My mom called him a "convertible." That was her way of saying that even if my husband wasn't much of a Catholic, he had a lot of potential.
But I had to wonder. There was that Sunday, three weeks before our wedding. We were driving home from the 10:30 Mass. I was sitting in the passenger seat reading through the church bulletin when he tossed out this: "I just don't get anything out of church."
I dropped the bulletin and stared at him. This was the man who wanted to marry me, a cradle Catholic, and who had promised that he would become a Catholic before we had any children.
"I just don't get anything out of church. It doesn't do anything for me."
That elaboration was not helpful.
"You don't get anything out of church?" I was starting to feel like the Grand Inquisitor.
"Nope," he answered, as if I had just asked him if he wanted cream in his coffee.
So I did what any good Catholic girl would do. I called a priest. "He doesn't get anything out of church! Can I still marry him?"
Eventually Eric (that's my husband's name) and I came to an agreement: He would continue going to Sunday Mass with me, even if he drifted off to sleep or thought about his golf swing the whole hour. He would honor his promise to convert to Catholicism before we had kids. We got married. Four years of Sunday purgatory for him ensued. Then I got pregnant. I enrolled him in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes. As his sponsor, I made sure he attended every week and also participated in the group discussions for catechumens after Mass.
We were only two classes away from the Easter Vigil service that would mark his formal reception into the church when I dropped the bomb: He had to go to confession before he could be confirmed. (He had already been baptized, as a Presbyterian. That had come as a surprise to him, but with a little help from his mother I had unearthed his baptismal records.)
Confession. That almost killed the deal.
"I'm not going into some dark phone booth to spill my soul to some celibate man with a 90 percent chance of being gay or a pedophile," Eric said. "Besides, I can't really think of anything I've done wrong."
"I'll help you with the list," I said. "We're almost there. Please just do this one thing."
"I go to church with you. Isn't that enough?" he asked.
The more I pushed, the more he resisted. I finally called up the deacon who directed the program.
"Listen, is there anyway Eric can skip the confession? He's a little freaked out about the whole thing," I explained.
"Well maybe if he's freaked out, he isn't ready to be confirmed," the deacon replied.
I looked down at my very large belly. In less than two months this kid was coming, and this kid was going to have a Catholic father.
"Could you at least tell me which priest would be the easiest?" I asked. As a college religion major, I knew all the shortcuts. Knowing the right priest and which documents to sign had saved Eric and me hours of otherwise mandatory marriage preparation--which in retrospect might have come in handy.
"Father Flynn. He's the confessional on the back right if you are facing the altar."
"Thanks," I said. I felt the baby kick inside me. He was happy, too.
But even after Eric officially became a Catholic, problems persisted. One evening we were having dinner with his religiously eclectic family. Everyone at the table brought up a highlight of his or her day. My mother-in-law mentioned her channeling workshop, and my Muslim sister-in-law told us about a conversation with her father, who had just gone away for a weeklong seminar on hypnosis as a way of regressing to former lives. My day had been rather ordinary. I had walked my kids (I now had two) around the Naval Academy (we live in Annapolis, Maryland), and answered the questions my son, David, now five,was asking about good and evil.
David had seen some Marines there, and he wondered if soldiers accidentally shoot good people, and so might accidentally shoot him. David recounted our conversation to everyone at the table. Then he looked at his father and wanted to know, again, exactly how many good people die accidentally.
"Not very many at all," Eric said. But David's eyebrows furrowed and his lower lip quivered.
"What if they shoot me?" he asked.
His grandmother was quick to chime in.
"They will never touch you, David. As long as you stay in your bubble of light and call on your angel."
The angel part I got as a Catholic. Every morning as I left for school, my mom would yell downstairs from her bedroom, "Take your angel with you!" And for the most part, it seemed to work, especially given all the car accidents my sister (to whom we gave the nickname "Crash") walked away from.
But a bubble of light?
It's not that I was opposed to talking about chakras, auras, and flower essences. I'm open-minded (sort of). I attend yoga classes, do acupuncture. I read Deepak Chopra and Caroline Myss. I just wasn't ready to explain to David what a psychic was. Not until he had Jesus Christ and Mary down pat.
We were loading the dishwasher when I casually asked Eric when, exactly, his mom had gotten into all this New Age stuff.
"Did you guys talk about psychics and channeling and all that stuff a lot when you were a kid?"
"I don't know," he said, "she probably got more into it when my dad left. Kind of like your mom got into prayer group."
He reached for another dirty plate and then said, "Psychics, prayer group, same thing."
This was my husband the Catholic? The man who went to all the RCIA classes and was received into the church at the Easter Vigil? Psychics and prayer group are the same thing?
I rinsed the dish sponge, cleared my throat, and said, "I don't think psychics and prayer group are the same thing. Not at all."
"You know what I mean," he tried to explain. "They are both ways of coping."
I didn't feel a whole lot better. So I handled it the way I do all confrontation: I went running. As I raced around the six-mile course at the Naval Academy, my mind had plenty of material to toss around: Did I even know what Eric believed? What would he tell David? That Jesus came to earth in a flying saucer?
I recalled a family brunch several months back, the day after Pope John Paul II died. Eric's sister, father and stepmom were discussing a book called "The Hidden Messages in Water," which describes how water is deeply connected to people's collective consciousness and has the ability to absorb and retransmit human emotions. I sat at the table poking my crab quiche. I didn't care about water and its metaphysical powers. I wanted to talk about the pope, the only pontiff I remembered, about how he was like a grandpa to me—a wise soul who influenced me more than I thought. As a Catholic sitting at this table of water mystics, I felt like a frustrated foreigner craving an opportunity to speak her native tongue, or at least tell a St. Peter joke without having to explain it.
I was still hot, in all senses, when I walked through the door after my run. Eric was picking up Legos and puzzle pieces off the floor. I did my Inquisition act again.
"Are you on board with me about raising these kids Catholic?" I asked.
"Yes, of course," he said. "I've told you that plenty times before. As long as we raise thinking Catholics. Why would I change my mind?"
"It's just all this talk about psychics and channelers... It's weird. I mean, did you guys have séances after Sloppy Joes?"
"And you don't think growing up with a mammoth rosary over your fireplace is odd?"
It was true. The brown wooden beads were as big as grapefruits. It made for a cool backdrop for family photos. And I liked having a kind of chapel right in my living room.
"What if your mom's friends perform some voodoo ritual on the kids?"
"Like when your mom baptized David and Katherine with tap water to cover them until the official ceremony?" "I'm not into raising crystal-chanting, tree-hugging hippies."
"And I'm not into raising non-thinking Catholics who can recite the Hail Mary and kneel at Mass but don't know a thing about being a good person."
This was always his gripe. And it was a legitimate one. We knew too many people who fit that category.
"I just don't really know what you believe in. And now that David is old enough to ask us important questions, I really think we need to be on the same page."
Then, as if I were leading a seventh-grade Sunday school discussion, I got down to the nitty gritty.
"Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" I asked Eric.
"Of course," he replied.
"Do you believe he was the Son of God?" I continued. I wished I had the Apostles' Creed in front of me as a cheat-sheet. I couldn't believe I was having this conversation ten years into our marriage.
"I think so."
"What are you going to say when David asks you who Jesus is?"
"I will tell him to go ask his mom."
"Good. Just leave the catechesis to me."
"What's catechesis?" he asked.
"Religious instruction. Just leave religion up to me."
"Okay, but did you want to prepare a PowerPoint presentation in case he asks a question when you're not around?"
I stared into his hazel eyes and burst into laughter. How could I not? He's funny.
And so this fight ended like all the others—in comic relief. And I remembered why I married him: He makes me laugh. As G. K. Chesterton said, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." Yes, I could have hooked up with a more religious guy, a dude who knows the difference between the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and says "Amen" at Communion, not "Thank you." But I'd miss the entertaining commentary throughout the service, like right before the Gospel when Eric once asked me, "Why is everyone swatting mosquitoes off their mouths?" or, after a few too many kneel-stand sequences at the Eucharistic Prayer, said, "I thought this hour was low-impact."
Sure, my other half's religious knowledge might always stay at the level of that of our three-year-old daughter, who was ecstatic to find a bag of white chocolates at Whole Foods, which she mistook for Communion hosts. "Mommy, look!" she yelled. It's Christs!" No, my husband wouldn't make a good Jesuit, or Dominican, or Franciscan. But he lightens me up. And he provides our home with the common sense I often lack. The day Eric met my mom for the first time and said to her, "Holy's out, happy's in," I knew I was in for my share of religious frustrations. But she was right. He was a convertible. And he's so much more.