Living in Sin


The Grown UPs From Left to Right Back Row: My Aunt Polly, My Mother, My Grandmother, My father. The kids: Cousin John, Butch, a neighborhood friend, Zed, Me. Cousin Tom.

Not only was yesterday Valentines Day,  but it was also my parents’ wedding anniversary.  They were married in 1942, in Elkton, Maryland, by a Justice of the Peace on the day before my father left home for his participation in WWII.  They were Catholics but had no idea what a stir their wedding vows would cause the family ten years later.  All was well until 1952, when by youngest brother Reid, was born.  Mom and Dad decided to have him and my brother, Zed, baptised when Reid was about a year old.  The big day was scheduled with relatives coming from New Jersey, and my grandparents who lived nearby.

Just before the event, my parents went to talk to the priest who would perform the ritual.  He wanted to know more about the family.  I had been baptized in a different church shortly after I was born and had received my first communion a year earlier at the same church where the baptism of my brothers was to take place. When they were asked by the priest where they were married everything came to a screeching halt.

They were told by this man of the church that they were not married in the eyes of God and so were living in sin.  He also said that my brothers and I were bastards because my parents were not married and therefore we were illegitimate.

My parents held the family gathering anyway, on the Sunday that the boys were to be baptized but weren’t. There was much talk about the situation, how unfair it was and serious anger was expressed.  Being about 9 years old, I listened as everyone pissed and moaned about the church and how cruel it seemed to this family whose early time together had been interrupted by a long war in which my father narrowly survived and was awarded at least one medal for his heroic service.  I soaked it all in and when I never went to that church again, I understood that we were not permitted to return, because we were no good.

I’ve carried this story with me all of my life, wondering why I never felt worthy of acceptance by most other people.  In October of 1990, I finally came to grips with how I felt about the church and my own encounters with nuns and priests.  Healing the hurt, I wrote the following poems.

Religious Instruction

When I was eight I went to church                                                                                                   where a nun prepared me                                                                                                                   for my First Holy Communion;                                                                                                         learned about the body and blood of Christ,                                                                                   a white wafer to be swallowed whole.

She told me that money collected                                                                                                     on sunday went directly to God.                                                                                                       I dreamed of baskets filled with coins,                                                                                             sprouting wings, ascending to Heaven                                                                                             where he didn’t allow dead babies                                                                                                   that hadn’t been baptized.

The nun choked in her long black habit,                                                                                         white gorget pressed around her puffy face                                                                                     like a rubber band, hiding her hair, ears                                                                                         and the neck where a heavy black cross                                                                                           swung on a silver chain bowing her shoulders.                                                                               She rapped the knuckles of dreamers                                                                                               with a ruler producing red streaks, tears.

One Sunday after reciting the Act of Contrition,                                                                           confessing a multitude of sins and pretending                                                                               to do penance, I walked down the aisle                                                                                           dressed like a bride, in white.


Sunlight filters                                                                                                                                     parables of glass,                                                                                                                                 stains the alter,                                                                                                                                     the Virgin Mary.                                                                                                                                   Above me Jesus hangs                                                                                                                         on a wooden cross,                                                                                                                               his face serene.                                                                                                                                     He died for my sins.                                                                                                                             Now I must gather them up,                                                                                                               tell the priest hidden in the confessional:                                                                                       the turtles died                                                                                                                                   because I forgot to feed them,                                                                                                           how I hate my father                                                                                                                           when he hits me,                                                                                                                                   all the lies I’ve told.                                                                                                                             I wait my turn                                                                                                                                       to kneel in the dark.                                                                                                                             My stomach aches.                                                                                                                               I have to pee,                                                                                                                                         practice the prayer                                                                                                                               about being sorry.


Children hang in rows                                                                                                                         on gilded crosses                                                                                                                                 beating their breasts                                                                                                                           for priests who smell                                                                                                                           like whiskey and smother                                                                                                                   the question:                                                                                                                                         What have we done?


I kneel at the altar                                                                                                                               dressed in white.                                                                                                                                 Angels float above my head.                                                                                                               The priest approaches,                                                                                                                       presses the wafer                                                                                                                                 against my tongue.                                                                                                                               I choke as the body catches,                                                                                                               bleeding in my throat,                                                                                                                         scraping its way to my soul                                                                                                               where shut in the dark                                                                                                                       It will not grow.


They are living in sin.                                                                                                                         My brothers and I are bastards.                                                                                                       The priest said so.

They were married                                                                                                                               by a Justice of the Peace                                                                                                                     the night before my father                                                                                                                 went to war.

They are not married                                                                                                                           in the eyes of God.                                                                                                                               My brothers and I do note exist                                                                                                       in the eyes of God.                                                                                                                               The priest said so.

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6 Responses to Living in Sin

  1. patricia says:

    Joan this is heart breaking. You remind me why I do not belong to organized religion and how it is wise to question everything. Thank you.

  2. Sharon says:

    From one little bastard to another, thanks for giving this the light of day. One of these days I will share my story of “The Christening of the Bastards” but until then, I will reread your story. Thankfully, the wise ones – Jesus, Mohammad, the Buddha – shared stories that can guide our hearts as long as we do not feel the need to be judged by any organized religion or its followers.

    • jzrart says:

      I can’t wait to read “The Christening of the Bastards.” I couldn’t agree more about the great teacher’s stories and the universality with which they taught.

  3. shirleyhs says:

    I am so touched, and angered, by the pain meted out by that priest to your whole family, Joan. I hope you have found your own form of redemption after having to carry such a burden on your slender young shoulders. I feel certain that Jesus himself would have said, “Let the little children come unto me, and forbid them not. For such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

    • jzrart says:

      Thanks, Shirley, and welcome to my blog. I never realized how this experience touched my life until I put pen to paper. I have found my own spiritual way and consider myself a hybrid of sorts. I love what Jesus taught. Combined with the teachings of the Buddha is for me where I find peace and solace.

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