As I closed the car door on that bright, chilly January day, I pretended Josef and I were stealing away to a motel for a carefree afternoon. My calendar noted that today was Al Capone’s birthday and the feeling that I was about to get away with murder thrilled me. The three curious children had been distracted with an extra-sugary breakfast and the smile of their favorite babysitter. No crying, no clinging, nobody had hit or cussed at anyone. Maybe Capone’s cantankerous spirit was around, hoovering up animosity, hugging it to his heartless soul. Josef and I could drive off with a clear conscience. This wasn’t going to be like those Saturday evenings when we’d planned a real date at the Japanese restaurant but all three kids seemed cranky, everything was rushed, and by the time the sitter arrived we were both so tired we wanted naps instead of sushi.
No, we were all clear and when Josef took my hand, I squeezed his. So nice that everything had worked out, that he was happy with our arrangement. But the car was still in gear, and he was looking at me lovingly, as if he’d just understood something. Turning the key in the ignition, he asked, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to make this a family occasion?”
I gasped. I had thought everything so simple. I wasn’t getting away with murder. I was about to commit it with my answer, and I’d feel plenty of guilt when I did, just like a real Catholic.
“No! Of course not!” I said.
I almost felt like I deserved to end up miserable like Capone, addled with neurosyphilis, dying horribly. We’d told the kids we had to “go somewhere,” and hadn’t let on that Mommy was getting baptized. The disappointment in Josef’s eyes was plain. He felt sorry for me. I felt sorry for him, believing that a woman who’d never had sex gave birth. I also felt sorry for Jesus’s mother, missing out on the joys of which no life should be deprived. Might Mary’s son have avoided his miserable fate if his mom had enjoyed a love life? Wouldn’t she have been happier? A better mother?
I thought back to our early days in Bavaria when several of my English language students, wanting to make me feel welcome, had asked whether I’d like to join their sodality.
I was on a bus with two of these ladies at the time, clutching a pole because I was six months pregnant and really needed to pee. Not wanting to admit that I didn’t know what a sodality was—comforted by the thought that I could say I hadn’t heard the word in German—I asked, cautiously, what I’d have to do.
“Oh, we just talk about how we can be more like Mary! We feel like we are standing at the foot of the cross, and we are spiritual mothers watching our only son . . . .” She went on for a while, and I registered only the words, “patient,” “loving,” and “submissive” before keeping a serious face, and thanking them very much but declining because of exhaustion from pregnancy. That was something these ladies understood. They didn’t know, and I hoped they’d never find out, that I was swimming laps every day.
I had not bargained on hurting my husband, only on fooling the arcane powers that allow the Catholic Church to intrude on academic freedom. Josef had been offered a job in his personal paradise, a Catholic university in that most Catholic of German states, Bavaria, where the two of us had taught for several years before moving to Northern Germany.
Our previous employment at the Catholic University had occurred before Pope Benedict’s tenure. He thought things had gotten lax since the eighties, when the university hired folks who left blank the line for religion on the application. The German pope was edging the sole Catholic university in the country toward a nervous conservatism. The Church invests in universities that toe the party line. Someone like me, innocent of baptism, stands no chance. To get back my former part-time position, I’d have to become a Catholic.
One of Josef’s friends had sent him a cartoon captioned “Changes Benedict is Making in Communion.” Instead of the wine and the wafer, the Bavarian Benedict is holding up a beer stein and a pretzel.
Josef didn’t find the cartoon funny, and he was a man who found most things funny.
I wanted the job at the Catholic University, but the thought of faking a desire for salvation seemed worse than faking an orgasm, something I’ve never done. Couldn’t I pull a pro-forma? Didn’t anyone know a priest who would rubber-stamp my conversion?
After an intrigue-filled series of phone calls and emails mentioning no names, a friend arranged for a priest with whom her ex-husband had gone to high school to meet us for coffee and cake, toward which my husband was now driving us, still with a slightly sad, somber expression. He’d really hoped that the whole family could welcome me into the Catholic fold. Mommy’s baptism as a family thing would have been like Christmas and Easter rolled together for him. But now we were just going for coffee and cake, and he was clearly deflated.
Germans conduct important business over coffee and cake the way Americans do over stiff drinks. Neither gooey-sensual nor calorific, Teutonic Kuchen is often spare. It’s social glue, not the focus of the summit. Consider each mouthful an offering—a holy host of business, a first step in establishing reliability and fairness. A bite of cake—we’re friends—a sip of coffee—we agree—a dollop of cream—the deal gets transubstantiated. The cake is no longer cake, the coffee no longer coffee, the cream no longer cream; they might feel like these things in your tummy, but deep down, they have actually become your signature on the dotted line.
“Do you think maybe we can find some common ground?” asked the priest, having polished off his slice, leaning forward and smiling at me in a friendly manner. He’d already learned—I was surprised at the shocked intake of breath around the table—that I hold no religious beliefs.
“Uh, like what?”
Once, he told me, he’d been on a beach at sunset, enjoying the glorious sight of the orange-pink glow as the sun slipped below the horizon. In this glow, he’d removed his clothing and gone swimming—and had felt at one with God. Had I ever experienced anything like that?
You bet I had, but I wasn’t about to say so. I wasn’t about to tell this sincere dude looking at me with tremendous concern that I love taking off my clothes and had approximated that feeling during sex.
I did tell my husband afterward. He smiled, but sadly.
I parried: the priest’s experience sounded Wordsworthian—at one with the universe, spiritually. Yes, I said, while reading English poetry I had felt that feeling.
The priest produced papers, forms to be filled out. I had to sign on the dotted line saying that I was taking baptism and confirmation classes.
I picked up the blue ballpoint pen, signed where he’d scratched an X, and handed him the papers.
“Now you have your washing machine!” joked the priest.
I thought I was off the hook.
But no, he still had to launder my soul. Documents had been signed! I didn’t have to take the classes, but the ceremony remained non-negotiable. The baptism—he consulted his calendar—could be done on several dates . . .
On an even colder day—we all kept on our coats in the church—oil was dribbled on my forehead, followed by cool water. I was intoned over and pronounced Catholic.
We took the priest out to lunch. After a few glasses of wine, he told me that he had once been in love with a woman. He had wanted to leave the priesthood and marry her. This love remained a big secret. Somehow his bishop had found out, scolded him—he imitated the facial expression of his bishop wagging a finger—and said, “I know what you are up to and I am moving you to a different diocese.”
Then the girl the priest loved told him she was going to become a nun. Entering the nunnery, she got cancer, and died.
When Josef and I got home, I sent the priest Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, in which a young girl harrows hell and establishes a republic of heaven, enjoying an Eve-like moment in which she seduces a young man. The stuff generated by their sex-soaked bodies saves the universe. The garden of Eden is sex, and the world needs more of it. I couldn’t agree more.
I never got a Thank You note, but I wished like all get-out that the books would convert him to a happy love life. I wanted to save him from isolation.
Then I experienced a conversion, though not the one for which the priest was hoping. I saw that I could not save him from his self-imposed celibacy, just as I was the only one who could save myself from believing that a virgin gave birth, that only men can be priests, that celibacy is holy, that wine and wafer turn into anything but gastric acid, that there’s a wing-flapping heaven or a flame-shooting hell.
My Catholic husband is the son of a kind, humorous, sweet mother whose first question about the very serious girlfriend before me, an atheist, like all his other serious girlfriends, was “What religion is she?” Told that the girlfriend wasn’t religious, his mom cried, “Get me my heart medicine—I need two pills!”
“And then she died,” said another female friend, “and he married you.”
So that was how Josef saved himself.
Melissa Knox’s recent writing appears in FAIR: Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism on Substack, in Areo magazine, and in ACM. Find out more about Melissa’s work on her website.