church fellow readers :-). On a personal level, you know how you feel and so I won’t even go there. But if you look at what you avoided, I don't think it was selfish at all. Why provide a distraction from your relatives mourning. Why give your relatives something to talk about other than how wonderful your aunt was. It seams to me that any guilt you might be feeling is because you feel you are hiding something from your relatives, but ask yourself, was now the right time to tell them? And was that the appropriate channel? If you stayed seated you would have given everyone who did not know your religious stance a chance to form an opinion before you had a chance to explain yourself. Your relatives would have the opportunity to judge your actions before they understood or at least heard your reasons for being Atheist. I would imagine for those relatives that cared, you would have been happy to explain your reasons for being an Atheist, but maybe under different circumstances. I am sure I would have done the same thing in your position.

OK that is enough from me, sorry about my rambling, and the loss of your Aunt.

I too am not a church goer, though I'm not atheist. I just figure I don't have enough info to know what the hell is going on. I think of myself as a taoist (life is what life is and after... well, when the time comes we will know) and don't worry about it that much.

I know what you mean about the comfort of ritual. When I was eighteen, I lived in a smallish town that had a traditional Catholic church. In this church, Vatican II had never occurred and the masses were still given in latin.

I am not a catholic but I lived across the street and one midnight, under the influence of way too many micrograms of a rye ergot extract, I wandered over to check out the hub-bub.

I slipped in the door and took a seat in a rear pew. I couldn't understand a word that was said, I only felt the rhythm and tone and sensed that these folks were at peace. I spent the entire mass in a trance, smelling the incense and letting the liturgy roll over me. After a while I slipped back out and went home, thinking about the whole thing.

It didn't matter to me that I did not believe what these folks believed. They believed in something and that was good enough for me. Some folks do liquor, some do herb, some find comfort in religion. As long as it's only comfort and not conversion they are interested in, we seem to get along just fine.


Having been raised a Bapbtist, don't get me started on those sons a bitches... LOL

Beautifully written, Michele.

I agree - this was beautiful.

You can pass this off as me being an angsty and rebellious teenager, but here's my input:

I was born and raised Catholic. Baptism, First Communion, First Confession, ... I even finished my Confirmation a few years ago.

However, I stopped truly believing sometime around sixth grade... but my parents have forced me to go to church nonetheless. I stopped going for about a year, but now my mom has used car insurance as the stick to threaten me with. (I pay for the car, but I'm too poor for the insurance on my own...)

So yes, I've been forced to take Communion for about the past 6 years, intermittently.

Am I going to Hell for that, then?

I don't think you should be ashamed. At least, you aren't one of the people the church is REALLY watching out for-- the people who take the wafers and try to take them out of the church. (I'm not quite sure why it worries them so.)

Anyway. I agree with the two people above me-- it was really beautiful.

I hope to have a legacy.

It's odd how you can connect with people after the fact.


Hi. I am the sister who was upset - not furious. I am not an athiest. My faith is something I take seriously. Michele knows this. Under different circumstances, I already explained to her why she should not receive communion. She agreed. Then, caused from her own fear of what people would say, she chose to offend me and my faith, rather than my aunt and her daughters. This was due to her own insecurities and she certainly would not have been the only one to stay seated. We discussed it and moved on.

I too, went through 12 years of Catholic school. I too left the church for a while. And now I'm back, and in the same way Michele commands respect for her values and issues and beliefs, I'd like that same respect from her and others for mine. I guess I'm just being a selfish Catholic because i look at Communion as something sacred, not something to be munched on while you're waiting for mass to be the hell over. But what do i know?

Love you, Chele, you athiest pig (at least I didn't call you a liberal bitch) =)

There are many Catholics that would scream at you about Communion. I look at it this way. It's Jesus. There's no way you're going to hurt Him, and it might help you. No big deal. It's not like you threw the host on the ground and stomped on it.

The Church is very much about ritual. The nuance is whether it is ritual for ritual's sake, or ritual as a guide for the process of getting closer to God. That's why the Latin Mass folks get all frothy at the mouth. The Latin Mass allowed folks to go through the motions and not be a participant in the Mass. I can't tell you how many folks have complained that they couldn't say the Rosary during Mass anymore. Duh!

Very sorry for your loss.