It’s a dog’s life

This blog is called Catholic-esque for a reason. I was raised Catholic and confirmed within the Church, but like many other people, I no longer belong to a parish or attend mass. Though I’ve entertained the thought of starting back up again, a few aspects of joining a church in an official capacity give me great pause.

great paws indeed

I would like to discuss the tendency of religious organizations to target and prey upon people when they are at their most vulnerable. This could be during times of great financial loss, or even following the loss of a loved one. Churches seem to have an incredible gift for offering comfort and support in exchange for free labor.

Note to self: Dial down the cynicism.

Note to self: Ignore first note. Always be yourself.

Certain denominations of Christianity are more evangelical than others. That term, used in this context, refers to their greater efforts spent in spreading the “Good News,” or the Gospel. I’m not here to make a judgment on the various recruiting tactics employed by different denominations. I’m trying to focus on what happens after a person has affiliated themselves with a church.

Before I continue, I want to give “church” a fair shake. So…

What do I like about the idea of attending church?

A few things:

Number One: Setting aside a specific time that is dedicated to God. Ideally, Christians would then use this time as a reminder that every moment of every day is God’s time. That challenge is the most difficult part of being a Christian. We can get so wrapped up in our everyday problems to the point where we forget to acknowledge the beauty and wonder of God’s creation. We forget to treat others as the children of God that we know they are. If you believe that. It’s fine if you don’t <–italicized because I’ve used this before and will use it again and again. I want anyone who isn’t a total asshole to feel welcome here, and I’m not in the business of trying to convert anyone.

Number Two: Engaging in rituals of worship can be helpful in connecting God with the rituals of our everyday existence. I’m talking about the most boring, mundane aspects of being alive. Church is boring for a lot of people, yes. We do the same thing there every week. The responsibilities and obligations that come with being alive are also quite boring or monotonous at times. Feed the pets, water the plants, take the kids to school, pick them back up, make dinner, do the laundry–only add about a hundred-or-so other things in there and you’ve accounted for an entire day’s worth of activities you’ve done before and will do again until the day you die. It can help to think of these obligations as a way of serving God and His creation. Participating in rituals of worship can help us direct our thoughts toward God. Consider how many preparatory rituals you might engage in at home before leaving the house for the day–taking a shower, brushing your teeth, making coffee–whatever they are, once you have your daily rituals down, you tend to repeat them day after day. Whenever you have a day where you feel rushed, or something gets in the way of these rituals, do you ever feel a little “off”? Like you might not be in the right head-space? My point is that observing rituals can be necessary to maintaining our own sense of inner peace. It’s no wonder that they factor into most religious services.

Number Three: The sense of community and belonging. Sounds great, but I struggle with this because I don’t actually feel like I belong in church. I remember times of feeling disgusted by what was being said during the priest’s homily. I know I would still have that reaction if I went to church and heard those same things today. I don’t want to be disappointed all over again. This is the main reason why I lost interest in my religion and why I abandoned my faith. Only later did I start to regard organized religion as a method by which the state keeps its citizenry subdued and “in check.” Today I still acknowledge this–I can’t find a convincing argument against it. If you’re a part of the militant atheist movement and want to “convert” believers to your side, I would suggest following that thread because it certainly worked on me for a while. In my first post here, I said that I didn’t want to blame God for my failures or my perceived failures of other people. So that’s how I believe in God while still agreeing with the view that religion is used to subjugate people.

I’m about to delve more into the reservations I have about getting involved in organized religion. Let it be known that I strongly dislike the following:
-getting up early
-being told what to do
-being recruited for volunteer activities

Those are minor things though. Maybe I should never, ever go back to church. Maybe. I’m not sure yet, and I’m trying to figure that out.

One major aspect of organized Christianity that gives me the creeps is…the creeps: the people who seem to be lying in wait to take advantage of you when you’re in a vulnerable state and seeking guidance. I don’t like seeing church leaders target people who are hurting. I feel like I’ve seen this time and time again–the people who are targeted are often women, and they feel compelled to increase their involvement in church functions and activities. Have you ever noticed how many parish volunteers are women? Are we so lacking for legitimate positions within our chosen spiritual communities that all we’re good for is selling raffle tickets at the church picnic, or serving scrambled eggs at a church breakfast? Add in a thousand other tasks and you start to wonder if any religious organization could possibly stay afloat without women providing consistent, unpaid labor. Women clearly want to get involved on some level, but we’re often prohibited from taking on actual leadership roles within our churches. Women are left doing the work no one else wants to do. They are expected to volunteer for it–and they do.

Women who are single may have more time to give to their church. Women with grown children may have more time to give to their church. Women who are recently widowed may have more time to give to their church. Women whose marriages have failed may find themselves looking for support, and even if they don’t have any more time to give, you may often see them giving that time (that they don’t have) to the church. Women give a disproportionate amount of their time when compared to men. It’s not necessarily related to their station in life or their circumstances–it’s just easier to take advantage of them when they are already struggling. I think these churches know that.

I tried looking up some stats on women’s over-representation in the area of unpaid work within Christian organizations, and I was only able to find some tangentially-related articles from the Pew Research Center about women in leadership roles. I’ll link them in case you’re interested:

Women relatively rare in top positions of religious leadership

The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World (this one is incredibly thorough and spans multiple pages)

I also found this while surfing the world wide web::

When Women Start Saying “No” to Church Activities

and I know it’s anecdotal, but it’s important. I should add some kind of disclaimer that I’m not affiliated with the writer in any way. I hesitate to link to anyone’s personal website when I don’t know much about them. I also hesitate because I highly doubt anyone in the Christian community wants to be affiliated with me. My views might be at odds with theirs in some way and I wouldn’t want to cause offense. Regardless, I think that post is worth reading.

Women disproportionately volunteer more than men do. I see this every Friday when I go to the Humane Society for Kennel Enrichment (in layman’s terms, we spend one-on-one time with the dogs). I’ve been there for a year and some months. In that entire time, only one man has volunteered with us (us women, I mean). You always hear guys talking about how much they love dogs…if they love them so much, tell them to contact their local animal shelter. They could use the extra help, I’m sure.

If you want a source for any of this:

Why Don’t Men Volunteer as Much as Women?
which directed me to the U.S. Department of Labor:
Volunteering in the United States, 2015

I don’t go to church unless I’m there for a wedding or a funeral. Sometimes I attend the occasional baptism. I did take my dog to the Franciscan Sisters to receive a blessing on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. I always loved taking our family dog to the “Blessing of the Pets” when we were kids. This was the first time in my adult life that I chose to participate in a religious service of my own accord. It was also the first time I witnessed a group a women performing a blessing. It was great, because my dog and I are both independent women.

doesn’t she look blessed? hopefully some of it rubbed off on the cat

The Song of Bernadette

Beginning this past summer, my boyfriend and I have spent many nights together watching movies, most of which are new to us while some are old favorites. We go a bit wild whenever the Criterion Collection movies are discounted by 50% at Barnes & Noble. Half-Price Books has also been a great source–up until recently I’ve only ever browsed for books there, but I’ve found some incredible movies there in these past few months. My favorite find so far has been The Nun’s Story starring Audrey Hepburn. I cannot recommend it highly enough. After I first saw it, I believe I said: “This movie makes all of my other favorite movies look like trash.” I’m exaggerating a tad when I say that, but watch the movie if you haven’t and try to tell me it isn’t of a higher order than most movies.

Another movie I found at HPB was The Song of Bernadette starring Jennifer Jones. It has been sitting in our “to watch” pile for too long. Two nights ago we finally put it on. With our opposite schedules, it can be difficult to carve out the time for a movie over two hours long so we tend to save those for our shared days off.

The story of Bernadette Soubirous first entered my consciousness when I was about 8 years old and attending Catholic school. We would attend mass three days each week in the morning before classes began. Each mass would be “run” by students of a different class ranging from grades 1 through 8. We had two classes per grade, so every class of every grade would alternate throughout the year doing the readings during mass, bringing the offertory gifts, and singing in the choir. I was assigned to give a reading on the life of Bernadette Soubirous for what I assume was during the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Being the especially tightly-wound kid that I was, I practiced the reading for days on end until I had it memorized. I didn’t want to have to look down at the paper while I was reading it during mass. I thank my Mom for helping me practice. I have a memory of lying in bed at night, reciting the words from memory while my Mom stood by checking it against a copy of the reading.

Watching The Song of Bernadette caused many of these old memories to come back to me for the first time in a very long time. Most of the movie fell in line with what I remember about her story–the initial visitation, Bernadette’s successive pilgrimages to the grotto, the discovery of a fresh spring when Bernadette dug into the ground using her hands, the request to build a chapel on the holy ground, the revelation that the vision was of the “Immaculate Conception” (a term Bernadette was said to be unfamiliar with)–it was all to be found in the movie along with a vivid portrayal of Bernadette’s family and their struggles with poverty and Bernadette’s own fragile health.

From what I understand, the movie (and the book it’s based on) have embellished certain events for dramatic effect. The “antagonists” in the movie, represented by the prosecutor Dutour (played by Vincent Price) and his cronies, display not simply mere skepticism toward Bernadette’s story, but rather they condemn her outright and aim threats at her that include imprisonment of her and her family.

Hints at a never-to-be romantic relationship between Bernadette and a neighbor boy are included despite having no basis in reality (though they were indeed friends).

The figure in the movie who I found to be of great interest was that of Sister Marie-Therese Vauzou, who in the film is highly suspicious of Bernadette’s visions and whose condemnation of her rivals even that of the prosecutor’s. The film gives Sister Vauzou an incredibly powerful scene toward its end in which she laments her own treatment of Bernadette, recognizing that her skepticism arose from feelings of jealousy (among others). Vauzou, played by Gladys Cooper, is an unforgettable presence throughout the movie. The scene that finds her in church, begging for God’s forgiveness, is particularly moving. Many liberties were taken in this portrayal of her, because in reality she never got beyond her initial skepticism and even opposed Bernadette’s canonization (investigations for which were postponed until after the death of Sister Vauzou).

Despite some of these incongruities, the film is much more than a simple religious propaganda piece. I think it raises a lot of questions about our willingness to believe in certain things and what it is that holds us back from claiming certain beliefs for our own. Do you ever find yourself stuck in this line of thinking? “I don’t believe it, so I won’t believe it.” That sounds simplistic, but it makes me wonder what I’m cutting myself off from in life.

I had an experience once–one that gave me an overwhelming feeling of peace and security–and I knew in my heart that this feeling was coming from God, but because I was a committed non-believer at the time, I was unwilling to accept God as the source of this feeling. Maybe someday I’ll elaborate on the particulars of the experience (and don’t worry! no visions were involved), but today is not that day.

I’ll end this post with three recommendations:
The Song of Bernadette, directed by Henry King and starring Jennifer Jones
The Nun’s Story, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Audrey Hepburn
Mariette in Ecstasy, a short novel by Ron Hansen

Hitler isn’t in hell, but I am.

The title of this blog post is not supposed to be provocative. It’s something that came up in counseling while talking about self-forgiveness. Thinking about those words from time to time since then has been helpful to me because they’ve been keeping in check my tendency toward self-flagellation. I have a bad part of my brain that thinks I deserve all the worst things in the world and that in the afterlife I only deserve the harshest judgment from God. I don’t even know how to accurately or objectively assess my own moral standing, if that makes sense. I don’t know whether I’m a good person or a bad person. I guess I think I’m a pretty bad person. I’m a bad person because I think bad thoughts. Even when I was questioning the existence of God, I was sure that my thoughts were going to send me to Hell. And I didn’t even believe in it, really.

The thing is though, that when I articulate these thoughts about myself to my counselor, I begin to see what’s wrong with them.

I often categorize myself as “not a superstitious person”. People who don’t believe in God may scoff at that, because belief in anything that isn’t tangible is sometimes relegated to the realm of superstition. I do believe my faith suffers when I approach it from a superstitious angle. Let me try to illustrate what that looks like, in my experience:

I think a particularly abhorrent thought, therefore I will go to Hell.

I consume media that has no redeeming qualities and is morally bankrupt, therefore I will go to Hell.

My actions are not a reflection of my thoughts, therefore I am a hypocrite and I am going to Hell.

Basically I have created a way in which even my good actions will send me to Hell because I’m not being true to my bad thoughts. I think of any good actions as a way to make amends for my bad thoughts, but even that isn’t enough to escape Hell because God knows what my thoughts actually are.

I’m trying to accept that this is B.S., but it’s like I have to rewire my brain for that to happen.

I’ve gone on long enough about this, so let’s get back to Hitler.

My counselor asked me if Hitler was in Hell. I think he knew what I would say before I even responded, probably before the question was even a thought in his head. You don’t counsel someone for months without getting a sense that you’re talking to the kind of person who thinks there’s a good chance Hitler might not be in Hell. I am one of those people and maybe I’m very obvious about that, despite never having talked about it before because frankly the topic is done to death.

Why wouldn’t Hitler be in Hell? So many reasons, each of which is as improbable as the next, but it’s what I believe, so let’s get typing:

  • None of us can truly know what goes on inside another person, even the people closest to us.
  • None of us can know if, or to what extent, another person has sought forgiveness for their sins.
  • We pray for the release of all souls in purgatory in order that they may go to Heaven. If Hitler was able to escape eternal suffering in the afterlife, there’s a chance he could be in Heaven right now. I don’t know, I’m just typing insane things. Bear with me.
  • No matter how evil and destructive a person is on earth, it is not up to me to make a judgment that is reserved for God alone to make (this ties in to why capital punishment is also wrong, again, for so many reasons, but having the hubris to act like God is surely a great sin).

I can make every excuse in the book for why Hitler might not be in Hell. But I can’t make the same excuses for myself. Why? Well, I’ve had a pretty nice life. I was brought up well. I have great parents. They did a good job instilling a sense of right vs. wrong in their children, and I credit my Mom with adding empathy into the whole equation. Without empathy, the entire effort would’ve been pointless.

At this point, anything I do that is evil or destructive is entirely my own fault. That is why I think even the littlest things could send me to Hell.

At the end of that counseling session, as I was walking out the door, I said, “Hitler isn’t in Hell, but I am.” And it made me laugh. So now I like to say it in my head, all the time, and especially when I need to add some perspective to my bouts of self-judgment.

My counselor told me that he questions the existence of Hell because of what that says about the God who would create Hell. I do agree with that. I can’t say that I believe in Hell either, because to me it only surfaces as a concept when I’m approaching my faith in the most superstitious manner possible. My thoughts about Hell are indicative of the worst parts of my faith that I would like to challenge and hopefully dispose of. A person should not believe in Hell. A person of faith should believe in God. I only believe in Hell when I want to punish myself.

Self-forgiveness is the theme of this post.


What does that even mean?

It means Catholic-ish, to clarify.

Spiritual, but not religious (this does not necessarily apply to me, I’m just coming up with stuff. Right now I’m just typing out reasons why someone might be Catholic-esque).

Stopped going to church a long time ago. Beliefs basically remain the same.

Raised Catholic, stopped practicing. Started questioning.

The gay thing.

The pro-life thing.

The sex abuse thing.

The women-in-the-church thing.

The everything thing.

Whatever thing it was that distanced you from the Church, or distanced me from the Church, I may end up talking about here at some point. It’s not always one thing. I didn’t realize until much later that these things that had built up within me weren’t just distancing me from the Church. I became distant from God as a result, and now I’m trying to work on that relationship again. I most definitely was a non-believer at one point, though I bristled at being labeled an atheist or even agnostic. Looking back on it, I just didn’t want any of it in my life at all. That part of me has changed. I don’t want to blame God for my failures or what I might (wrongfully) perceive as the failures of other people.