If I still believe in God it is due, perhaps, to loyalty. I’m a loyal man, even if the loyalty seems misplaced.
I’m not saying my loyalty is a great quality. Truth is, I get attached to things and cling to them in all kinds of weather. Even when times change, and what I am attached to becomes obsolete, it is mine and I don’t abandon my own. Loyalty is a cousin of faith, and I was taught to have faith in God through all kinds of weather. Like faith, loyalty is an act of the will. It can take a lot of determination to be loyal. Ask any Minnesota Vikings fan.
As a child I associated God with my parent’s marriage. When Dad went nuts he got hyper-religious. Mom even taught Sunday school until one day, without explanation, she stopped going to church altogether. I stuck with God like my mother stuck with a violent, abusive relationship for over fifty years. If her husband hadn’t mercifully died, she would still be married today. Mom rarely spoke of Dad after his death, perhaps a quiet way of saying: “I paid my dues, now I have 10 grandchildren to enjoy.” And enjoy them she did. Mom was a much better grandmother than mother. For my part, I took satisfaction in bringing my children to visit her. I know it brought her joy, and she treated my kids so well they all became devoted to her.
It was a relief Mom’s husband wasn’t there to spoil things between Mom and my kids by playing the spoiled child role he so often played when he wanted Mom’s attention. Mom’s loyalty to Dad was often tested to the limit. Maybe that explains how we would find her crying in the basement. We kids would cry in our bedrooms upstairs after our paranoid, angry father shouted at us about talking about him behind his back, and made us go to bed at 6pm as punishment for something we hadn’t done.
There was precious little fun in our house, and even less fun in the strict Baptist church our parents sent their children to. The key word was “No.” As in no music, no dancing, no smoking, no drinking, and so on.
Despite all the rules, despite all the ways to get into trouble and be condemned, we were assured on Sundays that Jesus loved us enough to die for us, that we were all saved and heavenbound even if we broke the rules. I was willing to believe, even if I didn’t feel like I could trust any of the adults who talked to us about God. Jesus sounded a lot nicer than them. I sometimes wondered why neither of my parents attended church to acknowledge Jesus’ love for them. Did I have more loyalty to Jesus than Mom and Dad?
Probably not, since I wasn’t attending church because I was loyal (yet). It was mandatory, I had no choice in the matter. I was a sucker for God stories, because they were such a bright contrast to my every day life. Stories of transcendence, the ultimate reward of eternal bliss in heaven, and the threat of eternal damnation were a powerful contrast, and a winning ticket for the church. No matter how much a pastor might duck around and emphasize the “skittles and rainbows” aspect of the faith, lurking always and everywhere was the hammer of hell which, when displayed artfully enough, provided very effective crowd control.
As a young adult I swore I would never be like either of my parents. But I ended up being like both of them. I was loyal in my relationship with God like Mom was loyal to her marriage. And surprisingly, I ended up being loyal to God like my Dad was loyal to God. He was a vicious tyrant at home, but for years he knelt at his bed every night and prayed with clasped hands, often for a long time. This was a paradox that disgusted me. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss Dad as a pious fraud, because he didn’t pray for show. Even so, whatever relationship Dad had with God, the goodness and mercy that is the fruit of such a relationship rarely seemed to trickle down to his family.
So I was loyal like each one of my parents, even though I was trying so hard not to be like either one. Loyalty does not equal happiness. Loyalty was a trap to be avoided. But how much of a choice do children have about not being like their parents? Now I realize we can fool ourselves about ourselves. It took years to realize I was more like Mom and Dad than I realized.
What accounts for this? Perhaps my fixed loyalty is genetic and beyond my control. This would make it beyond Mom’s control too, and beyond the control of whoever she inherited her loyalty habit from. Or perhaps it is a case of “monkey-see, monkey-do.” As children we imitate what we see in front of us, uncritically and unwittingly. We develop the imitative behaviors with or without knowing what is happening.
My own relationship with God consisted of divine attention and absences. He was absent during my childhood, aside from the comic book hero from Sunday School. He was absent from my teenage years until age thirty, when I sobered up and started a relationship with ‘a power greater than myself’, which for me was the Christian God – the only God I knew.
This led me after seven years to learn and love the Catholic faith. I became a father, and then a husband. I loved working hard to provide for my growing family. I loved the books I was able to write and get published. I loved my career as a social worker, working with mentally ill adults. God was with us when we prayed the Rosary as a family, when we went to Mass together, when we went through tears and laughter together as a family, and dwelled in that special kind of intimacy loving families share with each other.
So God was with me for 20 years, helping me sober up, helping me move through several careers, helping me walk away from the Left, and helping me find real meaning in my life. I used to pray very fervently that I would never lose the Catholic faith. It was an unanswered prayer. After 20 years God absented himself, and our family tree was struck by a lightning bolt that struck at the trunk of our tree, almost to the roots. If you have ever seen a tree struck by lightning, you will see how deformed the tree looks. You may also notice leaves, small branches and even new limbs growing out of the tree. The tree still lives, but it will never be the same.
I viewed our divorce as a tragedy, and not just because I lost my house, my kids, and half my pay check. My kids were left to deal with an increasingly ill mom who presented a severe form of Catholicism to them, and made them go to Mass while she stayed in bed. My kids suffered emotional and physical abuse. They lost their faith: God’s will?
Eventually four of our kids ran away from Mom to live with their Dad, who even years after the ugly separation and custody fight still struggled to keep a faith that, against his will, slipped through his hands like pearled sand. He found that practicing some basic Buddhist principles helped restore his sanity and and good will. He started the road to forgiveness by forgiving himself. God defined himself by his total absence, leaving only the glorious ruins of a once Christian family who practiced true devotion to him.
I’m sincere about the phrase ‘glorious ruins.’ We really tried to be a traditionally Catholic/Christian family, it was our uniting theme. There were many simple, joy filled years spent loving children and being loved in return. Yes, it was all ruined, but while it lasted it was still glorious because of our earnest, sincere intentions.
Eight years later I married a remarkable woman who is also a happy Christian. Of the five children who were living with me, I have launched three into the adult world, and they are holding their own. Only two highschoolers remain at home. None of them are Christians. I’ve been a lot of places in my lifetime of faith: a Baptist, a pagan, a recovering higher power guy, a Catholic convert, a practicing Catholic, and now a practitioner of Buddhism, although I don’t consider myself a Buddhist. These days I focus on myself and my own well being in order to better practice grace and mercy at home and at work.
So what do I call myself? Nothing. Whatever I am, I do not feel loyalty to God anymore. The breakup of my marriage and my family took care of that, and eventually my faith too. See, my Christian family was my gift to God. I guess he didn’t want my gift, and didn’t seem to care that our entire family lost its faith. Well, God owes us nothing, and needs nothing from us. So be it. Frankly, I feel the same way towards him at times.
One of the men responsible for my conversion to Catholicism has popped up in my life again. He said something about himself that fit me. He said, “God doesn’t always have a use for me, sometimes he acts like he doesn’t need me or want me.”
Amen to that. Of course, God is not obligated to need or want me. Am I obligated to need or want him? Perhaps, but perhaps not. My wife is trying to get me back in the Church again, and I’m letting her. The idea of actually having the faith again appeals to me. But more often I really question Christianity. I have studied withering critiques of my (erstwhile) faith. There are many gaps and holes in Christianity. In fact the whole thing is pretty unbelievable. But I still want to go to Mass. Why? Is it loyalty? Faith? A lack of imagination? Or an allegiance to the glorious ruins of a dream that seemed real and then disappeared forever.
copyright 2020 Moina Arcee