March 22, 2013

Going back to the house

Sitting on the train yesterday on my way to meet with Mary Johnson, author of "Unquenchable Thirst, A Memoir" I was struck with the realization, I had neglected my own life's story. I was listening to Zbigniew Preisner's, Requiem for My Friend, and I realized I hadn't ever mourned my own loss of the church, the loss of faith, the loss of a god.

I grew up in the Catholic Church. My entire childhood, especially those very formative years as a young child ages 7-12 were spent every Sunday at Mass, often Mass during the week. The gentle songs, prayers, music, piping of the organ, were all the bird song of my life. The smell of incense, fresh cut flowers to adorn the altar, the filtered light through the smokey glass windows, were the painting of much of my childhood. The sisters of St Joseph coming every year from Grand Junction Colorado to hold summer camp for child were my summer weekdays. The Church was my educator, my play ground, the Church as much as it could have been was my friend.

I was very fortunate in my home parish. We had good priests over the years, especially Tom Dentici and Frank Chaptach. Both these men were dedicated and kind ministers to their people. Thoughtful in their prayers, without judgment, careful in their ministry, they extended to me for all those formative years a guide of the type of person I should become, loving, kind, gentle, thoughtful. I was very fortunate. The parish was able to exist with little politics, hardworking families and members who valued those moments of grace they experienced in the small building.

I left the church in October of 1998. I've not entered a Catholic Church for services or mass except one time since then in Georgia with my mother and father. I've not allowed myself to go back in, to see the filtered light through colored glass windows, to smell the incense, to hear the song or the prayers. I in effect ran from the Church, abandoned it and left it to its own devices. In all these years I've not allowed myself even to think about my life there, the richness of learning, the development of my character, the moments of genuine pure joy.

Loosing my faith was another matter. I was never a deeply faith filled person. I was always the type of Catholic Christian who lived that holy life in a very sacramental way. Catholics as a a group are less evangelical in their approach to life, working more towards holiness in action than in words. Living a faith life was more the style I grew up with. Much of this type of faith system came from the priests who tended our parish, especially Father Dentici who was a former Trappist Monk at Snowmass in Colorado at St. Benedicts. The monks live a very simple life of prayer, contemplation, meditation and poverty. Much of their everyday life is a matter of simple work, and that simple work is itself a form of meditation for them. Their sweeping of the floor, cleaning the hallways, reading, walking, all are a way to meditate, all a way to draw themselves closer to the mysteries they seek to enter.  These actions are all their matter of faith.

When I was in prayer before the Eucharist in adoration on Holy Thursday in 1989, I came to the conclusion that I did not have faith. I did not believe the sacraments - I did not believe in god. It was the loss of the faith though that set into motion a very painful experience. I started to see in my life in the seminary and the church herself, that I was alone. My doubts about the experience of the divine, which growing up seemed so real, so natural, had begun to pull me far away from the richness of the history I had experienced with the church. Those simple men and woman who had been my spiritual guides now in the absence of faith seemed to be so misguided to me. I was saddened that in that moment of contemplation in 1989 I had found myself without a church. I had found myself without a home. I remained in the church for a long time after the loss of faith, but I had become a squatter. An unwelcome guest in a house of the faithful. I had no place there, yet I remained.

Losing God was easier, but still, sometimes when I am alone or I am afraid, I think how nice it would be to imagine a protector of my soul watching me, waiting to save me from the darkness of man's folly. I never knew God's mother, the Virgin Mary. My own mother would teach us to pray the rosary, which I never liked, but thinking of Christ's mother, Theotokos - Θεοτόκος, the god bearer, I could never imagine that this icon of so many Christians, especially Catholics, was a very compelling or real figure. Her place in the church struck me as so familiar to so many Greek and Roman theological beings, mother of the gods indeed. But really if I were to strip away the theological reference to a human giving birth to the divine son of God the Father, if I were to think of her as a mother, as so many Catholics do, she would fall short. My own mother, toiled endlessly for us, for me. She exudes love for her family, mankind, humanity. It is her love of God that maybe hurts me the most, because I see in my mother a deep and endless fountain of adoration for the divine, for Jesus, perhaps even for Mary his mother. In my loss of God, I lost a way to know my own mother, and it is a topic, a place we dare not go. In losing God, I may have lost the ability for a parent to understand and love her son. 

Now to the present. Sitting on a train yesterday I was so struck by own lack of contemplation of my history that I was moved to tears. The entirety of my youth, my young adulthood was spent learning to worship god. Learning to pray to god. Learning to do good works in the name of God, not for a reward on earth, but because the nature of my humanity was reflective of a loving kind creator, and I should move myself so as to become like Him. But as I sat on the train I realized I had never said goodbye to God, not even to the concept of God. I had left the idea of God on an adoration altar in a monastery in the rolling fields of Missouri and hadn't ever taken the time to evaluate in my own life, my own existence how I, a young (then young) man, would live a life without a God. I have done so of course, quite well, but there is still that realization that the God I knew, who was not real, was no longer part of my life. 

Mary Johnson asked me why has this resurgence of inner evaluation and contemplation come up in my life as a result of reading her book and as a result of reading "Faitheist" by Chris Stedman. I told her I have realized in the last few months I have awakened in myself my own need to mourn, to say goodbye. I cannot continue to be who I am today, I shall not be authentic to whom I shall be tomorrow, without knowing who I was yesterday. I literally left the church and my faith behind. I walked out of God's house as it were without a look back. But in locking away that faith journey I left a part of myself there. I need to get that part back. I am not undergoing a crisis of faith, but I do believe I am undergoing a bit of crisis of self identity. I am seeking to reconcile my life today, plan to know my life tomorrow, by reintroducing myself to my life yesterday. I think that the reading of Chris and Mary's books have been the key to the locked door of my faith journey. I've turned the lock, and now I need to go back in, have a look around. This time I need to say goodbye. I need to mourn. I need to plan for the future.

There are times when
I wish I were a camera.
I'd stop the world,
make it freeze.
I'd hold those images
in my eyes,
holding those images
beyond where eternity lies.
I'd stop you
where you are,
hold you there,
locked into my eyes.
There are times when
I wish I were a camera,
then I'd know your beauty,
see your eyes,
keeping you beyond
where eternity lies.
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