Easter Baskets

Winner of 2010 Janus Essay Contest

Sparkling sunlight pours through the window directly onto the kitchen table, illuminating two gleaming baskets, one for me and my sister. Shimmering in pink and blue translucent plastic wrap, they seem to wink at us as we emerge, still sleepy-eyed, from our gentle beds.

I could easily become engrossed in the intricate sunlit patterns dancing off the multiple crinkles forming the mountainous terrain of the plastic wrap, but Mother herds us away from these colorful temptations. Instead, we are given brown paper bags and gently guided outside into our backyard, the cool morning breeze stroking our rosy cheeks.

My sister dashes out ahead of me, stopping to look for candy-filled eggs lodged in the crack of a split tree trunk, or wedged between two fence posts, while meanwhile I sluggishly lag behind glancing half-heartedly over Mother’s garden. Whistling a shrill cry of glee from over by the apple tree, my sister triumphantly holds up the plastic egg she has found hidden at the foot of its trunk, dazzlingly pink amidst the subdued greens and browns of the quiet April-morning garden. Laughing, she deposits the egg into her paper bag and flits eagerly to the next tree, reminding me of an impatient dragonfly.

Clutching my own bag close to my chest, I am too slow and clumsy to find the hidden eggs as quickly as my sister does. Every rock I set my eyes upon has already been overturned, every split tree trunk already thoroughly examined. Nevertheless, when I do chance to find the occasional egg my nimble sister has left untouched—under the wheelbarrow, or resting on the shoulder of one of Mother’s garden gnomes—I snatch it up eagerly, delighting in the feel of the smooth plastic beneath my fingers and the way it clinks against the other eggs when I drop it into my bag.

Later in the day, much later, the colored translucent plastic peeks pitifully from the trash, having lost the luster that the sunlight gave it in the morning. The baskets themselves have been emptied of their treats and thrust aside. Now, I wander the noisy backyard in my stuffy flowered dress with the scratchy petticoats, white tights, and black patent leather buckle shoes, twirling in my hand the white straw hat with the pink ribbon on it that Mother let me take off after Mass. Family members with long legs and loud laughs pat me on the head as I walk by them in their white plastic chairs scattered throughout the yard. Grandpa Al[1] wears silly faces to make my sister laugh, while other adults drink beer from cool cans on which drops of condensation form, or else doze in the shade, like my father and uncle. My younger cousins, their church clothes half-discarded by this point, clamber over the swing set playing games and screeching with laughter.

Easter is a day where in return for wearing a scratchy dress and white hat and having my head pet by lots of relatives, I am given candy and a gleaming colorful basket. But I have torn that basket apart for another year, and now desire little more than to hide in my mother’s embrace, curl up with my arms wrapped around my small white legs, and doze off into a lazy, sun-baked sleep.

***
In this way the Easter family celebration, a tradition handed down from further back in my family’s history than I could easily conceptualize, remained for me formless throughout my childhood. Dreaming, I mechanically worked my way through the actions required of me on that day—finding Easter eggs, going to Mass, opening the Easter baskets. Dreaming, I lay still and passive as a quiet ladybug, watching the movements of my relatives unfold around me from within my polished hardened shell.

I wasn’t awakened from this hibernation until I met Ivana Kench in eighth grade science class. Ivana Kench, who read aloud Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry to herself during lunch period and created beautiful Bohemian jewelry that she sold to her classmates and teachers. Ivana Kench, whose only religion, as far as I know, was the rambling, far-reaching world of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose work she read faithfully and with much ardor.

I experienced my first theological debates with her against a backdrop of middle-school scenery—awkward stammers thrown at each other across the table in the dark and odorous lunchroom, raging tirades in the girls’ locker room before gym class, forbidden whispers in the back row during science. She used to laugh and, with a flip of her waist-length hair, exclaim that she was the bad influence my family desired to protect me from. I realized later, though, that she was the first who succeeded in forcing me to reflect upon my faith and to interact with it. In order to defend myself against her accusations, I was suddenly called upon to sift through the information I had learned in my religious education classes and make sense of how I related to it all. My answers to her pointed questions were likely not always satisfactory and almost never complete, but for the first time I began to conceive of my faith not as a passive entity to which I was attached by circumstance, but as a constantly-shifting web of concepts with which I could communicate in an effort to discover Truth. It was around this time that I picked up my father’s high school religion textbook from his shelf and read about halfway through it, eagerly consuming information about the transubstantiation of Christ and the field of Apologetics. Like the gleaming colored Easter baskets of my childhood, the concepts I learned about my faith collided with and danced upon my mind like the sunlight upon the colored translucent plastic, creating sparks and glimmers that represented my own realizations about my religion and myself, all in an effort to unwrap what I thought of as the one essential Truth of my existence.

Ivana was not the only change in my life around this time. My mother, confined to the hospital for several weeks due to a surgery gone awry, received her Last Rites and, crying, lied to me on the phone one terrible night about how high her fever really was. I trembled furiously that night to my music, my eyes squeezed shut trying to envision a world without her.

Due to what we have since considered a miraculous intervention, a sudden insight on the part of her doctors, my mother survived. A year later, my father asked for a divorce. While the shape of my family was thus catapulted about by what seemed like an unalterable, indifferent, and unrelenting universe, my mother strove to persist in the traditions that had lent structure to our childhoods.

At Easter that year, I sat alone at the dinner table nibbling my lamb chops, head bowed and eyes downcast underneath the glaring chandelier. In the neighboring room, my mother tried to stifle her sobs as my aunt comforted her. The empty chairs surrounding me served as tallies of my family’s recent losses, my deceased grandparents and my absent father.

Easter is a time of celebration in the Resurrection of Christ. Yet, my diminished and broken family seemed rather to be in mourning for the death of a dream. Mimicking my child-self, my thoughts stumbled over rocks and through split tree trunks, wrapping themselves around Christ’s birth and death, his resurrection, Ivana’s pointed questions, and my father’s religion textbook. I could find no method of uniting these fragmented bits of information into one untarnished whole Truth which would explain why it had to be that my mother, in her best Easter Sunday dress, sat in our dark living room and wept.

***

To conceptualize the fluid-interactive model of Catholicism that I discovered through Ivana Kench in middle school, imagine someone who has a question about a certain practice or theological tenet of the Church. After having read some religious material, an answer to this question may emerge, but other questions will invariably present themselves during the search, and the questioner will never totally be satisfied. The texts continue to offer answers, but they invariably contain information that is contradictory simply because of the difficulty human beings have in understanding God. As one question is satisfied, another is created. In this way, the questioner constantly engages with the theological principles of the church as though carrying on a discussion—this interplay occurs between the Church’s ideology and thousands of questioners, every day.

After several years of trying to find the untarnished whole Truth that I thought would explain everything in the world, I began to realize that this is not what it means to be Catholic. Certainly, we believe in God and the Savior—however, this does not, and is not intended to, provide us with some sort of superior knowledge of why the world functions the way it does. To understand God is absurd—a human being, imperfect as he or she is, could never claim to understand exactly how God interacts with the world. For this reason is it clear that nonbelievers who challenge Catholics with questions like, “Why is it necessary that the innocent must be killed in war?” have an unclear idea of what it means to be Catholic, much like I once did. Of course we cannot know, and we do not have a satisfactory answer. We, too, are human; we do not understand. Not to understand God but to try to understand, not to obtain some vast knowledge of the universe but to strive to obtain it, seems to be more important. The means becomes an end—it is in the search for truth that I, at least, have come closer to God. This is where being an individual within the Roman Catholic Church comes into play—each of us individually strives to understand why events happen the way they do, looking to our faith for answers. Each of us interacts with the faith differently according to our own personal histories and experiences. Thus, we come to unique understandings of ourselves and our relation to our beliefs. This understanding is much more significant than that vague comprehension of the workings of the universe I once dreamed about, because it gives each of us a solid sense of place in this world, grounded by our search for truths. Thus we are saved from wandering the earth, lost and aimless.

Although the onward thrust of the universe may in fact be unalterable and unchanging, I know as a Catholic that it cannot possibly be indifferent. Those early battles fought with Ivana in school and with my own confused thoughts at home were necessary in the process of my spiritual awakening. When bright-eyed questioners corner me now, I am ready for them with  exploratory responses, often requesting their aid, as intelligent thinkers, in helping me come to a reasonable, but never definite conclusion. The events of my own life, paired with the theological literature I have read, have led me to understand that absolute, conclusive answers to the largest questions of our faith are, like my own initial answers to Ivana’s queries, usually unsatisfactory in their inability to apply to all situations and contexts.

As a freshman in college, I had to celebrate Easter for the first time separated from my family. Although I was at first upset by this break in tradition, I have realized that, like my parents, who as adults created their own Easter celebrations, I must continue the process of writing my own history within this tradition. Easter and the concepts underlying it are not static events but rather fluid processes, shaped by thousands of years of changing popes, political and economic strife, developments in theological thought and Biblical interpretation, and a massive body of believers who each interact with the ideas of the Church differently, according to their own personal experiences and stories. In this way, the individual histories of millions of people make up the ongoing tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. Without this constant interaction with the Church theology, a result of a devoted search for truth, it is too easy for one’s faith to retreat into passivity; to become dormant, and to hide away indulging in a  lazy, sun-baked sleep.


[1] All names used in this essay are pseudonyms

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