Monday, October 18, 2010

Road Between Rocks - A Spiritual Autobiography Essay

*** WARNING: This post has religious and spritual content. It's actually nothing BUT religious and spiritual content. You have been warned, so deal with it. ***

“What’s this brown wood cross above your bed?” Such were the first utterances of a curious child making his first foray into learning about religion. Many more words and thoughts like it would follow.

This is recounting of those events that are significant in a spiritual sense, to me. My childhood was formative, as is often the case, I will portray a questioning kid but mostly devoid of debate. I will say a few words about my teenage years and to my defining event away from religion. Adulthood brought rejection of things religious, if not outright at least in function. I will list a few events that made an impact. Finally I will draw a picture of a man on a new quest, indeed along an arduous path of self improvement.

“It’s Jesus on the cross,” my mother said. And so I discovered about a man, a demi-god, a mythical figure with the strange letters INRI above his head. I immediately recognized that this person must be of some importance since I’d seen such a cross in Charleton Heston’s (RIP) movie Ben-Hur. I knew nothing of religion, or so I thought, at the time.

My parents were Roman Catholic therefore so was I. I was to learn from my father that this was the most beautiful of religions in the world. I took this at face value and went along for the ride, not understanding much, if anything, but also not questioning it. If my dad said it was beautiful then it must be true.

Grade school brought along added information. Realistically other than these bizarre rituals, like mass every Sunday and the exciting time of Christmas and Midnight Mass, of which I was disappointingly excluded, I didn’t feel as though any of it applied to me. I was a good Christian and tried my level best not sin, what else was there?

In March of 1972 my father was transferred to Manchester, England. This was a shock of course as I was still a young lad of seven years. Here was a foreign country, with foreign traditions, and a foreign language. Everything was foreign until we visited a Church of England.

“This looks exactly the same as ours!” My father smiled a knowing smile. “But it’s not supposed to be, we Catholics are supposed to have the only Jesus!” I was amazed and a little offended that these Anglicans had stolen my Jesus. To add insult to injury the holy water was conspicuously missing. Thus I learned of world religions, well actually only the Christian ones, very quickly. There was us, the Roman Catholics and then there was all of them, the Protestants. My questions were relentless, but furthermore I was in awe that all these people had a Jesus too! Obviously I was right and he really was important.

Upon our return from England I met Father Paul, our school priest. He was a down to earth and jolly fellow who rounded out my religious education. I remember in confession lying to Father Paul in order to have something to confess the next time around. I was still trying to be a good Christian after all.

Given the trip to England, there were some timing issues surrounding my first communion, but more importantly my subsequent confirmation. It was well into my teenage years that I was finally confirmed and it was Father Paul whom I sought out as my confirmation godfather of my own volition. This was the first time that I was actively espousing my religion.

As an adolescent I was allowed to attend Midnight Mass, which I resented not being able to do as a small child since it seemed mystical and even magical, as opposed to regular Sunday mass which was boring. I sang in the Church Christmas choir. This required many Sundays of practice and so I had made a pact with God that I would skip Sunday mass in favour of doing my deed in the choir instead. It must have worked on some level as I was in the choir for over twelve years. Following this I never went back to Sunday mass except on rare occasions.

It was around this time too that I got into serious arguments with my religion teachers in school. One teacher, specifically, maintained that all religions were fundamentally different whereas I held, and unfortunately defended, the position that religions were actually quite similar in that they all had appeal to a higher deity, beyond ourselves and it was the celebration that was different. These episodes garnered bad school marks and thereby just reinforced my typical rebellion against authority. In this particular case this crooked my path away from religion in general since this so-called representative, he was a brother if I remember correctly, and clearly didn’t want to understand reason. I forsook religion altogether for over a decade thereafter.

This suited my purpose as an adult since I had much more important things to do. I had university homework and later a new job which required 7day-24hours a day on-call work so God had little or no place in my mind, or my heart for that matter. But my girlfriend, a very devout Catholic, insisted we get married in her childhood Church.

Wanting to assuage my wife’s desires, we went to Engage-Encounter as a preparation to our marriage. This didn’t work out very well as it just reinforced my now deep hatred of things religious. Then to exacerbate the point, the priest who ran my wife’s parish wouldn’t allow us the use of “his” church unless we went to his own preparatory class. I was livid.

My saving grace is that I found Father Paul again. It was lucky for me that after years of mission work he was back in country, and agreed to marry us. This planted a brand new seed, or perhaps watered an old one.

Five years later my wife became pregnant for the first time. The elation soon ebbed, for after a 15-week pregnancy our son died in her womb. In excruciating pain, my wife gave the stillborn birth and haemorrhaged severely afterwards. She lapsed into a coma. As people often do in these times of duress, ashamed though I was over years of rejection, I still prayed for all I was worth. She recovered by day’s end.

Two years after that, one of my best friends fell gravely ill. He had a stroke. I was at his bedside the entire time, even taking time off work to be with him. It was with a heavy heart that I prayed again.

These two events didn’t bring me back into good stead with the Lord, as I was still full of rage especially at the death of our son, but it did switch a light on in my head: when things are beyond me, I run back to the Lord every time.

I suffered a burnout at Nortel and was in therapy throughout. My psychotherapist, Bill, is a deeply spiritual person and leads by example rather well. Non denominational per se he still remains an Irish Catholic at heart, although disillusioned with the Roman Catholic Church, his belief in the Lord is strictly unwavering. I have found a strange energy in this over the years.

Bill and I keep talking of my calling, even today, and of what I want. It was last November that I finally came to the conclusion that what I want is to learn more about this “spirituality thingy” as I kept referring to it. It seemed such a cornerstone of my recovery from my burnout and one I had put off for far too long. So I started making my way towards this program he knew about: Pastoral Counselling at St. Paul, now known as Counselling and Spirituality.

Then horror struck again. My father-in-law was diagnosed with leukemia in January of this year. Being a tough old bird, he hung on for 5 months. I promised my mother in law that I would do a novena for him, several in fact. For the first time, I wasn’t praying out of duress. I was praying because it was right. He expired while my mother-in-law, my wife and I were in the room with him.

It was quick.

I thanked God, and I meant it.

I think it a typical path that a child would have questions, also typical that a youth would rebel and eventually reject authority. Events in my life forced me to seek help, but when things are beyond anyone’s help, it is significant to me that I have turned back to God and done so consistently and unwaveringly. I am at a loss to explain why, but then this is precisely why I have chosen this path now to spiritual discovery. Maybe I’ve come full circle with the wonderment I had as a child?

[Essay assignement, presented to the professor of Introduction to Theology, Saint Paul University, Fall 2010]