March 11, 2013

The Absence of Deity

I remember when I first donned the cape. I was a small child, perhaps 4 or 5 years old. The television Batman series had ended it run only some short 7 years prior and was as a result in full syndication, being played by networks every afternoon for children just coming home from school in the early '70s. At the time we lived in San Jose, CA, and the school program I was in was a small pre-school run by an ecumenical church near our ranch style home. I mention the pre-school as reference, because the only memory I have of this place besides its existence is that they served us graham crackers in the early afternoon as our snack with little boxes of milk. Otherwise, I have almost no memories.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, I remember everything about the Batman. The bright colours, the exotic sets, the costumes, the villains, Robin, and of course Batman himself, played so marvelously by Adam West. The list of villains was delicious, usually the Riddler, Penguin or Joke, but occasionally they'd throw in a random villain to keep my interest, like Egghead, Clock King, Minerva, Mad Hatter, and on and on. The plots were basically the same, but it was the altruistic and hammed up sense of Justice that was compelling. The Batman would wax eloquently about the moral values of good behavior, justice, what evil deeds would result in, and the villains were so often bumbling disposal characters (especially the minions) that every child witnessing Batman wanted to serve Gotham (i.e. the world) as a crusader for justice.

As I grew into my childhood Batman, the Six Million Dollar Man, Star Trek, the Incredible Hulk, Greatest American Hero, Kung Fu were my daily bread, my everyday influence of justice and truth. While at home, even at school, the failings of humanity were more apparent - I had a father who wasn't entirely in love with his children, I attended schools whose teachers were not always adequately prepared to teach (small town teachers often fresh out of college), and lived in a town where independence and self movement were more valued than community on a lot of levels. We had relocated to Steamboat Springs in 1976 - Steamboat famous for its skiing, a sport that is almost entirely driven by the individual - Steamboat famous for its ranchers who relied upon no one but themselves to survive harsh winters and low economic status. My childhood was formulated by the environment, my sense of right and wrong was formulated by a sense of justice derived from comic book and space heroes.

The 1970's were a significant time too for me as a child because the most amazing movie ever made for children was released in 1976 - Star Wars. I remember waiting in a line that snaked around the block to see the move at the Apache Theater in downtown Steamboat - to meet the hero Luke, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia. The Star Wars franchise was probably the most religious based super hero opera with its influence of the force, its passionate description of the connectively of the universe with all living beings. Even then though the hero I emulated was Han Solo - a laser pistol, and roguish good-looks were more appealing than the character Luke who had yet to discover his greatness. Still, my heroes even of this film were not heroic to me because they served a higher power, they were significant because they inspired action to serve justice, because the villains they fought were so terrible a call to action was fired and a response was served.

All while I was growing into a hero fan (I wore the batman cape all the time, every time, no matter the occasion) my family was very largely involved in the Catholic Church, most especially after we moved to Steamboat. We lived only a block from the church, and my mother worked off and on there, as a housekeeper and church cleaner, and my father served on the parish council, and was the music director for a large number of years. I was an alter boy (perhaps the worst alter boy to kneel before the cross there btw). I love the clothes and the alter boy responsibility. I loved being on the "stage" and serving the priest. My first priest I remember was a Father Frank Choptache, a polish priest who had actually know John Paul II in seminary. He was a marvelous man, interesting, funny, friendly, and with his thick accent eccentric enough in my eyes he was mysterious. However, even while serving the church and the priest in my capacity as their alter boy, I was always the hero. I would often pretend I was in disguise and solving a crime, I was one of Bruce Wayne's alter ego's, I was wrapped in the robes of a Jedi and the priest was my Obi Wan Kenobi. The spiritual mysteries that played out before me on the alter were completely lost, and the church, Sunday Mass was as much a playground to me as was the swing set at my elementary school.

I fell in love with heroes who, really had no deity, their mission in life's journey was not spiritual awakening, but rather self discovery, servitude to man. Batman fought for justice because his parents were wronged. Steve Austin was an astronaut who overcame impossible odds and became a hero to fight crime and support his country even when it betrayed him. Of course Star Trek, in full syndication in the '70s was the best tv made space soap opera ever written. The lead of Kirk was compelling because he so often showed his humanity, while all the same remaining the captain. The marvelously played and well scripted Incredible Hulk whose heroic creature was actually played by Bill Bixby as the struggling Bruce Banner. The Hulk creature brought roaring to life by Lou Ferrigno was not as much of a draw to me, because I always loved watching Bruce Banner work towards a solution to his problems before he exploded with rage. In the Greatest American Hero a bumbling teacher was given a great gift with absolutely no way to use it, and only discovered his powers as he stumbled along. The show gave me a young pre-teen hope that maybe I would stumble into greatness too, and even when thrust upon me I would remain myself, only with great and uncontrollable power. And then one of my favorite programs Kung Fu, lead by the delightful David Carradine, the story of a simple monk fleeing his home after taking revenge. His sense of social justice kept him in trouble but allowed him to deliver heroic justice.

All these wonderful leads, heroes, justice bringers, noble men all represented to me the type of humanitarian justice the world needed. These characters, and many, many more (I cannot leave out Wonder Woman or even Superman) were my bread and butter. While I may have attended worship services at Church, the foundation for my humanitarianism is indeed the heroes of our airwaves and comic books. I voraciously consumed every piece of paper, comic, story about Batman, his suffering, his success, his ability to keep trying even when it would seem he would never get ahead. All these characters and heroes were as real to me as my own family, and certainly more so that the Jesus character, or Holy Spirit, and certainly more so than God the Father. Yet for all this spiritual absenteeism on the television shows, I still found myself drawn to the spiritual life as a young man. It was a the sense of justice that I believed the Church would bring the world without violence that appealed to me most. I love the tradition but I also loved the aspect of the Church that represented social justice. My journey to become a priest had a lot to do with the costume, but most certainly everything to do with social justice, a desire to serve mankind in a way that set me apart, made me different, made me a hero.

When I first donned the cape of priest, I relished my place in the world. I was able to wear that mantle even without a spiritual bone in my body because every hero I worshipped lived his life without need a calling to a higher power. I was the same, I could be a priest, stay on that journey for a long time without a god because I had played at since I was 4 years old. Sadly, I realized as a priest that journey was just that, playing. I removed my cape, my priesthood, put away those childhood notions.

Here I am today, nearly 15 years later having folded up my priest's heroes garb looking back and wondering how my life went from there to here to there again. The there again is the desire, the need to be a hero. The call for social justice is loud, and I find myself turning my head to hear its melody in my life. For me as when I was a boy, as when I was a hero, I need no divine calling, no divine power for movement. The desire to see justice, serve mankind, be kind, be gentle, to speak out when the voiceless need be heard is strong, it is compelling, it needs a home. Heroism comes in many forms and I am wrapping myself in my desire to see love brought forth, to see justice to see peace draw the hero out of me once again. This hero shall not be the inauthentic one of my priesthood, this hero shall be the one born of my own suffering, my own joy, my own loss, my own gain. I look back on my church history into spirituality and the thing I think I may remember is how not to be a hero. I must understand the life I live before I live it, before I proclaim it. I cannot be a hero without first knowing myself. Now its time for some graham crackers and milk - and oh, where did I hang my cape?
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