Monday, March 14, 2011

Belles and Episcopal Boot Camp

I am Episcopalian.  We are a fairly reserved lot.  It is often said that we are “Catholic-Lite:”  All the religion and half the guilt.  Of course, as time goes by, I see that we are falling more and more in line with the Catholic Church.  Baby Belle 1 goes to Catholic School and the masses that I attend with her are nearly identical to the Episcopal services but for a little extra bell ringin’ and incense swingin’.  Also, my girls have to take First Communion class in addition to the Confirmation class that I suffered through.

Oy vey, Confirmation:  A Holy Sacrament.  Yep.  Good times. 

When a young Episcopalian turns twelve years old, they have to take classes to learn about the Church so that they can make a mature decision (yeah, at the ripe old age of twelve, uh-huh) as to whether or not they want to become members.  Confirmation is not to be confused with Baptism.  Baptism is when you are accepted into the Christian faith.  Confirmation is when you affirm that you are a member of the Episcopal Church.

Confirmation classes last one year and, at the end of your instruction, you kneel before the Bishop to be accepted into the fold on Palm Sunday.

My husband lovingly agreed to “turn Episcopal” before we got married and I vowed to be at his side as he thrashed, gnashed and pulled himself inch by inch through those horrible Confirmation classes.  It was the least I could do.  On the first day of class, I held his hand as I walked into the classroom and squeezed it reassuringly.  He had no reason to fear.  I was there for him.   

Imagine my surprise when we encountered a perfectly pleasant situation.  There were no threats of eternal damnation, there were no pop quizzes on the Saints and no one was called upon to stand up and recite from the Book of Common Prayer.  There was no imposing priest pointing at students and unnecessarily raising his voice.  Scott’s instructor was a perfectly genial little fellow and he even cracked a joke or two during the session.  There wasn’t even any frigging homework!

Well, let me just tell you that I was as pissed off as a hornet.  Do you know what I had to go through for Confirmation?  Well, for starters, all of the above...and then some. 

Father Mason.

Father Mason.

The man should have been a chain gang supervisor.  Granted, I know full well that it takes a bit of a forceful personality to get fifteen to twenty prepubescent 7th graders to sit down and focus on—let’s face it—really boring stuff for any length of time.  The thing is that there’s a huge difference between a light pat to the cheek and beating someone’s head in with a meat mallet.

The very first day of class is burned into my memory.  Yep, we all waltzed into the classroom thinking that we were going to experience nothing more than another Sunday school class.  Father Mason was the assistant priest at the time and our only prior interaction with him was when he happened to give the sermon at church service.

Rather than attempt to get our silence and attention by clearing his throat, clapping or employing any other heretofore recognized methods of gaining the attention of a bunch of people, he just dropped the prayer book in the middle of the table and is sounded off like a gun shot.  After we were wide eyed and nearly wet ourselves, Father Mason began to instruct us in the tones that made a Marine sergeant sound like Mr. Rogers as to what we had in store for us for one whole, fun year.

I honestly can’t tell you if the passage of time and/or the fact that the man was single-handedly responsible for ruining an entire year of my life are playing tricks with my memory, but I remember Father Mason to be a great big bear of a man.  As he rambled on about required reading, essays, memorization, tests and other activities that sounded less fun than a root canal, we looked at each other in a desperate attempt to silently determine whether or not he’d lost his damn mind.  Well, he’d lost his mind, but he was serious about it.

What followed that tragic first day was a year of regular Sunday school classes, Wednesday night classes and...gulp...lock-ins. 

Most good Southern boys and girls are in the youth groups of whatever church they attend.  If nothing else, youth group normally provides a time to hang and have fun with people your age and avoid the parental flip-outs because it’s church.  Accordingly, you good Southern boys and belles probably recall the church lock-ins of your youth.  I’m sure you guys met up at the church or the roller skating rink, ate pizza and drank Jolt Cola until you were about to pop.  You watched cool movies, played a few games and—yes—maybe some of you wild and crazy kids stayed up all night.

Let me assure you that lock-ins with Confirmation classes were more like lockdowns at Central Prison.  We watched instructional videos (zzzzzzzzzzzzz), had group discussions, broke off to write essays and played dumbass games like “Apostle Scavenger Hunt.”  Woohoo.  Any attempts at levity—such as giggling, cracking a smile, skateboarding down the hall of the parish house and sneaking off to the basement to find the legendary tunnel to the river—were quashed mercilessly.  One time during one of the lock-ins, I was so exhausted and overwhelmed that I took my little sleeping bag and tucked in up under Father Cook's (the head rector at the time) desk just so I could get some peace and quiet and sleep.

When we finally made it to the comprehensive exam, I was a bundle of nerves.  Father Mason was very clear that, if we didn’t make a sufficient grade on the final, we were looking head-on at another year of Jesus boot camp.  I was a complete wreck—the pretty white dress had already been ordered and the preparation for the party with friends and family was well underway.  All I can tell you is that the Lord and His Angels carried me through because I somehow managed to pass.

Father Mason left our church a few years later and I watched his exit with mixed emotions.  The fact that he wasn’t going to be there drastically cut the chances of me getting on his bad side—a place you did not want to be.  On the other hand, I watched my brother breeze through his Post-Mason Confirmation year with significantly less classes, no exams or tests and—from what I could tell—no memorization of any sort.  Scott’s class was even less rigorous than Ethan’s.  I’m only human and Lord knows that misery loves company:  If I had to do it, then EVERYBODY has to do it!

But there’s more to it than that...

In 1986, I knelt in front of the Bishop on Palm Sunday in my pretty white dress with my Godmother at my side and was confirmed into the Episcopal Church.  I have to admit that I was pretty proud of myself for seeing the hellish year to its end and accomplishing my goal.  When I hit my knees in front of Bishop Sanders, I knew full well what I was doing and why and that was in no small part the work of Father Mason.

Of course, if you tell him that, I will kill you, dig you up and kill you again.


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