I grew up in the 1950’s in an almost-middle-class neighborhood of two-story asphalt-shingled cottages and bungalows. Many families on the street had at least five kids. My strongly Protestant family only had two kids—just my older brother and me. My parents slept in twin beds; all of the Catholic parents slept in double beds.
No one on the street had money to spare, or if they did, they spent it on things not visible in the driveway or on the front porch. Many of the families, however, did fork out the $8 plus “carfare” for a once-a-week maid. Our maid was named Fanny. She came on the streetcar from downtown Baltimore to the suburbs every Friday. She always wore a waist-down apron, smelled like the cheesy chips she kept in her pockets, and hummed all day long while she worked.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, my birthday fell on Fanny’s workday. I don’t know how she knew it was my birthday, but I do remember I was standing next to the family-room credenza when she reached into her apron pocket and handed me her gold plastic crucifix. “Happy Birthday,” she said. I remember I was surprised–both by her kindness and by the gift itself. The crucifix seemed important to Fanny, but the only thing I knew about crucifixes was that they were something Catholics had and Protestants avoided. My Catholic best friend and next-door neighbor had them in her house. Her parents had a bloody one over their double bed and Marian had one hanging from the bottom of her glow-in-the-dark rosary.
My parents thought crucifixes were wrong, maybe even idols. But when Fanny gave me my first crucifix, it did not feel wrong. Later in the day I showed my mother Fanny’s birthday gift to me. She confiscated it, saying something like, “You don’t need this.” Her intent was not cruelty, but a fear of most things Catholic.
My relationship today with crucifixes is different than it was decades ago. I used to think holy religious practice was all about the correct thoughts, words, and beliefs in my head. But when words and theology failed me in my own prayers over a dozen years ago, I’m pretty certain God sat me in a chair, gave me colored markers and paper, and said, “Pray with your hands, your eyes, your heart, and your little child self. Get out of your head.”
Crucifixes, rosaries, prayer beads, candles–all of those religious objects I labeled as superstitious and idolatrous as a child and young adult—are centuries old practices to engage our whole bodies, senses, and minds in prayer. They involve touch and sight. When rosaries first came on the scene about eight or nine hundred years ago most people were illiterate. The faith was shared through oral stories and visual images. As someone who spends 90% of her time tossing words and ideas around in her brain, crosses, crucifixes, prayer beads, and colored markers enhance my appreciation of God’s Word and Story by providing a visual and tactile focus. When I look at them, I do not worship them. Scattered around my house they are flashing beacons in the midst of my chaotic and fretful thoughts to refocus my attention on God.
In retrospect, I wish I had protested when my mother took the crucifix many years ago. Fanny had given me something dear to her and it was dismissed. When my mother died and my father moved away from the house, I remembered the crucifix and searched in every drawer and behind every door of the credenza. But I never found it.
As a reflection of my changing theology and practice and maybe a little bit in honor of Fanny, I have several crucifixes in my house. One of them is at the end of a glow-in-the-dark rosary hanging on the lampshade next to my bed. It is the last thing I see before I go to bed. The glowing crucifix and Psalm 139:12 remind me that both the night and the day belong to God: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (NRSV)
And I am still keeping an eye out for a gold plastic crucifix to keep in my pocket.