I know they say you can’t come home again. I just had to come back one last time.
~ Miranda Lambert
Growing up Catholic was confusing for me. I attended St. Helen Elementary School, a parochial school in my hometown of Saginaw, Michigan. It’s a traditional brick school house built in 1951. The school was already twenty-five years old when I went there, but it seemed more ancient than that. I thought Jesus himself was once a student and we probably shared some of the same teachers. Some might call this a simpler time, but I spent much of my days in fear, baffled by everything around me. Nothing made sense; not the nuns, not the priests, and certainly not the rituals. Eventually, in a move that I’m sure broke my mother’s heart, I quit the faith.
Today, at fifty, I’m a man glancing in the rearview mirror, and I see an entirely different picture. I see that the seeds of faith were planted on that innocent, fertile ground. I know this because God showed me.
One day, I hopped in the car and made the ten-hour drive from Tennessee to Saginaw to revisit the places of my past – to retrace my steps in a remarkable rewind. I went during the summer hoping that with students on their vacation break, I could stroll around the old school grounds more freely. It’s a good thing I made the trip when I did because the school closed for good not long after my visit – a victim of declining enrollment. Does the school you attended from kindergarten to fourth grade still count as your alma mater? I wasn’t sure, but it felt like home. I first walked the playground, or what used to be the playground; today it’s just an empty field of grass, but I tried to calculate where I would have landed after launching myself from the swing.
I made my way over to the church and I entered the familiar sanctuary, kneeling in one of the old wooden pews. I felt out-of-place, but the fact that so little had changed over the years gave me confidence that it was okay for me to be there. The sun shone through the same stain glass window I stared into as a boy. There – in brilliant color – was Jesus on a cross with people at his feet. My mind flashed back to when I used to stare so long into it that the people’s eyes seemed to follow me. I half-expected when I finally looked away that I’d be a little boy again, as if my entire life to this point was some kind of long, intense dream.
It’s funny, this is the place I was introduced to God and I was only just now realizing it.
From there, I walked next door to the school where I roamed the halls of my youth, pausing at the framed pictures still hanging on the painted cinderblock walls – the faces of classmates frozen in time. The glass was shattered on one picture and it bothered me. I wanted to take it down, have it repaired, and re-hang it so it too would remain unspoiled and unchanged. I marveled at how small everything looked, especially my first grade classroom. The door was locked, but I peered through the glass and felt the warm flow of happiness at the memory of Mrs. Chambers, my favorite teacher. She was my safe haven from the nuns. She wore regular clothes. She was pretty and she smelled good. Now, so many years later, I could still feel her kindness. It surrounded me like a warm blanket as I stood in the same doorway I passed through day after day as an energetic little boy.
They say when the past calls don’t answer. It has nothing new to say. I disagree. I may not be Catholic. I may have quit the faith. But faith never quit me. In Latin, alma mater means “nurturing mother” and that’s what St. Helen felt like on this day. I am eternally grateful.
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