28 February 2011

The Journey. A Rough Draft Excerpt: The Church of Recovering Catholics.

I was walking down a lonely road one morning in the early Spring. The frost still clung to the low-lying branches, but the songbirds were out and about, greeting the sun and rejoicing in the new day. The crisp cold air was invigorating, and I quickened my stride, proceeding on my morning journey. As I made my way around a bend in the road, I saw two buildings in the distance, one across the road from another.

The building on the right was a stone structure, covered in moss and ivy. The grounds were overgrown with bushes and weeds, and if it were not for the cross on the roof, I would not have known what the building was. As I drew near, I identified more markings of a church: a bell in the tower, stone crosses in the graveyard, and dusty stained glass windows.

The building on the left was also a church, by the look of it, though much larger and more modern. There was a large parking lot, full of vehicles of all kinds. I was intrigued by both churches, but as no one appeared to be at the older church, I departed the road on the left side and approached the larger building. I walked to the glass doors and, seeing a crowd inside, pushed open the doors and entered the church.

“Welcome, welcome!” said a pleasant, overweight gentleman in a gray suit. He shook my hand and asked, “What brings you here?”

“Just on a walk,” I said. “Not really sure where I am going, to be honest.”

“Well, let me show you around,” he said. “We're always glad to have visitors.”

He led me to two young men who were standing by a rack of tracts, a cup of coffee in each of their hands. They were dressed casually, both in jeans, one with a hooded sweatshirt and the other with a plain black tee shirt.

“We have a visitor,” my guide said, and the two young men welcomed me and introduced themselves. We exchanged names and the usual pleasantries, and then I asked them if they knew anything about the church across the road. At this, their smiles disappeared, and the older man made a rather disgusted face.

“I'm sorry,” I said. “I'm just very interested in history, and the church looks like it has been here for a while.”

“Forgive me,” said the older man. “You see, we all used to attend that church, but we are now on the road to recovery. This is the Church of Recovering Catholics.”

“I see,” I said.

“That church across the road is a bit of a sore subject, I'm afraid. We all left for a variety of reasons, and we are all very glad we did. For myself, it was the Catholic Church's insistence on being the only true Church. Can you imagine? That sense of exclusivity and the drawing of such a clear line is incredible!”

“And they are way too hopeful when it comes to the salvation of non-Christians,” said one of the young men. “If you're not a Christian, you're going to Hell. That's the end of it. I don't know why they can't see that, but then they're not actually Christians, are they?”

“Catholicism is far too difficult to understand,” said another member of the church, a middle-aged woman with glasses. “So much doctrine and so many rules. You need a PhD to understand half of it. Where is the simple message of Jesus Christ?”

“It is an ignorant peasant religion,” said another member of the church, an elderly man with an aristocratic air. “It appeals only to the common people, the brawling, stinking masses.”

“They have no room for Scripture, you know,” another said. “It's all man-made traditions, replacing the word of God.”

“And they were always reading the Bible during mass,” an older woman said. “I swear, they spent more time reading the Bible than the priest spent explaining it during the sermon. The sermon is really the point, isn't it? If they could cut the readings to one, they would have more time for a good, inspiring sermon.”

“The Catholic Church is so strict!” said a young woman. “There are so many rules. Don't do this, don't do that.”

“And they are far too forgiving,” said another. “I have never known such a bunch of sinners in my life! The vast majority should have been cast out of the doors long ago, but they are still there, week after week!”

“They make you confess your sins to a priest!” a young man said. “We should be able to take our sins directly to God and confess to Him privately in prayer. They make confession so difficult!”

“Confession is too easy,” said a middle-aged woman. “These young people would be out fornicating on Friday night, and then they would all be lined up at the confessional on Saturday. Checking the box is all it was; there was no change of heart. When I pray silently to God, I really mean it, not like those kids!”

“The Catholic Church is a patriarchal nightmare!” said a young woman. “An all male hierarchy ruling from on high and oppressing women!”

“And the Church is so feminine,” said a young man. “Everywhere you look, there's a statue of the Virgin Mary. My high school was controlled by a mob of authoritative nuns. I'm glad I escaped from all that and found a church where women know their place!”

“The Catholic Church is so violent!” another member said. “What with the Crusades, and the knights, and the Inquisitions, the Church's hands are stained with blood!”

“They're a bunch of weak-kneed pacifists!” a tall man said. “The old pope even opposed the war in Iraq! When you oppose God's empire, you oppose God! And speaking of which, the Church is disloyal. Our old priest baptized the children of illegal immigrants!”

“It's a bunch of superstitious nonsense,” said another member. “None of it can be proven.”

“And the Catholic Church thinks far too highly of science,” a woman said. “Did you know Catholics are allowed to believe in evolution and an old Earth? After the service today, we're going to burn some science textbooks. Care to join us?”

“And everyone knows the Church hates sex,” another said. “That's why their priests are celibate, you know.”

“And the Church keeps saying, 'be open to life, welcome children, rejoice in your union with your spouse,' as if our decision not to have children was any business of theirs!” another said.

“Because, of course, the Catholic Church does not allow contraception,” said a man wearing gloves and a surgical mask. “I hope you don't mind if we don't shake hands. I'm not much for touching people. My wife and I don't even sleep in the same room.”

“Speaking of wives,” said a middle-aged man. “The Catholic Church insists that my marriage to my first wife is still in effect, despite the fact that I have official government documents confirming that what God joined together was separated with a few signatures on a Monday afternoon last August.”

The members of the Church of Recovering Catholics continued to share their tales of how awful their former church was. Their service was about to begin, but I politely bowed out, saying I still had a journey ahead of me. As I walked out the front door and took a breath of the fresh, clean air, I looked across the road at the old church. The sun was shining on the steeple, and I could hear a hint of organ music.

I crossed the road, and as I drew near the church, I saw that it was not quite as broken down as I had first thought. The walls were strong, and the stained glass windows were intact. It was a solid structure; it had stood beside that road for many years, and it looked as if it would be there for many years to come.

A man was sitting on a bench by the church gate, smoking a pipe. He was an older man in a tweed jacket, and his eyes lit up when he saw me.

“Are you here for the mass?” he asked, rising and shaking my hand.

“I suppose so,” I said.

“You're just in time. Please come in!”

At this, the old man put out his pipe, placed it in his pocket, and we walked through the doors and into the church.


18 February 2011

On Mortality

I often contemplate my own mortality. This may seem odd or morbid, but it helps give me a sense of perspective. When I walk through cemeteries and see the names and dates on the headstones, I think to myself that these people once walked the ground, just as I do. They once lived and loved. Perhaps they too walked among the graves and pondered their own eventual deaths. Now their bodies lie beneath the earth, where one day I too shall lie.

Since I first started writing this, the fact of our mortality was driven home by the death of my own grandfather. I cut out much of what I had written, and edited much of what was left. Writing about death when it is personal tends to change one's perspective.

Until a few years ago, death had been a very abstract idea for me. This began to change when I joined the Army and deployed to Iraq. I remember sitting in stunned silence when I learned that a soldier in my company had been cut down by a sniper's bullet. I remember feeling the heat of the explosion that killed a friend of mine, the warmth washing over me as the smoke rose in the sky. I remember walking among the bodies of Iraqi civilians, killed by a truck bomb, watching as grieving bystanders found the charred, blackened body of a young boy. I remember news of other bombs, other attacks, other names, people I had known, talked with, lived with. Death became something tangible in that distant land.

And yet, even these comrades, these friends, were people I had known for only a short time. My grandfather was someone I had known my entire life. Someone who had always been in my world was suddenly gone from it.

There is a sense that death is always tragic, always something that ought not be, even when the one who dies is old. I had thought this for some time, but in these past few weeks, I have felt it personally. It was inevitable that my grandfather would die, just as it is inevitable that I myself will die, but it still feels as if some awful violence has been done to the universe. It feels as if one who should have walked forever in the sight of God and among his fellow men was ripped away, contrary to all that is right and good, leaving a gaping, tattered hole that can never be repaired for as long as this world endures.

This troubles people, and I am no exception. We know death is our fate, but none of us, or at least very few of us, are comfortable with that. There is fear and there is uncertainty, a mystery we do not fully understand. We know we are going to die, but the nature of it, as well as what, if anything, comes after, is unknown.

Death could come for us at any moment. One minute, you're enjoying the good life. The next, you're being torn to pieces by a pack of Lesser Anatolian wolfbears in a Novosibirsk slum. When you woke up that morning, you may not even have known where Novosibirsk was (not in Anatolia, incidentally), but the wolfbears did, and they were there waiting for you.

Death can defy our expectations. A man of seventy yells at a boy of ten for running on his lawn. The man is bitter about his own advanced age, and he is envious of the years the boy has ahead of him. And yet, the old man lives to 105, and the boy is killed ten years later when his platoon's position is overrun by a wave of enemy staff officers.

Another man in the same platoon survives three years of war, countless artillery barrages, hundreds of firefights, and he goes home and is killed when his pickup truck crashes through a plate glass window and into a herd of bison.

In the end, however, whether young or old, whether it was a surprise or an expected and even overdue event, all of us will die. The mortality rate is sitting steady at one hundred percent, with no sign of changing anytime soon.

It is odd to me that so many of us have died, and yet none of us who are alive today know what it is like. Despite the experiences of billions of our ancestors before us, the exact nature of our fate is a mystery, shrouded behind the veil. We all pass the threshold, as it were, with a fair amount of uncertainty.

There is a general human idea, held by most of us on this planet of ours, that we each have souls that live on after we die, and that our conduct in this world has at least some impact on our eternal fate. Within that vague mass of theism, I personally hold to the Christian view of the universe, that God has created us, that He became a man and died for us, and that He has prepared Heaven for all those who accept His forgiveness and grace. This is a significant claim to make, and I do often have doubts, but here, on Christ the solid rock, I stand; I can do no other.

“What if you are wrong?” someone might ask. “Would it not be horrifying to get to the end of your life and discover Christianity is not true?” I say it could be a good deal less horrifying than discovering it is. Christianity offers us the hope of being saved from a fate too awful to contemplate, but I cannot say I would be sad to discover this awful fate was never actually a concern at all. Still, I am not one to pick and choose, tossing out the bits of God's revelation I don't like. Truth does not depend upon my approval, so I soldier on, filled with a mix of hope and fear.

As I have traveled on my as yet uncompleted journey into Christian orthodoxy, I have shed much of the presumption I previously had. I can no longer say I was “saved” on such and such a day, with Heaven a certainty and every good deed a favor to the Almighty. To me, asking a living person, “When were you saved?” is like seeing a man who is waist-deep in the river and asking him, “When did you reach the shore?” He may very well not be as deep as he once was, but he has not reached the shore yet. There is even the dreadful possibility that he may yet turn around and plunge back into the depths. I need God's mercy and grace every single day of my life. We all do.

When our lives end, what will become of us? What will become of me? I must admit I fear God will find my love lacking, my excuses for not being within His visible Church feeble, my Christian service a lie. And yet, I hope for His floodgates of mercy to pour forth, washing me clean of all sin, cleansing me of all my faults and filling me with all the good I lack. I hope for forgiveness, so I forgive. I hope for love, so I try to love as best I can.

Being ready to die is not some morbid fascination. It is prudent and wise. Just as we have life insurance and wills, so also should we mind the state of our souls. None of us knows when we will take the journey of death, but we will all take it. I hope to live for many more years, seeing my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but that last day will come.

My goals in life are simple. I want to raise my children to be good and holy people, I want to die in God's grace, receiving His mercy and forgiveness, and I want to do something good, leaving this Earth better than I found it. I hope and pray that we will all have such a life.

As I live, with the knowledge of my eventual death and mindful of the future state of my soul, I put my trust in Christ who conquered death. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. May Almighty God watch over us, guide us and guard us, and may He welcome us into His presence at the last.