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Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Summary of Sorts

Having written about my faith and its wounds, I felt this may be an opportune time to share one of my all-time favorite poems with each of you. I fell in love with this poem twenty years ago. I've carried it in my heart ever since. Perhaps, now, you'll understand why. It was written by Michael Blumenthal. It is a masterful work laced with powerful imagery. It captures the yearnings and philosophy in my soul. I wish I could write poetry half (oh hell, one-tenth) as well.

In Assisi

This morning, in Assisi, I woke
and looked into my wife's face
and thought of Saint Francis:
how he explained to Brother Leo
that Perfect Joy is only on the Cross,
how he told him that, if they should come
to the Convent of Saint Mary of the Angels,
soaked with rain and frozen by the cold
and soiled with mud and suffering
from hunger, and if they should knock
on the gates and a porter should come out
and beat them over the head with a knotty club
and throw them down into the mud and snow
and cover their bodies with wounds, only then
might they know Perfect Joy. And I thought
of how Saint Anthony converted the heretics
by talking to the fishes, and of how blood flowed
from a picture of Saint Francis' stigmata,
and of the beautiful death of Brother Bernard.
And I looked again into my wife's lovely eyes,
both green and grey at once in the Umbrian light,
and I swore to myself, rolling over beside her,
that I would never be a man who flings his body
like dirt against the thorns, that I would never
lie down to sleep on a bed of stone; that,
if I were ever fit to preach to birds,
I would sing to them in praise of their wings,
I would urge them to fly off in all directions
at once, over the trees and the hills and
the lustful bodies of small animals. And this
is how it was this morning, when -- after
making love in the large bed -- we walked
through the Porta dei Cappuccini toward the
Eremo delle Carceri, where Saint Francis
is said to have blessed the birds, and past
the thousand-year-old oak, now supported
by steel bars, and watched the white doves
kiss atop the stone balustrade. And I looked
at my wife, and praised her body and my body
and all the bodies of this earth for what pleasure
they can give. And I bathed my eyes in salt,
as Saint Francis did, for the little love we find
and how we cling to it and how, once we find it,
we live constantly in dread of losing it, as
the Buddhists say. And I blessed this life
once more for what it has given me, and
for what is has failed to give me, and will
fail again tomorrow. And I held my wife
in these dust-driven arms and spoke to her
in this one language I know so well: the old oak
creaking in the blessed air, the pious fishes
singing in the stream, this all I know of Perfect Joy,
and all the white doves kissing in its name.

* * *

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.

* * *

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Growing Up Catholic

I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. It was to be expected. My parents came from Lithuania, a devoutly Catholic nation. My mother’s faith was deep and unshakeable. She personified Catholic guilt, and was possessed of a profound fear of God’s damnation and hellfire. My father was not particularly religious during my early years, but he faithfully observed church rules in deference to his wife, and for the sake of his children. He grew to be a pious lover of Jesus in his later years.

We practiced a strict faith, an Old World faith comprised of rules, obligations, penance, ritual, abstinence and fear of God’s wrath. We fastidiously fasted during Lent and Advent. There was never meat on Fridays; there were always evening prayers, rosaries and Mass on Sundays. My faith was breathed into me from Day 1.

I attended kindergarten at St. George’s parish. The church itself was an old, gothic-style cathedral. It was hauntingly beautiful. It was capacious. There was room for my soul to soar and soar it did…I attended Mass daily prior to class. Nuns were my first teachers. I did not regard them as people. In my child’s eyes, they were spiritual beings, magical human-angel hybrids. I trusted them implicitly as they taught (and I memorized) the Baltimore Catechism. I simply assumed everyone was Catholic. I could not imagine that anyone could believe in anything else. This was Truth. This was God’s will.

Mass was conducted solely in Latin in my youth. The language felt ancient, the rituals profoundly mystical. I believed I was participating in rites practiced for thousands of years - that Christ, Himself, had dictated that it be so. I soon came to know the words by heart, but not their meaning:

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto…
Dominus vobiscum…Et cum spiritu tuo…
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Kyrie eleison…Christe eleison…
Gloria in exceslis Deo
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Hosanna in excelsis.
Pater noster, qui es in coelis. sanctificetur nomen tuum: adveniat regnum tuum: fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo, et in terra…
Per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.


Their meanings came later (even today, as I type these words, I feel their weight and majesty). I loved Mass. I loved the incense, the Stations of the Cross, the statues of Joseph and Mary and…most of all…I was awed by the figure of the crucified Christ. I was a devout Catholic. I BELIEVED that all nuns and priests were holy. I BELIEVED in the infallibility of the Pope, Christ’s representative on the throne of Rome. I BELIEVED in Heaven and Hell. I BELIEVED that the communion wafer and chalice of wine were, truly, the body and blood of Christ. I fervently prayed to be pure and holy myself.

I experienced the first quake in my faith in 2nd grade. I was walking to school with a classmate and asked where he was baptized. He replied that he never was. A cold fear ran through me. He was damned to Hell! I could not understand why my friend would eventually be made to suffer so. I was terrified for him. For the first time in my life, I questioned why God would do something like that.

As prescribed by the Church, I learned the rites of confession, and searched my soul for sin. I received my first Communion and, thereafter, devoutly went to confession each week so that I could accept the body of Christ come Sunday. I imagine that parish priests must delight in the confessions of children; my early “sins” were laughable. I’ve truly sinned since. There is a world of difference…

When I was in 6th grade, my mother asked what I wanted that Christmas. I told her I wanted a Missal. She was perplexed. “Missile? You want a MISSILE!?!” “No, mother, I want a Missal, M-I-S-S-A-L.” Her eyes revealed her surprise and joy. I found a Missal under the tree that Christmas, and I loved that book. I read it each day. I assiduously followed the liturgical calendar, earnestly pondering each day’s gospel and epistle. My faith was the foundation for my daily life. I began to read extensively about my faith and my Church. Therein lay the seeds of my faith’s destruction.

Although I was not aware of it at the time, the priests and nuns had noted my pronounced piety. I aspired to be a priest, and my parents and teachers were gently nudging me along that path. I was shocked at my 8th grade graduation to learn that I had been granted a full scholarship to attend a Catholic high school. I was not aware of any particular reason why I, and my family, would be so blessed. You see, my parents could never afford the tuition, so this was a blessing indeed. Decades later, my mother explained that I had been earmarked for priesthood, and that the Church hierarchy decided to invest its faith and funds in me. I did not know that then.

My silent benefactors must have been sorely disappointed in the outcome.

* * *

(to be continued…)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Gullibility

Last week, an acquaintance wrote that she found my gullibility exasperating. I’ve been thinking about her comment ever since. The definition of gullible is “easily duped: tending to trust and believe people, and therefore easily tricked or deceived.” She’s right, of course. I am gullible.

My life’s story verily overflows with examples of my gullibility. Let me tell you about my high school sweetheart.

I was in 7th grade when I first encountered this comely 6th-grader. She was tall, athletic, big-breasted and warm-hearted. I had always been painfully shy, more so in the company of girls. Despite fearsome, near-crippling trepidation, I tried my best to capture her attention and imagination. I would carry her books, we would jostle, I would try to entertain and charm and finally came to know that she had, in fact, been charmed…and I was smitten.

She matured into an “Earth Mother,” a woman of boundless energy and appetite. Barefoot and bra-less more often than not, she showered love on all living things. Her constant laughter singing in my ears, she pressed me close and nurtured me. She reveled in life and I in her. We became lovers. I’ve come to believe that our initial sexual experiences define our future proclivities. We were languorous, but passionate lovers. We explored every erotic dimension, experimented endlessly. Lovemaking took hours, often days. We exhausted ourselves every chance we could. I came to know her body much better than my own. I loved every pore, every freckle. I adored her. I sincerely believe that, had it ever come to that, I would have sacrificed my life for her (sigh...there's that doleful past tense again).

Those were halcyon days. A few years passed in dizzying glory. I showered her with gifts at every opportunity. I strove to demonstrate that she was my world. And then, a few days after Christmas…after I had stuffed her stocking full…she informed me that she had found another. My world disintegrated in pain and anguish. I was devastated, as only a teen-ager can be devastated by lost love. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I wandered city streets aimlessly through the longest, darkest winter of my life. To this day, I remain an insomniac.

Then came spring, and she came back. My mind was haunted by the leaving, but my heart rejoiced. I loved her in my very marrow. The passion was as overwhelming as always, but accompanied now by a certain loss of innocence. Turbulent winds engulfed us. Another Christmas came, another post-holiday departure. A pattern began to form. She would leave either after Christmas, or her birthday (in early February), or after Valentine’s Day. My winters were always the coldest on record. It wasn’t just the loss of love, the doors closed in my face, the unanswered letters. There was the every-growing feeling that I had been duped again and again and again. The gifts were always graciously accepted, the postscripts inevitably "good-bye". After seven years of tempests, betrayals and sorrowful holidays, I was spent and empty. I muttered a final good-bye and simply walked away. It was November.

Looking back on my adolescent experiences, I can see the comedic elements. Sadly, my gullibility (i.e., willingness to trust and believe in people) only led to greater pain and even greater devastation over time. But let's stop here, for mercy's sake.

Am I gullible? Resoundingly so! Am I stupid? OK, the jury may still be out on that, but I think not. That first love made me ponder the ways of the heart…endlessly. It became an act of sheer will to trust and believe. It’s so easy to be cynical. One’s first impulse, when hurt, is to armor the heart and run from love. Despite that, I refuse to give in to my fears of pain and rejection. It isn’t easy. It is a constant struggle. There was even a stretch (lasting five years) when I simply could not trust, when my heart remained closed to even the possibility of love. But my heart, confused though it may be, refuses to be fettered. It is a Herculean labor to convince myself to forget life’s bitter lessons, to suspend my disbelief. I wage bitter war against my brain because my heart demands it.

Am I gullible? Yes. Let the cynical pragmatists mock me. I think it is one of my better (albeit most personally devastating) qualities.

* * *

Saturday, February 11, 2006

When I'm Lost

When I’m lost, I’ll pull a tome or two of poetry from the shelf and read again (for the thousandth time) the works that thrilled me in years long past. I revisit the words that once sang to me, reminding myself who I used to be, what moved me and inspired me.

When I’m lost, I listen for music that echoed in my head so many times…songs of passion, of love, of tenderness and hope that once filled my ears, my heart and soul. There’s so much more room for them now in these hollow voids of mine.

When I’m lost, I wander. My legs tell me when it’s time to go, time to venture on trails I’ve never trod to find a place that I can, perhaps, call home.

When I’m lost, I sit quietly and gaze at stars. No, I never learned to navigate by stars. I never learned to navigate. I doubt I ever will. The stars fill a deeper need. They are beacons of hope and majesty and wonder. They serve to remind me that:


“In the untamed space of Nature
The cries of a single man
Are nothing but the whisper
Of a snowflake tumbling down.”

When I’m lost, I seek my friends…my trusted creators and confidants. They can be a thousand miles away, silent. Still, they comfort me. They are omnipresent, reminding me that I will never be, truly, alone.

When I’m lost, I lie on my back through the long, dark night. My eyes are useless now, but…slowly, ever so slowly…I begin to see.

When I’m lost, I yearn to feel the winds again: “The wind at my body is wild animals licking for salt.” I yearn for thunder, lightning and rain…storms savage enough to wash the pain and shame away, cleanse me and revive me.

When I’m lost, my lips and tongue somehow/someday learn (once again) to say: “Here I am. I’m standing at the beginning. It is time to begin.”

When I’m lost, when I’m clothed in robes of brooding disposition, ruling my empty house…I wait for the quiet knock on the door. It always comes…eventually.

When I am lost, I cling to hope. As patched, ratty and leaky as that life raft has come to be, it's all I have.

* * *

in celebration of surviving
By Chuck Miller

when senselessness has pounded you around on the ropes
and you’re getting too old to hold out for the future
no work and running out of money,
and then you make a try after something that you know you
won’t get
and this long shot comes through on the stretch
in a photo finish of your heart’s trepidation
then for a while
even when the chill factor of these prairie winters puts it at
fifty below
you’re warm and have that old feeling
of being a comer, though belated
in the crazy game of life

standing in the winter night
emptying the garbage and looking at the stars
you realize that although the odds are fantastically against you
when that single January shooting star
flung its wad in the maw of night
it was yours
and though the years are edged with crime and squalor
that second wind, or twenty-third
is coming strong
and for a time
perhaps a very short time
one lives as though in a golden envelope of light

* * *

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Beautiful Thought

It just may be that something amazing happens when a woman bears a baby. Researchers are exploring the possibility that the child may leave a gift of cells behind to protect the mother for the rest of her life. This gift of cells may function in ways similar to stem cells…repairing damaged tissue whenever/wherever needed. A breathtaking possibility, is it not?

No matter how marvelous I find all of creation to be, I always underestimate the grandeur, the elegance and the joy. Mothers, go hug your children.

Here is the story

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Made Man

A personal blog or diary is, by its very nature, an exercise in solipsism (I am smiling as I type this, Bernice). It’s true. I write about my feelings, beliefs, observations and thoughts. Every entry has been about me, me, me, but this begs the question: “What/who am I?” It’s the age-old question of nature vs. nurture.

I’ve been pondering this for months; not in any great depth, mind you, just random, chaotic musings mostly. These thoughts often come to mind when I encounter libertarian or “conservative” opinions regarding the importance of taking personal responsibility for one’s own success or failure. The underlying assumption is that we each possess an irreducible core of rational thought, emotions and capabilities that we must harness and utilize to our best advantage…that we each possess the potential to succeed in all of life’s endeavors if only we choose to do so.

Is this fundamental assumption correct?

I came into this world with blended genetic attributes, courtesy of my parents. I’ve always felt that I was a bit short-changed in this dance of DNA. My parents were both very good-looking and athletic (as is my sister). I, on the other hand, am decidedly “average” both in looks and physical capabilities (although I do have my father’s thumbs, and that has come to mean a great deal to me in my dotage). At any rate, I was not imbued with my parents’ comeliness, but I seem to have inherited a quick mind. My double helix bestowed its own unique blessings.

So I entered the world as a one-off mechanism with physical strengths and weaknesses and a data processing center, my brain, that seems to function quite well, thank you (despite my repeated attempts to futz with it). Did I come with a soul? I’ll never know. I certainly wasn’t aware of it in my earliest years. I simply was…and my brain was empty.

My body grew without any guidance from me. My cells simply did what they were designed to do. Data began to stream into my brain, first from my senses, and then from external programmers. Without a doubt, my parents were the first to put thoughts in my head. They were my greatest teachers. They taught me words and the meanings of things. My mother read to me each night. By age four, she was reading from complex, mature novels. She paused patiently, again and again and again, to explain practically every word and every idea, while I rested in my bed with eyes wide open in amazement. She taught me that words and books were magic things. My father taught me about emotions…the realms of the spirit. Both told me I had a soul, and I believed them. I was on my way.

Data streamed in from nuns and priests and teachers, and I supplemented the data flow with knowledge gleaned independently from my own observations, experiences and my omnipresent books (I began reading voraciously at age four). I accepted everything I learned in those days without doubt or question. My basic values, morals and ethics came from these early sources and teachers. I simply believed that everything I was taught was true.

Then came others: neighbors, strangers on the street, voices on the radio, faces on TV, and school chums. Then came ever more complex experiences. Each played a role in shaping me. I processed the inputs using the fundamental assumptions that had been implanted in me by my earliest programmers. My brain had been hard-wired by others to process data in a certain way. I began to accept or reject data based on that…and the data came in torrents.

As I grew older, my friends became my mentors. We challenged each other, influenced each other, emulated and molded one another. I say with considerable pride that I picked great friends…either that, or great friends picked me (when it comes to kindred spirits, can anyone really know who did what to whom?).

And then came lovers…profound influences all. I think I’ll save my thoughts on the importance of lovers for another day. I do not wish to write a book today.

As I search my head and my heart for the true and essential “me”,
I find only the fingerprints of all the people who have touched and molded me. Have I ever had a truly original thought? I see only the imprints of others, and there were countless fingers. Had those fingers come from different hands…who would I be?

What, or who, am I? I’ve come to believe that I am, truly, a “Made Man”, and I am grateful for all my Makers.

* * *

Friday, February 03, 2006

Falling Towards Grace

I discovered this poem over twenty years ago. My life was in shambles at the time (come to think of it there have been quite a few “shambled” years…but I digress). This poem hit me square in the gut.

In a U-Haul North of Damascus
by David Bottoms

I.

Lord, what are the sins
I have tried to leave behind me? The bad checks,
the workless days, the scotch bottles thrown across the fence
and into the woods, the cruelty of silence,
the cruelty of lies, the jealousy,
the indifference?

What are these on the scale of sin
or failure
that they should follow me through the streets of Columbus,
the moon-streaked fields between Benevolence
and Cuthbert where dwarfed cotton sparkles like pearls
on the shoulders of the road. What are these
that they should find me half-lost,
sick and sleepless
behind the wheel of this U-Haul truck parked in a field
on Georgia 45
a few miles north of Damascus,
some makeshift rest stop for eighteen wheelers
where the long white arms of oak slap across trailers
and headlights glare all night through a wall of pines?

2.

What was I thinking Lord?
That for once I'd be in the driver's seat, a firm grip
on direction?

So the jon boat muscled up the ramp,
the Johnson outboard, the bent frame of the wrecked Harley
chained for so long to the back fence,
the scarred desk, the bookcases and books,
the mattress and box springs,
a broken turntable, a Pioneer amp, a pair
of three-way speakers, everything mine
I intended to keep. Everything else abandon.

But on the road from one state
to another, what is left behind nags back through the distance,
a last word rising to a scream, a salad bowl
shattering against a kitchen cabinet, china barbs
spiking my heel, blood trailed across the cream linoleum
like the bedsheet that morning long ago
just before I watched the future miscarried.

Jesus, could the irony be
that suffering forms a stronger bond than love?

3.

Now the sun
streaks the windshield with yellow and orange, heavy beads
of light drawing highways in the dew-cover.
I roll down the window and breathe the pine-air,
the after-scent of rain, and the far-off smell
of asphalt and diesel fumes.

But mostly pine and rain
as though the world really could be clean again.

Somewhere behind me,
miles behind me on a two-lane that streaks across
west Georgia, light is falling
through the windows of my half-empty house.
Lord, why am I thinking about this? And why should I care
so long after everything has fallen
to pain that the woman sleeping there should be sleeping alone?
Could I be just another sinner who needs to be blinded
before he can see? Lord, is it possible to fall
toward grace? Could I be moved
to believe in new beginnings? Could I be moved?

* * *

Falling towards grace. Those indelible words imbedded themselves in my brain. I came to understand what I had been feeling, what I continue to feel ever more strongly with every passing year, every new disaster.

I was raised in the Catholic Church. From kindergarten on, through my First Communion and then my Confirmation, I believed that a state of grace is something we ascend towards. I thought grace was to be found within the heavens, not in the ashes and dust beneath my feet. Perhaps that’s true for saints; perhaps, for most…but not for me.

I wrote earlier that I’m either a new and utterly foolish soul, or an old soul riding the “short bus” through eternity. It seems that I can only learn by failing. I’ve edged closer to becoming a loving person by failing at love. I’ve acquired a bit of patience after crashing willy-nilly into one or two walls too many. I’ve learned a few things about humility by failing myself, and others, often. I wish it weren’t this way. I wish grace were easier to achieve than solely through pain. But, so be it. If I must first hurt in order to learn, then I must hurt…and hurt I do…as I find myself slowly falling towards grace.

* * *


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