The Los Angeles Archbishop announced last Friday that in accordance with Canon Law he was granting a dispensation from the obligation to abstain from meat for St. Patrick’s Day because it happens to land on a Friday this year. It seemed like the Universe was providing me proof that the rules are so arbitrary that I was right in deciding to let myself off the hook once and for all and stop feeling guilty for failing to faithfully observe the many (or any) religious rules and obligations .
While I’ve never questioned the existence of God, the structure and beauty of the world evidence enough of a remarkable creator at work, my faith has been at odds with the tenets of my religion since I can remember. The internal battle between religion and faith began early. In second grade, I rejected confession as a humiliating and unnecessary experience because the surly overweight priest who clearly did not like children threw me out of the confessional for fumbling through one of the prayers. In the fifth grade, I rejected some forms of prayer and most of the Baltimore Catechism because I did not think prayer should be physically painful (kneeling during the rosary) and because I thought it was a complete lie that God would send a baby to purgatory simply because it had died without getting baptized. When I divorced my abusive husband in my early twenties, I refused to get the marriage annulled because it seemed ridiculous to attempt to get my horrible ex-husband to cooperate in a process to determine whose “intention” fell short of the requirements for a “Catholic” marriage. Finally, while I really did try going to mass most Sundays (mostly out of fear of divine retaliation), the time spent in a cold church staring at a crucified man while contemplating how I’d failed as a person, how miserable my life might be, how I should refrain from asking God for anything but obedience and how much I could look forward to in death left me feeling frustrated, sad and uninspired.
When Gus was first diagnosed with cancer, I worried that God had finally judged my lack of religious discipline and was punishing me. Adding to my anxiety was that well-meaning people said things like, “God doesn’t give you things you can’t handle”. Did this mean that God thought I was strong enough to handle a child with cancer and/or that I could have avoided the struggle if had I been weaker? Or, “Everything happens for a reason” What possible reason could there be for a two-year old to have cancer? I became resentful and easily irritated when people gushed over how “blessed” they were when things were going well but did not decry that they were “cursed” when things were going poorly. Shouldn’t God get blamed for the bad as easily as we gave Him credit for the good? The more I questioned, the more I felt guilty. The more guilt I felt the more I tried to cling to my religion finding yet more questions and even fewer answers. Somewhere along the way I discovered Harold Kushner’s book, The Lord is My Shepherd and whether it was the intended message or not, it helped renew my belief in a good God that did not give cancer and therefore did not take it away but rather held your hand during the process.
For the eight years that Gus remained cancer free I was primarily concerned with making the most of each moment for the simple reason that I wanted to be happy knowing that sadness had a way of sneaking up when least expected. In ceasing to concern myself with my religion however, I accidentally stopped listening for God completely. In late August 2011, I was at a retreat for an organization I volunteered for when the presenter began talking about Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd and remarkably Kushner’s book. It was my Mexican mysticism more than my Catholicism that caused me to pay attention. It seemed clear that it was more than a coincidence that a book I hadn’t thought about since the first time Gus was sick should come up just when we were waiting for results of an MRI to determine why Gus’ legs had been hurting although no one including his oncologist believed the cancer had returned. I knew immediately that God was trying to get my attention because he had news about Gus and it was not good.
I always thought that God’s message to me that day was purely in preparation for Gus’ loss but I have since reached a different conclusion. God was training me to listen more carefully so that I could find Gus when he was gone. Perhaps it is because I am so intent on looking for Gus, finding him everywhere we go, that I see God (whom I now call the Universe) so easily. I am more aware than ever that the Universe has always been good to me and that my life is what I intend even as I miss Gus everyday.
In December, I found myself attending mass for the first time in over a year. It was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the mass was being celebrated on a school campus that includes an elementary and a high school. Being familiar with that priest’s affable nature I allowed myself to listen to the sermon that day. Surrounded by six to eighteen year-olds he talked of Mary’s courageous choice to accept God’s plan for her and dared the children to be open. I was congratulating him mentally for the positive message when he added “but when you follow Jesus be prepared to be tested and be prepared for pain.” Who in their right mind would say yes to that?
I am aware that Pope Francis is trying to change the church to be more inclusive and forgiving and less rule-centric (perhaps). I concede that I may have a child’s understanding of the Catholic religion having failed to read the bible and the writings of various saints. I accept that there are some wonderfully positive messages within church teachings and amazing priests that deliver them but my point is that a relationship with God should not require a degree in Theology or hunting across the globe for that one great priest saying that one great mass. I like tradition and ritual but do we not deprive ourselves enough of good sense to add giving up irrelevant food items during Lent? This Lent I return all doubt, pain and guilt as it serves no purpose. No longer will I deprive myself of the simple pleasures in life just because the church says so. This Lent let there be steak….