My former father-in-law, an eighty-four year old I often refer to as "Beast" in my journals, came to visit last weekend to attend my eight year old's first communion.
We've gotten along better over the years, but sometimes he still tests me, like he did at breakfast the day I took him to the airport to fly home. He asked me to pray over our pancakes at IHOP. I reached across the Formica table for his hands as I mentally reached for the right words to decline his request.
"I want to hear you," he said, as if this were a job interview, a test of my worthiness, my holiness.
"I don't feel comfortable," I answered. I never have felt comfortable praying aloud. I struggle enough praying on my own these past few years, uncertain where to direct my prayers, worried it's all just a silly waste of time. Besides, I don't like the sound of my voice. The distraction makes it impossible to hear myself think.
So Beast began to pray out loud, something simple, good enough. I could have offered something similar, but it still would have made me uncomfortable. After the "Amen" he said, "I don't have to think about what I'm going to say. It just comes out."
Bravo. Must be an annointing or something. I'm out of the loop, I guess.
The same weekend Beast came to visit, my husband bought me a CD lecture series, an RCIA course titled, "Welcome Home". It's narrated by Father John Riccardo, a charismatic man, well spoken, intelligent. You might even say he's cool. He's handsome and young for a priest, maybe in his mid-forties. He often does speaking engagements, recruiting new Catholics and urging those who are lapsed to come back "home."
The CD series is long. Seventeen CDs. I'm on #4. I listen as I drive the kids to school every morning, and I catalog the information, wait for satisfying answers, convincing arguments. I'm not buying any of it yet. And this is unfortunate. My life would be so much easier, if only....
But why is it necessary to teach the parts of a faith, step by step, rule by rule, symbol by symbol. Why doesn't it happen naturally? Why so much convincing? Apologetics? Seventeen CDs?
Do we need seventeen CDs to attract us to Love? Do we need props, prayers and formulae? No. We don't.
It all seems very contrived to me. If it requires this much explanation, so many apologetics, there's something inherently wrong. This is way too many steps to God. Too many predetermined steps toward an ultimate and equally impossible goal: divinity. If there's a heaven, we might achieve perfection there, whatever perfection is. I'd have to lose my mind, my self, my power of thought to reach a state of absolute purity. Rendered neutral. Neutered. Hollow. Whatever Adam and Eve were before they ate that damn apple.
When we're hungry, we eat. When we're thirsty, we drink. When we're lonely, we reach. When we're scared, we turn to a complex intellectualized fantasy called religion, a distraction of symbols and "holy" scripture, stories and promises, guides, gates, and a goal of eternity. It's all suspended from a massive scaffolding, a dream we build out of a desperation to live forever, all glued together by some vapor called faith.
Albert Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Seventeen CDs sounds like what Shakespeare was trying to convey in Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." In his day, "protest" meant an attempt to convince.
Add to Beast's prayer test and the long lecture series, a foot washing invitation last week from a church lady. Yes, a foot washing.
Maureen is more of an acquaintance than a friend, someone I've volunteered with at our Catholic church. We're both involved in the social concerns program and have lost a parent to suicide, but the comparison ends there. If she knew me better, she would never have invited me to a "foot washing."
"We will get the experience of both washing each other's feet and getting our feet washed. Come at 8:30 am for coffee and light breakfast, then from 9:00 to 10:00 we'll have the foot washing," she'd written in her invitation email.
Of course, this is supposed to be an exercise in humility and devotion, patterned after Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Jesus with her hair. I get that. But wouldn't it be more pragmatic to deliver blankets and food to the homeless? Or offer babysitting to the exhausted parents of an autistic child? Sitting around having coffee and washing each others' feet sounds self-indulgent, narcissistic. I couldn't even bring myself to respond to the email.
I thought of Maureen though, during my daughter's first communion, when the priest said, "You can tell when someone is filled with the Holy Spirit. They're filled with joy. Their faces light up." Really? Maureen takes about three different types of antidepressants. Without them, her face definitely doesn't light up. Is this her fault? Of course not. Do we blame a lack of the Holy Spirit, or worse, Satan? Do we blame Satan when a baby is born with two heads, when innocent children are casualties of war or die from an atrocious birth defect?
My sister-in-law and her husband were also present at my daughter's first communion. We don't see them often since they live three hours away. To prepare for their visit, I had to find a picture frame for an image of their deceased infant. He was diagnosed with anencephaly during her eighteenth week of pregnancy. Being Catholic, Syliva couldn't opt for abortion, even though the infant would not live beyond a few minutes or hours after birth. The pregnancy was difficult on her already fragile mental state since she already suffered from depression, had had at least one nervous breakdown prior.
When the baby was born, his heart was beating, but he never took a breath. He lived three minutes. She and her husband took pictures. She gave everyone in the family an 8x10 of the lifeless child, airbrushed, his blue eyes glassy and fixed. I couldn't offend her by not displaying the photograph, which I'd put in a closet until I figured out what to do with it. I dug around for a suitable frame, then placed the picture among others of family members, in a prominent place on the fireplace mantel.
Who do we blame for these things? Sister Angelica touched on this during a program on EWTN yesterday (my husband watches frequently). She didn't offer any satisfying answers. People are desperate to know why they suffer so much. God watches. Satan trips us. Bad crap happens. Jesus hasn't returned, two thousand years later, but devout Christians still wait.
Why do they wait? Without the promise of everlasting life, would they still wait? Do they really love God, or are they desperate not to die? Not to be some touched up photo on somebody's mantel?
There are five pill bottles on my kitchen counter. Three are for the dog. He came from a puppy mill. He has allergies, anxiety, and is still recovering from sego palm seed ingestion. So he takes two pills a day, one on an empty stomach in the morning, one with a meal at night, and he gets antibiotic eye drops twice a day.
The other two bottles are for my seven year old son. One is liquid Zoloft. We started him on the antidepressant a week ago Tuesday, to combat the OCD, tics and anxiety that come with his autism. The liquid Zoloft didn't work out. He could taste it in the yogurt, his juice, applesauce. We switched to pills and he took them like a champ. We'll know by Tuesday if it's working, the psychiatrist said. We hope to see that he's no longer repeating lines from Dr. Seuss's Cat In The Hat or Green Eggs & Ham. We hope he's no longer afraid of growing up, that he no longer cries at the prospect of having to drive a car one day, move away from home. The idea of adulthood terrifies him. I can understand that. Adulthood terrifies me sometimes.
Autism drugs, a picture of anencephaly, the price of anxiety, seventeen CDs of apologetics, a morning of washing feet and being asked to pray over pancakes -- this has been my life lately.
My children are watching the movie Frozen as I type. During the movie, the trolls sing a song about being a fixer-upper, and a lyric about making bad choices when we're mad, scared or stressed caught my ear. They were referring to Anna agreeing to marry Hans immediately after they meet. She was desperate. She'd been lonely. No one else was asking. Is this how we choose our religions? Do we simply reach for the one next door? The first one that asks that we seek salvation, divinity? Don't we all want to be saved, in one form or another?
The only time I don't think about these things is when I listen to music from a time when I wasn't worried about anything. When I hear old Earth, Wind & Fire, or America, I feel firmly grounded. Revisiting the past makes us feel better. We know it. We lived it, survived it.
There's no such feeling when we imagine tomorrow. Even with religion, there are no guarantees. Even if you're in the best possible position to enter Heaven, you're still gonna have to die to get there. And there are no postcards from your deceased loved ones. No brochures on heaven. No infomercials. Just faith. And a few rules, like not fornicating, masturbating or using birth control. No supporting gay marriage or abortion. No living together out of wedlock. Stuff like that. And you have to memorize a few dozen prayers, receive a few sacraments (after receiving months of classroom instruction). You have to go to confession regularly. And pray. Out loud.
I've been imagining Beast on his deathbed lately, not out of contempt. I can just see our saying goodbye. We've actually learned to get along over the years, have come to some understanding. He's actually expressed to me some of his own doubts about Catholicism and what we can expect after death. I can imagine our final conversation, low whispers as I sit on the edge of his hospital bed, the air around us thick with the smell of plastic and bleach. I would tell him not to be afraid, that he won't be alone, that we'll meet him wherever he's going.
People have been dying for as long as they've existed. We've "survived" death in a sense, have gotten pretty good at it. What's to fear? Aside from the pain that sometimes comes with it, or the idea of no longer being? The thing is, I can't promise Beast or anyone that there's a heaven waiting for them, or that they're loved by God and heaven's angels. I can't understand such a hands off love.
I can only express my own love, hold someone's hand. And if on his deathbed Beast asks me to wash his feet, I will.