A PERSONAL VIGNETTE

There is an old saying dating back to Origen. It is undoubtedly far older than he. That is: "The wise penetrate to the true meaning of religion; the foolish and the ignorant see only the outer symbols that cover it."

Growing up as a Roman Catholic I did not understand many things about Christianity. No one else understood any of those things very much either. But I did not know that then.

I was told simply to accept what I could not understand by elders with good intentions. I thought that they understood what I did not, and that some day when I was their age I would understand as well. After all, what else would a child think?

When I turned eleven years old I suddenly decided I wanted to be an altar boy. I say suddenly because until that time I had not expressed much interest in religion. For those readers who do not know, altar boys were the kids in black and white robes who assisted the priest before females were allowed in the sanctuary during Mass. Now anyone can go in there anytime. For a while after this change of priestly heart the helpers at Mass were called servers. I do not know what they are called now.

I can not remember now just why I wanted to serve at Mass. I was not particularly religious then. Maybe I just wanted to learn a little Latin. Maybe I just wanted to do something my sister could not do. I could have done it just for that reason.

But I do not think that was my real reason, at least not inside. I may not have been aware of it then; in fact I know I was not aware of it then, but something began to stir inside of me. Something began to wake up.

It would take a long time for me to understand just what it was that began to awaken when I was eleven years old. As it was, it took many years to complete the process. And I am not sure that it is over yet. Or that it is ever really over.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I did not understand lots of things about Christianity. Lots of it just did not mean anything to me. One of those things that never meant anything to me were the words of Jesus supposedly spoken from the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

The religious literalists immediately start talking about Psalm 22 and the fulfilment of prophecy. That is fine, I guess. But to me that is just the exterior symbol. The words themselves just never meant anything to me. That is, their true meaning meant nothing to me. I did not understand just what those words expressed.

No one else understood them either. Oh, they thought they did all right. But they really did not. And most of them still do not understand. Then one day a decade later when I was twenty-three years old those words suddenly took on more relevance than I could ever have imagined.

You see, something happened that changed my life and I understood what those words meant. I did not understand right away, but eventually I did. I did not even understand right away that they were relevant and that I was living them. But I felt them right away.

I was a chaplain's assistant in the army at the time. I was teaching a catechism class to help prepare men to receive their first communion. In case you are not Catholic or familiar with Catholic practice, one's first communion is rather a big deal for Catholics. Something like graduating from high school. You just do not have much chance of getting anywhere without it.

One July afternoon, one of the men asked me a rather simple question that I proceeded to answer for him. As I was responding to him a small and rather soft spoken voice, female by the way, suddenly said something inside my head. The female voice said to me, "This is bull shit."

There was no clap of thunder. I was not knocked off my horse like Paul of Tarsus had been. No flaming crosses appeared in the sky overhead proclaiming anything like they did to Constantine.

Just a soft and gentle female voice saying, "This is bull shit." Simple as that. Direct and to the point.

From the age of thirteen until that moment of my life I had been a good Catholic. I had attended Mass daily for years. I had received holy communion at nearly every Mass. I had prayed the Rosary almost every day. I had confessed at least once a week, and frequently more often. I had even attended a seminary for four years with the good intention of becoming a priest. I guess what I am trying to say is that I was not wishy washy. I was serious.

To be perfectly honest with you, the seminary was high school. So you could argue that I was young, naive and innocent. That I did not really know what I wanted. All of which was probably true.

But during university I was older, wiser and I did know what I wanted. At least from a religious point of view. Actually, during university the transformation, which started when I was eleven, began in earnest.

At the University of Maine in Orono I joined the Newman Club which is a social and religious club intended for Catholics who attend non-Catholic university campuses. We had weekly discussion groups that I found rather boring since we all agreed on just about everything we talked about.

One day I decided to liven things up a bit by playing Devil's Advocate. I would just ask questions from some point of view other than the Roman Catholic one. At first my questions were rather weak, timid and easily satisfied. But as the time went by, either my questions were getting more challenging or everyone else in the group was getting bored with me. At any rate, the answers to my questions were getting less satisfying for me.

There was nothing going on that I would have considered threatening to my religous faith. At least not consciously. Daily Mass and communion continued. I took an active part in the chapel routine at the university. That all continued.

But there was something going on. Even though I was not aware of it consciously, whatever it was that had started waking up when I was eleven years old was really starting to stir by now. That something finally emerged as a quiet female voice saying "bull shit" in my head. I can see now in retrospect that it finally and forever broke through to my conscious awareness at that time.

Now that I think about it, even when I was in the seminary I had a question that was never satisfied. You see, my seminary classmates, some of them at least, talked about faith. They talked about faith as if it were some sort of commodity. The statements would go something like, "I have faith." With lots of emphasis on the word have.

Maybe I was stupid or naive, but I wondered just what it was they were talking about. I did not seem to have whatever it was. No one could ever explain it to me very well.

Sure, I believed what the Catholic Church and the priests told me. I had a swell nun for a teacher in seventh and eighth grade and I believed what she told me.

There was a priest I knew when I was in eighth grade. I really liked that man. He was probably my favorite priest of all time. That is really saying something because by the time I was twenty-three years old I had known lots of priests.

Maybe it was just because I was thirteen when I knew him and I was very impressionable. You could argue that and make a good case. I think it was because he was just a great guy who happened to be a priest.

He was the guy who came into the class one day to talk to the boys. Sister Mary of the Immaculate Heart talked to the girls. Actually, the boys and Father Gavigan went into the gymnasium for our talk and the girls and Sister Mary stayed in the class room. I never found out just what Sister Mary said to the girls. But I looked at the girls a little differently when I came back from the gymnasium, and they seemed to be looking at me a little differently. too. There was something about them I had not noticed before.

Can you imagine that scene? A celibate priest and a celibate nun telling eighth grade boys and girls about sex. That was the state of Catholic sex education in 1958. I have no idea what it is now.

I think I decided I wanted to be a priest at least partly because of Father Gavigan. I wanted to be like him, I guess. He died in a climbing accident in the Grand Canyon the summer before I entered the seminary. He went missing for a week or two and made the national news. I missed him.

I know you are thinking now that I blamed God for Father Gavigan's death and that is why I eventually stopped being a Catholic and even a Christian. I do not remember now whether or not I blamed God for his death. If I did I got over it.

It was Father Fiero who signed me up to be a priest. He just came in one day and talked to the boys in the class. Five of us decided we wanted to be priests that day.

So when I was fourteen years old I went off to the seminary. And I was a good kid and a good student and a good seminarian. I studied hard and dedicated myself to God. I did everything I was supposed to do and lots more as well. I learned lots about Christianity, so I thought.

But I still had this confusion about faith. Just what it was I could never figure out. I saw boys roll their eyes when they spoke about faith. They cocked their heads off to one side as if they were hearing some faraway sound, harps perhaps? They would get this peaceful look on their faces; their eyes would roll, and then they would say it. "I have faith." With lots of emphasis on the word have.

I could never say it like that. I never said it at all actually, in any way whatsoever. Faith was something strange and unknown to me.

But I did experience a profound devotion for the Blessed Virgin Mary. I had an adolescent crush on her, to be perfectly frank about it. I never said anything about that to anyone then. Yes, she was my fantasy girl.

Then there was Saint Philomena. She was later decanonized due to lack of any authenticating evidence. At least, that was according to the official line. My romantic crush on her had nothing to do with it.

I had my suspicions, though. After all, God knew what I felt and what I imagined. Mary was safe because she was his own mother. But little Philomena was just a fourteen year old Roman girl with flimsy documentation.

With all of that behind me, maybe it was not so surprising that a soft female voice said what it did in my head when I was twenty-three years old. Who knows, maybe that was little Philomena talking to me after several years of neglect.

I had not totally abandoned Philomena, but my ardour for her had definitely waned after her official problems. She had a right to be miffed with me.

Then again, even if Philomena was still with me I do not think she was speaking as a woman spurned. She was young, but still a woman, and she was saying something else much more important than simply asking why I had abandoned her. She was saying something I needed to hear. Maybe it was something only she could say to me. Who knows?

If I had been more aware I could probably have seen it coming. But it took me completely by surprise. I was just blown out of the water. That guy asked me such a simple question and I could hear my voice responding. But it was kind of like I was sitting in the back row of the theatre. Distant. Then that soft and quiet female voice said, "This is bull shit."

What exactly happened is hard to describe, but what it felt like was sort of like water running down the bathtub drain. You know the sound the water makes when it forms that long skinny whirlpool? A kind of sucking, scrunching sound? That is sort of what it felt like.

I was a bathtub and the water was just running out of me. Nothing could stop it from running out of me. And when it was all gone, there I was empty. Just empty. Empty is the only word to describe it.

And there was Jesus hanging on the cross and he was empty. Finally, I knew what those words meant. At least I knew the feelings those words were trying to express because I was experiencing the same thing. I was not thinking about it as it was happening. I was just experiencing it. That was about all I could handle at the time. But I knew.

I did not have a choice. It just happened. I did not think to myself that I am now going to have this experience. Or, think that I would like to experience something like this just for the fun of it. Something happened and I was in the middle of it when it did.

That was when I stopped being a Christian. That was when I started to discover just what it meant to be a christian. Maybe that is the best way to distinguish between the two, by using upper and lower case. Upper case for all those who say they are Christian, but do not really know what they are talking about. Lower case for those who say they are not Christian but have discovered what being christian is all about. Welcome to the New World of christianity!

Many years later I was able to write about that experience. Here is what I wrote:

Poof!

In the center of me is a black hole,
Into which I am vanishing,
Like water down a bathtub drain,
Slowly, inexorably, without retreat.

I sit and peer inwards
Fascinated,
Marvelling
At the growing wonder within.

What will it be like
When at last my empty shell
Collapses inwards into the void?
Poof!



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