God: Learning About the Saints

[This is the second installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

When I was in fourth grade at Blake School in Hopkins, Minnesota, I met my first Catholic. He was a boy in my class who invited me over one day. I don’t remember a crucifix or a Madonna in his home. I don’t remember the word catechism or confession uttered like code by his mother. I don’t even remember my friend’s name or what he looked like, though I think he was tall and overweight, an offensive tackle in the making.

What I remember is Butler’s Lives of the Saints standing front and center on the shelf in his dining room. This classic multivolume encyclopedia of holy men and women enshrined by the Catholic Church seemed to call out to me from the head of the table, entreating my attention. This might have been only a case of knowledge-envy. My fourth-grade Catholic friend and his set of Butler struck me a bit the way a loud-mouth kid on my school bus did when he claimed to be reading the entire World Book, beginning with A. I’m not sure that kid ever got past aardvark, but his effort was impressive to me, and I coveted his knowledge.

I coveted my fourth-grade friend his Butler too. I understood that he or someone in his family knew about saints and I did not. This gave me a sense of loss, of wanting something missing in my life. Holy men and women like Augustine and Francis, Teresa of Avila and Joan of Arc, were absent from the curriculum of my Congregationalist Sunday school. Why didn’t I know about them? A question had lodged itself in me, a burr under my Protestant saddle.

Not that I wanted to be Catholic. Anything but that. John Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for president that year, and I remember declaring to my mother from the “way back” of the Chevy wagon, “I would never vote for Kennedy. He’s a Catholic!” My Bull grandparents were Methodists. Granddad was a 32nd-degree Mason. This was not exactly a formula for pro-Catholic thinking. At Sunday dinner I probably heard harsh words about the Catholic candidate in 1960, picking up my prejudice like a virus.

It is strange to me now that I remember this encounter with a Catholic boy more vividly than any events occurring at Wayzata Community Church, where I was baptized on February 17, 1952; went to Sunday school every week without fail; and received my first Bible, a Revised Standard Version inscribed to me on June 5, 1960, and still in my library today. Vague images of whiteness (pews, walls, steeple, skin) filter through the fog of my forgetfulness, along with half-memories of my father singing hymns lustily, embarrassingly, and of my brother being left behind after Sunday school. This one-time forgetting of young David, when he was six or seven, should not be laid to inattentive parents but to my brother himself, who could get lost in his own backyard. David was a likable dreamer, comfortably tucked into our birth order, third of six.

When we moved from Minnesota to Connecticut and climbed the liturgical ladder from Congregationalist to Episcopalian after a winter of church shopping, I had a second brush with the saints. Our beautiful stone sanctuary north of town had no statuary or icons, only a plain cross over a marble altar. So I seldom thought of saints here. It never occurred to me, for example, that St. Barnabas, the name on the sign out front, might connote an actual historical person—any more than St. Paul, twin city to Minneapolis, might have been named for the Apostle.

When I was twelve, I took confirmation classes at St. Barnabas. Confirmation qualified me to kneel at the sanctuary rail and take communion one Sunday a month, the statutory Episcopal limit apparently. Along the rail, there were cushions for kneeling, slip-cased in needlepoint by industrious members of the altar guild. On these kneelers were symbols, twelve when I counted: keys, an X-shaped cross, a carpenter’s square, a saw. 

My mother, an Episcopalian in childhood and now again, explained these symbols to me. She said they stood for the Apostles: keys for Peter, the saw for St. James the Less, gruesomely martyred, and so on. The kneelers stood for saints! I had never noticed them before. Now they were like Butler to me: hints that behind the spare Protestant storyline, I might find a rich picaresque tale.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “Lost: I Stop Going to Church,” click here

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