When I go to Mass on Ash Wednesday part of me believes, and part of me sees the Christian story as too fantastic for reality. I used to love kneeling before Father as he put the sign of the cross on my forehead with the ashes of the palms used on Palm Sunday, listening to him intone over and over again: “Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
That is God’s take on things, according to the Catholic Church. And it makes sense. The material world ultimately means nothing. Our bodies and everything physical about us and everyone else are transient phenomena that don’t last. They return to dust, while the soul…well, what exactly happens to the soul when it loses its house (our body)? Up? Down? Heaven? Hell? Samsara? Nirvana?
On my lunch break I walk through the Catholic Cemetery on Front Street in St. Paul. The markers range from simple 12×12 pieces being swallowed by grass, to huge statues and crypts. Lots of angel statues, enough to chill the blood of any Dr. Who fan.
At the vertical peak of the cemetery are very large slabs for dead bishops, including our most famous prelate, Archbishop John Ireland. Here I can see the large dome of the St. Paul Cathedral, and the onion spire of the Church of St. Agnes, where I was received into the faith. I make the sign of the cross to the Great Bastard in the sky. I turn, walk past Archbishop Ireland’s slab, and back to work.
I still go to Mass, mostly due to the promptings of my (second) wife. She is not Catholic, but she is far more Christian than me. She believes. I used to believe in the Catholic faith. Sometimes I still do, when I remember how I built my family around it. Nightly rosaries, grace before meals, Mass on Sundays and holy days, treating each other with charity and patience. It was a dream come true. I loved every minute of it until my wife kidnapped the kids and ran away.
I had to divorce her to see our children, to make sure they were okay. She had them in a shelter, where she was feigning to be a battered wife, and accusing me of doing terrible things to her and to the children. I have to hand it to her, she got very effective advice from somewhere. That there was no evidence did not seem to matter to Family Court. I got kicked out of our house, and started paying most of my work check for child support.
I still got to see our kids, and our love seemed to grow stronger during the crisis of being separated from each other. But it was still hell, and the emotional scarring has never quite healed. I guess that’s why I still write about it. It wasn’t Christianity that started my healing process. It was Buddhism, particularly as practiced by an American Buddhist named Jack Kornfield. He talked about self-love in a positive way; having compassion for yourself and your wounds; forgiving yourself for your mistakes; accepting everything and realizing everything passes, and that that is okay.
My religion is not Buddhism. But I think Buddhist psychology is powerful and very helpful in dealing with trauma and tragedy. Christianity is too, if you have the faith for it. When I lost my family and my wife my faith began slipping through my fingers like fine sand, a little bit at a time, almost as if it was trying to escape my grasp. After the divorce I still went to Mass, and even prayed some, but it was like I was practicing my faith by memory, instead of it being a vital, living force in my life.
I’ve worked through the grief of the death of my marriage, and the end of my relationship with my wife. What I still grieve is the loss of my faith, the loss of my religion. and the end of my relationship with God. I want to believe like I used to believe, but I can’t. Something is broken, and I don’t know how to fix it. Being a Catholic husband, father, and provider to my family felt like my life work, like something to offer to God for his blessing. I guess God did not want my offering.
A Catholic friend of mine said he feels sometimes like God uses him and then forgets about him until the next time. Maybe I will have a next time with God. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe if he comes knocking I’ll tell him I’m not interested. That shouldn’t bother him too much , should it? I mean he is God after all, why should he care if one of his minions gets sassy? He’s got plenty of other happy fools with better attitudes than me to fulfill all his wishes.
For now I like to think that my religion is kindness, including kindness to myself. Perhaps I will also apply my kindness, patience, and compassion to my relationship with God. Or perhaps I will follow the example of Jackson Browne in his song “Farther On.” He talks about angels being with him on his journey of life, with him even after he has left his faith. He writes:
“They sleep beside the road
Til the morning has come
Where they know they will find me
With my maps and my faith
In the distance,
movin’ farther on.”
Right now, that works for me. However many years I have left I would like to be able to bravely face the future, with or without God. Buddhist psychology teaches to let go of things, of everything. Attachments to people, places, ,and things causes suffering. For me, holding onto God is causing suffering. So I let go and let God go away. Good-bye.