Category Archives: Catholicism

Olvera Street & The Olive Tree

I was in LA again this past weekend, for a family-and-friends end-of-summer party. Having learned the hard way, I booked a late afternoon flight so I’d have pretty much the whole day to get myself together to leave. My friend Daisy was headed to work that morning, so she dropped me off near Olvera Street for my usual orgy of conspicuous consumption, which was an unexpected treat I’d not planned on during such a short visit.

Before I took out my wallet and emptied it of all liquid assets (booty scored: tattoo-style charm bracelet, several pairs of earrings, the obligatory cross, a calavera car sticker, and gifts for several loved ones), however, I decided I’d stop in at Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles (otherwise known as La Placita Church), the oldest church in LA, right across the street from Olvera. It’s an active church and like many in LA, site of some amazing murals. On the north wall is a stunning one of the Virgen de Guadalupe and Juan Diego. The area of the plaza below it is fenced off and several racks are set up for devotional candles, as well as two kneelers for those who come to pray.

I was there at about eleven in the morning. Roughly a half-dozen worshippers – all Latin – were gathered beneath the mural, praying, kneeling or standing, reading from missals, holding rosaries. I felt too much like a spectator to go in myself at first, so I stood outside the fence and took it all in, especially one diminutive woman in particular, her coal-black braids trailing down her tiny back, her right hand holding a well-worn missal as she intoned her prayers quietly to La Virgen. Candles flickered in the hot noonday sun; not as atmospheric as it would have been at dark but just as moving. I watched people come and go and in a strange way envied their faith; its absoluteness and reliability – they didn’t need their religion to be a poem or a metaphor the way that I do. I wondered what it must be like to feel that way, to feel God under your feet, solid as earth.

I went inside the Church and joined the others taking part in Adoration for a while. It was cool inside, and quiet, despite a couple of dozen people in a small space. I love old, Spanish-style churches. There’s just nothing quite like them.

I went back out and made my way to the Guadalupe mural I’d visited earlier. There were fewer people there so I stood beneath the olive tree (hey! shade! Thanks, God!) to give prayers of sincere thanks for the many wonderful blessings I have in this life, and offer prayers of protection for a Marine friend who is heading back to the war in Iraq. My eyes were closed behind my sunglasses and I was super emo that day, so let’s just say that while I wasn’t openly sobbing on the street, I wasn’t exactly dry-eyed.

And then, a huge drop of water fell onto my forearm. I felt it and the first thing I thought of was pigeon, but when I opened my eyes, and then ran my finger through it, it was pretty obvious that it was water. I looked side to side – no one, nothing. Up – just the olive tree. I searched thoroughly for any sign of moisture, any logical reason to justify the splash on my arm. There was nothing. Dry as a bone. I got the chills, crossed myself, and made my way to the plaza, though I kept reflecting on it for the rest of the day.

I receive so many strange and lovely gifts, all the time. I don’t know what this was – my best friend called it ‘a small miracle.’ Maybe. Or maybe it was a coincidence and there’s a perfectly logical explanation. I’ll never know. But I’ll take what I can get, and I’ll err on the side of miracles.

Original Sin

I’m a very bad Catholic. I’m very lackadaisical about going to Mass and figure The Great Muhawumba must understand that lounging around drinking two cups of very strong coffee while devouring the entire Sunday paper is a form of religious ritual. I am pro-choice and a major fag-hag. I distrust hierarchies and if the Church isn’t the Grandaddy of those, I don’t know what is.

But still. I like being a Catholic. I appreciate that the Church is adamantly anti-death penalty and constantly agitates on behalf of the poor, voiceless, imprisoned, and weak (unless they’re gay. Kidding.) I’m a classic ‘cafeteria Catholic’ and am happy to belly up to the bar and order all the frankincense, holy water, and Hail Marys (though I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get the Rosary down) I can get.

There are a few days in the ecclesiastical calendar that I try not to miss, and yesterday, Ash Wednesday, was one of them. It’s the first day of Lent and a day of repentance and atonement (not unlike the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur), when one is encouraged to leave one’s past and sins ‘in the ashes’ and prepare one’s heart for Easter. One is reminded that ‘from dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,’ reminding us (in a very Buddhist-like way) that our existence is transient, our troubles similarly ephemeral.

So I was, you know, a little pensive. I expected some dry, uptight priest to emerge for the Mass, but instead got this great, deep-voiced brother whom, even on this solemn day, exuded joy. As he made the cross of ashes on my forehead he said, ‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.’ When I sat back down to meditate upon that, I arrived at this: the greatest sin is that which you commit against yourself; the lies you tell yourself, the addictions you allow to enslave you, the way you sometimes have to harden your heart just to get through the day.

Later that day I stumbled across the story of Pogo, a little three-legged pit bull puppy that had been dumped at the pound, had a vet donate surgery to remove his bum leg, was flourishing in a foster home and was expected to make a great recovery and live and long and fulfilling life. Last July, on a night when I was packing up and preparing to leave the City after 18 years, Pogo was taken for a walk with his foster guardian on Ocean Beach, a block from my house. He ran behind a sand dune and was not seen again until ten days later, when his stabbed corpse was found miles away in the Bayview District.

Reading that, I felt like I had been punched in the face. What does it take, I wonder, what darkness of the human heart has to exist to take a wiggly, three-legged puppy who obviously already had the odds stacked again him and stick a knife into his flesh, again and again and again, while he yelped and struggled and screamed? What kind of person does it take to do that? It’s the same thing I had when I first heard about the Michael Vick case. There are few things in this world that make me feel truly violent, but sick people who hurt weak animals are one of them.

In my tenderhearted moments, in those hours when my body feels like one raw, exposed nerve, I sometimes wonder how one can stand to go on living in a world where puppies are stabbed, where children are abandoned and hit and worse, where fathers grind down their sons and women are commodified and pimped, where wounded deer lie by the side of the freeway dying and none of the thousands of motorists driving by at 75 MPH can be bothered to pick up their cell phone so someone can come put it out of its pain.

If there is such a thing as Original Sin, it is this: we are born with a selfishness beyond that inherent in our simple animal biology; a selfishness and a cruelty that surpasses that of any other species, one so ugly and dark and irredeemable and impossible to beat, breed, or perhaps even love out of us, that at times I believe we really are lost, that we really are ‘The Virus,’ that the sooner we die out – and that means our beauty as well as our bottomless ugliness – the better.

Hindley Wakes

Myra Hindley was not a nice person. So notorious was she, in fact, that following her involvement in the particularly monstrous Moors Murders outside of Manchester, England, in the early 1960s, the use of the name Myra all but disappeared from use and she became popularly known as the ‘most hated woman in Britain.’ Hindley remained behind bars from the time of her arrest in the mid-60s until her death within prison in 2002. She and her psychotic Svegali, the particularly loathsome Ian Brady, were locked into a deeply twisted dance of darkness and sadism that began with Nazi paraphernalia and ended in the murder of children and a lifetime as not only guests of Her Majesty’s Prisons but as pretty much the most reviled people in the UK (particularly for Hindley).

It is interesting to note that in many ways the public treated Hindley far more harshly than Brady, who was generally thought to be the mastermind behind the horrific killings, simply because she was a woman (and Hindley was only too happy to play up this ‘love slave’ role in a calculated play for public sympathy). That a woman could possibly commit such atrocious acts was unthinkable to the popular mind – which conjures up the question, why is it so much less shocking that a man would do these things? Which is a valid topic worth addressing, but that’s another day, another blog.

Hindley spent 36 years in prison, during which she curried favor with figures she felt powerful enough to possibly help her case for parole. Most famously, she allied herself with Lord Longford, an eccentric aristocrat with Irish roots and a penchant for championing the unpopular cause of prisoner’s rights. Hindley hit him up for a visit after an exchange of letters and they embarked upon an unlikely friendship that ultimately cost him the public’s good graces. Even after finding out that Hindley had betrayed him by lying about additional victims and thus soiling his good name, Longford worked through a deep spiritual struggle to arrive at a place of forgiveness.

Their odd friendship was detailed in the very-watchable Channel 4 movie Longford, which caught my attention because the name is the same as an Irish county. My previous knowledge of the Moors Murders consisted of the legend behind The Smiths song ‘Suffer Little Children’ and it’s scandal upon release to the British airwaves in the 1980s. There is a brilliant scene in the film, when Longford, following Hindley’s betrayal, does a radio interview to stump for his new book on the saints. The host is, predictably, far more interested in the salacious details of the Lord’s friendship with Britain’s ‘most hated woman’ and needles the quirky old man mercilessly until he comes up with one of the most beautiful, if brief, speeches on forgiveness I’ve heard to date. The host will not let Longford discuss his book and continues to pepper him with the question of whether or not he regrets championing Hindey’s cause:

Host: It’s a simple answer, Lord Longford, yes or no. Do you regret it?

Lord Longford: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I consider my visiting Myra Hindley, and indeed all the other prisoners I’ve visited for over fifty years, to be one of the great blessings of my life. Now, perhaps, we could get back to the subject of the saints?

Host: But hasn’t she betrayed you? She’s ruined your good name and taken all the hard work you did for her and thrown in back in your face.

Lord Longford: Yes, perhaps there’s some truth in that. Forgiving her has proven difficult, very difficult, not for what she’s done to me, that’s neither here nor there, but for the terrible crimes themselves. Forgiveness is the very cornerstone of my faith, and the struggle to deepen my faith is my life’s journey. In that respect, she has enriched my spiritual life beyond measure, and for that I will always be grateful to her. If people think that makes me weak or mad, so be it. That is the path I have committed to, to love the sinner but hate the sin. Assume the best in people, not the worst. Believe that anyone, no matter how evil, can be redeemed, eventually.

Like both Hindley and Longford, I am an unlikely convert to Roman Catholicism (again, a topic for another blog, another day), and while I certainly cannot claim the same piousness and adherence to doctrine that Longford certainly could (I’m more of a cultural/cafeteria Catholic, a ‘Jesus-Is-My-Homeboy’ type and a Marianist at heart), I found his spiritual path deeply inspiring. While I could never comfortably endorse much of the Catholic dogma out there, I can wholeheartedly get behind the ethos of extending mercy to the most hated and dehumanized of human beings (the thought-provoking U.S. Catholic Bishop’s Statement on Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite recent reads) – prisoners.

In a larger context, I worry greatly about this practice we have of turning each other into things; the penchant we have for labels to help us easily define our fellow men and women, and how we so desperately ache for simple answers (‘she was evil’) to agonizingly complex questions (‘how could she have done such a thing?). I feel a deep uneasiness at the eagerness with which we render one another as less than human by the application of grossly inadequate words and concepts, because we are so very afraid to confront the darkness in the human heart and the illogical, maddening state of the human condition. If we can render an individual inhuman – ‘not like us’ – it is only a myopic and dangerous attempt at brushing the shadow side of our nature under the rug.

Do killers deserve our sympathy? Not particularly. Do I believe some people deserve to die, or to be in jail? Yes, even though I don’t believe the state has the right to take life. Do I believe that some people are simply vile, and should be kept away from the rest of us? Yes, certainly. And do I believe that some people, like Myra Hindley, are irredeemably manipulative or psychopathic? Yes. I do. But at the end of the day, no one is ever not human. These people are the shadow side of us; the faces of the savagery we come hardwired with, viscerally alive if spiritually dead, but no less one of us.