1964: Johnson over Goldwater (WAY over); Bonanza, I Love Lucy, Lassie; first race riots–Harlem, Mississippi; Vietnam War widens; Cassius Clay; Beatles, “I wanna hold your hand”; movie, “Dr Strangelove”; Turkey attacks Cyprus; Kruschev falls from power. President Kennedy’s assassination in the previous November is still on everyone’s mind. In this world, I was 13 years old: 7th grade at St Cassian (Roman Catholic) School, Upper Montclair, New Jersey–quiet suburbia about to undergo the cultural tumult.
Like any 7th grader, I am looking forward to the long month of May to end, since that month’s passing signals the approach of summer vacation. In Roman Catholic upbringing, 13-year olds are prepared for Confirmation, the sacramental ritual in which Catholic children are received by the bishop and made responsible members of the church. We were prepared by our teachers, the Dominican nuns (quite the authority figures! My 8th grade teacher-nun was called “tank” by us in secret!) for the episcopal visit from the Bishop of Newark. On that warm spring-time evening, we all gathered in the parish church of St Cassian. The bishop held a general examination of our faith. He would call upon various individuals to answer specific questions on points of doctrine. We were expected to give the correct answer to these questions as we had been trained from the Baltimore Catechism. My summer break would be just after the Confirmation service, since school classes were all done. Just this one, last effort…
The bishop called on me. There must have been a hundred kids in that little wooden church! And I have to deliver. Fortunately, the question was one of those really basic ones which no one could flub. I think it was, “How many persons of God are there?” I aced it–three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After a few others were put on the spot–some with coaching from the bishop himself– we all drew near the altar rail to be confirmed. There we all are, kneeling and ready. The bishop comes down the line, imposing confirmation oil on the forehead and giving a gentle slap on the cheek. (The nuns warned us of this: the slap would come, a sign of the Holy Spirit “hitting” you!). I think we all flinched, expecting a blow. Childhood imagination runs riot.
Since Roman Catholic confirmation is a sacrament, we were expected now to act like mature catholics. Unfortunately, it is a widespread sentiment that confirmation served the complete opposite function. No longer would our religion classes be as goal oriented as for that occasion. Only the boys who went off to seminary would experience that next step. (I had explored that interest only briefly and rejected it, since it meant that I would have to go far away and would not get to see any girls.) In our Irish / Italian Roman Catholic culture, once you were confirmed, there was a reception at one of the homes. Families celebrated this coming of age in the church with “the first drink”–nothing special, a little drink. Champagne. Only problem here is that no one warned me about the stuff. Looked like bubbly fruit juice to me. I downed the glass rather too quickly. I suppose you could guess what happened next. After everything was cleaned up from the nasal projectile emission, I got to thinking about the awkwardness of it all. And that got me thinking about what confirmation was supposed to be. What was confirmed? What did I know? What kind of responsible catholic Christian was I going to be? Is it just to get to have champagne?
I had no answers to those questions. Indeed, those questions would pursue me for the many years to come, until one day a quarter of a century later. In that day, I would discover where real confirmation is to be found. And then it took another ten years before I could experience it: the gift of the Holy Spirit through the sacred Myron of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Roman Catholic rite failed to grant what it offered, since it was no longer energized by God. The Latin ethos had for centuries lost its interior, mystical ethos. I would have to find holy Orthodoxy to experience the answers to my juvenile confusion. Instead of champagne, I would find inner stability. Thereafter all of my angst, my compulsive searching, my aching for the divine homeland, my longing for God would find an effective treatment, a therapy of the Life-Giver Himself. How I rejoice in the Gift!