On a sunny day of particularly heavy-duty contemplation, I took a meandering stroll and ended up across the street from my neighborhood Catholic church. It was the same church I attended as a child, and I hadn’t ventured inside in years, so I decided to cross the street and climb its granite steps. On the top step stands a seven-foot-tall angel, a colossus of luminescent white marble with huge, graceful wings. She stood holding out a white marble conch shell filled with holy water. I’d been looking at her nearly all my life. So when had I started taking her for granted?Sunday after Sunday, when I was very young, I walked past her, dunked my fingers into the holy water, and entered the church through its big swinging doors. Stand up, sit down, kneel. But then I turned thirteen.
So now I obliged the angel and stepped inside. I touched the holy water, which always feels denser than regular water, and shook off the excess. I crossed myself and slowly pushed open those swinging doors, feeling sort of repentant.
Enter the lapsed Catholic, meekly. I looked around for a second while my eyes adjusted to the light that filtered through the stained glass, bounced off the dark wood of the confessionals and pews, but then died gently before ever reaching the floor. The atmosphere was all so very familiar and so very quiet; only three or four other people were scattered throughout the towering Italianate expanse, all praying silently.
I walked up the red-carpeted center aisle, past the shadowy walls lined with candles. My gaze followed the architect’s path up past the altar to the ten-foot portrait of Jesus painted on the vaulted dome above–he still looked so, so tall.I was halfway to the altar when I realized that I didn’t really have anything to do there. What I really wanted, instead, was to visit my long-lost plaster friends, the statues in the grottoes at the back of the church. (Grotto: a rocky, barnacled Italian word meaning cave and reserved oddly for both Virgin Mary sightings and cheap fish dinners.)I turned around and started back down the aisle, ready to excuse my false start out of the gate to any penitents who may have been distracted by my actions. But no one had noticed, of course.
I turned right at the end of the aisle and there they all were: Mother Cabrini, patroness of immigrants, the first American saint ever canonized, and my grandfather’s particular favorite. Check. (Lit a candle.) St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Double check. St. Anthony of Padua, patron of the poor, the finder of lost things. Check. Then I went to see the biggest one of all, in Grotto 3: the big huge nightmare scary statue of people in hell, burning and bound in chains, reaching out for mercy toward a Virgin Mary clad in cool blue-and-white robes who just smiles down at them like “Wish I could help, but they say it’s a trinity not a parallelogram.” But hey–it wasn’t there.
I could not believe my eyes. There was no explanation, no plaque on the wall that read, “On this spot in 1921, the church fathers dedicated a statue responsible for the terrifying, rococo nightmares of future generations of many, many Catholic children.” Instead, there was a diminutive rendering of some polite, minor saint done up in pastel hues, a lamb curled at his feet. Furthermore, there was a lot of open space in the room, and sunshine. Impossible! There is no sunshine in hell!
I looked around for it. First stage: denial. I went back to the other grottoes, thinking maybe they’d moved the huge statue past me just now while I wasn’t looking. Entirely possible. Second stage: realization. Uh-oh. Third stage: anger, self-righteousness. Who took it? Why?
I had a long history with that statue. When I was little, we would visit those first two grottoes after Mass and light candles for our relatives. But my parents took us into that last one only once in a while–you really didn’t need to see it too often in order to appreciate it. I am sure that the grownups, too, were a little unnerved by the hopelessness of the situation the statue evoked. We’d go back and nothing would have ever changed–sinners still burning alive, Mary still watching them. Didn’t bode too well for us.
The characters themselves were not quite life-size, and were cartoonish enough that I wasn’t worried about them leaping off the pedestal like the characters in “Pirates of the Caribbean” at Disneyland. But, back then, they certainly caused me to worry about the fate of my depraved eight-year-old soul. (The dilemma: should I try to be the Madonna or just feel chastised by her? The answer: both.) I was always the shy, suggestible type anyway, given easily to guilt and awe. And my biggest sin at that point was making up sins to confess to the priests.To compound my complex, I used to attend the church’s after-school program for girls. It was housed, poetically, in the basement. We girls took field trips with the nuns to other churches and watched videos about the lives of selfless female saints, while the boys went to Great America and played sports in their own modern, secular, freestanding facility, which we were banned from entering. One heartfelt question–“Mom, do I have to die to become a saint?”–was my eventual ticket out of that particular program.Nowadays, we see little in the real world of passion or death, though we get our share at the cinema. These are times in which we can make our own DNA–there’s no place for seven-foot angels anymore.
So where had it gone, that perfect embodiment of injustice, suffering, and guilt?
Was it something I did? I decided to ask a priest. One was walking slowly up the aisle. I went over and tapped him on the shoulder.
He turned and smiled warmly. I introduced myself and asked if he remembered the statue in question. He had. In fact, he had attended the church’s grammar school as a child in the ’50s, and first made its acquaintance then. He said the statue had been moved, that it was now at another church. (Not destroyed, not in storage. Moved. Why? Complaints from parishioners? Vatican II reforms? Who took it? Was it foisted upon them under protest, or was it welcomed? Was it needed to spruce up a dull corner?) Still surprisingly intimidated by priests, I thanked the man and left.I couldn’t even hope to ever see it again. And suddenly I wanted to. The statue–I had to find it. A few weeks later I went back to the church. Mass was in full swing, so I went and lit a candle for Mother Cabrini, then I knelt down and thought about my grandfather. Then I started absent-mindedly singing lines from a Dylan song.I waited for a priest. Another Mass started and ended–still no priest. Then one of the older church ladies recommended that I ring the rectory, where the priests reside. So I went over and rang and rang, and I posed my question to the priest who answered the door: The statue of sinners in hell, I said. Where had it gone?
“Oh, you mean the sinners in purgatory,” he said, correcting me. Now wait–if that was purgatory, what’s hell?
He said it had been given to a cloistered Carmelite convent–Carmelite as in St. Thérèse de Lisieux, cloistered as in incommunicado. Still, he gave me the convent’s phone number. But why, I asked, had the church given the statue away? He flashed a lopsided smile. A wheelchair lift had been built in the statue’s original space, and it left no room for the statue.I went home and dialed the number. A scratchy answering machine had a woman’s wavering recorded voice announcing that no one would answer the phone or return calls for the holy month of April, barring emergency. The nuns weren’t talking.Later I heard a rumor that the statue had been given not to the nuns but to another church entirely, but no one seemed to know exactly which. It could be anywhere. Well, what had I expected to do when I saw it again–buy it an ice cream, give it a bear hug, smack the suffering figures on the ass with a wet towel? I can’t say. I’d just wanted to find the symbol of that angst that, at thirteen, fleeing the church, I thought I could just lose.
Well, if it is in a cloister, that terrible vision involving the Virgin, how apropos. Maybe it’s better to banish that image to our collective unconscious, and to leave those fierce questions to the experts on strength and fortitude–serious, sequestered, celibate women. That’s probably the only place where it could truly burn.