a collaborative genealogy of spirituality


by Mary Valle

Negative Space by <a href=''target='_blank'>Aaron Hegert</a>
Negative Space by Aaron Hegert

The rumor was that someone had booked the wrong place for my all-girls Catholic high school class retreat. We were in the desert, hours away from home, in a monastery laden with the goriest images of Christ available. The statuary was tucked in corners, hallway niches, bleeding over doorways. We were to be quiet. We had to remain locked in our individual cells and were told that monks would be patrolling the hallways to make sure we didn’t visit each other.

In my cell, with only a Bible and my overnight bag, I sat nervously on a little cot. This was hostile territory, so I didn’t take off my clothes or shoes. I lay down, gingerly, and looked at the mid-blue curtain covering the window. I couldn’t hear any scuffling outside, any giggles or sounds of doors opening or closing. It was completely quiet. Everyone was clearly just putting the night-peeing on hold. We had no cell phones, no computers, no way at all of communicating “Help! We’re being held in the desert by insane blood-focused monks!” There was only silence.

The Catholic Church used to run a spiritual and educational monopoly, guaranteeing an almost seamless cradle-to-grave Catholic experience. We wore uniforms to school, marched in lines to masses, prepared for sacraments, and learned many, many songs in the process. That Catholic bubble only really lasted for a few decades. What with the fall-off of the American nun population (which did most of the teaching for free), and the rise of mass media, and moms going to work, faith’s most dedicated soldiers—women—had other things to do than to keep it alive. The bubble burst.

But those of us who experienced a full twelve years of Catholic education bear its marks forever. Some of us return to the faith. Some of us return and leave time and time again. Some of us search in vain for something to replace it, or reject the notion of God altogether, since what they told us, and insisted was absolutely true, was so ludicrous as to be absolutely laughable if you actually paused to consider the contradictions inherent in their tales—which you weren’t really supposed to do, since at some point, everything depended on these “mysteries” of faith.

Our class retreats usually involved having to be in camp-like situations with bunk beds and horrible “bonding” sessions involving passing candles and/or bags of M & M’s and girls being moved to tears about what great friends we all were—so there was that to be grateful for, I supposed. I was hungry ‘cause the dinner seemed like Contrition Food and I didn’t eat much. It was the wateriest, limpest “spaghetti” I’d ever encountered, and, being the youngest of six children at the tail-end of the large-family Catholic boom, my palate wasn’t demanding in the least. I liked plain food. I had never eaten such oddities as bagels or hummus until I went to college.

I opened my eyes from a light sleep to the sound of pounding on the door. We girls were rounded up by robed monks and led on a moonlight hike through the monastery graveyard and surrounding hillside. I was fully-clothed and wearing shoes, but most were in their Lanz nightgowns or pajama sets with their Keds or flats thrown on, sweatshirts and cardigans protecting Southern Californian skin against the desert chill. I concentrated on the ground in front of me, which was glowing softly in the silvery night. I thought, “They’re trying to scare us but it’s not really working.” Then, “Maybe it is.” Then, “Okay, this is fairly terrifying. These people are nuts.” Then, “All I have to do is keep my mouth shut and watch where I’m stepping and I’ll be home soon. It’s really not that different from anything else.”

A lot of us young people no longer just accepted everything our elders told us. The religion was obsessed with sinning and salvation, but we no longer felt that we needed to be saved. We were told that Jesus died for our sins, but we wondered, “Why on earth would someone need to do that? We’ve never done anything that bad!” What sort of God would do such a thing in the first place, and why would anyone want to sing “His” praises? The beauty of ritual was no longer enough for lots of us, who couldn’t get over the actual content contained therein. Reenacting the Last Supper of a sacrificial God-Man, whose dying body was the focal point of our rituals, never got any less weird, and the host never seemed magical in my mouth, only dry and gluey.

One could feel the frustration of lay teachers and clergy trying to impart this sacred knowledge to us, test us on it, make us understand and believe it. To which they were greeted with mostly blank stares and “Is this going to be on the test?”

The night of the abduction, I looked down at the glowing rocky soil and thought about other things. Things I liked, like men in leather miniskirts, and colors of hair dye, and cookies. Years of Catholic education had prepared me well for this kind of thing. I was very good at keeping my mouth shut and sending my soul elsewhere; it’s what I did every day of my life. I stared down the monks’ moonlight walk of terror and I did not flinch. I strapped on my imaginary Walkman and listened to some imaginary Depeche Mode, whose dreary synth-heavy dirges reflected my worldview to a T. I trudged on. They did not break me or cause me to ask Jesus for mercy. I knew that, despite the fact that we were being held captive in the desert, it would end.

On the bus ride back I showed my (real) Walkman to my seatmate. It was a rare one my dad had brought back from a golf tournament that had two outputs for headphones. I also said that I had a Depeche Mode tape. She plugged her headphones in next to mine. We sat, grateful that we could listen together but did not have to speak. The album was A Broken Frame. To this day, the song “Leave in Silence”—a minor masterpiece, to me, anyway—always evokes an odd sense of desert-y, moonlight-ish monasticism, and defiance in the face of institutional hostage-taking.

The problem is, I got so good at packing off my soul for long stretches of time that I now struggle to remain in the moment, so to speak. I’m still daydreaming my way out of life even though I have long-since been freed from the institutions that made me wear polyester-blend uniforms and do strange things like eat my God and tell my secrets to strange men in small cubicles. I’m like a caged wild animal, who, once freed, still paces a 12×12 foot space. In some ways, I remain the most Catholic of people. Death-obsessed? Check. Guilty? Check. Ever-hopeful and believing in fresh starts and trying to see the best in others and myself? Also, check. But it’s hard for me to get over the Catholic fixation on Jesus’ death and suffering for “our sins,” resurrection and eventual return. It has been over 2,000 years since he promised to come back; if someone doesn’t call you back after that long, you can reasonably guess that they just aren’t that into you. Humanity, I hate to say it, but: I just don’t think Jesus is coming.

As an adult, I mostly feel for the monks. We were probably their least-favorite kind of retreatants—spoiled teenage girls—hence their dour demeanor, short words and scare-tactics. I still retain some fantasies about a cloistered existence and communing with God in pure silence, and I might even be happy to take another crack at that desert retreat. A few days in a cell and silent moonlight hikes sound fairly dreamy at this point. I’ve always wanted to know that God is there. I’m available any time you want to make yourself known, God. I am here, waiting for you, just as I have always been.