My Spiritual Journey – an Apology
I was raised a traditional Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic schools throughout my education – graduating from a major Catholic university. My parents, particularly my father, were strong believers in their faith, and strict in their expectations for me to continue. And indeed, I very much bought into it. Not to say that I was particularly excessive in it but I did believe what I was taught and followed it as best I could.
During my years at university I had the great good fortune to meet, and later, in 1965, to marry my wife, who was a student at a neighboring Catholic College. She was, and is, a practicing Catholic.
From an early age, I regarded the Church as a place to worship our creator. I loved the Latin Mass; the rituals, the universality of it. To this day I love listening to Gregorian Chant. I believed.
In my late teens and early 20’s, Catholicism entered a period of great change, especially with the coming of Vatican II. This council brought massive changes to the Church. The Church was wrenched from being essentially one of worship and tradition into one espousing social activism. My beloved Latin Mass was virtually outlawed overnight. In its place, guitar masses became the popular “ritual” in an effort to somehow make the Church relevant to young people. Music and rituals that were the refined product of literally a thousand years were summarily trashed. Although at that point I was in my 20’s it surely made me feel old.
I was extremely uncomfortable with these changes. In my opinion the concept of worship went out the window, to be replaced by demands for social action. I had suffered the belief, as I had been taught, that during the week our task was to be socially just in our everyday lives, and use Sunday Mass to worship our Creator. Apparently, in the eyes of the Church, that was not enough. Suddenly I found myself trying to swim up a waterfall.
I tried to find my way in the new Church. I joined the parish liturgical committee, for example, in an effort to try to help steer the Mass back to a role of worship, instead of one of guitars and holding hands with strangers. I was firmly rebuffed, especially by a young assistant priest who thought Vatican II was the greatest thing that had ever happened to the Church and was intent on imposing the new regime. (This young priest later left the Church, and married a parishioner. If there really is a hell, I hope he is in one of the lower levels.) In any case, I gave up my effort as a lost cause. I continued to go to weekly Mass, but doing so more and more upset me, giving me stomach pains every Sunday.
A personal tragedy during that period had a great impact on my life, the life of my wife and all of our family. Our second child died at the age of 14 months, after an 8 month progressively debilitating illness. Our religion offered little or nothing in dealing with this. Fervent prayers by many had no effect. Setting aside other aspects of this horrible loss, the only way I could reconcile what happened with my then faith in God was to decide that God takes no hand in the affairs of man. Acceptance of this largely sustained my belief in God for many years.
Also during this period the USA was heavily engaged in the Viet Nam war. Though I had been found to be medically unfit to serve, many of my friends did, the majority of them volunteers. Nine of my friends, acquaintances and relatives died in Viet Nam, including a high school friend, several college friends and a college room mate.
One Sunday the priest saying the Mass – the same young priest mentioned above – delivered an thundering anti-war sermon, I believe at the command of the local bishop, and then the ushers passed out petitions forms calling for an immediate withdrawal from the war. I refused to sign. Another parishioner asked to use my pen to sign, and I refused. I was not going to have any part of denying the value of my friends’ volunteered lives for whom I was grieving. I got into a verbal confrontation with several parishioners, and turned and walked out, down the center aisle of the Church, in the middle of Mass, and out the door.
I never went back.
It would be wrong to think that my walking out was simply because of the Viet Nam war. The incident instead was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I had a huge sense of frustration, loss and abandonment. Everything I had been taught as being the infallible word of God was being denied, revised, or turned on its head. The Church and the rituals of worship I had been raised in and loved were dead. Its successor was for me cold and uncaring, at least of and for my soul.
So where was I? At that point I was lost – a traditional Catholic, seemingly abandoned by my Church. For some years following I continued to observe most of the Church rules and teachings – no meat on Friday’s being a classic example. I still considered myself to be at least a traditional Catholic, even though I no longer went to Mass. I still largely believed what I had been taught at home and in school – I was still a Christian.
But that slowly began to change. At one point I read an article in a high-brow Catholic magazine discussing the changes in the Church, as though the whole thing had been a sales and marketing problem. If accurate – and in retrospect I am fairly confident it was – the article stated that the bishops knew that the major shifts would alienate and drive away some members of the laity. This loss was considered an acceptable price in return for the “larger” benefits.
To this day that philosophy deeply offends me, and it further – and significantly – weakened my faith. If the Church believes it offers the one true path, the idea of “trading” one group for another is absolutely abhorrent. But that is exactly what happened. I find it morally little different from Stalin (a seminarian in his youth) “eliminating” millions of Kulaks in reforming Soviet agriculture into collectives. Instead of taking their lives as Stalin did, the Church fathers eliminated souls. Obviously, I was one such casualty.
Surely modernization and reform could have been achieved without wholesale slaughter of the losers in what was clearly a factional war within the Church? I remain unconvinced that the shift ever brought any long term benefits to the Church, but that is another story for which we will never know the answer. I also believe hell would be largely peopled by the priests and politicians who abused their positions for their own ends.
What was for me the breaking away from my past was a decision to eat meat on a Lenten Friday. The significance of course was that for me to do so was to accept that I was a no longer a Catholic. That first bit of steak immediately gave me a straight shot of guilt; a wounding of my conscience. Yet, I had a visceral recognition that I HAD to do it. I had to break free if I was not to be hobbled in the spiritual journey I was somehow blindly attempting. Obviously, I went through a lot of thought before I reached that point. I eventually worked my way though my knee-jerk guilt. That left me more or less free to enter the next stage of my journey.
I had been considering the fundamentals of the Church teachings. A first question was what was the nature of God? I accepted the Judaic-Christian concept of an All Powerful, All Knowing, All Loving, All Just Creator. But pretty much the rest of the teachings I had accepted began falling away. I questioned whether there was an afterlife with a heaven and a hell. I decided there was – it was perfectly clear that on earth there was often no justice. So there had to be a mechanism for God to even up the score – and that would have to be an afterlife with reward or punishment.
One thing became more and more obvious to me – that God indeed does not take a hand in the affairs of man. Divine intervention simply does not happen. This is very firmly my belief – we are on our own. If an event can go either way, you might as well roll the dice or flip a coin. God is not going to affect the outcome, no matter how hard you hope or how hard you pray.
In turn, that lead me to seriously consider the value of prayer – particularly, prayer asking for some favor, some divine intervention. That in itself turned into a moral quagmire. Suppose we revisit the case of a dying baby. If somehow, enough prayers were to cause God to intervene and save the life of the child, how wonderful! But then what about the child of some pagan halfway round the world, that dies because he or she does not get the benefit of proper prayer? Can that be fair and just? We know – all too well in my case – that babies die, with or without prayer.
And, is God a Being who can be yanked around by prayer? That would make for a pretty poor Supreme Being, though one that would be very attractive to a lot of people. A pet God? Not for me.
In any case, I slowly drifted away from being a Christian. With my faith dying, I became cynical about the teachings I had been brought up to believe. In the light of my new day they did not hold up very well.
I have no intention of giving a complete litany of the things that I came to find unlikely. This writing is a sort of history of how I arrived at the point of my present beliefs, without intent to convert anyone else to my point of view. If asked I will defend my position but only that.
Also, it might appear that my beliefs are anti-clerical. Certainly in general terms this is absolutely not the case. The great majority of clergy I have met have been fine, caring individuals and entirely worthy of my respect. Except for the one ex-priest referenced, my complaint was and is with the people who were steering the ship – the bishops, the cardinals and the popes who forced the changes in the Catholic Church, or at the least allowed the travesties to happen on their watches.
As time went on, I began to wonder if there really is an afterlife? A life on a spiritual plane? Do we really have a soul in the sense of a somehow separate level of being that would survive physical death? To the best of my knowledge, there is absolutely no hard proof. The closest thing we have is tales of ghosts and of miracles. But none of these events ever lend themselves to serious third party examination.
I really wish they did. If there could be any proof at all of an afterlife – a no doubt about it personal encounter with a ghost, for example, or an angel, my mind would immediately and happily be forced into a major reevaluation. Sadly, as far as I know it simply isn’t there. Really, truly, I would like to believe and have faith. Is it too much to ask for a little proof?
For a few years I believed in the concept of a heaven and hell as God’s way of justice – after all, being all Just is surely one of his attributes. But the strength of that argument started fading in the face of another question: Is God all Just? Or is it only that our belief requires Him to be just? Because He is God – we can not require anything of him.
(A side note here – I speak of God, especially the Judao-Christian God, as a capitalized “He”. This truly is totally inappropriate – except I know of no better way to do so. The English language really should have a separate tense for our traditional understanding of God that is neither Male nor Female, and indeed, also including a built-in sense of awe, beyond simple capitalization. I believe at least some other languages do this in one way or another, such as Hebrew.)
In any case, our understanding of what God is or might be is usually anthropomorphic – we are trying to force Him into corresponding with our expectations. We tend to suffer the conceit that God is created in the image of man. But, as the old philosopher stated, “It just don’t work that way.”
So, except for fulfilling our expectations, I could see no requirement that God be one of Justice. Or of anything else. The idea of a personal God, or that “God is Love” began to be a sick joke. Once I began to accept that, I was at first rather devastated. Everything I had believed in, and found solace in, was falling away. I began to really understand that we are on our own. This was starting to be very heavy weather. My personal house of cards collapsed, it was time to start picking up the pieces. Time to start over…
I still exist, as do my friends and loved ones. And as do some people I would prefer did not exist. The sun rises in the east and life goes on.
So, starting over from nothing, one very important question I had to wrestle with – what about God? Does God exist? If so, what kind of being is He?
For me, the first order of business here is to define God. At this point in my journey, I would certainly say that the God of the Bible and the Sistine Chapel simply does not exist. But is there a God who is the First Cause? To me that has to be a given. The Cosmos exists. There is, and must be, an incredibly powerful reason for that to be so. Something that orders the laws of physics that make “being” possible. The domains of Energy, Matter, Time, Gravity, Weak Force, Strong Force, Magnetism – and on and on – without them the finely and perfectly balanced and inter-related, “Being” could not exist. Physics defines how the Cosmos operates – but physics has no explanation for why the Cosmos exists. Yet, Exist the Cosmos clearly does, and of which we are a part.
Maybe everything that is is somehow a part of the Godhead? A form of Pantheism? That seems a little far fetched – we would seem to bring so little to the party, when we are struggling to understand the merest outline of questions that need to be asked. Yet somehow in a small way I do think we are a part of something greater of which we have no understanding. But that is only a feeling on my part, and “feelings” here are very dangerous.
So is God a being with an infinitely powerful consciousness, able to see and understand all – and importantly – to have everything bend to His will? The concept of such a God looks back towards the Judaic-Christian God. Such a God seemingly would have to be a spiritual being; not made of matter or energy as we understand them, or He could not be eternal. In that case there must be a spiritual level of being. But if such a level exists, there seems to me little reason to conclude that we have and deserve a place on it except in our fervent wishes.
Or could the Cosmos be running on auto-pilot – the laws of physics all in place, even though imperfectly understood at their edges? So we have a Cosmos, perhaps created by a Big Bang from another layer of Being of which we have little or no clue of but which also obeys laws of physics on a scale that we have the merest comprehension of? A Cosmos running on auto-pilot for which the Creator never takes a hand to change, so that we have Black Holes gobbling stars – and surely ancient alien civilizations? – without remorse?
The Life Force that is responsible for all being would seem to me to be completely uncaring about our lives, hopes, depressions. And why should He be otherwise? Do we worry about all the cells that make up our own bodies? No, unless they cease performing their appointed function, or succumb to cancer or some other malady. But as long as things work right we go on uncaring.
Many physicists and cosmologists of today appear to believe that the much sought after unified theory will be pulled together by the end of this century – and that it will answer questions about why we and the cosmos exist – and why God does not exist.
It seems clear that my questions do not lead to any present answers. The Nobel Prize for Physics certainly does not have my name on it. My questions here demonstrate more than anything else illuminate how little I know, and surely will go unanswered to my satisfaction..
But, I am here. I exist. And you who are reading this also exist – and by doing so, in a tiny way validate my existence as well. So, in the vernacular, “Where in the hell are we?”
As the lyrics from the song, “Mariah” have it:
And now I'm lost,
I'm oh so lost
Not even God can find me.
But when you're lost and all alone
There ain't no words but lonely
And I'm a lost and lonely man
Without a star to guide me.
Does popular music give us a better understanding of our existence than the physicists – and the priests?
I would be truly delighted – an understatement if ever there was one – if, when my life on this mortal coil is over, I wake to a new order – an afterlife of heaven – and maybe a hell too, with that twerp of an ex-priest well installed – consistent with my Catholic upbringing. I can not imagine if that God really exists that He would be too hard on me – even as I am a fallen away soul – because He would know I was being honest and true to myself, and that I lead a moral life. And indeed, perhaps an even more meritorious moral life because it was not motivated by a fear of hell and damnation, nor of great rewards in an afterlife.
I remain a cultural Catholic. I am not ashamed of my upbringing. There was much good in it and little bad. I certainly still adhere to the essential morality of my upbringing.
The con man’s truth has always been, “People want to believe”. People also want to belong. On that foundation vast empires and religions have been built. It is imprinted in our genes. Walking away from the beliefs I was taught was very hard to do.
Writing this piece has been a very useful exercise for me. It has forced me to pull together and focus years of thought and reflection. And, in a strange way, it has been very liberating. I have a much better understanding of my own beliefs if little else. I am more at peace with myself than I have ever been in my adult years. That is very important to me. It has greatly aided my acceptance of my situation.
I fully realize that there is absolutely nothing new in my thinking – everything I written here has been said before – but what is significant for me is that I have arrived at my present state pretty much on my own. Yes, I did indeed loose my faith. Doing so strikes out the underpinnings of one’s whole code of ethics and right behavior, and then it becomes extremely important to arrive at a new understanding that one can live with.
This is certainly not the end of my musings. I continue to refine my thinking, to examine and question my present conclusions. In fact, this piece is in constant revision and development as my thoughts on various aspects mature. The hardest question for me now is “Why? Why is there a Cosmos? Why is there existence? I have no expectation whatsoever that I will ever understand that. But if there is some form of God who is responsible for Being, and who would be aware of my simplistic musings, I would gladly thank Him and worship Him with all my heart.
In the mean time, I find the following statement to have considerable meaning to my life:
We are born into a wholly indifferent universe, one of a savage beauty, and not of our choosing. Then we are condemned to be free.
There are some thoughts in the above I want to expand on, but to do so above would divert the orderly flow towards the conclusion. So I thought to add them below.
What is our destiny?
Tribalism – belonging – is hard wired into our genes.