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My International Life, con’d

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

Our Return to the U.S. after Three years in Brazil 

School photo from Lady of Lourdes

Lady of Lourdes Elementary offered a new, yet simultaneously similar, landscape to the elementary school in Brazil. New because it was back in the states. But the religion taught was very much aligned as, I believe, the Baltimore Catechism was taught to young Catholics the world over.

And from the get-go, I had major issues with these teachings.

The first day of first grade back in Brazil, the nun stood in front of the class and explained some of the major concepts in Catholicism, such as mortal and venial sin, heaven and hell.  She drew a big circle on the board and said that this symbolized a soul. She then filled it with little dots and explained that these represent venial sins, a minor category of sin that has less repercussion. She then went on to fill the entire circle, quite vigorously and with a lot of gusto  I might add, and explained that this is a mortal sin; and that if you commit this sort of sin and die before confessing, you go to hell forever.

This shocked me. Perhaps it was water off a ducks back for most of the kids. I don’t know. But I was just too thin-skinned for this sort of heavy-handed introduction.  I felt a sense of dread arise, probably for the first time in my life.  I felt my world contract around me. Suddenly there was this outer authority figure who felt ruthless and out to punish any infraction, a harsh policing that I had been, heretofore, unaware.

My largely untrammeled inner world, though it had been challenged by deeply upsetting situations on the home front, had managed to hold it together until now.  There was a nascent sense of coherence that had maintained, a peace. But now that was no longer.  A heavy interior division started to grow and set up camp inside of me.  And out of this also grew an alarming and insidious scrupulosity that dogged me for years…

Due to this new tendency, my approach toward my first confession and communion were not joyous events. Not at all. These are serious sacraments in Catholicism but they  are suppose to bring a sense of gratitude, release and relief. Not for this one!  I prepared for my first confession with great (too much) care. 

The night before, I asked my mother to help me track and write down all possible sins committed in my first seven years of life. As you can imagine, it was difficult to come up with much of anything. Yes, I would get angry at my siblings; one in particular. But I hadn’t really done much else. 

We were holed up in a room as she penned my list of sins. I wish she had told me that I was way too worried; that everything was fine. That I was good.  

I was way to burdened for a seven or even a seventy year old.

I did come up with a sure fire plan as I stood in line the next day awaiting my first confession. I knew the ten commandments, of course, and my emerging OCD mind saw these as covering all possible sins. So, I devised a scheme. I would simply recite all ten commandments and attach arbitrary numbers to each. Of course, it didn’t occur to me that this was lying!  And, I might have had the sense to not confess that I had caused someone’s demise; though it’s likely I did confess to coveting someone’s wife.

This actually makes me laugh now but, really, it was a sad state of affairs.  The priest mentioned something to my parents later as it was definitely odd and hyper vigilant behavior.  And they probably expressed some concern and also laughed, as I do now.  But it was all just so unnecessary the sorrow and disturbance these teachings caused.

Back to being stateside at Lady of Lourdes. In either third or fourth grade, we were told that only Catholics got into heaven. Upon hearing this, I had a very clear question arise in my mind. What about the poor Buddhist?!  I probably had a nascent memory of this religion from my time in Japan. And I saw this dictum as patently unfair. Also, I just didn’t believe it.

Catholicism does serve a lot of people. It enriches their world and brings them closer to the divine. With the type of religious instruction I received, that was just not the case though for me. It was just too heavy and guilt-based for my nature.  It probably has changed some since that time.

It need be said, not all was doom and gloom in Chevy Chase, Maryland.  My first day at this new school, I made a great friend.  I was seated behind an adorable girl with blonde curls and a decidedly mischievous glint in her eye, in the back of the class. She was in a pickle. The nun had tied her hands together behind her chair with a book strap. (That certainly would not be allowed these days. And nor should it be!) 

“Psst,” I heard. “Untie me.” The good girl rebelled. I untied her. Many years of fun followed this alliance. We are friends to this day.

Annie Kiyonaga

September 29, 2023

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