Monday, March 30, 2009

Keeping The Faith

April 3 will mark the tenth anniversary of when I was baptized into the Catholic Church. It’s hard for me to realize it’s been ten years since I took that spiritual step in my life. So much has happened since that day: some great; some indifferent; and some of it very, very bad.

How I came to take that important step is even more extraordinary (at least in my eyes).

On the surface I was born into a Seventh Day Adventist family but in actuality it was a “family” mired in spiritual conflict. My mother (when she was pregnant with me) used her pregnancy to stop attending SDA Sabbath days. From that day forward she drew steadily away from SDA. My father remained firm in the faith (or at least firm in his eyes). He took my brothers and me steadily until when my brothers became teenagers they drew away as well. I kept going (it never occurred to me not to go).

Looking back at my years attending Sabbath at the SDA church in Laurel Springs, New Jersey my mind is filled with disturbing insights and memories. The spiritual milieu at Laurel Springs was not a healthy one. In retrospect I consider the atmosphere there to have been poisonous, sick, and emotionally diseased. There are two literary metaphors that describe the congregation there. One comes from T.S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece The Hollow Men where he wrote, “The whole world is our hospital.” Actually Laurel Springs was not so much a hospital as it was a hospice. A hospital is where you go to be healed and get well. A hospice is where you go to die which leads me to the second literary metaphor: what Joseph Conrad wrote about Marlowe meeting Mr. Kurtz in the flesh after the long, harrowing river journey in Heart of Darkness. Conrad wrote “It was slow death in there; malaria; nightmares.”

That’s what it was like for me at Laurel Springs: slow, lingering death; nightmares.

There was no wellness in Laurel Springs. There was a lot of anger and a lot of bigotry (not directed at me) and a lot of borderline insanity. (There were a lot of people there who either had or were developing or would later have severe emotional and mental problems). But in my eyes the most damning indictment of Laurel Springs was that there was absolutely no love in that church.

I was too young to realize it back then but as I age I realize what Jesus meant when He told the disciples to love another. Jesus knew that the only way for the love of God to flourish and grow was that His followers had to love another first before they could teach others to love the Lord and obey the Word of God. Love was the rock upon which He built His Church.

But there was no love in Laurel Springs. Indeed there was a lot of ugliness and hypocrisy and in time that ugliness would be directed at my father (and by extension towards myself as well). It began when my mother and two older brothers stopped coming to Sabbath. The elders at Laurel Springs kept haranguing my father about it. In time the harangues turned into prolonged, confrontation, intimidation sessions where my father would literally be surrounded by seven to ten male elders who hammered him repeatedly about why my mother and brothers weren’t there while ruthlessly brushing aside whatever explanations my father offered.

I had to wait in another room while these sessions took place. At the time I had no idea what was going on. In retrospect the hypocrisy and the frightening aspects of those sessions anger me enormously. The elders always demanded sacrifices from my father (and by extension me as well) while they themselves never practiced what they preached.

Looking back what happened at Laurel Springs those sessions smell more like a demented cult than a Christian faith.

My father never admitted it but he stopped attending SDA church altogether although he always abides by the teachings. There was another SDA church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey but he refused to go there. It was Laurel Springs or nothing. He still wants to go back to SDA desperately but the only thing that is stopping him is himself.

I was 11-12 when we stopped going. At the time I was going through an incredibly prolonged emotional ordeal which devastated me emotionally and left me psychologically desolate.

By the time I was age 16 I had abjured all religion; choosing instead a philosophy of simple Deism: God exists but is unknowable.

Mostly I was angry during those salad days. Anger is not the best way to come to grips with God. (In many ways I am still angry although not at God but at my so-called “family”).

Eschewing SDA led me into a new concatenation of new grief. Since that day I have been on the receiving end of a lot of browbeating from relatives who took issue with my departure from SDA. Back then I thought it was solely because my personal break from SDA but now I realize that it was more than that. My break from SDA was only one stick my relatives used to beat me with but the main issue was simply their refusal to accept my existence as a person. It wasn’t my lack of “faith” that angered them. It was the fact that I existed. Even if I had given in and returned to SDA I knew the contempt I received would not have stopped. It would have continued and grown. Like Napoleon once said, “Never do what your enemy wants you to do.”

In many ways I drew anger because I represented a reality and truth that some of my relatives could never accept or else it frightened them because it called into questions their own “values” or “beliefs”. In many ways I was a living refutation of what they imposed upon others.

Like Jack Nicholson said in the movie Easy Rider, “When people see a free individual it’s going to scare them.”

So it was with me.

College helped me with my spiritual quest in many ways. I took classes in Oriental and Western religions. These classes were merely to provide students with the historical and cultural backgrounds of the major world faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There were no spiritual services being rendered or proselytism. The idea was simply to understand the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of those faiths. Those classes did a world of good for me. It opened my eyes in myriad ways and allowed me access to various insights and spiritual concepts I could never have comprehended in my former life.

Those classes made me a better person and, ultimately, a better Christian too. Despite what certain relatives obstinately insist on promulgating I was never a follower of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Taoism. (Not possible. I do not possess the psychic stamina or courage to be able to faithfully practice the tenets and concepts of those faiths).

But I have always drawn insight and inspiration from Buddhist and Taoist concepts. I do have the Tao Te Ching and a book of sacred Buddhist teachings on my book shelf. They lie beside my King James Bible which I still read from time to time. (In fact I was leafing through it the other night, reading the Book of Kings).

I have also drawn great insight from reading books on Native American spirituality: the spiritual beliefs of the Lakota Sioux, the Apache Indians, and the Paiute medicine man Wovoka (creator of the Ghost Dance). Black Elk Speaks and Crow Dog also opened my eyes to a new way of seeing life and how humanity interacts with the Maker of all things.

Years passed and I remained unattached. My family life disintegrated. My relationship with certain relatives became more poisonous.

It took the death of my beloved Aunt Anita in 1996 which led the closing of certain doors and the opening of new ones. When the late Anita Mayers died in 1996 it was a hammer blow to me. Her passing and the heartbreaking days which followed her funeral caused me to look anew at my spiritual past. What I saw repelled and sickened me and I turned my back on it for all time.

I did a lot of talking to certain individuals in the months that followed and it was those talks which caused me to make the final cut. Four months after Aunt Anita’s death, I was attending Mass at my parish in Bellmawr.

How that came about amazes me today. It all began with a bottle of wine I could not open. Some friends of mine gave a bottle of wine as a gift and I kept it in my refrigerator; awaiting New Year’s Eve when I would open it. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to properly store wine bottles. I kept the bottle upright instead of on its side. When New Year’s Eve arrived and I went to open the bottle, the cork had slid down the bottle and could not be reached by the corkscrew. I was so enraged and incensed and upset by this that I had to throw the bottle away. This may sound crazy but I cried myself to sleep that night. It was one of the worst New Year’s Eves of my entire life.

I didn’t have a drinking problem, far from it. At the time I felt that my failure to open that wine bottle stood as a symbol of all the failures in my life. Now I know that most of the “failures” I thought were mine were not mine at all. It was the fault of others as well; my “family” most of all. Some of my failures were brought about because I trusted my “family” and my “family” abused that trust. That’s not failure. That is betrayal and it was that climate of betrayal which would later culminate in my own divorce from my “family”.

I realize that now but I didn’t back then.

But why attend Mass? There is no one major reason. Driving home from work I would see my future parish church and it had a big sign which bid all visitors welcome. My genealogical research also played a key role in it. The realization that my father’s ancestors were Catholic resonated in me.

Mostly it was bloody curiosity. I attended my first Mass on January 12, 1997. I went there feeling afraid and tentative. If anyone had said “boo” I would walked right out of the church. Interestingly no one said “boo”. I sat there not knowing what to do and I stuck it out. One moment in the Mass put the hook in me. It’s near the end where all the members of the congregation show one another the sign of peace. People shake hands or bid one another welcome. I wasn’t expecting that. When it happened it surprised me but it also pleased me as well.

The following Sunday I went there again…and the Sunday after that too…and on and on it went.

Why did I stay? The atmosphere at my parish was loving, kind, warm, and welcoming; totally unlike Laurel Springs which is not too far away from where I live now. The atmosphere of my parish is an extension of the town of Bellmawr which is a very nice place to live in. I often wondered if I had visited a different Catholic parish, would I have kept attending Mass?

I also dated a very dear and darling woman who was very devout in her Catholicism (we met at a Catholic singles dance in Glassboro). She was very encouraging in my spiritual quest. Although she left me later I still kept the faith. Later, I made friends in upstate Pennsylvania who were (and remain) wonderfully encouraging in my quest as well.

Who knows? There are some parishes that are good and some that are bad. One could apply that lesson to SDA as well. If Laurel Springs had not been such a hospice and if certain specific relatives of mine had not acted like bloody fools in their treatment of me, would I have walked away from SDA?

All I know is that the ill treatment I received played an enormous role in my decision to leave SDA and it was the lovely treatment I received at my parish in Bellmawr which led me to become Catholic.

I gave myself a year to decide whether or not I wanted to be baptized into the Catholic faith. In January 1998 I made my decision to be baptized but there was one problem. RCIA classes for Catholic instruction always begin in September. I was too late to be baptized in 1998. I was asked if I could wait for September 1998 to begin. I said yes and when September 1998 came around I was there for RCIA classes. I was quite the bright student and I became the favorite of Sister Marie Magdalena who taught me. (She wanted me to become a priest. She thought I had potential. I kid you not).

I persevered and on April 3, 1999 I was present at Easter Vigil to receive baptism, confirmation, and communion for the first time. I was totally alone that night. None of my “family” knew about this. Precious few ever knew. I made the decision not to tell anyone because I didn’t want anyone’s “expert” opinion about whether or not I should do it.

This was my decision. Mine alone. The way it should be when it comes to being one with God. I have said this to others many times. Faith must be an avocation; not an imposition.

I didn’t want anyone’s second-guessing or eye-rolling or condemnation.

Still, as always in my life, there was an element of opera bouffe in the proceedings. When it came time for Father Ryan to baptize me with water there was a minor problem. Father Ryan is very short and I am 6-1. He couldn’t reach up to sprinkle the water on my forehead. He was wired for sound and the congregation could hear the whispering between me and Father Ryan about what to do. I offered to get on my knees but Father Ryan demurred. Finally I got into an outfielder’s crouch and I was duly baptized.

I was given a votive candle which was lit to signify my entrance into the faith. A member of my parish later told me that she was struck by the look of rapture on my face as I held the candle in my hands after my baptism. I do remember staring at the flame on the candle and feeling the warmth of its glow, all the while having a childish grin on my face. After decades of being made to feel like an outcast by the entire world, I was finally a part of something; something wonderful; something fulfilling; something loving.

I was finally one.

I still have that votive candle. Each year on the anniversary of my baptism, I light the candle and eat dinner by its glow.

I shall do so again this year.


Friday, March 20, 2009

There but for the Grace of God Go I

The tragic death of actress Natasha Richardson from head injuries incurred from a skiing accident is an unsettling reminder of the tenuousness of life. She is not the first celebrity to die in a skiing accident. Entertainer and politician Sonny Bono and one of the sons of the late Robert F. Kennedy died in similar fashion.

I, myself, almost met the same fate.

It was February 22, 1990 and I was skiing at Blue Mountain ski resort in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Since 1984 I had gradually learned how to ski and had some very lovely experiences skiing mainly at the Big Two: Jack Frost and Big Boulders resorts in the Poconos. My visit to Blue Mountain was my first…and my last.

The conditions on the slopes that day were poor. There was little snow and a lot of ice. I didn’t know it but I was over my head. Had I been skiing at the Big Two I probably wouldn’t have had what I would later call the Accident.

I was going down the slope at Blue Mountain and I hit the ice and my skis went out from under me, I was sliding out of control when I impacted into a metal post (lined with rubber) which was holding up the safety nets which lined the run. Hitting those nets proved to be a mixed blessing. My impacting into those nets resulted in me breaking my left humerus; had those nets not been there I would have fallen to my death off that mountain. Also breaking my left humerus was another mixed blessing. Had I impacted into that post with my head, I would have died for sure.

Even as I type this blog entry my head is swirling with the memories of that moment. My left arm is also twitching uncontrollably as well. (It always does when I recall that accident).

The end result was that the ski patrol had to come and get me and put me on a stretcher and then take me down the slope to a waiting ambulance. I was taken to the E.R. where I was stripped naked (save for my shorts) while they wrapped a splint around my left arm and then given morphine for the pain. Only time in my life I’ve been taken to an E.R.

That was a strange situation. I was laying there naked while the doctors and nurses gawped at me. My left arm was wrapped in bandages and my lower back was aching terribly (I had suffered severe muscle pulls in my lower back which would cause me lower back pain for several weeks). While I was laying there I experienced a unique sensation. I don’t mean to sound blasphemous but I had a subtle understanding of what Christ felt when he was nailed to the cross: the feeling of naked, exposed helplessness while the body is wracked with enormous pain; the disinterested looks of bystanders while you are enduring your personal agony; the feeling of separation and abandonment. Unlike Jesus, however, I was given morphine for the pain. Christ had no anodyne for his torment.

I was three days in hospital. My left arm was never put into a cast. I kept my bandage for six weeks. When they removed the splint, I had a hematoma on the underside of my left arms for weeks. The musculature of my left arm had atrophied and I didn’t regain full range of motion in my left arm until months later. It took me 2-3 years until I could build up the muscles in my left arm again. Even today I can still feel the notch of bone where the fracture took place.

Luckily for me I am right-handed.

(It’s ironic to note that all three fractures I’ve suffered in my life all happened on my left side. I’ve broken my left wrist, my left pinkie, and my left humerus in my lifetime).

The physical scars healed rather quickly but the emotional scars endure even to this day. I seldom if ever discuss the accident. When I do it gives me the woolies. I love watching alpine skiing during the Winter Olympics but whenever a skier wipes out I turn my head away. I remember Hermann Maier’s enormous wipe-out in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. I never saw it but whenever I heard the boom from his impact on the countless replays, my mind would snap.

Needless to say I never skied again after the Accident. Simply put: I lost my nerve. I’ve never donned skis again.

Also there have been moments in my life, especially during the early 1990s when I was suffering from a severe depression when I wished that I had died that day at Blue Mountain. That’s not melodrama. That really happened. I remember one time when I was having a nervous breakdown where I cried to my father that I had wished that I had died on that ski slope.

So when I contemplate Natasha Richardson’s death (she was born the same year as me) my thoughts are there but for the grace of God go I.

Rest in Peace.

More Life.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Obama: The Last Liberal?

For all the talk about the future of American conservatism being on the line in the wake of the last two elections in America, it’s odd to say that the future of American liberalism is on the line too; after nearly two months in office, President Obama has embarked on the most audacious and ambitious assertion of liberal policy in American history since 1965.

The programs his administration has proposed and intends to propose are staggering. Despite the fact that American is facing its gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama has chosen to make the biggest gamble in American political history. Simply put the stakes in President Obama’s gamble not only involves his own political future and that of the Democratic Party but also that of American liberalism as a whole.

Since 1981, liberalism in America has faced a constant, relentless assault in the halls of Congress, in the media, from the pulpit, and at the grass roots level. Since 1981, liberalism has been deemed perjorative. President Bill Clinton spent his eight years in office trying to evade the liberal tag while trying to make the Democratic Party more centrist in its policies.

President Obama has changed that.

His policies must be seen as the most vigorous reassertion of liberal politics since 1965 and a bold attempt at restoring the balance of conflict between the forces of the Right and the Left which had been placed seriously out of balance since 1981.

If Obama succeeds (and there is no guarantee that he will succeed) then he will have gone a long way at restoring American liberalism as a viable and workable form of American politics; inspiring countless others to succeed him in the years to come.

If Obama fails (which in itself will be an enormous catastrophe for America) then liberalism will be destroyed and discredited forever as a legitimate form of American politics.

When considering the stakes of Obama’s wager this writer is reminded of a conversation between FDR and, I believe, Herbert Hoover (I’m not sure it was Hoover) on Inauguration Day 1933. Hoover, riding in the car alongside Roosevelt, wished FDR good luck and hoped that he would not fail. FDR allegedly remarked, “if I fail then I will be the last one,” meaning that if he failed to get America out of Depression then there was the distinct possibility that America would degenerate into revolution, anarchy, and, potentially, fascist government—a distinct possibility as evidenced by the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco.

The analogy can be applied to Obama as well. If he fails then he will be the last liberal President in American history.

Only time will tell if the gamble pays off.