Friday, April 02, 2004

Learning to Ask All the Right Questions

Since I am in the process of engaging in a bit of narcissitic autobiography for Crisis, and what is a blog but a live action autobiography, I will sharpen my writing skills here and tell you how I became a Catholic. How I became a priest comes later.

I guess the first person we have to talk about is my mother. My parents divorced when I was very young, somewhere in the neighbor of one or two years old. It wasn't an acrimonious split but it was splitsville. I saw my father probably no more than 2 or 3 times a year. I can still remember vividly the afghan I would sit on in the backroom of the Dairy Queen. My mother was the manager. I would sit in the back and watch Sesame Street on a portable television. This was in the early 70's where the concept of day care was a decade away. For now, this would have to suffice. If it had not been for those times, I don't think I would have seen my mother at all. It taught me to be still. I couldn't run around in my backyard. I had no backyard. In the course of my childhood years, I moved to a new home or apartment every 2 years on average.

As I grew, my mother's job would change and she would begin to work as a certified medical aide in the local nursing homes. I spent many of my formative years in the presence of medicine and the elderly. Even now, I really can't tell the age of most people by looking at them. It is these places where many families placed their loved ones because they could not care for them or, more often the case, the families dumped a person they could not be bothered with. I know that sounds harsh. You have to see a 90 year old woman wail continuously on a visitor's day, "Where are they?, Why didn't they come?," to understand why that harshness is present. I am sure that if the family knew the sorrow they inflicted on their mothers and fathers they would have put in an appearance. But they never stopped in to find out.

From my mother I learned some of the first important questions that must be asked. First question: is that right or wrong? My mother was and is a very moral person. It tinges every aspect of our conversations. She will get upset about something or the other and say, "That's not right." Now, I am not claiming my mother always got the moral analysis on target, but that she asked those sorts of questions taught me to ask what is right and wrong. Questions of morality are the doorway to the questions concerning divinity. Morality rests upon the meaning of the act and the actor. Only God reveals the full meaning of the human person. Therefore, I was knocking on heaven's door with these questions.

Second question: What can I give/do? My mother for most of my life was absent. I raised myself in large part. I am lucky that I am not a drug dealer or anything else that can happen because of minimal parental involvement. My mother was absent though not because she didn't want to be there. My mother for about 10 years worked 16 hours a day to keep the family afloat. In the 70's and early 80's, no one had heard of dead beat dads. As I recall it, and memory is faulty, my dad was not always forthcoming with the child support. So my mother worked. And worked. And worked. This taught me that if you love someone, you will do anything to keep them alive and happy. Happiness was present, but I really only recall a lot of silence. And a lot of wishing...I wish I had my mom. I wish I had a dad. But I had neither. Both were taken away from me.

Third question: Is that all there is? Because I watched my mother suffer, and I felt in the depths of my person the sorrow and confusion her suffering caused, I was led to that question. Is that all there is? You work like a dog, you stumble through life only to get up in the morning and do it again. Compounding this was the experience of death. I often spent the night with my mother as she worked the night shift at the nursing home. Often I would go looking for one of my surrogate grandparents, I never got to know my biological ones, and find the room empty, swept clean. My mother had to explain to me that the person had died. It was sobering for a fourth grader to deal with death repeatedly. It taught the most valuable lesson. Life is short. Everyone, I mean everyone, has to die. Nobody gets out alive. If you are going to go looking for God, this is one of the realities that will make you get up and look.

Like I said, my childhood had its deprivations, but it was a happy childhood more or less. I was a reasonably bright child and therefore did well in school. Boy, school was happy in lots of ways. Because I mastered lessons very quickly, I bonded quickly with my teachers, excepting one. They nurtured my gifts and talents and encouraged me to live up to my potentials. My God, when I think on all the dedicated and excellent educators I had the pleasure of knowing, providence takes on a human face. Every one of my teachers were people who loved children and genuinely wanted them to succeed. If anyone of you are reading this tonight, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Now, school had its hard spots as well. Because I had experienced all these things because of my parents' divorce, I was different than the other children. The experiences aged me. They could smell the difference on me, probably literally. One time I got asked by my enrichment teacher if I had been smoking. I had to take my older brother's hand-me-down jacket because I had out grown mine. And my brother was and is a nicotine fiend. So the ferocious exposure to smoke had permanently stained the jacket with that smell. When I got to school, you would have thought I belonged in a biker bar from the aroma around me.

But the search for God began in earnest in the 8th grade. When I was in the 6th grade, I had a teacher for science who was aces, Mrs. Joswick. One day when we talking about photosynthesis, she made this observation. Notice how in tune plants and we are. They put forth oxygen and take up carbon dioxide. We do it just the other way around. And yet this action doesn't get out of whack. And then she dropped the bomb. She said, "This must mean that there is a god." Now folks, this was PUBLIC SCHOOL. And it was a throw away line. She didn't develop it any further but moved on into the lesson. But that was the open door. The Existence of God could be demonstrated from human reason. That was the notion that wedged itself into the linkages of my brain and never came free.

In the 8th grade, I really hit the bottom. Puberty by itself is hell. But also I was really feeling on the fringe. And all of the turmoil of those years, I think I was starting to feel the pain of my childhood then, started coming to the surface. Compounded by the poor living conditions, it led to suicidal thoughts. One night, I had really reached the end. I had made the plans. I had picked the means. The only thing left was executing the plan. As I lay in bed weeping I cried out, "God, if you do exist, you better say or do something. Otherwise, I am not going on." And in that moment God spoke to me. I mean this as literally as I am sitting here at my keyboard typing this, God spoke to me. "If you do that, then they will have won and you will have proved them right. If you kill yourself, your life really is meaningless." And then silence. But the words burned in my soul. They rang through the cathedral heights of the inner world of myself. They rang true. I put away the means of my own destruction that night. And things started to change.

Now, in the background of this story, the other members of my family are searching for God as well. I have three living siblings. My mother lost several children to miscarriage. The conservative estimate she gives is two children between each living sibling. So that means I have six brothers or sisters waiting to see me in heaven. If they are worth their salt they better be praying for me as well. My older sister was in the process of church hopping and she often took me along. First was the United Methodist Church. Then it was the Evangelical Church of Christ. Finally she went to the Mormons where she remains today. But I escaped. The capper to the Mormon experience was when I told them that the Book of Mormon was a rehash of Babylonian mythology. That didn't go over well.

It wasn't until I was in high school that my introduction to the Catholic Church began. My oldest sister, after a bad divorce, returned to the Church. You see, my family was Catholic except yours truly. After my parents' divorce, there were literally no opportunities for church. I was never baptized. I was never catechized, although given what passed for catechesis in the 70's and 80's, I was spared a lot of nonsense.

And my oldest sister deserves some mention as well. She nurtured my intellect in subtle and not so subtle ways. I was the only fifth grader on intimate terms with Pink Floyd's The Wall as well as Alan Parsons Project and The Beatles' Abbey Road. She would always sit me down to watch Nova and 60 Minutes with her. Watching those shows sharpened my mind to be inquisitive and examining of all sides of an issue. Of course she would be the catalyst for my becoming Catholic.

On my own, I had looked into various other world religions and Christian denominations, but was never fully satisfied. I shunned the Catholic Church because I believed the common portrayal of the Church by the media and the world. But it was my sister who said, "You should go to the Catholic Church. I think you would like it." And she was right. From the first night in RCIA, when we talked about Revelation, I knew I was home. I realized how all my life I had been a Catholic and not even known it.

Even though he is dead now, Fr. John Petuskey, the pastor of St. John's in Edmond, did me a marvelous good. He saved my life. He saved my soul. When I think of him, the lines from Les Miserables come to mind: It's the story of those who always loved you. Your mother gave her life for you and gave you to my keeping. In some way, my life was in the hands of God and those along the way guided me safely. But he is the one who nurtured the life and gift of faith in me. I am not sure if he ever knew how much I owed him, but he knows now.

For me, being a Catholic was the realization of all the things that had bothered me over the years with Protestant Christianity. You had to lose something to be a Protestant. You gain the fullness by being a Catholic. For me, the Catholic Faith is simply the continuation of what God began with Israel. Without the Church, you would have no worship, no European history, no Bible, no theology, nothing. As a loving Mother who works her fingers to the bone, the Church has preserved the fullness of the Faith as she received it from Christ.

That's how I became a Catholic. It wasn't careful study alone, but that helped. And it wasn't a bolt out of the blue, though there were some near hits. It was the reality of suffering that brought me to the Church. Everything tells you suffering has no meaning. But through the fullness of Faith as transmitted by the Church, love shows itself in suffering. And love is the only solution to suffering. And only the Catholic Church knows what to make of suffering because she has held fast to her master.

Sorry to go on so long. I hope that helps.

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