Long, long ago, in another time and place, I lived in a neighborhood with about 150 other kids (it just seemed that way -this was the 1950’s, the height of the baby boom). Sacred Heart School and Convent were the two buildings at the end of our street. They loomed together, side by side. In order to get to my school, one had to pass muster through the nuns who inspected each of the students going to Sacred Heart. I thought they were scary, but I loved their beautiful names, Sister Mary Carmelita, Sister Mary Angelique. All of my dolls were named Mary something. My mother objected, since we were a Lutheran family, but no matter. My best friend, Cathy Gillespie, went to Sacred Heart. Her house had a crucifix in every room. She had to write “JMJ” at the top of every page of her homework, and make the sign of the cross whenever we passed a church. Every Saturday Cathy’s mother would drive us to Sacred Heart Church, a beautiful little church in the Italian neighborhood. Cathy and I would carry snow white vestments into the church and place them on the altar, to be arranged for Sunday services. Her mother laundered them every week, but was not allowed to enter the church, because she was divorced. Cathy had explained, in a voice full of whispers and shame, that her adoptive father, a physician, had been abusive to her older brother. At one point, the father took her brother and his dog into the woods and shot the dog, because of some imagined misdeed. This was before Vatican II and many changes in Catholicism. In spite of her excommunication, Cathy’s mom loved the church, and remained devoted. Now, Cathy was perhaps no better behaved than she should have been. Many days I met her after school, only to find her dejected and afraid of her mom’s reaction to her misdeeds (mostly talking in class, I believe). Not only would the nuns with the beautiful names call Mrs. Gillespie, Cathy was made to “stick a thorn in the heart of Jesus” by placing a pin in the Sacred Heart crucifix on the wall. It’s my belief that, in this way, she learned to think of herself as “bad” very early, and she went on to act out that belief as soon as she hit puberty. It’s easy to understand why Cathy was pretty much impervious to her mom’s attempts to imbue us with the finer points of Catholicism. She noted, and celebrated, every Saint’s day on a special calendar. Every day seemed to be special in some way. For me, hungry for spiritual answers and concrete guidance even as a child, Mrs. Gillespie’s teachings were like manna for the soul. She gave me rosaries, which I cherished, and taught me to say the prayers. There was something so comforting about touching each of the beads and knowing millions of people had said these ancient prayers, believing in the same God, and finding spiritual comfort and communication with the Almighty who powers Creation. For me, making the sign of the cross has always made me feel grounded, and held in the arms of God, even though Cathy insisted I wasn’t strictly allowed, being a Protestant and all. Every Christmas Eve, Cathy, her brother and I went to their little church for midnight mass. I was enthralled by the incense and the bells, the pageantry of it all. I came to think of my religion and church, so simple, as sort of “religion lite.” It seemed clear to me, as a child, that God must be paying more attention to people who thought of Him so much, every day, and went to such great lengths to please Him. Of course, I memorized Luther’s Small Catechism, was confirmed, and vowed to be a good Christian all my days. I gave up the idea that I wanted to be a missionary nun when I learned that you had to be Catholic to do that. I dated Catholic boys because that was forbidden, thus much more exciting. We were told that our children would be told we were damned to hell if we married a Catholic and didn’t convert. I went to Prom at the Catholic boys’ school, wearing a strapless dress (shocking!) while my Catholic friends were still being inspected by the nuns, who measured the length of their bangs, which had to be two nuns’ fingers length above the eyebrows. We all chortled at the admonitions to be “Mary-like” in all of our decisions and behaviors. I grew up, never lost my faith, but my journey has taken me through Eastern philosophies and the study of mysticism, with many twists and turns. I now consider myself a “Presbyterian Buddhist,” and am accepted and embraced by a loving spiritual community. And yet, and yet. At times of great crisis, or joy, such as at the birth of our son, I find myself making the sign of the cross, and it still grounds me and makes me feel God’s presence. Now, as my family faces the greatest crisis of our lives, my husband and I find ourselves going to our Presbyterian church daily, where we kneel at the foot of the cross (so un-Presbyterian), and I pray for our son’s health. To this day, I find comfort, and I feel God’s calming presence as I say the Lord’s Prayer, and contemplate the beautiful stained glass windows that grace our church. One of them has a panel that says “God is Healing.” I kneel at the foot of the cross, and feel the spirit and love of Elaine Gillespie, Cathy’s mom, from so long ago. Tears stream down my face as I say the ancient prayer, “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee – -” I feel then that I, too, am being filled with His grace, and that He is with me. “Holy Mary,” mother of a suffering Son,” I know she cannot pluck this thorn from my bleeding heart, but in invoking her ancient prayer, and grounding myself with the sign of the cross, I am comforted and held in His hands.