“Perdóneme señorita, pero le puedo hacer una pregunta?” Excuse me miss, but may I ask you a question? I was in line at a little bakery just around the corner from the church, waiting to pay for my coffee and croissant. It’s a tiny place, but it is the only one in the neighborhood that is open on a Sunday morning. The church next door hosts the only Catholic mass in English in Madrid, so there is quite a bit of activity in this little shop at 10 a.m. I had dropped Emma off at her catechism class about thirty minutes earlier, and went to the bakery to have some breakfast and flip through a magazine while I waited. It was one of those decoration magazines, the kind that is supposed to give you all of these wonderful ideas about how you can make your house look and feel spectacular, and really all it does is remind you how far you have to go. I mean, yeah, we could do that with our house, well, if that was our house.
Sometimes I will take a book to read, or I will go over to the little kiosk that is right in front of the church and get a newspaper. Or I will just sit in the car and watch the people on the street. You can’t help but to imagine the stories behind people you see. The old man who leans against the window sill of the bakery, smoking cigarettes and calling out at the young women who walk by is a perfect example. He doesn’t saying anything crass, just “Buenos dias, guapa!” Good morning, pretty lady. His clothes aren’t crisp and clean, but neither are they dirty or ratty. He wears an olive fedora and a bright red wool scarf. His face carries the weathered creases of experience and his smile reveals the kind of appreciation that only comes from having truly lived. There is an old metal bike leaning up against the wall next to him, plain white plastic bags hang on both of the handle bars. As I walk by him in the street, I can hear him singing the words to a song that sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite make it out. There is another American family in the bakery and the woman tells me that they buy the old man a loaf of bread every Sunday. I know nothing more about the man than this, yet I can’t help but think to myself that this man’s got a story, for sure.
My Sunday mornings with Emma have been interesting. I stopped going to Church a long time ago, disillusioned with what was, in my mind, a greater focus on the intangibles of faith than on the actual things that make us human and responsible for one another. It became harder and harder for me to honor a religion that on the one hand claimed to be for everyone and on the other hand vehemently denied the spirituality of those whose God didn’t look quite like its own. I carry in me a faith that is undefined and is at the same time needy and rebellious. Shortly after my dad died, Emma mentioned that she would like to start going to church. She had been to mass on occasion with her dad or members of his family, and it wasn’t completely unfamiliar to her, and she was eloquent in her explanation: she was curious about God and Jesus and wanted to learn more. Whatever my own conflict with religion has been, I could not deny Emma the right to explore her own faith, so I agreed to take her to the English Catholic Church. She was just in time to begin catechism classes, and the parish was kind enough to create a special class for Emma and a few others who were also slightly older than the traditional “beginners”. Emma is committed; it will take a lot for her to miss either a class or a mass and she plans to do her first communion just over a year from now.
And so it is that this morning, I kill some time in the bakery while Emma is in class. We’ll go to mass together afterward, and I look at my watch, realizing that it’s time for me to pick her up. I quickly order a chocolate-filled pastry to go so that Emma can have a bite to eat just before mass starts, when an older man I have never met approaches me in line. He is dressed in earth tones that are typical of Spanish elderly in the winter, and he is substantially shorter than I am. The lines on his face deepen as he smiles, which he does when he turns to ask me: “Perdóneme señorita, pero le puedo hacer una pregunta?” I respond with a smile in kind and answer “si, por supuesto.” Yes, of course. “Usted se sienta a tomar un caldo calentito. A la derecha tiene la cuchara, y a la izquierda el tenedor. Cual utiliza?” You sit down to eat a warm soup. On the right is a spoon, and on the left a fork. Which do you use? I shake my a head a little and smile, amused by the question. After considering it for a moment, I answer confidently, “la cuchara”. The spoon. He looks at me and shakes his head, at first seemingly disappointed, but then his facial expression quickly changes and he looks almost pleased. He replies: “No. Hay que utilizar el tenedor. Pero usted esta todavía muy verde.” No. You must use the fork. But you are still green. I stand there, stunned, as he turns away, his gait slightly victorious. Truth be told, I am almost angry at the man, thinking that he asked me a question I couldn’t possibly have known the answer to, because it could have been answered either way. He never did tell me why the correct answers was the fork – it could have been that protocol dictates that you use the utensil on the left side of the plate; or perhaps it was that the fork will prolong the joyful experience of eating a warm soup on a cold winter day. Either way, I admit that I considered the man’s audacity to be little more than obnoxious. He was just trying to prove that he knew more than a spring chicken like myself – I, of course, in my maturity, yearn to call out “I am not a kid!” and slam the door behind him. Fortunately, I do have a modicum of social grace and decide against that approach. Nevertheless, I steam for a few minutes until I realize that it doesn’t matter which utensil I use to eat my soup. In the end, unless you are dining with royalty, the important thing is whether you are absorbing the glory of that soup with all of your senses. Obviously you don’t want to make a complete ass of yourself so you use a napkin and don’t slurp while you eat, but that’s beside the point.
As I consider this, I realize that my internal clash with the Catholic Church is of absolutely minimal importance. What matters is not why I disagree with the Church on so many different levels; what matters is what I get from the whole experience of accompanying Emma. You see, while I necessarily find ways to entertain myself when she is in class, I don’t actually resent having to get up extra early on a Sunday morning to drive the forty-minutes into the city. I enjoy a unique quality time with my daughter that I think few parents get. The commute gives us an excuse to talk about whatever comes up – from age-appropriate girl stuff to why Dad and I got divorced or why I don’t take communion. She tells me what she thinks about friendships and God and being a sister. And sometimes we just listen to music and say nothing. And to be very honest, I actually enjoy mass. The community is welcoming, the music is often uplifting, and the parish priest is kind and engaging. There are times, I admit, when I feel like he is speaking directly to me. If you look hard enough, you can find meaning in anything, but there are actually times when it is effortless – something in the homily, the church bulletin or the chosen music for the day will touch me personally. On an intellectual level, my faith wants to remain defiant, but little by little my heart finds warmth in what would otherwise be just a cold, red, brick building. And I realize that growing up is not about proving that you know as much as your elders; it’s about accepting what you don’t know and learning how to, once in a while, take that leap (of faith, dare I say?) that might land you somewhere unexpectedly worthwhile.