I used to think I was eating tiny eyeballs. Every December 13th while my siblings and I played around a hissing brick fireplace and my father watched The Price is Right, my mother would drive to my aunt’s house down the road to pick up a large pot of cuccìa. On the feast day of St. Lucy, my aunt Lucy would prepare the traditional Sicilian dish of boiled wheat berries and sugar. Some years she would add chickpeas for heft, but to us, it made no difference. We would listen for the sound of the garage door opening, followed by my mother’s hollers, and the six of us would take our place around our large oak dinner table, with my father at the head, to slurp the beige, goopy stew. Just a taste my mother would say to them, but to me she’d offer a stern look, tie a checkered dishcloth around my neck, and remind me every last drop— for your eyes.
At two and a half, I was diagnosed with strabismus. My mother had a moment of denial when her sister-in-law pointed out that my left eye would turn inwards like a wayward pinball, especially when I was tired or concentrating, but a doctor confirmed the diagnosis, and before I could speak in full sentences I was fitted for corrective glasses. At seven I had my first surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton. That was unsuccessful, but when I was 13, a promising young surgeon operating out of Sick Kids in Toronto would be the answers to our prayers. No more tantrums, smashing glasses on the floor, no more four-eyes, and incessant teasing on the playground. A brand new teenager with brand new eyes—the only stipulation was another prescription, this time for contact lenses to help my eyes focus and prevent an eye-turning setback. Saint Lucy had worked her magic. Aesthetically speaking, I was cured.
St. Lucy—the name derives from the Latin lux, meaning “light”—is the patron saint of eye disease. She was born around 283 CE in the eastern Sicilian town of Siracusa. Young Lucy had no interest in marrying and had already consecrated her virginity to Jesus, which did not sit well with her betrothed. He was expecting to inherit her large dowry, so he reported her to the local governor, Paschasius. At the time, Christianity was prohibited in the Roman Empire, and the governor ordered her to a brothel, but legend states that she was immovable. After a failed attempt to burn her alive, soldiers ultimately succeeded in taking her life with a dagger to the throat. By the 15th century, Lucy’s story changed. By then, tradition had her gouging out her eyes to discourage a persistent suitor as well as their miraculous return by the time she was laid to rest.
Cuccìa is the dish that commemorates St. Lucy saving her home town of Siracusa from famine in the 17th century. When a cargo of wheat arrived at the city’s port on December 13, starving townspeople did not grind the wheat berries into flour to make bread or pasta; they simply boiled the berries and consumed them hot. I still feel for those townspeople. I used to swallow whole tablespoons with my nose plugged to dull the taste, and I never let my teeth make contact with the soggy berries. As much as I wanted St. Lucy to straighten my eyes, I didn’t want to know how eyeballs tasted.
Leaving Sicily at the age of eight did nothing to weaken Catholicism’s hold on my mother, who is named after the Blessed Mother, a fact she takes great pride in. She attended an all-girls Catholic private school where all her teachers were nuns. “I loved them,” she told me once when I was helping her peel the ends of green beans. “I told those nuns everything. They were my confidantes.”
As the youngest of 12 children with strict Sicilian parents, young Maria Scibetta was in desperate need of someone to confide in. Things she was not permitted to do in 1960s Hamilton included riding a bike, wearing shorts or a bathing suit, swimming, spending Saturday nights with her friends, or being alone with a male who wasn’t a relative. Her father forbade her from taking the one-year post-secondary nursing course she asked to enrol in because he did not want her tending to the needs of naked men. The Sisters, meanwhile, listened to her, told her to pray for strength, and to trust that God had a plan. My mother went to Mass every morning before class and took solace in the readings, and continued the tradition of faithful Mass attendance after marriage to my father.
Sunday mornings in our family meant waking up to the scent of sizzling garlic and freshly percolated espresso. Once most of the midday meal was prepared—fresh sauce, breaded veal cutlets, grilled eggplant, and sautéd rapini—my mother would load us into our cream-coloured station wagon to get us to the eleven o’clock Mass. My father had more interest in watching his soccer games live from Italy than in joining his wife and six kids in the pew, so he stayed behind with his hot espresso to yell at the TV, his gold crucifix jumping and tangling with the black chest hair that sprouted out from under his white undershirt.
The six of us all had Catholic schooling, and my eldest sister was among the first cohort of students to attend Ontario’s fully funded Catholic high schools. Unlike the non-Catholic kids I knew, we learned about Jesus and his teachings in the classroom. Love one another as I have loved you, my grade five teacher said was the greatest of all his commandments. Choir practice every week in the gymnasium meant 300 kids sitting crossed-legged on the cold floor, necks cranked up to follow along with the lyrics projected onto the wall, while our teachers strummed on their guitars. High school found us in red and blue kilts and gold baptismal crosses, flirting with boys at our lockers. We sat on the bleachers during Mass and tried to use our 1980s bangs to cover our sooty foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
The majority of kids at my high school were the children of Italian, Croatian, and Portuguese immigrants. Being Catholic was simply part of our hyphenated identity. To me, Italian-Canadian and Italian-Catholic were interchangeable. The only Italian I knew who was not Catholic was the man who delivered the crusty, round loaves of bread to our house every Wednesday. (There were a lot of things my father had to acclimate to when he immigrated, but Wonder Bread wasn’t one of them.) Our bread man had converted from Catholicism to become Jehovah’s Witness. “Thank the Lord his mother was already dead when he converted,” my mother said once, after paying him and closing the front door. “I hope if any of you ever leave the Church, you’ll do it after I’m gone.”
We are living in a time of experimentation with life. But a bad experiment. Making children rather than accepting them as a gift. Playing with life. Be careful, because this is a sin against the Creator.
—Pope Francis. November 15, 2014
In 2015, a year after my second son was born, I decided it was time for glasses. It had been 28 years since I had owned a pair and with a baby and a toddler to take care of, I didn’t have the time to fuss with contact lenses.
Sitting in the ophthalmologist’s large, fancy chair, I explained the history of my strabismus as well as the two eye surgeries I’d had as a child.
“Let’s have a look, shall we?”
After asking me to read the letters and holding the giant plastic paddle against one eye, then the other, he asked me to turn the light back on while he scribbled in my chart. I got up from the chair and tried to flick the switch, only to miss it. This was often the case whenever the light source was compromised. I turned to my go-to strategy, which was to close my “bad eye” so my good eye could focus on my target.
“Oh, the ghost of strabismus past,” he said as I sank back in the chair.
“Pardon?” He looked up from his notes. “Your depth perception—it’s impaired.”
It was a Sixth Sense montage-type moment. I thought about all the things I had trouble doing without shutting my left eye: zippers, lighting candles, threading needles, parking my car. No matter how much I squint, I cannot parallel park. Luckily, that’s the only thing I failed in my driving test. “Yes, I guess it is,” I said. “But I didn’t know that was because I had strabismus.”
“Well, technically you still do,” he explained. “The surgery straightened the eye muscles, but your eyes will never work together—that happens in the brain. You have what is called monocular vision instead of binocular vision, which is needed to perceive depth.”
I stared at him, searching for words that didn’t come.
“Don’t worry, your other senses help you out, and besides, as long as you don’t want to be a surgeon or a pilot, you’ll be fine.”
When I read what the new progressive pope had said about IVF, I was not surprised. He had taken the line from Donum Vitae or Instruction for Respect for Human Life by Pope John Paul II, the 1987 document stating that IVF, by failing to respect the connection between the conjugal act of a married couple, is morally unacceptable. In-vitro Fertilization, the statement said, robs procreation of “its perfection.”
When I conceived my two sons after ten years and multiple IVF failures, I was not aware of my church’s teaching on Assisted Reproductive Technology. Years inside the walls of Catholic schools as both a student and a teacher did nothing to enlighten me on this position. It was only after I read Pope Francis’ 2014 statement that I investigated further.
In hindsight, the position made sense. The Church has all kinds of teachings that creep into the bedroom; the ban on abortion and contraception are simply more high profile. In any case, the church’s position was the farthest thing from my mind during that long dark decade, coping with incomprehensible grief—a grief that often went undetected and unacknowledged both, by my peers and by society at large.
How could the Church not support the creation of life? My children were conceived out of a love so profound, we did everything available to us at great emotional, physical, and financial costs. Then again, the Church had other teachings I did not agree with—regarding divorce, homosexuality, clergy celibacy, female priests, and behaviour I found abhorrent, from its treatment of Indigenous people to the child sex abuse scandal. Why was I just now feeling the pain of a very imperfect institution? Only because my actions were personally implicated?
Not only had I lacked depth in my vision, my soul had failed to look beyond the rituals I was doing on autopilot. I was being observant, but without true contemplation. I had simply pushed certain thoughts to the back of my mind and continued with my life.
Until recently, I was a Catholic school teacher—a role I cherished. Administrators would tell us that as educators we were to model the values of the Gospel and to live our life based on the teachings of Jesus Christ—something I thought I was doing a fairly good job at. But Love one another as I have loved you is not something I’m seeing in many Church teachings, including calling the way my children were conceived a “sin.” Infertility is a disease, and one I wished I didn’t have. But I was comforted in my faith throughout my entire grueling ten-year journey because I had been taught that Jesus came to heal the sick. I believed that, with the birth of my two children, those same healing powers had been offered to me. My children were created, I felt, with a little bit of science and a lot of God’s grace. Ask any woman who’s ever had a failed IVF procedure if she’s playing God.
Theologian Richard Rohr makes a telling observation. “People of the Light will quite simply reveal a high level of seeing, both in depth and breadth, which allows them to include more and more and exclude less and less.” Apparently, the powers of St. Lucy notwithstanding, I had not been fully healed. Or had I? After I visited with the ophthalmologist, I began researching my invisible disability to try to fully understand its full impact on my life. My research led me to the fact that, although I will always be less accurate in determining distance and depth than my binocular-visioned-peers, my brain is still receiving plenty of other visual data, such as size familiarity and residual memory, all of which the brain uses to function. Some self-led daily experiments showed me that I’m much better at determining distance farther away than I am at sizing it up close. And when I struggle with tasks such as helping my five-year-old son with his zipper or lighting the candles on my seven-year old’s birthday cake, what works I find is to slow down, and repeat the action. And, most importantly, to see that I have as much light at my disposal as I possibly can.
As is fitting for a saint whose name means light, St. Lucy’s feast day, December 13, coincides with the date of the winter solstice in ancient Roman times. December 13 is now a festival of light commemorating the slow but steady coming of more sunlight. Today, in Scandinavian countries, young girls in white dresses and a crown of candles carry trays of cookies and rolls and sing hymns as a way of asking the saint to be a source of light for the people during the long winter. The festival also memorializes the legend that Lucy ministered to the Christians hiding in the Catacombs of Syracuse, a crown of candles lighting her path, leaving her hands free to carry as much food as possible to the people.
In reassembling my faith after the shattering discovery of my church’s stance on Assisted Reproduction, I began looking to what Rohr calls “people of light,” people who see more and exclude less. Progressive Catholic priests fighting for the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals. Lay Catholic groups advocating for the ordination of women. Catholic writers condemning the Church for its wrongdoings. These people are showing me what healing looks like. Rohr, again: “We grow by passing beyond some perfect order, through a usually painful and seemingly unnecessary disorder, to an enlightened reorder or ‘resurrection.’” I cling to this notion in the darkness of my sorrow, trying to reconcile a pure message with one tainted by flawed humans. These people are my modern-day saints. No more reliance on ritualistic behaviours, but on true, faith-filled actions. These are inspiring me to use my words to destigmatize the Church’s language on Assisted Reproduction.
On February 2, I attend Mass with my seven-year-old, who is set to have his first Communion in May. On that day he will take the host, the Eucharist, for the first time; should he continue in the Church, he will experience the “Body of Christ” every week in communion with all other Catholics around the world. A gust of winter rolls in behind us as I attempt to close the heavy wooden door. In a church that has held so much—my wedding, my sons’ baptisms, and the sacraments of many of my family members before me—I continue to hold on.
It is Candle Sunday, the day commemorating Jesus’ presentation in the temple by Mary and Joseph shortly after his birth, a day that celebrates our belief that Christ is the light of the world. We walk in and are immediately accosted by the smell of burning wax. The church is dark, the only light coming from a cross-section of white candles on a table, set up on the altar. We take our seats in the pew and kneel for the opening prayer.
My son immediately notices the long slender white candles sandwiched between the missal and the hymnbook. A circular piece of paper (to catch the drippings) surrounds each candle, like Saturn’s rings. He takes the candle closest to him and twirls it back and forth between his fingers.
Shortly before the start of Mass, the priest makes his way to each pew, lighting the candle of the person closest to him. A trail of light slowly blooms along each row. After my candle is lit, I turn to make eye contact with the petite, grey-haired woman sitting to the left of my son. He calls up to me, breaking my concentration. “Light mine, Mommy,” he says.
I want to tell him no, it’s too dangerous. I don’t want him to get burned. I don’t want him to drop the candle, and set the pew on fire.
“Light mine,” he asks again, a little louder.
I place my free hand on his shoulder, focus my gaze, and bring the flame down to the wick.
Cover photo courtesy of Mona T.