One Ticket to the Gray Havens, Please: Marais’s Story
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Marais” is a pseudonym.
My pseudonym is Marais. I am 17 years old. This is what happened to me when I was 12-14. I was part of a not-very-well-known homeschool group called Regina Coeli that was part of a bigger religious group, which didn’t have a real name but was basically known as Traditional Latin Mass Catholics, FSSP, TLM, Usus Antiquior, etc. I would compare it to Quiverfull in that it wasn’t a homogeneous group or network, but was made of a lot of families over the the US and Canada who believed similar things: basically, that the Latin Mass is the only correct form of the Mass and that Catholics who go to Mass in the vernacular (English; Novus Ordo) aren’t as ‘Catholic.’ There were varying opinions on this: some people thought it was a sin to go to a Novus Ordo, while others thought that Novus Ordo Catholics were just lazy. Unlike some other writers featured on HA, I would describe my experiences with homeschooling as positive. I have a good relationship with my parents. We share a lot of religious and political beliefs, but I know that my values are my own and not just forced on me. I want to homeschool my own children. Sometimes I’m still hurting from my experience in late middle school, but it’s not because I was abused in any way. I was stuck in a confusing situation that I still haven’t fully come to terms with. It took a lot away from me, and I miss how happy I was then.
The first time I watched The Fellowship of the Ring, I was so excited that I went upstairs at 11:30 p.m. and bounced on my bed for ten minutes.
I felt as if I’d been given an invitation into the world of Middle-Earth, where there was plenty of evil, but there was more good, and good won out in the end. And if things didn’t work out perfectly, there was always the Gray Havens.
At fourteen, I was pretty unhappy. I’d found limited fame and fortune in doing spelling bees (typical homeschooler alert!) and built an identity for myself as a Word Nerd. Unfortunately, that identity dissipated when I lost my local spelling bee the year after I had tied for 12th at the National Spelling Bee. I had struggled to make friends ever since preschool (I had been homeschooled starting in kindergarten). Wherever I was with ‘normal kids’, I couldn’t keep up with their conversations. I felt invisible.
(I still struggle to talk at the pace of other people. If anything is distracting me from the conversation, I can’t keep up – it takes me too long to process what the other person has said and think of a response. I’m also still too shy to join a conversation I haven’t been expressly invited into. Like most homeschoolers, I communicate much better with adults than with people my own age. My best friend, besides my sisters, is a 30-year-old mom of four whom I babysit for.)
Regina Coeli Academy, which later became FisherMore Academy and today is Queen of Heaven Academy (more on that later), isn’t very well-known outside the Traditional Catholic homeschool family circles. Its tagline is “Catholic Homeschooling Online”, giving overworked homeschool moms of ten or eleven kids an alternative to sending their older kids to ‘real’ high school. My mom heard of it from a family who had pulled their daughter out of real high school and sent her to this online academy instead. They were only too delighted to spill their horror stories of her experiences at the real school to anyone who would listen. After my parents had a less-than-stellar experience with the staff at the local Catholic high school, they decided to send my sister and me to Regina Coeli.
The kids at Regina Coeli introduced me to the Lord of the Rings, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Once I had watched the movies and read the books, I discovered that the community would completely accept my enthusiasm and even obsession with the books, which my mom found violent and unsettling. In class, people would call me Arwen (my favorite character) if I wanted them to. I could be the girl who had an elf sword.
However, they also introduced me to the Traditional Latin Mass, and that isn’t such a clear-cut issue. It’s hard to explain the extent to which the TLM permeated that school’s culture. In my second year there, Regina Coeli officially changed its name to FisherMore Academy and became a partner and feeder school for FisherMore College, a tiny liberal arts college in Texas whose most important draw for students was the TLM offered DAILY! on its campus. The partnership changed a lot of things. I watched in deep envy as some of my classmates moved to Texas to be near the college and its Mass.
More than anything, I think the partnership strengthened the us-vs-the-world mentality.
The TLM community magazine, aptly named The Remnant, from the verse Zephaniah 3:12: “But I will leave within you the meek and humble. The remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the LORD.” Sadly, we weren’t humble. We were inordinately arrogant and pleased as punch with ourselves for being right when everybody else was wrong. If you couldn’t think of anything to talk about with another Regina Coeli student, bashing the Novus Ordo (Mass in English) was always fair game. My sister’s history teacher referred to the Novus Ordo liturgy as ‘clowns and balloons.” One boy in my religion class said that his family drove three hours each way every Sunday to attend Mass in a cafeteria, simply because it was in Latin.
The Regina Coeli family who’d first told us about the school had moved to a different (TLM, of course) parish, and whenever they talked to us, some part of the conversation revolved around me and my sister complaining about having to go to the Novus Ordo every week, and the other kids in this family telling us about how great their Mass was. On a visit to an out-of-town church, my sister started crying at the end of the Mass, in which the cantor sang a lovely, if modern, song at the end of Communion and everyone clapped. After Mass, I sympathized with her as she sobbed that she felt so bad for the people who had to go to Mass there every week.
I wondered miserably why I wasn’t crying too and berated myself for enjoying the music.
It bears mentioning that unlike most families, my parents never got involved in the Latin vs. English drama. They were content in the Novus Ordo and prayed and waited patiently for my sister and me to be content too.
I attended my first Latin Mass when my sister and I went with that first Regina Coeli family on a Thursday night during Lent. Unfortunately, what I remember best was how bitterly cold it was in the church and how hungry and bored I was. I didn’t understand the Latin (duh), and the Mass seemed to take way too long because of all the extra prayers that the faithless Novus Ordo community had subtracted. The supper in the church basement was potluck style, and TLM families pride themselves on who can get by on the most penitential fare (read: watery, meatless soup) during Lent. After we got home, my sister was ecstatic and couldn’t stop talking about how amazing our night had been. “I wish every night could be like that!” I agreed with hopefully convincing enthusiasm, wondering why I was feeling so let down.
To tell the truth, I hadn’t liked the TLM.
I didn’t want to go back. At the same time, I felt panicked. This was who I was. Everything depended on my going to the Latin Mass: where I would go to college, who my future husband would be, how I would raise my kids. How could I not like something that I had built my life around? I had taken my friends’ glowing descriptions of their Sunday experiences at face value.
Not long after my disappointing evening, the FisherMore scandal broke. In a nutshell, a badly done real estate deal caused the college to lose a lot of money. At the same time, some board members were concerned about a speaker the college had brought to campus, who declared that the Second Vatican Council was invalid. (In the Catholic Church, you can’t just say that a Church Council is ‘invalid’; despite this, my classmates and even a few teachers had been saying the exact same thing all year.) The bishop ended up telling the college that they couldn’t celebrate the Latin Mass anymore, a catastrophe for a school that had built itself around the TLM. My religion teacher went off the deep end, posting crazy things that didn’t make any sense on the course homepage. The college students started a GoFundMe campaign to keep the college open. Though they reached their goal amount, the college closed almost immediately.
For me, I knew the game was up when my parents, who are the most generous people I know, refused to donate to the GoFundMe campaign.
My mom was concerned about the attitudes she’d seen in my sister and me and some of our friends. She had caught on to the toxic disgust toward the Novus Ordo. Actually, it wasn’t too hard for me to ditch the TLM. The hard part was accepting that this whole way of life, which had made me very happy, was over.
“Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you”
I listened to “Landslide” a few months later and blinked back tears. The problem with letting go of the TLM was not the liturgy itself, but the way of life it offered me. It had offered me entrance into a secret club, a Remnant. I could be in the same group as the TLM elite. It offered me a chance to be different, special, separate, counter-cultural. I could go to a TLM college, meet my husband, graduate early because of my transfer credits from FisherMore Academy, and live in a little house in Texas near the kids I’d known from online classes ever since middle school. We’d homeschool our (many) babies together, go to church together, share recipes and go on walks and have cookie swaps and sing-alongs and volunteer together.
It was a picture-perfect life, and it’s hard to just walk away from that.
It’s still hard to keep walking away. I think of the guy who was the closest thing I’ve had to a boyfriend. We emailed each other every day during eighth grade. I think of the girl friends I had. I’ve never been that close to anyone since. I feel like Frodo: I’m glad I came back, but it really, really hurts to think of what I left behind. I wouldn’t be happy if I went back now, but if I had stayed in, I would be happy there now.
How do you pick up the threads of an old life?
How do you go on?
When your heart had begin to understand;
There is no going back . . . . .
Forgive me for quoting the movie instead of the book, but I feel that nothing better expresses my feelings about this. Frodo had the Gray Havens to go to when he came home and it wasn’t home anymore. I am so envious. I know that this will never be fixed. It’s going to hurt for the rest of my life: whenever I hear Gregorian chant, whenever I see a priest ad orientem, whenever I think about that musty old church basement that was awful and uncomfortable but also really beautiful, because I belonged.
Don’t expect me to let go. One ticket to the Gray Havens, please.