Sometimes what appears to be a clusterfuck proves to be an invitation -- a request to buck up and own yourself. I learned this just a few days ago when I did something I never do. I wrote a political post on my private Facebook page. It was actually more about a firsthand experience with the media printing lies about an individual I know and an organization I grew up with than it was a statement about my political beliefs or even an endorsement of anything except religious freedom. (Do some digging and you’ll find it. It’s been shared well over 200 times by now.) As expected, my post was met with animosity. Publicly and privately in messages I was called all kinds of appalling labels -- mostly from people I don’t even know who trolled me.
But while I may have been left to “die” by some “friends,” I also felt a tremendous weight lifted from my shoulders. In a climate where it’s safer to be silent, I took off my muzzle. I was ridiculed, but I was also applauded over and over. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one muzzled and silenced and I was grateful for the support. But what I found most gratifying is a newfound respect for what I stand for, enough to not cower when challenged by repeated attempts to place me in a box, slap on a label, and ship me off.
But about two days into my political initiation on social media, I realized that I had been carrying on within a box.
In what I thought was an open view of the world, I’d skipped over something obvious. Not everyone believes in God. What’s more, not everyone believes religion is a good thing. For many, religion is an obstacle. One critic went so far as to suggest that everyone knows religion is just a phase in evolution and that one day, religion will be nothing more than mythology. This remark and the others that followed in the comments, didn’t just blow my mind, they shook me to my core. Holy hell! I had been close-minded. I’ve known atheists, but I’d never seen one’s testimony so clearly described. I’d also never felt so attacked. But suddenly it all made sense. If you think religion is a hoax, then you could never trust someone who is protecting religion -- any religion. You can’t take someone’s word for it when their words are touched by something you don’t believe even exists.
I kept going back to the outspoken post and the comments, reading them over and over. I checked myself. Why do I believe in God? Why do I believe that this time on earth is leading up to something so magnificent my simple earthling mind can’t possibly comprehend how glorious it will be?
I grew up on teachings from the Bible, more New Testament than Old. (I’m Catholic.) I grew up knowing Jesus was real, that he performed miracles and died on the cross so that I could one day see my cat, Rex, and my grandmother again in Heaven. God and Jesus and the whole idea of living out the gospels in my words and actions was as natural as double-knotting my shoelaces. I wondered why God had us here. I worried about what Heaven would really be like and how much time I had left on the clock, but I never questioned God’s existence. That would be like questioning whether or not my parents loved me. Of course they did. Sometimes I was a total shithead and wondered how they could, but I always knew their love was real.
Then I lost my father, Pop -- my hero, the first man I ever loved, my favorite hug on the coldest of days. He was somewhere out there. Or he wasn’t? Heaven had been so easy to believe until it absolutely had to be real. Some people cling to their faith when they lose someone. I ran from it. I ran far. God didn’t answer my prayer for a miracle. God had abandoned my heart. How could he? What kind of God would give such a man of faith, like my father, such a gruesome death? Certainly not the one I had spent my whole life pinning my prayers on.
I still attended church for my kids’ sake, but I sat in the pew and wrestled with my mind every Mass, listening with a critical ear. These people from the stone age or whatever, who wrote these scriptures, were probably just scared out of their minds and fabricated stories into miracles and messages to make the unknown easier. I questioned the consecration of the bread and wine. Just a representation, folks. Nothing to see here! But my pastor is a great writer and gifted speaker and also the most progressive pastor in town. Even if God wasn’t what I had always believed, my pastor’s homilies could be taken out of religious context and remain inspirational in everyday life. Kind of like Oprah. Except once a month it was the deacon’s turn to give the homily, and on one particular Sunday, several months after my father had died, I sat in the pew and prepared to be unimpressed by the deacon’s message.
The Gospel that day was the story of Jesus calming the storm on the sea. After his homily, the deacon asked the congregation to close their eyes and picture sailing with Jesus. My father was an expert sailor. He was even invited to join the Olympic team in the 1960s, but refused because, by then, he was a young father and didn’t want to leave his family for long periods. Still, he spent a significant chunk of life on the open water, chasing the wind. So as I settled into the picture the deacon requested, I felt an immediate sense of normalcy. Jesus held the tiller, and I sat beside Him. We headed toward a distant shore as the deacon continued. Once onshore, we were to picture ourselves walking along the shoreline with Jesus, our fears that had been holding our bodies captive falling off and tumbling into the sea. Jesus, beside us, we sat on the beach and looked out over the water.
“Tell Jesus what’s in your heart,” the deacon directed.
You aren’t real. I tried so hard not to think that -- blasphemy under God’s roof -- but my heart only spoke pain. I’m terrified I will never see Pop again. I’m terrified.
The deacon described the beach and the water and how Jesus might hold our hand and ask us to turn to him. And I, eyes closed, my heart screaming at pretend-Jesus beside me, turned and didn’t see Jesus at all, but instead, my father. I had spent months wishing and praying for a dream in which Pop was still alive and healthy. I shut my eyes at night, begging for an escape from grief. My mother told stories of things she heard or saw that she knew were messages from him. My sisters shared stories of their happy dreams. My daughter discovered a teddy bear Pop had given her a year before and declared it a present from Heaven. But I had nothing to tell. Until that day in church on the beach.
Immediately, my heart stopped. It was Pop. He was so real, so beautifully detailed, that I forgot I was sitting in a pew, surrounded by one hundred other people. He smiled at me the way parents do when their child is on the brink of a discovery. It was the same expression he gave when I was seconds from figuring out what a square root is.
In the distance, I heard the deacon, “What is Jesus telling you?”
“Annie, where is your faith?” Pop asked.
As tears scattered my cheeks, I told him, “I don’t know. I don’t know. It went with you.”
And then my father patted my head, the way he always had, and said, “Don’t you know I never left you?”
It was the warmest sensation I have ever experienced, paramount to the afternoon I almost died giving birth to my oldest child and temporarily landed in some other parallel existence. And it felt like a hug -- a hug from Pop, what I’d been craving more than anything since that terrible November when his hugs stopped.
“I am always with you and will always be with you,” Pop said.
When I opened my eyes, I had to steady myself. My heart was simply gushing. Choking on tears, I reached for my purse for a napkin and my check for that week’s offering. The organ played the introduction to the offertory song as I hastily chose which child would put the check in the basket. Then the choir opened their lips and I heard it: “I Have Loved You With an Everlasting Love.” It was what I sang to Pop as he was dying. It was the last words I ever said to him. It was what I had prayed for strength to be able to sing to him, and it was the same song I had been shaking away from my memory ever since because it was just too hard to keep close. But there it was in resounding harmony. I lifted my eyes and smiled like I hadn’t smiled in months. I didn’t know where Pop was exactly because maybe I wasn’t supposed to know everything just yet, but he hadn’t vanished into darkness. That, I knew with a faith I’d been lacking.
It would be an exaggeration to say I immediately “believed” again. I was too wounded for such innocence. But week by week, prayer by prayer, openness upon openness, I am returning to the same belief I took for granted. How blessed was I to believe blindly as a child. How blessed am I today to believe with discernment! Somehow, I’d misplaced this story in my recent encounter with nonbelievers. Maybe this means that in the back of my mind I’d always believed after all. Or maybe it meant something greater.
It’s a toxic dump of politics and opinions in America right now. I don’t know anyone who isn’t more agitated than usual or armored whenever a hot topic is raised. We’re living on the defense at all hours on social media because much of the real world is still unavailable, and in our two-dimensional life, it's tempting to stick with our beliefs without question in the same way a child may idly follow along in church without question. But the child hasn’t needed to face her faith yet, so she goes along. And the political bully, digging their heels deeper into their camp, hasn’t admitted that their politics is their deity. I hadn’t forgotten my time without faith when met by nonbelievers. Rather, I was reminded what it’s like to believe in something so passionately you’d die for it. Which begs the question: maybe the politics we so vehemently praise today will eventually be nothing more than mythology? Future generations should be so blessed.
My sister said recently, “Being human is more important than being right.” To me, that sounds a lot like faith. I have no proof of someone’s intent, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because they don’t have any proof of mine either. I’m not sure what will come of the impending election or the fate of our broken country. If it was a popularity contest, Betty White would be preparing her victory speech. In her absence, though, I know enough to know that the answer may lay in prudence. Prudence, as I see it, is the fastest path to the highest good. It’s the next right step and then the next and so on. My highest good may be the Kingdom of Heaven. Your highest good may be peace on earth. And unless your highest good is war and a world without puppies and kittens, I think we can find a high good to agree on. We may not reach my highest together and we may not reach yours either, but somewhere along the way is a common good, a goal to work our way toward together.
Who knows what’ll happen when we get there? In the meantime, we have to have faith.