Growing Up an Altar Girl
Before I was talking, I was humming along to the spoken liturgy at church. Before I could see over the dark, wooden pews, I was standing and sitting in the sort of dance prayer the Catholic Church engages. My earliest memories are filled with kneeling during communion in white tights and crushed velvet dresses, listening for the familiar cadences and the Amens, spoken like the last word of a poem.
I was Catholic before I was anything else, just like I was Midwestern and the oldest grandchild in a large extended family and lucky enough to grow in up a hundred-year-old farmhouse with fields and ponds and forest. My earliest memories hold a dark cathedral with grand front doors and a tall bell tower, crumbling stone walls, and a sparkly castle behind the altar where the Holy Family lived.
My mother put me in a miniature white wedding dress and veil to receive communion for the first time. We practiced in my parents bedroom, me walking toward her in my pajamas, my seven-year-old mind trying to convince my hands to be folded in the right way as she presented the unconsecrated host.
Our priest had thick, wavy hair like the pictures of Jesus in our Sunday school workbooks, and he wore Birkenstocks under his robes. Our parish added guitars to Mass, and they strummed along to the songs in The Breaking Bread Hymnal. My love for folk music undoubtedly springs from singing hymns with cadences right out of the seventies.
Around the time the dark cathedral with stained glass was torn down and a new church was built with white walls and red carpet, I donned a white robe and served at Mass. At ten years of age, my tiny fingers desperately tried to get the match to strike to light the wick on the long device used to reach the candles around the altar. While people silently knelt and prayed the rosary half an hour before Mass, I whisked around the altar praying the candles would light because I couldn’t see the top of them.
It wasn’t until I was twelve that my hands were large enough to grip the cross used in the processional and my arms were strong enough to hold the book that held the first and second prayer in front of the priest. By then, I was serving every other weekend, showing up early to Mass on Saturday nights, putting on my robes in the same room the priest did, gathering to pray with the Eucharistic Ministers, lining up to process in during the opening hymn.
It wasn’t until later that my mind would process what my young body was doing, but I still find it beautiful that I was serving at the altar of Jesus while I was daydreaming about the stories I read in bed with a flashlight. There was something freeing about my body knowing the liturgical motions and my mouth knowing the prayers that I certainly didn’t realize the very fabric of faith that I would boldly call my own in high school was being knit together, years before, through kneeling and pouring water on the priest’s hands before he blessed communion and snuffing out the candles around the altar while the parishioners’ laughter and Saturday night plans bounced off the high ceilings.
I didn’t know that God was keeping me serving around that altar, always hearing the Word read out loud like a story book – tales of miracles and mysteries as good as the ones told around a campfire finding me in the front pew. I didn’t know that this was the beginning of my story, and that it was going to be filled with dark sanctuaries punctuated with light from hundreds of skinny candles, long silences, prayers of lament, Lent and Advent, the fiery smell of incense, and the body and blood of Christ.
It wouldn’t be until college that I would be able to define transubstantiation, and it wouldn’t be until I was just graduated that I realized how important the church calendar was to me, but when I was ten years old I was participating in and witnessing the very ordinary yet miraculous act of darkness turning into light, of resurrection calling life from death, of bread and wine becoming something else entirely.
The very foundation of Christianity: Jesus turning water into wine, proclaiming that the old has become new, the outcast invited to sit at the head of the table, the truth that God dwells with us – it all found me there in that oversized white robe, the extra fabric pooling around my feet.
I just didn’t know it yet.
This story is part of a series of stories called Campfire Stories. If you and I were to sit around a campfire right now, I’d tell you stories like these. What stories would you tell?
Emily writes Juvenile Fiction.