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The Needle in the Nightlight

In a book called Zero to Lazy Eight: The Romance of Numbers, the chapter on the number seven includes this paragraph:

In both the Roman Catholic Church and the Islamic faith, seven is the age of reason. Muslims below that age are not expected to observe the rituals of prayer and fasting that form a normal part of the adult practitioner’s life; and Catholic children first take Communion at seven, after which they are expected to attend Mass regularly, observe Holy Days of Obligation, and go to Confession, being held accountable for their sins. We know of one five-year-old Catholic girl so impressed by the age of reason, she uttered this birthday wish to her seven-year-old brother: “Happy birthday, Matthew. Now you can go to Hell.”

In selecting as an auxiliary verb one with a conditional aspect rather than a declarative one (can instead of will), the younger sister proved herself correct both grammatically and theologically.

Both she and Matthew, as well as Joseph Maguire, one of the book’s authors, are my siblings. This says a lot about the consideration of Catholic doctrine and language — potentially, twin occasions of sin, in the rubrics of my parents — that permeated the Maguire household in Albany during the 1950s and 1960s.

I was a good Catholic boy. As a kid I interpreted that phrase to mean “well-behaved, pious.” I still say that I’m a good Catholic boy, sort of, but now I merely mean I’m good at being a Catholic: by turns troubled, ecstatic, guilty, f@cked up (I can’t even type the word), sinful, redeemable, sentimental, tuneless. And my desk is far too messy.

It was only when I moved to the Boston area for graduate school that I first met anyone who wasn’t Catholic. A few years on and I found myself hanging out with people for whom the word religious could only be followed by fanatic. I took some pains back in those days to keep my habit of attendance at Sunday Mass a secret.

Catholicism, to those raised in it, is worn as a coat. Its sleeves are long, cut along the lines of a straitjacket. It has golden wings sewn into the shoulder pads. There is far too much crusted blood in its seams to make it an appealing garment to wear in public. But in my experience it is impossible to remove. I expect to be buried in it. I don’t expect to be wearing it at the Last Day, for I don’t believe in the Last Day. However, I do devoutly believe in human ignorance as well as the notion of surprise. So we’ll see.

I have two children now. They began life in Cambodia, as pint-sized Buddhists. They are baptized Catholic. This is not because I endorse the truths of Roman Catholicism over the truths of another faith. Intellectually, I’m inclined to think of the world’s many faiths as slightly corrupted variations on a universal human instinct toward wonder. However, practically speaking — in what, among students of literature, is called a writer’s voice — my most authentic voice, for good or ill, is Catholic. Its grammar, its syntax, the pitch and roll and accent of its concerns — all incontrovertibly Catholic, whether I like it or not.

I admire and attend to the myths and moral lessons of history, of the arts, of personal experience, and of other faiths. I can seldom form a sensible thought in their foreign tongues, though. And I take it as an obligation of parenting to speak to my children as authentically as I can.

So together we (tunelessly) intersperse renditions of “Baby Beluga” and “One Man Shall Mow My Meadow” with the sung Doxology. We say a prayer for the sick when an ambulance with a sounding siren rushes by. This past Christmas we played cowboys and Indians with the shepherds and the wise men from the crèche. In years to come we will consider the psalms, the parables, the Passion. I want us to share a language not solely dictated to us by Madison Avenue and Hollywood. So at night, when they’re asleep, I tuck my boys in and sew them into their coats. I feel the awesome and awful weight of the goods I am wrapping them in. In some ways I wish I could spare them the uniform. But flash, flash goes the needle in the nightlight, as I keep to my task.

From the November/December 2001 special Politics & Religion issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is a founding co-director of Children's Literature New England and the author of novels for adults (including Wicked and A Winter Wild Swan) and children (including Egg & Spoon and the forthcoming Cress Watercress, both published by Candlewick).

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