Go toward God

Sometimes I’ve wondered about people who find this blog and what they might think about the content of it when coupled with the name “Catholic-esque.” I don’t talk about God all the time on here. I wasn’t really sure what direction this project might go in, but in going through it I have often had to remind myself that the content should come naturally.

What does that look like for me? It means I write what I feel like writing and I try to be truthful in how it reflects life as I know it. The only way I know how to make any of this palatable is through clarity. Sometimes I hit upon a subject that I can’t see through to its end, and it’s usually because I find that the writing lacks clarity of thought or feeling. Those would-be posts remain in my unfinished drafts–they are often useful at future points, so I don’t agonize over their incompleteness. I only regret not being able to finish one of them that I began writing after my brother’s graduation from medical school. I tried to fit too much into it–not just his graduation, but updates on buying a house and becoming engaged. I hadn’t written anything in a little while, and I had too much to say. The main point of the post was lost in all the details. I regret not finishing because it was going to be very happy. I’m not one for big events or celebrations, but my brother’s graduation affected me deeply. I had a difficult time writing about it, though.

Wanting the content of this blog to come naturally means that I’m not going to search for a Bible verse to tack onto the end of each post, and I’m not going to shoehorn God into situations where–if I’m honest with myself–he’s not playing a prominent role. God is everywhere and is present in all things, I do believe that. But if I’m sitting down to write about my problems with work, I know it’s probably not going to end up being a post about my spiritual journey. I need some room to vent. I do look toward God in times of turmoil, but I know who I am to some extent and I know I wouldn’t use those opportunities to then write about my relationship with God. God is always good to me. He is somewhere beyond those petty concerns. He is helping me in bigger ways.

I took a family vacation recently and it was mostly very pleasant. I only had some minor little brother problems–nothing worth writing about–and some confusion over how to best carve out some time to spend with just my fiancĂ© and his son (something that I thought was important for us to do). But overall it was excellent.

We rented a house, my favorite feature being the deck. The surrounding trees were growing so near that it felt like the deck was settled upon them somehow. It was very relaxing to spend the morning time alone, on the deck, floating in the treetops.

I was trying to make a decision about my job, or to be more accurate, I had decided against taking a new job. I didn’t know that I would receive a counter-offer that would force me to reconsider my initial decision. So at the time, I was trying to make peace with my choice to remain at my current job. I was doing some writing here and there. I watched the trees from the deck.

I had going through my head so many thoughts about happiness and what causes it. It’s different for everyone. I knew I had a lot of things in my life that help to create happiness–mine always boil down to love and family. I have love. I have family. It’s hard for me to admit when I feel there’s a missing piece to that puzzle. I feel ungrateful. The knowledge that I have love and family helps put everything else into perspective, because if it came down to a matter of choice, I would choose those two things above a career, or money, or recognition. That didn’t stop the gears from turning, though. Career. Money. Recognition. Freedom. Travel. Leisure. I kept asking myself, where does my ambition lie? I tried getting myself to really imagine and feel the presence of those things in my life–what I imagine they could be like. I imagined and felt what it might be like to have a job that I loved someday. I tried to let that feeling sink in. It would be wonderful to be proud of my job. Of course it would.

I imagined what it might be like to not live paycheck to paycheck. I imagined taking my car in to the shop after the slightest hiccup, knowing I could afford the repairs. I thought of all the work we could do on the house with just a little more money in the bank. With money, I might even be able to go back to school. I could study whatever I wanted with little regard for practicality. I was imagining the kind of money that is separate from the money you work for. I don’t believe that all hard work pays off–monetarily, it does not. I just let myself imagine a life lived not hurting for money. Where that extra money would come from, I tried to imagine as well. What would I be willing to sacrifice for more money? It doesn’t appear out of nowhere. I considered what my own values were. It became more and more difficult to imagine this life with money.

I imagined myself in another scenario, one where I had more leisure time and the freedom to spend that time however I wanted. I imagined traveling to Russia. I want to visit Yasnaya Polyana before I die. I tried to feel however it might feel to do that.

I want to visit museums, cathedrals. I want to see mountains. I want to see glaciers. That’s when I start dreaming.

I return to reality. Career and money, family and friends. Love and ambition. My own limitations–what can I do with them? What can I do right now?

I watched the trees from the deck; my mind was buzzing. I couldn’t stop it. I knew the feeling, I had felt it many times before. I had read it in Tolstoy, as the screw in Pierre’s head, turning this way and that until it is stripped and no longer catches hold and keeps endlessly turning. But then mine stopped and I don’t know how. I was looking at the trees and how they moved. I forgot for a moment where I was, who I was, and what I’d been thinking about.

I had a new thought, but it didn’t feel like I thought it. I had known it already and I had known it for a long time and I knew it didn’t come from me. I wrote it down.

The only real purpose in life is to become one with God and to pursue that always.

I have forgotten it since, only to remember it again. I get to remember it over and over. One night I cried in bed because I had forgotten it. The screw had started turning again and I couldn’t stop it. I was agitated and I could not understand my feelings. The only feelings I had that I could give names to were regret and worry.

And it hit me again, I am unhappy because I’ve been neglecting God.

I think about God all the time, but sometimes I stop searching for Him. I say that I acknowledge his presence in all things, but that’s not exactly true. It’s my ideal frame of mind, but it’s not the reality of my mind. My mind easily forgets God.

God doesn’t forget about me though. I don’t know why this keeps happening, but I really feel like at some of my worst moments, God makes Himself known to me despite the neglect I’ve shown toward Him. I want it to keep happening. I have to open my heart to Him always. I hope He knows that’s how I feel.

The first time I felt God’s presence was in Texas. Howdy! I was still with my first boyfriend, and we had driven down to Tyler to visit his sister. His sister was (and I’m sure still is) a very devout Christian. I was so nervous about staying with her in her home. I was not religious, but I also didn’t talk about my beliefs (or lack thereof). His sister is a very warm and kind person and made me feel very welcome. Still, I was unsettled by how different we were. I can’t explain it. Imagine a non-believer meeting a real Christian for the first time, one who actually seems to embody everything that is Christlike and good. Again, I can’t explain it. I was so nervous about staying in her house. My boyfriend and I slept in separate rooms during our visit. I never did well sleeping in new places, especially alone. I remember wishing we could stay up and watch TV all night together, just so I wouldn’t have to be alone. I was nervous about going to sleep. When the time came, I felt panicked. I laid down in bed, overcome with nerves. I felt like crying. On the wall next to the bed hung a picture of Jesus. I gazed at it and felt like a child. I always had trouble at night. Scared of the dark, scared of everything. Monsters were everywhere.

I was looking at this picture when suddenly I was struck by the most profound sense of peace I had ever felt. I couldn’t compare it to anything from before. I felt it through my entire body, I felt it envelop my mind. I kept looking at the picture, not understanding what was happening. I fell asleep shortly after. I never spoke to anyone about it. I couldn’t tell my boyfriend because I thought he would laugh at me. I still did not believe in God. I couldn’t explain what had happened. In my heart, I knew God was making Himself known to me. I didn’t think things like that could happen though, so I never told anyone. You could say I ignored it. My beliefs did not change in that moment, nor did they change in the wake of it. But it gnawed at me, and continued to do so for a long time, because I had no explanation to offer.

God did His work that night; I believe that completely. I, on the other hand, was not working toward God in any way, and I wasn’t ready to start. I did not want God in my life. God was too complicated. I abandoned the idea of God in the first place because it complicated my life too much. If I acknowledged God, that meant I would have to reckon with a lot of things that could be painful. I’m a sinner, and I sin against God in my thoughts and in my actions. If I acknowledged God, I would have to try to stop sinning (or somehow live with myself while knowing I was sinning against God). If I continued to ignore God, I could keep sinning and feel no guilt. Back then, I liked to think that living ethically was a fine substitute for living faithfully. Forget whether I actually lived ethically–I didn’t, and don’t–it was a convenient distraction. I wanted so little to do with God, but at the same time was very much concerned with how to fill the void left in his absence. If God isn’t real to me, there should be no void to fill, right? Somehow that never occurred to me.

I haven’t found a human invention that is a perfect substitute for God’s law. Our own laws are meant to ensure justice, but they lack the moral guidance of “turn the other cheek,” Christ’s comquestand (made up a word to mean halfway between a command and a request because of how nicely it was phrased so please just roll with it) that pushes far beyond what is addressed in human law in that it acknowledges every human being’s ability to grow spiritually, to be more than mere law-abiders: to become active peacemakers in the world. Our collective purpose is to create the Kingdom of God on Earth.

An aside: I say I don’t write about God very often. I write about my beliefs and values and I consider them adjacent to my faith in some way. My faith may inform my values, my values may inform my faith. It would feel unnatural for me to exclusively talk about my faith in everything I write. Still, my moniker on here is “Catholic-esque” because I think it’s important for people to understand that faith is complicated and that is does not necessarily prescribe certain viewpoints that are typically associated with folks who believe in God. I believe in God. I really don’t care if you do or not. I know that some of the most avowed atheists are doing a better job of protecting God’s creation than are some of the most vocal Christians. It often takes the courage of a non-believer (or maybe I should say a differently-believing person) to bring attention to the most callous acts perpetrated by the Church. The Catholic Church is long overdue for a good toppling. I suppose it’s possible that someone reading this blog, expecting to find more faith-based content, would be left disappointed. I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for myself and others like me. Maybe some of this content goes down easier because readers can assure themselves that the writing is coming from the point of view of someone with faith. That’s an absurd thing to even write, given that many of my posts receive zero views. Zero, and I’m thinking about my audience. It’s a laugh. Still, I consider that this content could be read, so in some way I write for an audience and imagine who they could be. End of aside.

When I look back on the events of the last ten years or so, I see clearly that God was guiding me toward Him. I feel like he began by guiding me toward some very beautiful things in life that would serve to put me in touch with God. I wasn’t going to be a person who suddenly decides to go to church again. I wasn’t going to take comfort in reading my Bible. But I did experience a resurgence of interest in reading, just one example of God providing me with a source of comfort through a difficult time. It led to me discovering many new passions that lend the spice to life. I think God gave me Tolstoy so that I might find Him. And He made sure that I continued to experience Him through other works of art as well. It’s the only way I could ever hope to make any sense of God. I had to connect Him with everything that is good, beautiful, and true in the world.

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.