Storyworth: Do You Believe in a Higher Power?

| March 13, 2022 | 0 Comments

This Storyworth thing allows you to head off questions if you get to them before they are posted. Since I fell behind in my writing, I didn’t see this one coming. I would have headed it off. This is a topic that I’ve wrestled with since I was about 14 years old. I’ll ignore the carefully worded question and just consider the question to be “Do you believe in God?”

Buckle up. This is going to be a long one.

I was raised Catholic and went to grammar school at Sacred Heart School in Roslindale. I was pretty much all in on Catholicism. I was an altar boy for the whole time I was eligible. I almost didn’t make it because I had so much trouble learning the Confiteor Dei, a long prayer in Latin. At my last recital before being washed out, I finally got it. Less than a year later, Vatican Two converted the Mass to English, so it was all for naught. By the time I retired as an altar boy, I was the longest serving altar boy in the parish.

As i approached graduation from grammar school, I was probably headed to one of two Catholic high schools, Catholic Memorial in West Roxbury or Xaverian Brothers in Westwood. Both cost a lot of money and my family had no money. But there was no way my parents were going to send me to Roslindale High the local public school, which was seen as a “thug school.” My grand uncle, Brother Jason, was the librarian at Xaverian, which I think entitled us to a break on the tuition. But it was about a 40 minute drive away. Catholic Memorial was close to home, but no tuition break. In the hope that lightening would strike, I took the notoriously difficult exam to get into Boston Latin School, Boston’s most elite public school founded in 1633. Against all odds, I was one of two boys (only boys could go there) who got admitted from Sacred Heart.

The nuns at Sacred Heart strongly urged me to go to one of the Catholic high school. But BLS was free, so that’s where I went.

I go into this extended digression because the nun’s worst fears were realized. Within a few months of going to public schools, I stopped believing in God and began to skip Sunday Mass, consciously committing a mortal sin every Sunday. It was extraordinarily freeing, like a thousand pound weight was lifted off my shoulders. I no longer had to constantly wonder what this non-existent God thought about my every move. Liberation!

That lasted about a month. Then I began to think, “OK, now that I’ve shed the oppressive yoke of Catholicism and all it’s mumbo jumbo, what is the REAL meaning of life?” I didn’t have a good answer. If there’s no God, or “higher power,” to coin a phrase, what is life about? Who are we? WHAT are we? I drifted into a feeling of existential dread. I became obsessed with mortality. I asked myself not only “What is the meaning of existence?” but also “What is the meaning of NON-existence?”

After months of this, bordering on clinical depression, I went to visit my favorite priest at Sacred Heart Church, Father Walter Miller. He was a young, funny, irreverent priest. I’d befriended him during my altar boy years (hold the jokes, he never did or said anything inappropriate. And, in fact, he was the priest that married me to Rita). I told him that I’d given up the faith, but now I was concerned about the meaning of life….and death. In my mind, I wanted him to prove to me the existence of God.

I said, “What happens if you die and there’s nothing there?” He responded with words that have reverberated throughout my life. He said brightly, ”Well, you’ll never know, will you?”

Frankly, it was the perfect answer because it was true. Some ”proof” of the existence of God would not have been true. Nor would some exhortation that I needed to have “faith.” He did not give me an easy out. He was saying that, not only will you not know there’s no afterlife if there is none, you will also never “know” that God exists. Nobody does.

Over time, I gradually stopped thinking about whether God exists. I just considered it an unanswerable question, so why even try?

Then, in my late-thirties, I had a health scare that suggested the possibility of a shortened life and the existential dread returned. It was around the time that my son, Danny, was born and I seriously worried that I would not see him graduate from high school. In desperation, I went to Mass and found comfort. I remember telling my mother that, when I received communion at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington for the first time in about 20 years, I was moved to tears, she said, “Wow. That’s a sign that you really have faith.”

She was wrong about that. In fact, I had only moved from non-belief to doubt. Which is where I am now and, I believe, the best place that anyone being honest with themselves can be. My “faith” comes and goes. Like anyone, I sometimes ask God to give me a sign. But I wonder if I’d recognize the sign if I saw it. Or if I could trust the sign that I thought I saw.

In 2005, my family went to Italy for an epic trip, most of which was in Florence. We passed through Rome for a couple of days on our way out. During the trip, I had a very powerful dream. I dreamed that I was with some cousins and they decided that I was “the Messiah.” But it wasn’t as though I was God or that I had special powers or was in charge of everything…or anything, for that matter. It was something much softer. In the dream, it meant that I finally understood the meaning of my life and I achieved a deep sense of peace. I woke from the dream and the sense of peace remained for awhile. It was as though I was floating. It was a good feeling that eventually passed. Today, I don’t so much remember the feeling, but I remember remembering it.

Later in that trip, we went to the 10:30 Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Using skills refined at Filene’s basement in Boston during big sales, Rita maneuvered us to the 7th row in the church. As we sat in awe of where we were, looking around at the magnificent splendor of the church, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see an usher and my first thought was that we were going to be ejected due to the fact that my son Danny was wearing calf-length pants that could be considered shorts. We knew no shorts were allowed in the church and worried about not being admitted when we saw the sign at the entrance. Instead, the usher asked me if I’d be willing to give the reading at Mass. It took me a bit to process the request, but, of course, said yes. The usher instructed me to follow him to a place off to the side of the altar. He handed me a large book and pointed to the reading and asked me to read it. So as not to disturb the congregants, I read softly. He said “No, louder.” I read it louder. He gave me the OK.

Because of my role, the whole family was moved to reserved seating at the front of the church. I gave my still camera to Rita and my video camera to my daughter Bridget. I explained to them both that the task of recording me speaking at Mass at St. Peter’s was the most important thing they had ever done in their life and possibly the most important thing they would ever do. No pressure.

Then, I waited. The Mass proceeded. The altar was full of bishops and cardinals. The fact that the Pope was not actually celebrating the Mass was a bit of a letdown, but I got over it. Eventually, the usher called me up to the altar to wait for my turn. I thought about all the people who had stood in this spot since St. Peter’s was built in 1506. I was glad for the “no shorts” rule since my knees were wobbling uncontrollably.

Finally, my turn came and I delivered the reading, Romans Chapter 6, verses 3 to 11. I think I did OK, though you can be the judge thanks to Bridget’s cinematography. Here’s the link:

Sadly, my still photographer did not come though. Rita was not able to get the camera to work in the moment. It is possible that I had the settings wrong when I gave it to her, but I’m not ready to admit that yet.

In the end, I did exaggerate the importance of this moment in their lives, but it was, in fact, a pretty important part of mine. Still, at age 11, Bridget really came through. She also captured my little audition and exit from the altar.

I relate this story in detail because it gets to the question of “a sign.” I sometimes imagine God hearing my request for “a sign,” along with the billions of other such requests. And he says to himself (herself?, itself?, oh right, themself) “You want a sign, I’ll give you a sign. I’ll give you a dream where you have people calling you the Messiah, which produces a profound sense of peace. Then, shortly thereafter, I’ll invite you to give the reading at Mass at St. Peter’s, the holiest spot on the planet. How’s that for a sign?”

And, sometimes, it feels that way. Other times, it‘s just an amazing experience that was the result of a series of lucky breaks. In other words, for a sign to be a sign, you have to believe it’s a sign and you’re right back where you started from.

So, to the original question of do i “believe” in God, the answer is “sometimes.” There are people I admire and respect that I go to for inspiration. Among these are C.S. Lewis, an atheist turned Christian who makes a good intellectual case for belief. I also have read theological works by Gary Wills, who also takes an enlightened intellectual approach to faith. James Carroll resonates with me as a fellow Boston Irish Catholic who is often critical of the institutional Church.

But the thing that keeps me in the game is the fact that atheism has some unanswerable questions, as well. Atheists see themselves as clear-eyed realists who base their belief on facts and science and are not lured by the “magic” of religion. But being atheist also requires some intellectual leaps. Here are some questions that their “science-based” beliefs can’t answer:

1. Why is there something rather than nothing? In philosophical terms, who or what was the “first mover?”
2. How did life begin?
3. What is the “self” or consciousness? Where did it come from?

Almost by definition, science can’t answer 1 and 3 and maybe not even 2. In my mind, believing that God does NOT exist is just as much a matter of faith as believing he/she/it/they does. Leaving agnosticism the only really solid ground, the view that we can’t know so why bother asking.

But the person who I think really explained the issue for me is a young woman named Rachel Held Evans. She wrote about religion in a warm common-sense way that acknowledges the reality of doubt in any “faith journey.” Her personal journey was cut short when she died suddenly about two years ago at age 37 due to a freak medical issue. The long quote below really captures both the appeal and limits of faith and says it better than I’ve ever seen it expressed. I just love the kicker at the end.

“On the days when I believe, the sun streaks across these East Tennessee hills, showing me that green isn’t one color but a million. The infinite deep blue of the sky feels less like an endless void ready to swallow me whole than an open and generous invitation, beckoning all of us who are prone to wander.

“On the days when I believe, the raucous laughter of my kids sounds like the prelude to a grander symphony, a promise of unadulterated joy to come.

“On the days when I believe, I regard the tulip tree outside my kitchen window and learn from it. Rooted but flexible, it adjusts to the seasons, offering its abundant nectar to bees and butterflies during times of flowering and then seeds and shade to birds and squirrels after that.

“On the days when I believe, I feel enfolded in a story so much greater than my own. It’s a story that knits together a thousand generations of saints — which is to say, folks like you and me who wrestle with their questions and their doubts, who interrogate the systems and structures of the society around them, who search for a way to make sense of it all, and who wonder whether they belong and whether they’re loved. It’s a story that makes audacious claims about a man-god named Jesus and calls us into his outstretched arms.

“On the days when I believe, a prayer feels as if it’s just another beautiful beat in a long-running conversation. Nothing is withheld. Everything finds its place, whether lament or hallelujah. I’m convinced it is all heard, because it’s a whisper into the ear of an attentive God who loves me and whom I love.

“And then there are the other days.”


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