By Jean Houston
My father, Jack Houston, an agnostic Baptist and a descendent of Sam Houston of Texas, wanted to marry my mother, Maria Annuciata Serafina, a Catholic born in Siracusa, Sicily. So dad had to go to religious instruction school, taught by a young priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. He and the priest traded jokes instead of theology, and finally the priest said, “Oh, Jack, you’re just a natural born pagan. Here, I’m going to give you a learner’s permit so you can become a Catholic. But if any children come along, you have to bring them up Catholic and send them to Catholic school.” My father said, “Oh, yeah, sure, sure, I just want to get married.”
Well, I in due course came along. The year that I was five, my father, a comedy writer, was thrown off the Bob Hope show for what was referred to as “an excess of high spirits,” meaning he probably played some practical joke on Hope, and he was sent away for a year or so. With my father out of work, we soon found ourselves living with my mother’s parents in the Sicilian section of Brooklyn—or Brookalina, as my grandmother referred to it.
Since my father had promised to send me to a Catholic school, I went to St. Ephraim’s in Brooklyn. Everything was fine except that my father would “gag up” my catechism and give me the most interesting questions to ask the poor little nun in the morning. Like, “Sister Theresa, I counted my ribs and I counted Joey Mangiabella’s ribs, and we’ve got the same number of ribs. And I wonder, if God created Eve out of Adam’s ribs, how come we all have the same number of ribs?” Before the startled nun could respond, I added, “I’ll prove it! One, two, three, go!” And, right on cue, thirty little children lifted their undershirts.
Then there were the Jesus questions. “Sister Theresa, how do you know that Jesus wasn’t walking on rocks below the surface when he seemed to be walking on water?” And, “Sister Theresa, when Jesus rose, was that because God filled him full of helium?” Then finally, one day, the great question, the one that is in the mind of every little Catholic child at one time or another. This was such a great question, I checked it out beforehand with Denise Canzineri, who said, “Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that,” and Joey Mangiabella, who said, “Yeah, you’ve gotta ask that.”
Well, the mother superior was in the room that day. I raised my hand and Sister Theresa, who by the way lisped a great deal, said, “Yesh?” I said, “Sister Theresa”— I looked around and everyone was encouraging me—“did Jesus ever have to go to the bathroom?” Well, that did it. The mother superior went flying out of the room. And Sister Theresa, in this huge torrent of rage, leaped up and yelled in her lisping fashion, “Blashphemy, Blashphemy! Sacrilish and blashphemy!” She strode over to her desk, pulled out a sheet of oak peg, tacked it up on the wall, and in India ink, wrote in big letters, JEAN HOUSTON’S YEARS IN PURGATORY. From then on, every time I asked a question I shouldn’t have, I’d hear, “Blashphemy, blashphemy!” and she’d mark a big X on the board. Each X equaled one hundred thousand years. At the end of first grade, when I turned six, she added it all up: three hundred million years in Purgatory.
I went home sobbing. There was my father, typing away on his jokes. He said, “What’s the matter, kiddo?” I said, “Daddy, I have to go to Purgatory for three hundred million years and it’s all your fault.” And he began to howl with laughter. He picked me up, put me on his shoulder, made the sound of a choo-choo train with his feet, and went, “Purgatory, Purgatory, Purgatory, Purgatory, toot, toot! Make way for the Purgatory Special!” He ran downstairs, out into the street, and past our Sicilian neighbors, shouting, “Purgatory, Purgatory, Purgatory, Purgatory, toot, toot!” The neighbors threw open their windows, called out, “Eh, there goes that Crazy Jack,” and yelled out some choice words in Sicilian.
I asked, “Where are we going, Daddy?” He said, ‘To the movies, kiddo. You think you have problems? Ha! Wait till you see what they did to a real saint, wait till you see how they hogtied poor old Bernadette.” So we continued on to the Fortway Theater in Brooklyn, where The Song of Bernadette was playing. We sat down next to an old lady who had a chest full of holy medals. The picture began, and every time Jennifer Jones as Bernadette showed up, the lady next to us would cross herself and sigh in Sicilian, “Oh, what a beautiful saint!”
When the Virgin Mary shows up in a vision—one of the great spiritual scenes in the motion picture—the poor old lady next to me keeps crossing herself and exclaiming in Sicilian. Suddenly, a horrible, mule-like whinnying laugh begins to fill the theater. It goes on and on. And it’s coming from my father, who’s in complete hysterics. “Daddy, shhh, this is the holy part,” I said. He’s hysterical, he can barely talk to me, and people are turning around and making evil Sicilian gestures at him. The lady next to us is muttering, “Diablo, diablo!”
I shushed him again, and he said, through his guffaws, “You know who that is up there on the screen playing the Virgin Mary? Linda. We met her last year at that party in Beverly Hills. Linda, Linda Darnell. Hot dog, I told her she’d go far!” He found the incongruity between her Hollywood life and the role she was playing absolutely hilarious. He couldn’t stop laughing, so I pleaded, “Daddy, go to the bathroom, get out of here.” He went stumbling up the aisle, still in hysterics. When he came back, he was pretty well-behaved, except for a few occasional snorts.
Going home from the theater, I was heady with purpose. As soon as we got home, I started walking purposefully toward the front door, and my father said, “Hey, kiddo, are you mad at me?” “Yes,” I said. He asked, “Well, where are you going?” I said, “Daddy, I don’t want to tell you where I’m going because you’ll laugh at me.” “No, no, I promise,” he said. “Oh, yes, Daddy, you will, you can’t help yourself,” I said. “No, no, I promise,” he said again. “Where are you going?” With great pride, I said, “I’m going to see the Virgin Mary.” “You are?” he said. “Hey, that’s a great idea, I’ll go with you!” He grabbed me by the hand, and began to skip down the street with me, singing a horrible song, which I will never forget — ”We’re off to see the Virgin, the wonderful Virgin of Lourdes! We’ll join the hordes and hordes and hordes, the hordes to see the wonderful Virgin of Lourdes!” Appalled, I told him, “Daddy, go away, and don’t you follow me! This is the most important thing I have ever done in my entire life.”
I ran back home, and up to the second floor, where we had a guest room with a very deep closet. There were no clothes in the closet because Chickie, my dog, had staked it out as a sort of dog nursery, and she was lying there nursing her nine puppies. I moved the puppies out into the room and said, “Chickie, you can’t be here. I’m sorry, but I don’t want the Virgin Mary to step on you.” I got on my knees, crossed myself, and I looked at the walls, thinking, “Boy, this looks just like a grotto.” And I began to pray: “Virgin Mary, please, please, please show up in the closet, just like you did before Bernadette in Lourdes. If you do, I’ll give up candy for a week. No, two weeks, okay? Now I’m going to close my eyes and I’ll count to ten. And when I open them, you be there, okay? Okay.”
I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and opened them. No Virgin Mary. Instead, Chickie was bringing one of her puppies back into the “grotto.” I crossed myself again, and said, “Virgin Mary, this time I’ll give up my favorite food — chicken with lemon and garlic sauce and stuffed artichokes — and I’m going to count to twenty-nine, and you be there, okay? Okay.” I closed my eyes, counted to twenty-nine, opened my eyes, no Virgin Mary — but Chickie had brought two more pups back into the closet.
I began to count higher and higher numbers. And I gave up everything. I mean, I gave up all sugar, I gave up all fats, I gave up everything except broccoli, which I hated. Finally, I said, “Virgin Mary, maybe you just don’t know where I live. It’s 1404 Avenue O, and Denise Canzinarri is jumping rope downstairs. I think you’ve got to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and go left. And I so much want to see you and I don’t know what else to give up. Please, please come. This time, I’ll count to 167, and you be there, okay? Okay.” I closed my eyes and counted very slowly to 167, actually seeing her in my mind’s eye, flapping across the Brooklyn Bridge, and turning left toward my house.
I opened my eyes, certain she’d be there. No Virgin Mary. But there was Chickie contentedly licking all nine of her puppies. Giving up, I left the closet and walked over to the bay window. I just sat there, totally empty, in a dream-like state. I looked down, and saw my grandfather, Prospero Todaro, bending over trying to light the scrub pot by the fig tree in our front yard. I looked up, and saw a plane flying across the sky.
And then, it happened. I must have, in my innocence, unwittingly tapped into the appropriate spiritual doorway, for suddenly the key turned and the door to the universe opened. Now, it wasn’t dramatic in any visual or auditory way. I didn’t see or hear anything differently. All I can say is that suddenly everything opened up and the whole world moved into meaning. Literally, all of reality was there and it was all very good and interrelated and moving together — the fig tree in the yard, Chickie and her pups, the plane in the sky, the sky itself, my little Mary Jane shoes, my chewed-up red pencil, my grandfather’s huge stomach, the little boy fishing in the lake who waved to me during a train ride across Kansas, the chipped paint on the ceiling, the silky ears of corn in a Texas cornfield, and all the music that ever was — all were in a state of resonance and ecstatic kinship. And I knew absolutely that I was an important part of this process. In the midst of this epiphany, I heard my father enter the house downstairs, laughing. Immediately, the entire universe joined in and began laughing — field mice tittered, and so did angels and rainbows — everything was laughing together in an extraordinary spiral of joy.
Years later, when I read The Divine Comedy, I remember Dante’s description of his great vision in paradise: “d’el riso del universo” — the joy that spins the universe. That’s what it was like, this incredible laughing, this joyous unity, this great connectivity of everything with everything else, this universal fellowship, and this perfect, glorious feeling of love. It was a knowledge of the way everything worked— through love and joy and the utter union of everything with All That Is.
This experience has remained with me all my life. It was so very deep that it’s influenced everything I’ve tried to do and everything I’ve tried to be. It was alive through childhood and adolescence, this state of passion. I may have almost lost it for a while because I got a little bit over-educated. But whenever I lose touch with it, it always comes back. It was the single most luminous, most important experience of my life.
Jean Houston, PhD, a scholar, philosopher and researcher in Human Capacities, is one of the foremost visionary thinkers and doers of our time. Long regarded as one of the principal founders of the Human Potential Movement, she is noted for her ability to combine a deep knowledge of history, culture, new science, spirituality, and human development into her teachings. She is known for her inter-disciplinary perspective delivered in inspirational and humorous keynote addresses.
Since 2003, Jean has been working with the United Nations Development Program, training leaders in human and cultural development as well as in Social Artistry, a community-leadership training program she developed. Together with other international agencies and companies, she has worked in over 100 countries over the last 45 years.
A prolific author, her 26 books include Jump Time, A Passion for the Possible, The Search for the Beloved, The Possible Human, and A Mythic Life.
Click here to visit Jean’s website.
|This story appears in Phil Bolsta’s book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything. To order your copy, click here.
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