I grew up with a sense of deep security, great freedom and confidence with the world. My siblings and I innately knew right from wrong, respected loss and gain, saw birth, death and life in all its naturalness. My most vivid 5 year old memory was seeing a slaughtered beast drain from a big old gumtree; meat curing for consumption, shared with a neighbour. I felt ‘grown up’ witnessing this in the presence of my Dad.
Country kids of a big family, we held little fear of the wide world. We had a genuine sense of: ‘If we didn’t have it… we would make it’, such as the diving board created from an old painting plank, tied to the rim of a 40 000 litre tank, known as ‘The Swimming Pool’. We would happily jump from the 4 inch rim.
80’s influences included the ABC News, Neighbours, ( Kylie and Jason) and Dr. Who. ‘Technology’ was the clicky clack typewriter in Office Procedures and the ‘stuck-to-wall’ phone at home. Social life was school, the biannual dance, Sunday Mass, picnics and Christmas parties with other families. The only time we went to a weekday Mass was for someone’s funeral.
Our ‘shell’ was smashed when a forced move after the sudden death of my mother, sent us to Sydney. Here my father had some old connections which he used to get a job to feed, shelter and educate the younger ones. The ‘baby’ was 5. I was 19 and it dawned on me that my life was ahead, so I announced I was headed to America. I found a job during the 90’s recession in a nearby processing plant, saving every penny.
I met people from all walks of life. A doctor from Japan, whose qualifications were not recognized and who now packed meat for a living. Local Italian ladies who barely spoke English. Generous, gracious women who shared their snacks and their recipes at break.
Upon returning, accomodation in Sydney was at a premium. So I enrolled in Uni in a regional town. Again I met an extraordinary array of people. Life revolved around Austudy, occasional paid work, uni lectures and a healthy social life.
With all that on offer and my running club, who really needed God? I went to church pretty much when it suited me.
Bargain accommodation meant I shared houses with goths, guys and girlfriends in unmarried relationships. I learnt a lot about The Cure, Grunge and Nuovo Reggae. Flatmates knew I was Catholic because occasionally I would bike it to Mass at the ungodly hour of 8am… an outrageous time for hung-over uni students! They would enquire as to where I had been, so I told them. Though I got the impression it wasn’t very cool, I lived in an open house where differences were respected, as long as we took our turn to clean the fridge, wash-up, avoid too many overnight guests and pay rent.
One fresh, Lenten morning I felt like going to Mass. I thought I’d better keep up the family tradition. Cycling on the empty road, I recognized an acquaintance approaching on the footpath; a tall, red-haired fellow whose company I had enjoyed. I dismounted. “‘Morning *Rich”, I said. “Morning”, he replied. “Where are you off to?” he asked. “To church”, I said, pointing ahead. He looked at me squarely. “Pray for Me.” “Sure”, I said. Quickly he added, “God would never approve of me darkening the door of a church”. I smiled. “I’m sure he would.” “No,” he said, shaking his head seriously. “I’m a prostitute.”
I promised to do as he asked, and while at Sunday Mass, begged God for peace for him, reflecting on what a terrible trick the devil plays convincing sinners to stay away from His Church.
I passed him again a few days later, and offered to mind his cats as he was off to Sydney. Miraculously I found holy water among my humble belongings and, after I turned the key to his flat, sprinkled it liberally over the sexual images on the wall.
Why did he feel compelled to live like this?
Months before, I passed an acquaintance. I smiled and enquired how she was. “O.k.” she said, pushing aside long, black hair. I asked about Uni for the sake of small talk. She looked up. I detected sadness and tiredness; so said goodbye.
Later, it was confided by my flatmate the girl had had an recent abortion and hadn’t quite been the same. I did not judge or ask for details, but offered up silent prayer for her and her aborted baby. I’d not known anyone who had travelled that path, and wondered what had prompted her. Where was her family?
Later I moved back to Sydney. While finishing study and working long hours, my parents (my father had re-married by then) invited a young man to dinner. I was not the least bit interested. My goal was to pay off, finally, some rather neglected HECS fees and get ahead in a career. I didn’t reflect much on that dinner, until flowers began rolling in, well wishes for final studies and phone calls. I tried denial. I was busy. This was not part of my plan!
But before I knew it we were dating and enjoying bushwalks on early Autumn beaches. He was a weekday Mass goer, an avid Rosary prayer and his best friends were a bunch of elderly priests from an Order I had hardly heard of. Soon he proposed and I thought, well… why not? It felt right. I did not fully understand his conviction, but it seemed to make him happy. Pretty soon I thought I’d better ‘up my act’. I’d hate it to be found out that I was a ‘provincial’ Catholic.
I had no clue what the Mysteries of the Rosary were. I thought they were one Decade. He prayed it daily. I had scant knowledge of the Memorare, The Angelus or Catechism of the Church. I had no clue the Holy Father had written anything!
So I began to study. I discovered the Catechism and read on my days off. It made sense. I taught myself the various decades and their meanings and said them daily. On my way to work on the train I would scroll the beads through freezing fingers. I’d never heard of Encyclicals but began looking them up. I discovered the beauty of truth, the nature of work and the sacredness of the family unit. I couldn’t bear the idea that the man who thought I was good marriage material would discover the truth. That I knew only enough to get to lukewarm base.
I discovered the beauty of truth, the nature of work and the sacredness of the family unit.
Soon we were married. Some days now I hardly have time to scratch myself, between the teacher/ paramedic/ ‘chief-cook and bottle-wash’ life of a mother of six, a hard working husband and a job to pay for the basics in the most expensive city in the world. In marriage I have never worked harder or prayed harder in my life. And somehow everything stays afloat. Some things even flourish.
I will always be thankful for those youthful experiences, as I learnt a lot. Mostly I learnt that prayer gives us purpose and direction, because without it we are susceptible to all sorts of trouble. I discovered that by committing myself to God then marriage, I have a clear, defined duty to create, shape and form individuals to be contributing members of family and society.
*Names have been changed.