Cheap Plastic Pearls

Not so long ago I attended a baptism at a Catholic church. Try as I might, I still can’t forget the little illustrative story the priest told as part of his performance of the ritual.

The gist of the story is this: A father and his little daughter, Emily, go into one of those “dollar stores.” Her father says she can buy one item, and Emily picks up a string of pearls. Cheap plastic pearls, of course, but the little girl’s heart is set on having them. She loves and cherishes them and takes care of them, but then one night her father says to her at bedtime, “Emily, I love you. Can I have your pearls?” The girl is distraught and offers her father anything else—her teddy bear, her dolls—but will not give up her pearls, her cheap plastic pearls, much to the father’s obvious dismay. The next night her father says again, “Emily, I love you. Can I have your pearls?” He receives the same response, and again demonstrates his disappointment. The third night the father repeats his question: “Emily, I love you. Can I have your pearls?” This time the little girl gives in and hands the plastic pearls to her father. When she does, he reveals in his other hand a string of real pearls, valuable pearls, and hands them to little Emily to replace the string of crappy pearls, the ones that she loved with all her heart.

The priest prefaced his telling of this story by emphasizing that it is one of his favorites, and he told it with enthusiastic maudlin theatricality—the whiny voice of the little girl in marked contrast to calm assuring tones of her father. Style and substance were both awful. I’m not keen on creating conflict, though, especially when collateral damage could be significant. I attended this baptism because, differences in religion aside, I love the parents and children involved. So for better or worse I did not feel compelled to confront young Father Wet-Behind-the-Ears about the awful story with which he regales the families of newborns being baptized in his church.

If I had confronted the young priest, however, I would have told him I’m an ex-Catholic atheist with a master’s degree in theology, and that even in my “believing” days I would have found his story to be beyond the pale. I would have told him that the father who buys the cheap pearls for his daughter, because she loves them, and then tries to take them away from her, is an abusive parent. By asking for the pearls, rather than demanding or simply taking them, he creates the illusion that he is respecting the little girl’s free will. But he is in effect forcing her to make what is to her an incomprehensible choice, and he does so from a position of authority. He asks for the pearls knowing that she loves and cherishes them, and does not hide his disappointment when she offers the teddy bear or doll but will not give up the cheap pearls. He subjects her to the kind of guilt-based manipulative tactics that are associated with the abuse of children in, among other contexts, the Catholic church.

Further, the father (the God-character, of course) displays no evidence of the “unconditional love” that is supposed to characterize the Christian God. Despite his repeated insistence that “Emily, I love you,” there is an undercurrent of conditionality attached to the giving up of the cheap pearls, which is indicated by the father’s overplayed disappointment. A little child in that position could not be blamed for feeling afraid that her refusal to give in to her father’s demand will result in the loss of his love and care.

And then there is the annoying implication that “father knows best”—the pearls he gives Emily on the third night, the “real” pearls, are better than the ones that the daughter loves. These are the “right” pearls, and making the exchange with her father is an obvious good, of course, because he is wise and all-knowing. He knows better than his daughter what is good for her and what choices she should make. This is a perfect demonstration of the infantilism that religions in general and Christianity in particular, attempt to imbue in their followers. Do as I say, the God–father character says via his earthly representatives, and I will fulfill your needs and give you comfort; obey and everything will be okay. Deferentially suck at the church’s tit from the womb to the tomb and you will have your eternal heavenly reward—not your crappy plastic pearl necklace.

But what rankles me the most about this story is that the father does not seem to accept or appreciate the little girl’s act of love. She loves those cheap plastic pearls. She holds them dear. They mean the world to her and she treats them accordingly. That is why she does not want to give them up. When the father replaces them with a string of real pearls, he is telling his daughter that her love has no value unless its object is the object he has chosen. Given this attitude, it should come as no surprise, then, that the church devalues so many forms of love: Love of someone of the “wrong” gender; love of the “wrong” kind of philosophy; love of the “wrong” “divine” being; love of the “wrong” kind of neighbor. Love who, and what we allow, the church says, because you are not qualified to make that judgment for yourself.

There is a lot of criticism out there, rightly, of so-called honor crimes in the Muslim world. Fathers and brothers kill and maim their daughters and sisters for the “sin” of “dishonoring” the family. And what comprises such dishonor? Loving a member of the wrong sect or religion; loving someone without the permission of one’s father or eldest brother; having a sexual relationship that is not approved by the father; and on and on. (You can read my recommendation of a novel on this topic here. ) How many steps are these heinous acts removed from the Catholic priest’s story of a father brow-beating his little daughter into giving up something she loves in order to satisfy his desire to control her most intimate feelings? Far too few, I would say. And the reality of Christian honor killings bears this out, as in this example, not to mention the misogyny embodied by Catholic Ireland’s long history of virtually enslaving “difficult” young women in its Magdalene laundries.

I am not sure what message this young priest thinks he is putting across with his unpleasant and offensive tale. It is fortunate that the infants and children involved are too young to be imprinted by this nonsense, and with any luck the parents and other adults are too preoccupied during the ceremony—with keeping older siblings quiet, for example—to really pay it much attention. I can only hope that this is the worst this priest has to offer as he exercises his false authority week after week from his bully pulpit.

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