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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Faith Fractured

I entered high school a devout Catholic. I graduated an agnostic. It was the convergence of sex, scholarship and social upheaval that profoundly changed my perceptions and beliefs. How do I summarize the head spinning? It is inordinately difficult (and potentially misleading) to be brief, because each of these factors was overwhelmingly complex. These are subjects best discussed over the course of many evenings and many bottles of wine. It took a great deal of discovery, deep disappointment and disillusionment to fracture my deep faith. Oh well, I’ve pulled out a wide paint brush and I’ll paint a crude picture, but there’s so much more to all of this than I can hope to express…the devil’s in the details, as they say.

* * *

Obviously sex is, among a wealth of things, a profound experience with profound repercussions. I didn’t lose my faith because I discovered I enjoyed sex immensely (although I did). Rather, it was because I felt no guilt or shame. I mentioned earlier that, heretofore, I went to confession and received communion weekly. The whole point of confession is not merely to enumerate one’s sins, but to feel genuinely contrite. The Church established the protocols, but it is the soul that must truly desire forgiveness; otherwise, the words are empty and the confession meaningless. I was well aware that my amorous explorations were “mortal sins” in the eyes of the Church. Truth be told, though, sex never felt like sin. I wanted to express my love in every way possible…emotionally, intellectually and physically. I was never moved to engage in casual sex. Those rare times when I simply dallied with another (much later in life) left me feeling empty and guilty. I regret those moments. My early explorations were something entirely different. I sought to please, thrill, comfort, engulf, and satisfy my lover. I wanted to pour my soul into her as my deepest expression of love. I found rapture in her arms. The feelings all that engendered were sublime. What I felt was the opposite of guilt. I gradually stopped going to confession, and stopped receiving communion, because I felt it would be a sham to pretend I was living in accordance with Catholic doctrine when I was not. And I had no inclination to stop making love. I wanted to make love to my love all the days of my life…

* * *

The Christian Brothers of Ireland were my teachers in high school. They were generally earnest, pious men who sought to instill intellectual rigor in our mushy, impressionable brains. They succeeded. I studied Latin through all four years of school. I had daily classes in religion. I was so enamored with the Church that, as I matured, I supplemented my studies with independent readings of the Bible (I’ve read the entire text three times), studied other religions, and pored over texts of Catholic history. What I learned disturbed me greatly. Although I still found the rituals of the Church spiritually satisfying, the truths I discovered about the role of the Church in world affairs…the political uses of religion…mortified me. The Catholic Church (all of Christendom, for that matter) has a dark and checkered past. The miscreant Popes, the suffering inflicted on countless others in the name of God, the misuse of religion in the creation and maintenance of empire, the vagaries of Canon Law, the abuses of power, the whole bloody history of the Church mortified me. Where was God in all of this? There was so little evidence that Jesus’ words were the impetus behind the Church’s actions. There were many true believers, to be sure. There were many admirable, inspirational, devout saints. There were countless individuals who were pure of heart, who lived their faith. But the Church as an institution had much to atone for, had blood on its hands. Where was God’s wrath? I found less and less evidence of Christ in Christianity. I fell back on Jesus’ words for moral guidance and inspiration, but I began to doubt God’s very existence. I turned away from the Church itself.

* * *

I was experiencing my personal maelstrom during a time of great social upheaval. Our society was absolutely fractured in the mid-Sixties. Vietnam, Martin Luther King’s Dream, Selma, Black Panthers, Lester Maddox, civil rights, women’s rights, Domino Theory, police brutality, napalm, Woodstock, Agent Orange, the summer of love, the Birmingham Boycott, Timothy Leary, assassinations, long hair, free love, violence in the streets, psychedelic music, the Democratic Convention, the SDS, Weathermen, Ku Klux Klan, LSD, fists flying, water cannon blasting, friends dying, draft card in the mail, gold star flags in too many windows…all was chaos. Where was the Church in all of this? Where was God? I was outraged and angry. I felt great shame for my "Christian" nation’s actions at home and in the Asian rice paddies and jungles. I took to the streets. I marched and I protested. Where were my Christian brethren?

I remember the last Mass I attended. It was Christmas Eve and I hungered for spiritual solace. I entered the Church in a suit and tie, with hair well past my shoulders. I sat down. An elderly woman turned to look at me and hissed: “You don’t belong here.” She was right. I no longer belonged. I no longer believed.

* * *


Blogger Ed said...

"You don't belong here." She said it out of fear and bitchiness, and she meant it to hurt, but in retrospect do you see it more as a gift?

Regardless, what a powerful moment that must have been in your life, Jon.

Thu Feb 23, 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

No, sadly, it wasn't a gift. It served a purpose, though. It prompted me to ponder long and hard the misuses of religion. I find it ironic that, while both Christianity and Islam are at heart inclusive religions, a great many "believers" use their faith to exclude/revile so many others. The most strident proselytizers too often seem to have missed the basic message of their faith; namely, to embrace all of humanity and live in harmony with all of our brothers and sisters. I'm chagrined when preached about God/Allah's will by those who fail to understand the true beauty and meaning of their faith.

Yes, that last Mass was a turning point and I remember it vividly. So much so, that I can replay it im my mind as if it were a film. That moment has never faded from my memory.

Thu Feb 23, 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger Amaris said...

I hurt for the people the Church has hurt... and it makes me sad that people such as that woman have tarnished the name of Christ with their principles of exclusion. I daresay I become frustrated at the world... because I carry the name of Christ on MY shoulders--and women like that make it so terribly difficult to convince people of Christ's love.

Wed Jun 28, 08:06:00 AM  
Blogger PattiKen said...


Nowhere in hypocrisy can I find sanctity. Because it is my experience, the temptation is to speak of Catholicism. Indeed, the last three Masses I attended (all funeral Masses) were studies in hypocrisy, including my own for being there.

But the truth is that I see that hypocrisy in most organized religions. So much evil has been perpetrated in the name of God (who by any other name...), and still is today. You are right. I can find no God in any of that either, except maybe the gods of money, power, exclusion, etc.

Mon Mar 28, 06:29:00 AM  

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