A Poor Sinner Went to Church One Day

A Poor Sinner Went to Church One Day

A couple of years ago my wife had dragged me to one of her biannual trips to a Catholic Church. This is not the sort of thing I look forward to doing because I’m not a fan of the way that some in the church choose to demonize gay people.  Then there is that little global sex abuse scandal that the church likes to sweep under a rug. However Jess grew up in a household where the church held a central role in her family’s life. Her parents are still very devout Catholics, and so every now and then Jessie feels compelled to go to church because its what her family has always done. So I chose to set politics aside and tag along for the ride, because doing things that you hate is what marriage sometimes is all about.

I found myself sitting in the pew alongside Jess situated somewhere near the back of the church, as a middle aged Mexican gentleman with his Sunday’s best on was reading a bible verse before the entire congregation. The priest, another middle aged Latino male, with a pudgy physic and a slicked back   hair-do that made me suspect that he frequented the same barber as I, was sitting to the side of the altar facing 2 alter boys that were seated across  from him. Every time I find myself in a church  my eyes wander around the ornately decorated room and at some point become fixated at it’s main center piece; the image of an oversize crucifix. This particular church, which is situated in one of the more pleasant neighborhoods in Cicero, had its crucifix with a copper colored molding of Jesus nailed to it. It was raised prominently in all it’s glory up on the ceiling above the altar for all to see. A crown of thorn adorned the top of  Jesus head. There was a faint look of longing on his mostly relaxed face. I find it so strange that for us (I was born into a Roman  Catholic family too)  that the most powerful symbolic image our religion is that of a 1st Century torture device used to execute prisoners and enemies of the Roman empire. I often ask myself if any of the other great religions feature such somber imagery, and perhaps in a sign of my ignorance, none ever really come to mind.  I half jokingly wondering what would have happened if Jesus had been executed during the French Revolution or in Jim Crow era Alabama. Would we have the a small guillotine hanging on our chains, or would we all be staring up at the image of Jesus in a chain gang prison garb, strapped to an electric chair?

After brushing away my silly musings I allowed my eyes to take in the rest of the congregation. They are made up of a mixture of bored young Mexican couples with their figgity children, and older, silver haired Latinos with slightly bent backs, and life worn weary faces; who I imagine have been coming to mass every Sunday since they were children. It only takes me a moment to see that there is a contrast between the two prevailing age groups that makes up this congregation; and I’m not talking about the obvious age gap that exist between the two groups. The older followers are mostly there unaccompanied. Many of them don’t appear to me that they are following along with middle aged gentleman that has sought out the honor to assist the priest in giving today’s homily. Instead many of the older folks appear to be facing down, eyes closed, muttering private prayers that nobody can hear. I imagine many of them, especially the women are holding a rosary, but I can’t really tell. These folks are devout believers. They are here to plead with God to answer their prayers. Some are obviously asking for good health and a positive break in their financial situation, others probably are asking for guidance and forgiveness. But no matter what these folks are muttering, I get the sense that they have faith that someone is up there listening to their prayer. On the other hand I don’t get that same sense from the younger crowd.

I notice a young couple sitting about two pews ahead of where Jess and I are sited. They have two young children with them. One of the kids, a boy, no older than one years old, is in his mothers arms, trying to squirm his way out of her grasp. A young girl,around 4 years old, is seated closely alongside her mother. The stringy little girl with long brown hair that is tied in a ponytail, is better behaved than her baby brother; however every few minutes the little girl still finds a need to tap her mother in the arm to get her undivided attention, and then whisper something into her ear.

 

The young mother, a twenty something Mexican woman, with long brown hair that clearly illustrates whose hair the daughter inherited, is sitting there holding the energetic baby close to her breast. I can’t help but give the young mother some credit, because although I can’t quite see her face yet, her overall body language doesn’t show a hint of frustration, despite the fact that her attention is seemingly being pulled in different direction by her children. Eventually I get a good look at the profile of her face when she turned to look over at her husband, or at least that’s who I figured he was, who was sitting at the same pew, but about 3 to 4 spots to her right. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had witnessed the little girl slide across the pew to whisper in his ears on several occasions, I wouldn’t have known that he was with them at all.  I notice that the mother appears to be very tired. She had darks spots under her eyes that robbed her face of its youth. Her skin tone was a light colored caramel, which made me wonder if somewhere in her bloodline there was a Conquistador that forced himself upon an Aztec ancestor.

I never observed any other types of emotions coming from the young mother. She didn’t seem angry, she never flashed a smile, not a hint of frustration. All there was to see was a weary, joylessness on her face that seemed almost permanent. She looked over to at her husband multiple times as if looking for something, perhaps an acknowledgment from him. But for as long as I was there, I never saw her get one. He just sat there looking at something in his lap, perhaps a cell phone, or looked around aimlessly, appearing as if he just wanted to get the mass over with. The same could be said for all the other young folks in church that day. Most, if not all who were below the age of 40,  were just going through the motions. We weren’t inspired by the homily, the well wasn’t being replenished of faith. We were in a way doing exactly what we all figured was expected of us, because that’s the way it had always been.

It was then that I realized that I, like the young husband that was sitting before me, hadn’t bothered to acknowledge my own wife. I peeked over to the side to see Jess still sitting there listening to the lecture, looking half bored. I guess she got that feeling that we all get when we sense a pair of eyes are on us because she turned her head towards me. She gives me this have quizzical look and mouthed if I was feeling alright. I give her a quick smile, nodded my head and mouthed back that I was ok. She smiles and sticks her tongue out at me like a naughty 5 year old before rising up on up to her feet, along with the rest of the congregation, as the priest came up to the podium.

That day I found myself in church because I was trying to be a good husband. My wife was there simply because she wanted to be a good daughter. All the young folks attending mass with their young children, were probably there because they wanted to instill in their children the types of traditional values and customs that they themselves had grown up with. And the elders, who had been coming to mass since the light of the sun was dawning on their lives and not setting on it, wanted to be in good graces with God. A god that to them was just one silent prayer away. We were all trying to please someone else in order to feel like we belonged. What each of us wanted to belong too may have differed, but in the end we were all their just trying not to feel alone, just like Christ did while he was up on that cross.

Oh God!: Part I – Innocence Lost

Oh God!: Part I – Innocence Lost

I don’t think that I have ever felt good after having a conversation about God. Which is a bit of a bummer, considering that so many people around me seem to share an almost childlike devotion for the old man in the sky. God seems to play such an important role in their lives and yet when I think of God, the feelings that come up are so conflicted, and tainted with splashes of resentment. It’s not even that I don’t believe in him. I was born into a Roman Catholic family, so his existence was never in doubt in my mind. But ever since I was a child I have had this feeling that he is a bit of a shady character. He was not someone that could be trusted.

I’ve spent some time trying to reflect and pinpoint when I first became conscious and distrustful of the idea of an all powerful, all knowing, benevolent God. At first I naturally assumed that the genesis of that idea came to me while I was a attending Catholic school during kindergarten or maybe first grade; when I lived in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But the more I tried to recall what I thought about God back then, the more I found that nothing concrete ever came to mind. I mean, I had clearly heard about God at that point. After all we started our days in school by praying the lord’s prayer in class, and there were iconic images of Jesus all over the place. Not to mention St Francis of Paola Church that was right across the street, keeping it’s judgmental eyes upon me and my classmates when we played outside during recess. Yet it seems to me that the idea of God and what he represented had not yet taken shape in my mind. He was just this nice invisible guy that lived in the sky that was kinda’ like a cross between Santa Clause and a genie. He could grant you any wish you asked for as long as you were good little boy or girl. I have to fast forward to the year I moved to Puerto Rico to find my first real conscious thought about God.

One evening, when I was about 6 years old, my mom was getting ready to go to something called a novenario. For those that may not be familiar with this Catholic tradition in Latin America, a novenario are 9 days of prayer held by the family members of someone who has recently passed on. During these 9 days of prayers, people that knew the deceased or who just want to support the grieving family, comes by and pray in a gathering held at someone’s house. There will be flowers, lit candles, and a picture or two of the person that they are praying for. The folks that gather to these things will pray that the soul of the dead is cleansed of all sins and is allowed into the kingdom of heaven. It allows the family time to grieve and it makes them feel good that they may have helped their loved one’s soul pass on to the next world.

Now I don’t recall if my dumbass had volunteered to accompany my mom that night to this thing that I had never heard of before, or if my mom just got the bright idea to drag me along with her, but either way I ended up tagging along to this novenario that was being held for a family friend. What I did know was that they were going to be serving cheese and and hot chocolate at this thing. And me being the little glutton that I was, I thought to myself, well this novenario business couldn’t be too bad.

English: A Common Coquí (Eleutherodactylus coq...
English: A Common Coquí (Eleutherodactylus coqui) from Puerto Rico. Español: Un Coquí común (Eleutherodactylus coqui) de Puerto Rico. Italiano: Un Coquí comune (Eleutherodactylus coqui) di Porto Rico. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was early evening, and the Coqui, and crickets were already competing to see who could make the most amount of noise that night. I remember thinking, as my mother and I made our way up to the casita where this novenario was taking place, that the house seem a bit spooky. It wasn’t exactly a shack. But I imagined that the critters around the area wouldn’t have much problems finding their way inside. There were a couple of people standing outside, talking in somewhat hushed tones. I don’t think my mom knew these folks, but she exchanged pleasantries with them and I, being the polite kid that I was, made sure to do the same. We went up the steps in the front of the house and walked into a pretty crowded room.

The room was dimly lit. There may have been a light bulb somewhere, but I can’t recall seeing one. However there was a table set up against the wall, at the far end of the room. There was 1 single picture frame, with a black and white photo of some lady that I had never seen before. There were some flower arrangements and what I thought was an unusual amount of tall, lit candles, in glass jars with depictions of saints on them. There was no TV or radio or couches for that matter in what would under any other circumstance would have served as a living room. But there was about 3 rows of white wooden lawn chairs, with a bunch of strangers sitting around politely having conversations, while others prayed with rosary clutched in their hands. I didn’t know what the hell was going on in this place, but the moment I walked into this scene I knew I wanted no part in it.

I tugged at my mother’s hand. My mother looked down at me. “Mom I wanna’ go home” I told her. She patted me on the head and told me we would not be there too long. I had heard  that line before. She always said that, every time we went somewhere boring and stupid. She then would brush off my protest for the next couple of forevers. I was scared. I didn’t know what exactly I was afraid of, but I was not at all digging the vibe in the room. Why where all the old women praying? Why was everybody else whispering? What the hell was up with the creepy table at the far end of the room? I knew that I needed to get out of there. But I was a kid. Where was I gonna go? It was dark outside. And there were probably giant cockroaches flying around. I was trapped.

My mom grabbed my hand and let me to the creepy table up front. Set neatly on top of the makeshift shrine, was a small stack of what looked to me like baseball cards. My mom picked one and made her way towards the picture. I took a card from the stack and looked at it. I was expecting to see Don Mattingly or some other ball player from that time, but instead there was a picture of a really sad looking saint. Printed on the back, was a prayer written in Spanish. I hurried over to my mom who was standing in front of the picture frame. Her head was bowed, her eyes closed, and her lips were slightly moving, but I could hear no words. I focused on the picture that was before me. It was an old black and white photo of a woman. I don’t recall exactly what she looked like, but I do remember thinking that she did not look happy. I also remember that the woman wasn’t old. Maybe a bit older than my mom at the time, but not by much. I had never seen her before. I summarized that all the creepy happening taking place in the spooky ass house was because of her. I wondered where she was. How come she just wasn’t here in this room with the rest of us. Maybe she was back in New York and it was her birthday, and since she wasn’t around to celebrate, everyone was sad. That would explain why there was no cake.

After my mom finished mumbling to herself, she made the sign of the cross and made her way toward a pair of empty chairs, a couple of rows back. We sat down. The curiosity of what exactly was going on was killing me. I stood up and whispered into my mothers ear shyly, “Mom, where is the lady that’s on top of the table?” Mom looked over to me, as she was caught by surprised by the question. Looking back now I realized that my mom had not planned on me asking anything. Which to be honest with you, boggles my fucking mind. She hesitated for a moment, and then leaned over to me and simply said that the lady was “With papa dios.” She was with God. I was totally confused. How could she be with God? He lived up in the sky, and nobody could step on clouds. The Looney Toon Cartoons that I watched on Saturday morning taught me that much. My mom immediately saw the confused look on my face, so she did her best to break the news to me as gently as possible. Kind of like when you tell little Timmy that his best friend Fido, got run over by a fire truck, after you left the door to the backyard opened for the umpteen time. My mom continued, “God called her home. So she is no longer here on Earth with us. Her spirit was up in heaven.” Her spirit is in heaven? So where was her body I asked? My mom was not doing well under my relentless questioning and I am pretty sure that she was regretting having me tag along. “They buried her in the grown. Where she will sleep until Jesus comes back.” I sat back down quietly as my brain tried to process the information. The ladies spirit was in heaven, but her body was underground. No! No! No! That sounds terrible to me. That was when it hit me. I could feel my heart sink down to the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want to even ask the question, because I was afraid of the answer. But I couldn’t help myself. My eyes watered.

English: Jesus ascending to heaven
English: Jesus ascending to heaven (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Mom” I asked gingerly, “are you going to heaven too?” My mom looked at me sadly. I knew what was coming next. But I sure as hell did not want to hear it. “Yeah sweetie. I will be going to heaven some day too. Everybody does.” No! I was not at all happy with this news. Tears came streaming from my eyes. I began to sob. How can this be happening? For the first time in my life I realized that my life wasn’t always going to stay the same. My mom was going to go to heaven someday. My dad, my brother, my dog Falcore, my grandma and grandpa, and all my friends, and family. Everyone I loved would some day be buried in the ground while their souls hung up on the clouds. To make matters worse was the fact that heaven sounded so boring. There was probably not going to be any TV, or record players in heaven. There would be no Atari to play with. There were not going to be no pizzerias or toys shops to go too. There was going to be nothing to do.

Then it hit me. Like a baseball bat to the gut. I turned to my mom once more. “Mom, am I going to heaven too?” My mom looked at me sadly. “Yes baby, you too.” Then she reached for me and gave me a big deep hug and kissed me on the head. “But not for a very long time”.

I don’t think I said anything else after that. I was sobbing too much to let any other words pass through my lips. I kept seeing myself buried underground. The idea of dying frightened me like nothing ever had in my 6 years of life. I didn’t want to go to heaven. I didn’t want anyone I knew to go either. I wanted us to all stay here on Earth forever. It’s was my home, and it was where I belonged. I cried some more.

God the Father 04
God the Father 04 (Photo credit: Waiting For The Word)

Over the next few days I asked my mom, my dad, and any other adult that made the stupid mistake of giving me a second of their attention, about what it was like to go to heaven, and what happened to our bodies while it was on the ground. I honestly can’t recall what they all said. But I remember feeling confused because everyone kept telling me something different. Nobody really seemed to know what would happened when God called you up to heaven. That made me feel so much worse. It seemed to me that everything about God, heaven and death belonged in the realm of the unknown. And I needed to know. It was then that I realized that if I was going to find an answer to my questions, then I was going to need to figure out who God actually was. Why did he need to take me and everyone I knew away someday. And more importantly, how could I convince him how to make an exception for me and my family. After all, if everyone else was going to die, then he surely could afford to just let my family and I be.

That invisible man in the sky was messing up everything. God was not a nice guy after all. He was greedy, and selfish, and didn’t care how much he hurt any of us. God needs to be stopped. And I was going to do everything in my power to figure out how.

To be continued: In Oh God!: Part II – The Truce