Thursday, June 28th, 2012...8:57 pm
Read my new book: Love, Actually!
Oh, it’s about time. Finally. After, oh, only about two years of telling people my new book is just about finished, it’s here!
Realizing the Universal Loving Ideal
Keep an open mind, and I promise I will not lead you somewhere you’ve been before.
Mark Crane, New York City, 6/27/2012.
A Turning Point
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?
- Genesis, 18:25
Sister George Mary stood at the front of the room facing us, and we were composed, our eyes set on the oak door, impossible to see much in the dark hallway at this angle through the gray square of safety glass. The pastor of our church was about to enter the room, and I was prepared for great revelations.
Although I knew him already.
I could say I knew him better than any of the others- since I was an altar boy and I’d been through plenty of Sunday masses at his side- but there really wasn’t much to know. Priests entered the sacristy in a sort of a zone, and they rarely would call you by name, let alone get into any conversation that wasn’t about the ritual you were about to produce. Unlike my father, who was open and engaging with me, priests seemed to me to be inward men, with perhaps a great store of anger deep below, that being the best reason I could figure for why their personalities were stony and dry. It was my understanding that devout Catholics like priests saved their emotional side for intensely private moments with intimate confidantes- maybe other priests, close family members.
The truth was I knew nothing about Father Bradley the other kids didn’t. I saw the same thing they did on Sunday mornings, just from a side view.
It was Media, Pennsylvania, a county seat, a nice balance between town and city- leafy, but all sidewalked, and busy, with a distinct main street- State Street- that featured a trolley from Philadelphia running right up the center.
We had been told that now that we’d reached the eighth grade, Father Bradley was making a special trip the two blocks over from the rectory to visit our classroom. We would get to meet him, “for a talk,” Sister George had said.
Religion was central to my life. Since my parents had wanted to enter me into school early- something only the public schools would allow- I’d been unable to follow my three older brothers into Catholic school. At the dinner table, much conversation would swirl above and beyond me. Even my mother, who taught third grade at a nearby Catholic school, would be able to put a face and character to the names that animated my brothers’ stories.
Then, in the 7th Grade, I’d finally been admitted, and I was so happy to dive into the culture I’d only dipped my toes into Sunday mornings or in the few weeks of preparation for my First Holy Communion.
There were depths to my religion I was eager to explore.
There was, of course, the sacrament of that part of life- confirmation. And I picked up being an altar boy as eagerly as I inherited the paper route that each of my brothers had run before me. I even joined the Legion of Mary, a group of especially devout Catholics who focused their efforts at prayer as a group, a group that you joined out of zeal for your faith. We spent many hours being instructed by the nuns and lay volunteers on the stories of the saints and the variety of devotions we would practice. We would take trips to the local nursing home to pray with lonely, ancient remnants of the turn of the century, once children who had danced around May poles and run with hoops.
My devotion filled my mind with important questions.
It was possible, I understood, that Father Bradley would do something along the lines of what he was doing in church every week. He might pray or bless us. I guess I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him pull out a shaker of holy water and give us all a sprinkle. Maybe he would lecture, the way he did in his homily, which I assumed only adults could really understand, as I never did. The homily was like listening to the news- there were too many words and references I couldn’t understand, and no matter how I tried, my only way to stay still was to get my mind to drift to something that could entertain a kid. I would try to keep it holy, letting my eyes roam to the Stations of the Cross along the wall and my thoughts to the dramatic drama of Jesus’s crucifixion. Or maybe I’d try to make some sense of the stained glass images of buxom, haloed ladies and portly cherubs.
Or my eyes might find a girl looking in my direction, and I’d wonder if she was noticing and might be impressed by my serious poise. Or I’d see a piece of molding that ran along the balcony that looked like an upside-down cross, a menacing reminder that evil was nearby always, and that I must be on guard. If I could only understand what the priest was talking about.
Maybe that was the problem. Ideas like redemption and mercy and sacrifice were out of my young mind’s reach, and rather than studiously pulling them in, I was comfortable with finding a way to live outside them. It wasn’t like the adults were very interested in the homilies. Many adults would fall asleep. And what a clear expression of relief would be seen from the adults at the end of the homily- not just from me. I never heard anyone on the church steps talking about redemption or mercy or sacrifice. It was my understanding (though I never gave it a moment’s thought) that the adults were just much better than me at enduring the homily, and that endurance of tedious ritual was as Christian as Christ’s own suffering trials. I would force myself to kneel perfectly erect, while my gaze surveyed the congregants for other such erect kneelers, telling myself that they were clearly the most devout.
So it was entirely possible Father Bradley would bore us all with incomprehensibles.
It was also possible he had something special to reveal- secrets that would change the course of my life. I was ready to be guided entirely by….
- I was not, I think, ready to be guided blindly by instruction from priests or nuns. I was not ready even to be guided by biblical edicts-
What I was ready for was to be animated by what my religion revealed to me was righteous. What felt right to me was not that I should follow any instruction, but that I should find something within me that would help me understand what I must do.
I yearned for that.
Father Bradley came through the door. The Mother Superior in the hall only advanced as far as the doorway, and Sister George, a broad-shouldered and muscular woman of German stock- a woman who was adept at removing the humor from situations with a crack of her palm to the back of a young head- took herself quietly to the rear of the room.
He sat on the edge of a desk. That was the effect he sought. He began with a little quiet small talk, some chit-chat -friendly, “how’s-everything-going” kind of stuff- which was already a let-down because his demeanor suggested he had nothing planned. This was a visit, simply.
Then, he took a barely-audible cleansing breath, like he might get up and walk out the door, and just as soon, his voice started low, at almost a murmur, calmly running off a game plan for us. We would be good Catholic children. We would respect our parents. He was confident we would keep our sacraments alive, and, wherever life took us, we would keep Jesus in our hearts. It was the tone of voice you heard from a priest in the confessional: soft, a little bored, like these are all things that have previously been discussed. He was recapping for us. These were things that were so vital we simply had to be all too well aware of them.
Then he rubbed his palms on the thighs of his slacks, leaned forward, and asked if we had any questions.
After we shifted a bit in our seats, Sister George’s voice pronounced an oddly moderated encouragement to speak up and ask anything, truly anything at all that might cause us confusion about our religion or really any questions about life, revealing that the nature of this forum had been deliberated upon more than it had at first seemed.
“Does God love Satan?” asked Cynthia, a sycophantic teacher’s pet.
“What is Hell like?” asked Steve, a kid with a concentrated interest in the more dangerous aspects of most topics.
“How old is it normal for girls and boys to fall in love?” asked Cathy, who was picking up on the thread of possibility that maybe they were looking for questions related to our maturation.
As these questions were being asked and answered, my mind was seeking an important question, one that would wake a few dogs, something at the heart of religious mystery. There were no hands but mine next and he called on me.
My thinking continued on my feet. “Let’s saaaay there is a person who doesn’t believe in God, buuuuut who does all he can to be very good. Let’s say he spends all his life helping people, and then dies. Would God still send him to hell?”
I wasn’t trying to start trouble. I probably hadn’t even considered the possibility that there was not a good answer to my question, that my puny thoughts could threaten the core beliefs of people like this priest and nun. And maybe it wasn’t just logic bothering me but the fact that my dear father was not faithful enough to stand the tests these people outlined (I wouldn’t be interested in going to heaven if he wasn’t there.) I don’t know, but for some reason I could not make the leap between a selfless, charitable Jesus and a God who was so interested in getting credit that he would damn a perfectly moral person for eternity just because that person did not believe in God.
My father would always mock my grandmother and great aunts for their servility to the church, its priests, and edicts. You shouldn’t fear religion. And wasn’t Jesus’s message that you shouldn’t fear God?
Well, maybe not. His message was more like you shouldn’t fear Jesus.
But Jesus and God, these confounding teachers drilled into us, are the same thing.
I did not look back at Sister George, though I could hear exasperation in her breathing. Father Bradley looked away, where he might compose his reply in private. His eyebrows slightly twisted then, and he blinked a few times before returning a humored gaze in my direction. Not one kid made a sound.
“There are two theories on that,” he replied, very calmly. “Either the man will go to Hell, just because he does not believe- because God does command us to believe. Or he goes to Hell because he is not really good, since no one who fails to believe could really do good things for what is actually, deep in his soul, a good reason.” His smile was thin and he did not let his eyes stay on me a moment longer before rising up, leading us all in an Our Father, then drawing from his large cassock pocket a holy water shaker. He uncapped it and gave us a generous sprinkling before walking out the door.
That was the first moment I felt truly let down by my religion. Looking back, I see the issue at heart was the contradiction between my own ideals and those of my religion’s God.
If a God behaves in an unloving way, should we follow? Let’s say a religion we espouse leads us to commit acts we believe to be immoral. Or perhaps we are merely called on to follow a passively immoral holy leader, like one who has allowed children to be victimized as we’ve recently seen with the Catholic clergy child rape scandals where bishops transferred child molesting priests from parish-to-parish, secretly exposing new victims to them- or one who fails to lead his congregation to oppose a swelling of immorality taking over the community- such as what happened throughout Rwanda in the days leading up to the genocide- or really in any nation getting enthused over the prospect of an unnecessary slaughter or brutality of any kind. Do we follow a religious leader like that?
It either is or it isn’t proper for us to question the leaders of our religion, and, if we should scrutinize them, no small dose will suffice. Either these are angels walking the Earth or these are individuals capable of every flaw on the books. And you can’t judge their religious counsel without investigating your religion enough to be a proper judge.
And that makes you a judge of the development of the history of that religion. Religions are not born of whole cloth. They are woven over centuries by active individuals, each of whom either are or are not deserving of scrutiny.
Are we sheep, as my religion always encouraged me to believe? Should we follow any religion we find ourselves born into, no matter what sort of radical or effete character it has? If we are not sheep- if we are instead to hold ourselves morally accountable for our religious decisions- we are not only in a position to judge the religions we follow, but it is our duty to do so.
Once it is our duty to question one small niche of our religion, the consequences are monumental- we are compelled to judge our religion and its, or our, concept of God with complete scrutiny.
And that can be a very difficult thing to do. When congregants begin to see themselves as the seeds rather than the fruit of a religion, the burden of such a responsibility can seem daunting, and only with great courage and faith can they be expected to complete the work that scrutiny requires.
Change obliges a settled person to become unsettled, to accept that all that has gone before them was never actually finished- to discover the ground under their feet is not dead, but alive; and that the work they’ve been led to believe merely requires obedient abidance has in fact been egregiously neglected.
This is not a notion of faith that doesn’t connect with human experience enough to keep a congregation awake, but one that emanates from human experience. It is a faith residing within us that we are reminded of or have our attention called to, not one that is doled out to us in packets of mystery.
Radically, this new faith will release the struggle towards our loving ideals from the narrow confines of religious identity, and it will allow morality a universal expanse, a great victory for the most universal of religious ideals, the ideal of love.
… Chapter 2: “The Friendly Ghost Is Dead,” next week!