Who We Are and Where We're From and Wherefore This Exists
Leaves just starting to turn in early autumn, a splash of red in the green. Six-mile run today, three miles up a mountain, three back down. Who runs up a mountain? I had no idea the road would take me there.
Jesus stands shoulders and wrists rope-bound, expressionless, haloed, beside a scroll-wielding Pilate. No filth dirties the building. No age smudges the architecture. No raw sewage strews a gutter. Everything then was new, a world so young even the distant mountains sit wrinkleless. Roman soldiers jeer in the background. Said background is lavish: columns, drapes, blue sky, solitary cloud.
WHO WE ARE AND WHERE WE’RE FROM AND WHEREFORE THIS EXISTS
I was baptized Catholic as a baby, and mom raised me Catholic. Dad later converted, and became Catholic. My brother and sister are Catholics. Grandma and Grandpa were Catholics. My uncles are Catholic. My uncles’ wives are Catholic. My cousins are Catholics. My aunt’s husband’s family is Catholic. His sister’s names are Faith, Hope, and Charity. I used to feel guilty after I jerked off. I am Catholic.
In photos I do tummy time on imitation sheepskin rugs, red-capped, with a two-toothed smile. I ramble my parents’ backyard lawns, watering (or attempting to) the Agapanthus, poured into a denim short panted jumper, my hair brown and naturally blonde highlighted straight as a mop atop my head. Now the hair’s curly and more brown. I look very happy, happy little Catholic boy, spilling his ice cream down a tiny dress shirt. Now I am dirty.
I attended Catechism at Our Lady of Refuge, in Castroville, California, my home parish, part of the Diocese of Monterey, founded by the Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra, a seventeenth century Franciscan missionary, the first European to establish permanent settlements in California. In Catechism we colored in Catholic coloring books, and made for our parents construction paper cards that depicted Mary and Joseph, and the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel before Mary upon the Annunciation. We drew symbols of the Holy Trinity—dove, crucifix, P exed with an X (chi-rho), the triquetra—and celebrated the sanctity of mother and fatherhood. This instruction prepared me for my second—After Baptism—of the Seven Sacraments: Holy Communion.
At my First Communion I wore a tiny shirt and tie, like all the other boys. The Mexican girls wore elaborate and frilly white gowns. Eight-year-olds marrying the Lord.
In Castroville, Ford station wagons packed with bodies—the wheel wells and fenders muddied from artichoke field soil—sparked rear bumpers along the asphalt. My parents are human, and thus stereotype-capable. I heard, “Castroville’s getting to be full of Mexicans!” California was once Mexico, and before that Nueva España, and before that filled with groups of natives with—for the most part—mutually unintelligible languages. And Indians and Spaniards became mestizos. And Africans and Spaniards became mulattoes. And white people in places like Arizona and California—and good god here in Georgia, too—still complain that Mexicans are coming into the west, as if they weren’t there before, haven’t been there for centuries.
Before her first Communion my sister was a bitch to my mother because she wanted to wear a big white gown, like the Mexican girls wore. My mother insisted she don the simple white dress that mom herself slipped into for her Sacrament in the 1950s. My sister says that what was most important about the Sacrament was that now she would be able to walk to the foot of the altar, like mom and dad, and be able to partake of the host. Afterwards, she’d realize the host was a little light yellow wafer that tasted like cardboard, and the wine was vinegary and burned in her throat.
As a boy I lay in bed unable to sleep, daring myself to think these words: “I do not believe in God.” When half the words came out—half a sentence streamed by in my mind—I stopped, said I was sorry, that it wasn’t true, that I only wanted to see what would happen. Then I said Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s until finally I drifted off.
Thus, I am from California. And, as has been mentioned, Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra was among the first white men to set permanent feet in California. Like the venerable father’s Native converts, for me the Church was an insurmountable bear.
The priests baptized Miquel Josep Serra a Catholic, born 1713 in Petra, Mallorca. Twenty years before said birth, the Spanish Inquisition held autos de fé in Palma, Mallorca’s capital, and Jews were burned at the stake. Four more conversos were burned in 1720, when Miquel was seven. For his Holy Orders, Miquel Josep adopted the name of one among Saint Francis’s favorites, and he became Father Fray Junípero Serra, of the Order of Friars Minor. Later he became a comisario of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
History knows little about Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra’s early years. His parents were farmers who kept up a hovel in Petra. The ground floor contained the future Father’s bedroom and the animals’ stable. Miquel Josep was sickly and small, growing a mere five feet, two inches in adulthood—my wife’s height. As eighteenth century things went, expectedly, Miquel Josep’s siblings all died. The strongest presence in Mallorca: the Church. Franciscans founded the Lullian University in Palma, to which Miquel Josep applied. For having lived in Enlightenment Europe, Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra’s life and worldview was definitively Medieval1.
Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra took his Doctor of Philosophy at the Lullian University, and there met two lifelong friends: Fathers Fray Francisco Palou and Juan Crespí, students. Together the three missioned to Nueva España then to Baja California, and finally to Alta California. They would found nine missions—the first in what is today the American State of California. At Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra’s deathbed Father Fray Francisco Palou administered extreme unction and Last Rites. Father Fray Junípero Serra would be buried beside the already-deceased Father Fray Juan Crespí, where together they still lie, beneath the bronze sarcophagus and the stone floor of La Basilica de San Carlos de Borromeo, in Carmel, California, the city where I was born.
1Among Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra’s medieval forebears stood John Duns Scotus, whose theological musings on the miraculous truth of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception the presidente held close to his own battered heart.
That theological point of view, having been problematic for some centuries, even up to the time of Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra, was that Mary the Mother of Jesus was herself conceived by God to be free of original sin, even if Mary herself had been born of parents who had sexual intercourse to become pregnant. The philosophical problem with this theology lies in the saving death of Jesus. Why would Jesus’ death be necessary if already there exists a pure being, conceived by God, in the form of Mary? Duns Scotus claimed that Mary only gained salvation through Jesus’ death, and that with her foreknowledge of future events—revealed to her by the Archangel Gabriel—her salvation came in anticipation of the crucifixion. One learns all the necessary theology concerning this dogma by enrolling in courses in Mariology at Saint Allesio Falcioneri, the Marianum Pontifical School in Rome.
Because of Duns Scotus’s later reputation—that his philosophical points could not stand the onslaught of the Enlightenment—those who adhered to his dictates were called Duns, from which “dunce” derives, meaning “a dull-witted, ignorant, or stupid person.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet, “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” but it has little to do with me, or with being a Catholic, and certainly little to do with Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra, being primarily a poem about Oxford University in England.
At the Lullian University in Palma, Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra occupied the Duns Scotus chair in philosophy until he left for Vera Cruz and eventually landed in Alta California where he remained until his death.
As a kid, I think mom had the concept (sigh) of the Immaculate Conception all wrong. I always thought it had to do with Mary conceiving Jesus miraculously as a virgin. Pope Pius IX decreed that, “in the first moment of [Mary’s] conception . . . [she] was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”* However, in light of the etymology of “concept,” stemming from the Middle Latin conceptum, from the present participle of concipere, to take in, which translated to the Old French conceveir, I can conceive that my mother’s conception of that one Immaculate Conception was not altogether incorrect.
I wonder does this translate to the Immaculate Reception, where it’s unclear if Terry Bradshaw’s pass first hit Frenchy Fuqua of the Steelers, or Jack Tatum of the Raiders, or if it hit both of them. Prior to 1978, if a pass was touched first by an offensive player—and touched only by that player—said player then became the only eligible receiver for that pass. So, are the Steelers free of the sin of scoring a touchdown unfairly?
Despite the primary gospels’ (Matthew and Mark) acknowledgment of Jesus’ brothers, including the disciple James, the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception has long forged a view of Jesus’ mother’s perpetual virginity.
* from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07674d.htm
Jamie Iredell is the author of two books: Prose. Poems. a Novel., and The Book of Freaks. His writing has appeared in many journals, including Copper Nickel, Sleepingfish, Freerange Nonfiction, and The Literary Review. He was a founding editor of New South and is fiction editor of Atticus Review and Art Director for C&R Press. He lives in Atlanta where he teaches college students.