Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The magnificent Ambersons of Merchantville NJ - A Thief in the Night

St. Cecilia statue, Pennsauken NJ
As I said, Mrs. Amberson didn't only take an interest in my career prospects.

About a year before she invited me over to discuss fashion design, my friend Lynn and I sat in on a Christian youth group meeting that was run by Mrs. Amberson.

The reason we were there was because Lynn and the oldest of the Amberson children, Blake, were a couple and I tagged along. There were a bunch of other teenagers there too, some from Pennsauken High but I didn't know them.

This was a Protestant youth group and Lynn and I were Catholic. In fact we met in Catholic school, Saint Cecilia's, when my family moved to Pennsauken.

I liked Saint Cecilia's much better than my former church, Our Lady of Fatima. In part because Saint Cecilia's was small and neat and right in the middle of a block in town. Fatima was set in its own large tract of land with big empty fields behind, which are now Parx Casino.

But even more because Our Lady of Fatima came with a creepy origin story which, unlike most Catholic myths, was relatively recent: the Our Lady of F├ítima Marian apparitions in Portugal in 1917. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children in the fields (child labor laws not being all they should in 1917 Portugal) and she told them to pray for world peace, the "consecration of Russia to Immaculate Heart of Mary" and did tricks with the sun, a phenomenon called Miracle of the Sun:
According to accounts, after a period of rain, the dark clouds broke and the Sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky. It was said to be significantly duller than normal, and to cast multicolored lights across the landscape, the people, and the surrounding clouds. The Sun was then reported to have careened towards the earth before zig-zagging back to its normal position
Two of the shepherd children died in the 1918 flu pandemic (which got several of my ancestors too) but one of them lived until 2005. The founder of Our Lady of Fatima in Bensalem, PA, Father John Griffin, was fanatically devoted to this mythology and we had to do an annual May Procession to honor it, which involved wearing white first holy communion dresses (for the girls anyway) and marching around in front of the church and standing for uncomfortably long stretches of time while Mass was said.

Saint Cecilia's parish didn't do processions, and they didn't dwell on the origin story of Saint Cecilia herself who, as the patron saint of music was pleasantly similar to an ancient Greek Muse. She was martyred in Ancient Rome, so was comfortably far in the ancient past, not from the same century like Fatima. And unlike most Catholic iconography the image of Saint Cecilia chosen by the Pennsauken parish did not involve torment or ghostly apparitions, but rather just a statue of the saint, standing thoughtfully, holding what I guess is a lyre. Nobody ever claimed to witness that statue crying, which you get a lot with Mary statues.

As a child I believed in all of it, from crying statues to zig-zagging suns. But gradually it dawned on me that the adults around me who claimed to believe the dogma of the Church, which holds that all of life is just a test to determine your ultimate eternal fate (heaven, hell or purgatory-then-heaven), didn't live as though they believed it. Then I began to have problems with the logic of the omniscient god concept and by twelve years old I was an atheist.

I don't know if Lynn told her parents we were going to a Protestant youth group meeting, or, if she did, if they cared. Once upon a time I guess it would have been a big deal, with the long history of Protestants and Catholics trying to kill each other, but by the time we were teenagers there was basically a pan-Christian truce, at least in the US.

I didn't tell my parents because they weren't all that interested in what I was up to most of the time, but maybe would have been glad I was doing anything church-related. My mother and I had already had a couple of literal fist-fights over my questioning of Catholic dogma and I was avoiding Sunday Mass (obligatory on pain of mortal sin, FYI) whenever I could.

Lynn and I showed up with a box of store-bought chocolate-chip cookies, the Archway brand (which is still around) and Lynn claimed they were baked by her "Aunt Archway" which those gullible Protestants believed until she finally confessed. I'm not sure why Lynn brought any food, I'd think they would be serving us snacks at the church hall as a bribe to get teenagers to spend time doing religious stuff.  But I only remember two things about this youth group meeting - the Aunt Archway gag and the creepy movie they made us watch.

Now I was used to religious creepiness thanks to my own Catholic upbringing, but I had never seen a movie that portrayed evangelical beliefs, and I had never heard of "the Rapture" before. My understanding of Catholic eschatology was that one day an angel would blow a trumpet and then it would be Judgement Day and we'd all go to heaven, hell or purgatory. None of this some people would remain on the earth while other people just disappeared stuff.

The movie must have been A Thief in the Night - the Wiki description sounds right.  It was creepy because it played like a horror movie:
Patty awakens and the entire film's plot is revealed to have been a dream. She is tremendously relieved; however, her relief is short-lived when the radio announces that millions of people have in fact disappeared. Horrified, Patty frantically searches for her husband only to find he is missing too. Traumatized and distraught, Patty realizes that The Rapture has indeed occurred, and she has been left behind. In the ensuing plot the questions are whether or not she will be caught, as she was in her dream, and whether or not she will choose to take The Mark to escape execution.
It was like somebody made a movie out of a Chick tract.

Of course it's available on Youtube.

I was freaked out and I was an ex-Catholic atheist. I can only imagine how freaked out a devout evangelical teenager would have been.

Mrs. Amberson seemed a little perturbed by the movie herself and sort of apologized to us for it. But she must have known what it was about, and I assume she wanted to give us Catholics an introduction to the concept of the Rapture. Maybe it was more intense than she anticipated, maybe she was afraid she would hear complaints about it from our parents. It seems odd to me that the Ambersons were religious at all. As I said, Mr. Amberson was a fan of Monty Python.

But if she was trying to convert us into evangelical Protestantism, she didn't have any luck with me, I'm still an atheist. Lynn however, whom I haven't seen in-person in about 30 years, but am her Facebook friend, seems fairly religious now, frequently thanking the Lord for healing her heart (although who was responsible for her heart needing healing in the first place?) But hers is a religion that permits being a Reiki practitioner and instructor.

I had a yoga instructor do Reiki on me once while I was in Shavasana pose and it struck me as complete voodoo. And amusingly, the Catholic Church has a problem with Reiki, calling it "superstition." Unlike, I guess, crying statues and solar gymnastics.

I let the yoga instructor do her Reiki schtick on me without complaint though, figuring it made her feel better to think she was helping me, and I was glad to make her feel good about herself. My attitude is that whatever makes people feel better is OK as long as they don't force their beliefs on anybody. 

In addition to Monty Python, it turns out Mr. Amberson and I have other things in common, as I learned when I decided to research what happened to the rest of the magnificent Ambersons of Merchantville NJ, which is in the next post.