Tag Archives: catholic


Flags in Barrio Viejo, Tucson, Lisa O’Neill

par·ish   /ˈpariSH/  n.  1  part of diocese under a priest, etc.  2  church congregation.
When I was small, my Sundays were ordered by ritual. By ironed dresses and clean shoes, by getting out the front door by a particular time, by entering a room with tile floors and crossing myself with water, by singing certain songs, by speaking certain words, by listening when I was made to listen and speaking when I was supposed to speak. By holding hands with my parents and shaking hands with strangers around me. By walking in a line, by receiving a white disc in my hands, by placing it on my tongue and letting it dissolve. When I was small, I loved all of this. I loved saying “Peace be with you” to those around me. I loved the smell of incense and the burn of the candles. I loved a place where I knew how things would be, and a space where others assured me God dwelled.

As I grew, I continued to take comfort in this space and these rituals, but I also came to understand that these particular ones were specific to the faith of my parents and this place.

I was raised in a place segmented and ordered by the Catholic religion. In Louisiana, the state is not divided into counties, but rather into parishes. Ascension Parish, St. Charles Parish, Vermillion Parish. An Our Father, a couple of Hail Marys and a place that rested its hopes in the sacred heart of Jesus, in the truth of the Trinity. I knew about faith long before I knew about politics and to me faith was defined in only one way, the way I knew: A parish was a place you lived. A parish was a place you worshipped. A parish was a place where you lived and worshipped. Wasn’t it that way everywhere?

In July, I went to Patti Smith’s Camera Solo exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Art Museum. From reading her memoir and viewing her art, I recognize some similarities in those of us who were born and raised Catholic. Many of us seem to carry through our lives a sense of connection to ritual, to objects as talisman, to the holiness of everyday things.

Most of Patti Smith’s photos are not of people or landscapes. They are portraits of objects, and they capture materials suspended in a moment: a tea cup, the crease on a bed, a pair of embroidered slippers.  She has photographed the beds of Virginia Woolf  and John Keats. She has photographed the slippers of her friend and former lover Robert Mapplethorpe and of Pope Benedict XV. She has photographed her father’s cup and her own guitar.

Virginia Woolf’s Bed 1, Monk’s House, Patti Smith

Herman Hesse’s Typewriter, Patti Smith

Robert’s Slippers, Patti Smith

Robert Bolano’s Chair, Patti Smith


In an interview for the exhibition, Patti Smith says that she has always been talismanic and that she “fell in love with art and it eclipsed everything, even religion.” She uses a Land 250 Polaroid camera to take her black and white photographs, which seem to capture both the material solidity of objects and the artist’s fleeting exposure to them at once. What I like most about her photographs are their intimacy and their immediacy. I am positioned as viewer in relation to the object, and I feel the same closeness to the subjects as Smith. There is artistry in not only in the composition but in the way Smith invites the reader into this intimate relationship with the objects, to view them as she herself experiences them. We feel the intimacy there even if we are not directly part of it. She discusses how by photographing the objects of loved ones, mentors, and artists, she is capturing a part of them. Of photographing many artists’ beds, she says: “We have extraordinary things happen in beds. We sleep, we conceive. We make love. We are ill in our beds. We recuperate. So beds are very important in our lives.” Our beds, these physical objects, hold so much of our lives, those moments both awake and dreaming, and the times in which we are most vulnerable.

When I left Catholicism abruptly after a longer period of edging away, I hadn’t yet realized that these impulses and instincts to ritual, to the sacredness of things are not particular to the Catholic Church or to religion for that matter. Afterall, the rituals of religion are inventions of the human mind; we make ritual to make sense of our life: of birth and death, of grief and struggle, of growing up and growing older, of love and sacrifice. I had a break with the church and with God as I’d known him, but the aliveness in me, the sense of something larger than myself, the knowing that we humans were not it did not go away. Neither did my appreciation for the sense of ritual and way of recognizing sacred that before I’d only recognized in my Catholic faith.


Paint on door, The Heidelberg Project, Detroit, Lisa O’Neill

Wooden Archway, Bisbee, Lisa O'Neill

Wooden Archway, Bisbee, Lisa O’Neill

Breakfast, Tucson, Lisa O’Neill

Close-up Tibetan Sand Mandala, Tucson, Lisa O’Neill

Close-up Sculpture, Phoenix Art Museum, Lisa O’Neill

Circus Tent, Venice Beach, CA, Lisa O’Neill


This recognizing the sacred is a way of looking, of being, of seeing. I don’t need to believe Jesus is savior to love Gospel music. I don’t need to know Hebrew to hear the solemnity in prayer at Pesach. The feeling of mala beads brushing up against my fingers is not so different from the feeling I used to have when my hands held a rosary. We import the meaning onto that which we celebrate, onto the things that allow us physical reminders of our more abstract beliefs. These things are both empty and full at the same time.

It took me a long time to realize that I get to decide what is sacred for me. That no one else can impose that on me. I began to realize that I can create the sacred in my own life. That I can make ritual and disassemble ritual. That I can shift and collage and shape my spiritual life, which is to say: my life, in whatever way I choose.

And so I find the sacred now whenever I think to look, which is often: in the birds that roost on branches and wires and cacti around my house, in the quick text message from my mom or dad, in the way light hits the floor in my kitchen, in the way my dog snuggles up against my chest in the morning. And in recognizing the sacred in the present moment, I don’t have to wait for the thunderbolt of divine blessing. The divine blessing is already here with me. I only have to be still, to witness it as it unfolds.


Filed under weekly words


Rodin's "Cathedral" (David Udvardy)


Ni·cae·a (nīˈsēə)  n.  1.  an ancient city in Bithynia, near the Sea of Marmara: at an important church council held here in 325 AD, the Nicene Creed was formulated: English Name, Nice  2.  Nice (city in France): the ancient name.


Some thoughts on Nicaea:


1. I stopped going to mass for good when I could no longer say the words of “The Nicene Creed” without feeling anger and revulsion rise up in my body. While other Catholic prayers ceded my sacredness, this one felt the most visceral: one God, the Father, the almighty; one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God; the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son, he is worshiped and glorified. Even the holy spirit, the most ethereal of the trinity, was male. Where was I to find myself in this paradigm? God made me in “his image”? I cannot name the number of times I recited the creed over the years (hundreds? thousands?); having gone to Catholic school kindergarten through college, mass was not only a part of my family life but my school life and my education. I was only three years old, at the ordination of a friend of my parents when I saw the line of men in cassocks drifting up the aisle and asked my father where the women were (His answer: I don’t know, Lisa). But it was in high school that I began to clearly see my absence from the representation of the sacred in Catholic prayers. And I felt the reasoning given for this as what they were: excuses. If the prayers were written a long time ago and by men and that’s why the patriarchal language existed, then we needed to rewrite the prayers, to change the language to make it real for our culture and all the people in our church. If it was that way because that’s the way it had always been, then it was time for change.

The First Council of Nicea, where The Nicene Creed was written and adopted, was the first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. The conference was called to reach consensus on questions of the church’s body, to work towards unification. Agenda items: 1. Clarification of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus: are the Father and Son one in divine purpose or also in being? (i.e. the beginnings of the Trinity; Jesus is “begotten, not made”) 2. Deciding the date to celebrate Easter 3. Discussion of the Meletian schism (an early breakaway sect) 4. The validity of baptism by heretics (Paulian heretics denied that Christ was divine and thus not part of the holy trinity; baptisms conducted by subscribers to Paulianism were deemed invalid) 5. The status of the lapsed in persecution under Licinius (the persecution of Christians had just ended with the February 313 Edict of Milan by Emperors Constantine and Licinius)

Primarily, the council was gathered to discuss and reach agreement on the deity or non-deity of Jesus. It is interesting to note that among early Christians, there was division about whether he was God or was sent by God; was he a prophet or divine himself?

All of these specific questions bore me now. Jesus was an amazing teacher (whose most central teachings on love and peace are now largely ignored or passed over by those who claim to know him), as was the Buddha and Mohammed. All the terminology and details of the Catholic Church that I once desired to know or felt privileged when I knew and “understood” feel unimportant to me now. It seems to me that so much of Christianity and Catholicism and many world religions come from a defensive platform. Our way! our God! is right, is the best, and here are all the reasons why. Laws and rules and prayers that are based on this defensive and reactive standpoint are a waste of time to me. The Dalai Lama says: My religion is kindness. I can get behind that: a religion where compassion and love towards another is the rule, where we can meet each other with genuine attempts at understanding, where it is in the way we live—not what temple we visit—that we show our faith. And where the divine resides within each one of us.


2. The first time I played the “Ha Ha” Game was on a beach in Nice, France. This was not the sort of beach I was used to: beige, covered in tiny grains. There were black and gray rocks, big ones that covered the earth near the water. Stones and gravel. I was there on spring break, from Rome where I was studying. My friends and I, close although we’d not known each other long, laid on the rocks, one head on another’s belly, and when the inevitable first laugh came, the movement and sound cascaded down the row. The inevitability caused by others’ laughter, the luxury of silliness when one is supposed to be, finally and always, an adult. Other moments I remember from that trip: Nice just a few weeks before Carnival, the busyness of preparations but no clear signs; buckets of irises, of carnations—red, purple, pink, white—cascading out of buckets at the flower market; a hostel painted all in white; my all purpose wool green sweater with flecks of white; the French version of American diner breakfast; a bus ride to see Rodin’s This Kiss, something that was maybe the most tender and erotic art I had ever seen, and large hands rising up to form a sort of temple: Cathedral.



Leave a comment

Filed under weekly words

Ash Wednesday

photo by Bob Thayer for The Providence Journal

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and seventh Wednesday before Easter: so called from the practice of putting ashes on the forehead as a sign of penitence.

Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

The words were a litany about life, about death, and about sins that need forgiving.

I took these words to heart, with the seriousness and face value only possible from a small child. And as the years went by and the words were repeated, I learned not only that I was going to die but that because of this death, I better repent from my sins. Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee.

What are the sins of a five-year-old, seven-year-old, eleven-year-old? Breaking a glass? Saying a bad word? Talking back to a parent?

Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

The occupation of chimneysweep is (debatedly) one of the oldest in the world. The act of collecting soot, of piling dust, of preparing the hearth for a new fire.


The ash felt dirty on my forehead. Oftentimes, I would look in the mirror and forget, wondering how the smudge got on my forehead, going to wipe it before remembering that today is a day for penitence, a Holy Day of Obligation.

Remember, you are dust.

*How often should my chimney be cleaned?

All chimneys should be inspected yearly by a certified professional and cleaned as required. The inspection is necessary to ensure that the chimney has adequate draft, is free of debris and cracks, has no loose or missing mortar joints and is otherwise free of damage.

Remember, you are dust.

I knew that the ashes came from the palms that were folded into pretty crosses for Palm Sunday. I knew this because my father told me so. One time, when we missed Ash Wednesday services (what kind of sin is it to miss a Holy Day of Obligation meant for repenting one’s sins?), my dad took the folded palms from the previous year and burned them in a small ceramic bowl. Then he pressed his thumb into the dark gray specks and moved his finger from left to right, then up and down on my forehead. He did this because I was worried. I thought God would be irreparably mad at me for not going to mass.

Remember, you are dust.

*Will the chimney sweep cause a mess in my home?

No. By cleaning the chimney from inside your home we maintain control over the dust. All our equipment is laid out on clean drop cloths in front of your fireplace. The hose of our chimney vacuum collects the debris as we brush the chimney.

We can only brush the chimney as fast as our vacuum collects the dust.

The dirtier the chimney flue, the slower we brush.

Remember, you are dust.

When I was twenty, I spent a semester in Rome. While in Ireland on spring break, a friend and I went to Dublin. The only day the Guinness Brewery was open during our time there was on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. She was Episcopalian and I Catholic. We found a church. I remember the urgency of finding somewhere to receive ashes. Then, we went to the Guinness Brewery. We took pictures with our heads inserted in ridiculous old advertisements with parrots holding pint glasses. At the end of the tour, we drank our free pints with the marks on our foreheads, marking a day of penitence and abstinence and fasting. Later, I joked about this time to friends. Wasn’t that funny? But at the time, I remember sipping my pint slowly, aware of each swallow as it sank down my throat.

You are dust.

*Does a chimney sweep remove the black from the wall of the fireplace?

No. We can only clean off the soot on the surface of the brick. Each time you burn a fire, this black changes according to how hot you burn your fire.

Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

I don’t remember the last time I went to Ash Wednesday mass. I still observe Mardi Gras, as any good New Orleanian should. But I don’t feel the desire to have ashes on my head to remind me of my mortality or of the need to be a good person. Sometimes though, when I remember, I fast. And the absence of food in my belly, that gnawing feeling, reminds me of what it means to be cleared out, cleaned out, purified and also, of my need for sustenance.

Note:   FAQ on chimney-sweeping taken from Clements Chimney Sweep and Repair in Feasterville-Trevose, Pennsylvania.


Filed under weekly words