It seems odd writing to someone I’m not sure exists. I guess not too odd really, considering I did write letters to Santa for years.
As you know, I suppose, I grew up Roman Catholic and was taught by nuns in elementary school. Every week we went to Corpus Christi for mass with Monsignor O’Keefe, who to my young eyes looked to be about 100, and spoke in a monotonous whisper punctuated by heavy sighs, wearing his faith like a tremendous burden. We lined up for the confessional, not quite sure what sins we had but being terrified to admit same, and so took to lying about our laundry list of naughtiness as it seemed the lesser of two evils.(It has been three months since my last confession, and these are my sins. I fought with my brother and sister, and disobeyed by parents…”)
Forgiven and sent back out to the pews to say penance (three Hail Mary’s and three Our Father’s, the Monsignor was nothing if not consistent), I waited for my classmates to finish and then traipse back over to Littledale where we would say more prayers behind the convent, in the grotto with the statue of the Virgin Mary. I was terrified of that little grotto in the woods, not because of its proximity to the Waterford (the local mental hospital, and once a patient escaped and we all had to stay in school while the police searched the woods), but because I was convinced the Virgin Mary was going to cry blood or some such thing.
My vision of God (and I don’t mean to offend you, but this is what I learned back then), is that you were a disciplinarian, an angry, vengeful God. When I asked Sister Eileen in Grade 1 if Adam and Eve hung out with dinosaurs, I was told that I must not ask questions in class, and never said a word til I hit high school, and even then not much.
As I grew up, the scandals began to hit. The Mount Cashel rumours became horrific truths, and as what seemed to be a pretty vast conspiracy of silence fractured and came to light, the hypocrisy jammed a wedge between me and the Church. Fast forward to adulthood, and I’m visiting the Vatican during a trip to Italy. Millions of dollars worth of art and collectibles in the vast museum and vaults and yet still, wooden collection boxes in St. Peter’s Cathedral. I watched old Italian women, hunchbacked and shrouded in black, put their coins in the boxes, and I left with a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe they need that cash to pay for the “Shhhhh” person, the “Shusser”, in the Sistine Chapel? I did find it amusing though that the conclave was in session to elect the next Pope, while in the gift shop all Pope John Paul II merchandise was slashed to 50% off. I can’t imagine that’s what you had in mind when Peter stood upon the Rock.
It was around that time that I decided I didn’t have to believe in you, nope, I was all grown up and identified as agnostic (I like to hedge my bets). I wasn’t convinced you didn’t exist, just that there was no proof and not likely to be proof that you were up there. Skeptical by nature, I was happy to believe that the universe is a result of science, and that was all I needed.
Until I hit my late 40’s or so, may have been a bit earlier. It’s around that age when older relatives and friends tend to get serious illnesses, and some pass away. I saw over and over again how many of those people took comfort in their assorted faiths, and I envied them that. Maybe I needed to find my own faith, one in which I could get that sense of belonging, of the comfort I so wanted for myself.
I began an exploration of religion. Maybe not one with one all powerful God, but one like Buddhism, or Hindu, or maybe a pagan practice such as Wicca. Judaism, Shintoism, Taoism, Rastafarian…
It was like trying on summer clothes after an indulgent winter-nothing quite fit. And because I was busy with work and life I put the idea away for a bit, and never thought much about it.
Then, I happened to meet Catherine, a sister of a friend. It was at a social function, drinks were flowing and language was loose, and soon it came out that she was a United Church Minister. After a bit of thinking back to see what unholy things I’d said in earlier conversation, we continued chatting. She was quite open to theological chatter, and we became fast friends. For various reasons, her idea of God and ministry and the role of the church really appealed to me, and I spent some time asking her questions, having explained my crisis of faith and spending much time listing off the Seven Deadly Sins and enjoying spitting out “WRATHHHHHHHH” at each other.
I realized that not all Christianity was Roman Catholic, which I suppose I already knew but never thought much outside that RC guilt box, constructed around me as a child. Shortly after, we made our move West. I stood in line to board a plane behind an Anglican priest, and peppered her with questions. Later on, yet another Anglican priest was in the same photography course as I was, and on one of our field trips I engaged her in conversation. She told me that while she had tried other religions, she found the Anglican church most closely matched her personal beliefs, and that she also (gasp!) appreciated aspects of Buddhism (I waited for the lightning strike but none came). And so I took from that that it was okay to “shop around”, and also that no set of beliefs had to be absolute or binding.
As we settled in out west, from time to time I would come back to thinking about it, wondering if you existed, and pondering how I could know. Although not pressing, it was never tucked too far in the back of my mind.
I had yet another opportunity to talk about my spiritual quest again with a “member of the cloth”, yet another Anglican, a military Padre, actually. (A Chaplain, for my American friends). He seemed quite content to discuss his faith, answered all of my questions patiently, and shared his own struggles in maintaining his faith during difficult times. Like Catherine, Padre Dave was approachable, human, and quite unlike the RC priests of my childhood. Off I went with lots more to ponder.
Then ALS hit. In the blinding misery of those early dark days, I knew I needed help. Finding a compatible counsellor would take awhile, time that I didn’t have.
My husband suggested calling Padre Dave to come for a visit. Now, in all my time as a Navy wife, I have never called the family support centre for anything for myself, I’ve never had to. I’ve been quite independent, and figured they were there for those that had their hands full with families and children and such. And not being religious at all, it would never occur to me to call the Padre. But I had to speak with someone, so over he came.
We talked about a lot of things that afternoon. His own father had passed from ALS, something he mentioned in our earlier conversation. He spoke broadly on themes of fear, disease, dying, and hope, and all quite generally without once making me feel as though I must change my mind about God or repent for sins or anything like that. I felt better instantly, and after assuring me he wouldn’t burst into flames for counselling me, he said he’d be pleased to make regular visits, if I liked.
As our visits continued, we talked about a ton of things and while I won’t burden my reading audience with all the details (in many ways a journey like this is intensely personal and private), I will say Padre Dave provided me with an open, comfortable, non-judgemental environment in which I felt free to question, theorize, and process answers.
I began to read Psalms; I love poetry and I found many snippets that were both comforting and strengthening (not the one about bashing the Philistines’heads against the rocks though; see that’s the reason a minister is helpful on a journey like this so they can remind you that we keep an awareness that the Bible was written in a different time and place, but I digress). I’ve always been interested in the Bible as an historical text, and I’ve never had a problem believing that Jesus was an actual living prophet.
In the course of my reading and research, I came across an essay from an atheist about why she had come to the realization that God must indeed exist. A lot of that essay struck a chord with me, and made sense; it also made me realize you can approach religion in a more scientific way, and that the two can work together.
And then came the eagle incident, which I wrote about in a previous post. What I didn’t share was that I had said, out loud, a “thank you” to the eagle, a thank you for appearing when he did, just when I needed him. And as I said thank you, I felt “You’re welcome”. It was more of a feeling than a voice, internal, but very powerful.
I thought about that a lot, and finally shared it with the Padre. I expected him to say “yes, that’s a sign from God”, but no, he didn’t push that thought on me. Rather, he advised that I might not think too hard about what it might be, and to just accept it as a gift. What a wonderful gift it was, so if indeed that was you, God, thank you, it was lovely.
In our conversations, he mentioned a book I might like, and sure enough I did. Grounded really resonated with me, with the idea that God didn’t just hang out in the church, but was everywhere and present in everything. I was finding that I was more and more comfortable with the Christianity business. A second excellent book for an open-minded skeptic, The Reason for God, provided yet more food for spiritual thought.
Much to my delight, February brought a visit from Catherine, and although I promised I wouldn’t bother her with too many “work” questions, we ended up engaging in a lot of meaningful (okay some of it was silly) chatter including her viewpoints on the things I’d covered with the Padre. I can’t say I would ever have pictured a bedside visit from a minister involving her sitting in my wheelchair with her feet upon the rail of my commode, demanding to know if there was more wine; but there you go. Maybe the Lord does work in mysterious ways.
When seeking information, I never rely on one source, and the more the better. In this case, I had a UCC minister vs. an Anglican priest, and it was fascinating to get points of view that were sometimes very different but shared the same core. (Incidentally, I told the Padre that Catherine was visiting, and I would like them to engage in a throw-down for my soul, but he wouldn’t take the bait.)
That brings me to now, and I am a little bit stuck.
I want to be sure that belief happens organically, and not because I’m dying, or because I want to please my spiritual advisors. You know I can be terribly irreverent, so I am hoping you have a great sense of humour.
If not, I’m sorry about the “so hungry I could eat the leg off the lamb of God” phrase…and when I compared the concept of prayer to be like that scene in The Crown where Margaret is telephoning Elizabeth and the call has to go through all those layers of operators til they get to the old guy at the end who passes the phone to the Queen, and I replace those operators with angels who triage the calls so they can handle the smaller requests themselves and only the really key stuff gets to you…or like today, when I was tilted back a little in my wheelchair so when the Padre came I said “Look! I’m like Elizabeth on the throne and you’re the Archbishop of Canterbury”…I can’t help myself. I cannot believe in a God who doesn’t have a sense of humour.
Should I wait for a sign, or are there plenty of signs already, like the eagle? There are many things that have happened over the years that I could consider a sign, and not the least of which is this newfound inner strength that keeps me going. I need to stop overthinking and overanalyzing. My brain has taken my spirit this far, now I need to let my heart take over.
Again, I say that know this is a very personal quest, a very private one. I’m sharing because it may help others as they find their own roads less travelled.
Are you there God? It’s me, Liz, and I’m starting to think that someone is listening.
Check out Catherine’s insights and photography on her blog, I follow it, well, religiously.