O Vanished Bethlehem

O Vanished Bethlehem

In the 1950s nuns and priests filled the air with Jesus stories. As soon as we stepped on the threshold of our first grade classroom, we were required to memorize lessons from the Baltimore Catechism, the defunct and now-discredited school text of the Catholic religion.

Baltimore Catechism Lesson 75: Q. On what day was Jesus born?  A. Jesus was born on Christmas day in a stable at Bethlehem.

The first town I’d ever heard about other than where I lived and where my relatives lived was Bethlehem. As a child, I dreamed of living in the inn next to that stable where Jesus was born. I longed to be with the donkeys and the sheep and the three kings on their camels. I really wanted to ride those camels. When we sang O Little Town of Bethlehem I pictured a serene knob of a place full of kind and loving people ready to temper my fears and fortify my hopes.

A classmate once showed us a tiny glass vial of soil her grandmother had brought back from Bethlehem. She said it was blessed by the Pope, adding gold-plated authenticity to its importance. This was my first inkling that Jesus’ birthplace still existed and that I might be able to go there myself someday. 

Nearby Jerusalem?  It was never on my wish list. Memorization of passages about Jesus’ suffering there left me repulsed by any thoughts of visiting Jerusalem.

Baltimore Catechism Lesson 371:  Q. When did Our Lord suffer the “bloody sweat”?  A. Our Lord suffered the “bloody sweat” while drops of blood came forth from every pore of His body, during His agony in the Garden of Olives, near Jerusalem.

Bethlehem was the object of my affection. The Church of the Nativity in Manger Square sits on top of a grotto, the Holy Crypt, where Jesus lay swaddled. This birthplace is disputed from time to time, but as a child my enthusiasm never waned. I wanted to see Bethlehem.

Two Palestinian refugee camps arose in Bethlehem in 1949 after the Palestine PartitionDheisheh-a-Palestinian-refugee-camp-685x1024 drove Arab families from their homes. Six generations later they’ve not been allowed to return. Armed Israeli forces frequently raid the camps on the pretext of searching for “wanted” Palestinians. Young Palestinians exact revenge and risk their lives with the most ancient of weapons—rocks. 

When Israel took Bethlehem from the Arabs after the Six-Day War in 1967, I thought Bethlehem would be destroyed forever. But all the wars, terrorist bombings, intifadas and violent protests didn’t stop grandmothers from visiting the Little Lord Jesus’ birthplace and bringing home souvenir vials of sacred dirt. I had high hopes I’d visit someday.

Israel relinquished Bethlehem to the Palestinians in 1995, promptly erecting a wall cutting Bethlehem off from Jerusalem. Palestinians are restricted from entering Jerusalem. Israelis are barred from entering Bethlehem.

Baltimore Catechism Lesson 259:  Q. What other effects followed from the sin of our first parents? A. Our nature was corrupted by the sin of our first parents, which darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left in us a strong inclination to evil.

A few weeks ago, on January 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. Abbas informed Putin the U.S. can no longer play a role in the Middle East peace process. Seven days later Donald Trump announced his anti-Palestinian “Deal of the Century” for the Middle East. Bethlehem erupted in a “day of rage”.

Baltimore Catechism Lesson 1155:  Q. What are dreams and why is it forbidden to believe in them? A. Dreams are the thoughts we have in sleep, when our will is unable to guide them. It is forbidden to believe in them, because they are often ridiculous, unreasonable, or wicked, and are not governed by either reason or faith.

They say tourists get into and out of Bethlehem safely. But fear invades my deep and dreamless sleep. Thoughts of seeing Bethlehem have matured into my childhood imaginings.

And my dreams have gone the way of the Baltimore Catechism. 

Vanished. 

People Say They Did the Best They Could

What My Parents Believed

No One Ever Said We Were Democrats. Neither of my parents campaigned nor wore political buttons nor wrote thoughtful letters to politicians. They were Catholics, went to Catholic schools, Catholic colleges, married in the Catholic church. They took on the mantle of Irish Catholicism as if it were a physical birthmark, a once-a-Catholic-always-a-Catholic mental tattoo unaccompanied by belief in God or Jesus. They took advantage of the culture of the sacraments— Holy Communion, Marriage, Baptism—to display how beautiful we all were in our expensive clothes, polished shoes, fashionable hair styles.

They argued. About money mostly. And other women, other men. They agreed on important things. Pope Pius XII was a backwater imbecile for invoking papal infallibility in 1950 when he proclaimed all Catholics must believe Mary didn’t suffer physical death and was assumed into heaven. This new doctrine, along with the Pope’s insisting the Church of Rome stay neutral during the Holocaust, put a stake in their religiousity.

They hated right-wing bullies like Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthy was a reckless demagogue who ruined lives with public witch hunts and unsubstantiated accusations against communist sympathizers. FBI Director Hoover amassed power by steering favorable press and policy his way using his secret files to blackmail Congress and Presidents alike. Throughout their lives my parents derided the Red Cross for raising money for war-time troops then charging soldiers and sailors for their so-called giveaways like toothpaste, coffee and donuts. My mother eagerly showed how smart she was in these matters. After all, my parents attended college in the nation’s capitol in the years leading up to World War II. She gossiped about under-informed conversationalists, “What do you expect, they don’t even read the New York Times.”

During the war, they lived in housing provided by the Navy in Key West. With no children to mind, they spent evenings in the Officer’s Club chattering about the day’s news, forming opinions and cooling off with rum smuggled in from Cuba. The men were Navy pilots and Naval intelligence officers. Some worked in the newly-formed CIA. Anyone who didn’t drink was not to be trusted. They never went to a restaurant, nor any gathering, party, picnic, or church function unless they knew alcohol would be served.

Any friend or relative who stopped drinking was derided as a reformed drinker, as if that were a dirty word. My father eventually stopped drinking and went to Alcoholics Anonymous, but he still steered clear of social events and restaurants where there was no alcohol. With all their strong opinions about religion and politics, the foundational belief of my parents was that life without alcohol was as unsophisticated and tasteless as a Greek diner.

My father, divorced from my mother, helped me get sober in 1979. When I told my family I was in AA, my older sister, glass of wine in hand, said, “Well. Just because you’re an alcoholic, doesn’t mean everyone is.”

 

The Russians: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

The Russians: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

I was three years old in 1949 when the Soviet Union started the Cold War by detonating their first atomic bomb, blockading Berlin and pushing their way into Poland and Eastern Europe. The voices I heard swirling above my toddler head at cocktail hour told me the Russians wanted to rule the world and they were coming for us.

By the time I entered the first grade in 1952, the US government had created the National Civil Defense Administration and devised a plan to protect people from incoming A-bombs. Teachers were required to conduct air raid drills, shouting, “Drop!” and school children dropped under their desks, fell over their knees and covered their heads. The nuns at my schools added the instruction to recite Hail Marys aloud while on the floor. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. 

As first, second and third graders, my two sisters and I made our own breakfasts and school lunches because my mother’s alcohol intake rendered her unconscious in the mornings. We often gathered around her bed trying to figure out if she was alive. Holy Mary, Mother of God… One of us would place a finger under her nostrils to feel her breath until, with one exhale, she confirmed the worst that could happen hadn’t—and we’d be off to knock on neighbors’ doors scrounging rides to school.

At seven, I didn’t understand the difference between a drill and the real event so I went to my death every time I huddled under that desk. “This is it,” I’d pray, “this is the day I’m going to see Jesus.” I believed Mary would grab me in her arms like she did baby Jesus and take me to heaven. Why did we practice so desperately to avoid such ecstasy?

By the time third grade rolled around, I got used to not dying under the desk. Images of children who lived after their exposure to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared on our small black and white television and I began to realize why those air raid drills were so ominous — there were worse things than death.

Our parochial school teachers taught us Communists were going to hell because they prevented Catholics from going to Mass, which was one of the worst things that could ever happen. Words from the TV news — Stalin, USSR, Iron Curtain, the Red Army, the Berlin Airlift, NATO, the CIA — put worry on my parents’ faces and terrified me.

Throughout my childhood, I had reasons to think the worst was going to happen every day. But the worst never happened and over time these early worst-that-could-happen fears immunized me against pessimistic eruptions the way a bout of the measles inoculates against future outbreaks of inflamed skin . For instance, my mother’s alcoholic dementia killed her at 70, but it was not the worst thing to happen, rather relief to her and to those around her.

Today’s words —Trump, FBI, emoluments, North Korea, hacking, Putin, charter schools and my old friend Russia — needle me with foreboding, but history is on my side. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?