October 5, 2014

Finding Faith (A Work in Progress)

I originally wrote this when I was still clinging to God. Only recently I decided that my prayers were ascending into a void where no deity was present and that I was wasting time attempting to contact a supernatural being. My life has not changed for better or worse since making this very difficult decision to eschew God and Jesus; the only exception being that I am free to think for myself and be rid of Bronze Age rules and dictums. 

Finding Faith (A Work in Progress)

Some people are equipped with faith. I see a strong belief in God not as something that can be taught, but as a trait or an asset. For me, I simply lack the fundamental ingredients necessary to form any sort of bond with the All Mighty. When I was a kid, my parents took my siblings and me to church each Sunday. There was Catechism as well, but all I learned was to be fearful of God. Jesus was the nice son of the Father; but I learned that to not believe that he is the son of God, and that he died and was resurrected for our sins meant that I was going to roast in Hell for an eternity – just for that. For the simple doubt that enters anyone’s mind that maybe, just maybe this book of ancient text written by people who believed that the Earth was flat and that the sun revolved around our planet (and they’d burn you at the stake for saying otherwise) were absolutely correct when it came to my soul and the word of the Lord.

In my youth, I had a cartoonish view of Heaven. You died, hopefully went straight up through the clouds, encountered St. Peter who scrolled through some sort of giant tome for your name as you hoped a trap door wouldn’t open beneath your feet and send you falling into the flaming pit of Hell. With luck, he’d nod in approval and wave you through like a bouncer at an exclusive, Manhattan night club. You’d turn around and wave goodbye to any unfortunate friends or relatives who didn’t have enough check marks next to their names to make it through the Pearly Gates.

That may not be close to what I was taught during my religious education, but that is what I took away from it all. I was trained to be scared, feel guilty, and to repent, repent, repent. One could never do enough good to earn a free pass in Paradise, and the slightest misstep could damn you forever. In my teens, I rebelled against authority – and that meant against God and Jesus, too. I couldn’t stop thinking impure thoughts with the raging libido of a seventeen-year-old with access to Playboy Magazines. The only reason I started watching Monty Python was because it was on PBS and they (gasp) occasionally showed nudity. But there was God, looking down upon me and shaking his head in disapproval. I was sure Jesus didn’t condone my leering at centerfolds either, and the Holy Ghost, whoever he was, probably put his foot down as well. Wait a minute, I’d think to myself. I was made in His image, and he made women – beautiful women – and it was sinful for me to look at them? Talk about a crisis. It wasn’t just sneaking a peek at naked women that vexed me; it was the idea that just about anything could be a sin. Not listening to your mother and father, lying to others (yes Aunt Beckie, dinner was delicious—ugh), skipping church, talking about classmates, anything that one could do on a daily basis was a sin, and that was just plain frustrating to me.

How could anyone have the fortitude not to sin? What irked me even more was that the other members of the parish whom I sat next to were not better than little, old, hell-bound me, I thought. God, Jesus, Heaven, Mary, Peter, Paul, and all the angels and saints, were way too demanding of my time and efforts; and the world we lived in seemed ill-suited to meet their lofty demands. So, I teetered on the brink of agnosticism; a safety measure with one foot firmly in the God camp, just in case. Why? Because I held strongly to the idea that I could be faithful.

Finally, in my twenties, I became an atheist. And not one of those obnoxious, eye-rolling, “I don’t believe in those fairy tales” kind of atheists. I simply did not believe in God – or Jesus for that matter. This bothered me because I really wanted to believe. I know so many family and friends with a strong faith in God. They have immense knowledge of all that is holy and historical when it comes to religion and Christianity in particular. They seem so certain, assured, and ultimately content. I am sure they did not arrive at their faith easily. The people I am referring to in my life are intelligent and educated. They don’t wave the Bible in the air and quote scripture as if no other fact or idea can impugn such powerful words. They are reasoned, soft-spoken souls who have had some sort of epiphany; or maybe they simply have the propensity for deep, unwavering conviction.

When I had children, I wanted them to have religion in their lives. I figured that as a parent, God would come in handy as a supernatural authority figure who would sit on the sidelines and help me round out the kids’ upbringing as the ultimate disciplinarian. When my children were preparing for their first Holy Communion, they were forced to go to confession – which nowadays the Catholic Church calls Reconciliation (to make it sound like more inviting to the sinning masses). What are little kids confessing to? Not much, really. So, they sit in the confessional and tell the priest that they disobeyed their parents and fought with their brothers or sisters.

Cue the dramatic music: they disobeyed their parents. They sinned little boy and girl sins. I committed those by the truck-load in my early years, and I agonized over the consequences. I only hoped my son and daughter didn’t experience the same internal torment that I did when I was their age preparing for the sacraments. It made me feel guilty that I put them through this at all. Ultimately, it was my latent fear of God and His perpetual punishments, in spite of my stated atheism, and the fact that I did not want to disappoint my father, that I sent my kids to church and saddled them with the same guilt and fright that I carried with me for as long as I could remember.

In church, I’ve sat and watched these children emerge from their visit with the priest after their first confession while waiting for my own kid’s turn. They appear with a sullen expressions on their faces, walking with their heads bowed and their hands clasped, as they rattled off Hail Marys and Our Fathers in their heads. Seated in the pews near their friends, they are buoyed by a sense of relief that accompanies the knowledge that they are young and that death is a long way off. The time to worry about real sins and an actual accounting of all the wrongs they committed in their lives will happen when they are very, very old. That’s what I thought at that age.

After each of my children were confirmed, I stopped taking them to Sunday mass. There was a brief, overlapping, period of time when my father – a deeply religious man – was alive and my oldest was preparing for Confirmation when I still had to pretend that I was a man of God. It was right after my mother died that I would take my dad to the five o’clock mass every Saturday night. During those visits to the Parish of the Holy Cross with dad that I became both envious and resentful again.

In the rows of pews were hundreds of others from my community who gathered together to praise God. I was present, but not one of them. My father’s faith was unshakable and built on the solid foundation of a lifetime’s worth of hardship and surviving the battlefields of Italy in World War II. I admired my dad’s capacity to understand and worship God. His daily prayers and visits to church had a healing effect on him. No doubt he prayed for his family, and I felt a tinge of shame for not praying for him as well – at least not in the way the faithful do. I wished for him  to stay healthy and for good things for everyone else in my life, however, wishes do not constitute prayers.

My parents are both gone. It’s tough to see photos of them since I feel in my heart that as much as time that they spent praying to an angry, vengeful, anthropomorphic, Old Testament God and his progressive, more accepting son, they are by every definition no longer with us. For me to believe that there is a magical realm where one goes after death where we are reunited with our families and friends and all of our pets because we had conviction and performed charitable works takes a leap of faith I do not have the strength to jump. If I had a running start and I ran at full speed while in the best shape of my life, I could not cross the chasm of doubt that is within my heart that prevents me from believing in God. For this I am damned; but that is only if I believe the tenets which outline the circumstances for one to be banished to Hell to begin with. I do not, and I certainly wish I did.

I miss my parents very much and I’d like to see them again. There are some close friends of mine who died young and I often wonder what they'd be like if they were still alive. While I will never forget them, they sit as framed portraits in my memory, and what hurts more than anything is the notion that when I die, and when everyone else dies who knew and loved them, they they have died a second time. The same will happen to the rest of us; after our friends and family die, we die once more with them. There will be no one else to carry memories of us. That is the cold, hard reality of death that frightens me more that a Dante's Inferno. Your name will never be uttered by another's lips, your pictures will have no identity, your character is lost. Your soul becomes anonymous and evaporates forever. Your grave is deep, your body decomposed, or your ashes scattered and mixed with the soil. But you are no longer alive, in person, or in the pages of history. All that you have done is futile and insignificant. Life is meaningless, and there is no point to it all except to support yourself and your family and fulfill any selfish wishes you may be able to afford.

What if after we pass away we actually could reunite with friends and family? We do have something that could be a considered a soul. Our bodies contain energy. All of the science books I have read suggest that energy cannot be destroyed, so there is hope that when we pass away that our minds do go somewhere, even for a brief period of time, and we could perhaps mingle with the others we knew on Earth before our energy is absorbed into a star or a black hole. Maybe God isn’t who we say he is, and that everything written about Him is wrong; that what we must do is love one another and fight off the entropic forces that kill our bodies and prevent civilization from advancing. I’d like to meet a merciful God; one who shows us where we went wrong and sends us back to try again instead of flinging us into an unholy pit of torture for an eternity or rewarding us with a trip to Fantasy Land. If I pray, I’d like a solid answer, and not an eventual turn of events that someone can point to and assert that it was God’s will. I’d like to go to Church and believe that the institution I am loyal to be actually inspired by a creator and not the greed and wickedness of man. As of now, none of these things I ask for seem possible.

Tonight I’ll lay awake in bed for a short time before sleep overcomes me. I’ll think about everyone in my life, what I plan to do, and what I may have done wrong or what I could do differently. If there is a God, and He is listening, I hope my thoughts count as prayer.


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