Why “God” is Very Meaningful in my Life.
A kid I know told me a story one day. When she was 7 years old a horse fell on her and shattered her pelvis. Rushed to the emergency room a nurse asked, “on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst pain you can imagine, what is your level of pain?” The kid thought for a minute and answered, 1. She may have been broken like a ceramic doll thrown out a train window but 7 year olds have pretty powerful imaginations. “I could imagine way worse pain that what I was in,” she said. “What if the horse had fallen on me and then somebody had set me on fire? What if someone tore my fingernails out one by one then ran me over with a car? That would be way more painful. What if an elephant instead of a horse had fallen on me?” All those things would have been much more painful than what I was feeling.”
They triaged her at the bottom of the list and she spent most of the day, un-medicated, on a gurney in the hall.
Seven year olds have incredible imaginations.
This is something that is hard for grownups to remember. Compared to a kid most grownups hardly have any imagination at all. Even an artist, someone who spends her entire day in creative activities, does not have anything close to the imagination of a child. On the one hand this is cool. Kids have an easy time believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, ghosts and goblins at Halloween.
On the other hand, not so much.
I was raised in a seriously Roman Catholic household. We had to go to church every Sunday. It never made much sense to me. In those days most of the liturgy was in Latin, which I couldn’t understand, nor could I make out a single word the red-faced and the furious Irish priest blasted at the congregation as if it held collective responsibility for murdering his entire family. After time, I figured out he was talking about a horrible thing done to one poor guy 2000 years ago, but I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with me. Even as a kid I could understand basic arithmetic. Two thousand years was a long time. I knew I was no saint, but there was no way I could have been responsible for that.
Saturday catechism however, was a whole different story. Three hours long, the format was the same as regular school with 20 or 30 kids sitting at desks, the teacher in the front of the room talking, occasionally illustrating things on the chalkboard. But unlike Sunday mass, catechism taught the mechanics of our religion. It’s where the rubber hit the road. We were taught to pray every day, to avoid even the occasion of sin. Sins where things that made God either angry or disappointed. You could get out from under them by going to confession.
Going to confession was like a “get out of jail free” card, which is why so many gangsters embrace Catholicism. You can do just about anything but if you make a good confession you’re forgiven. Of course the tough part is “making a good confession.” Both gangsters and little kids fall short in this area. If you keep murdering people and stealing stuff, then at the end of each week recounting your bad deeds in the presence of some poor unsuspecting priest in the hope of walking out with a clean slate, only to start work again in earnest on Monday morning, that’s not a very good confession. To make a good confession you have to be genuinely sorry for what you did and sincerely resolve not to do it again.
Gangsters aren’t the only ones who have trouble with this. I remember the day before I was supposed to make my first confession. A big deal in the Holy Roman Catholic church, it happens at about the age of 7 and that day I was in an absolutely panic. Not only did the thought of being alone in a dark chamber with a priest on the other side of a screen scare the crap out of me—they were God’s representatives on earth and by definition, terrifying—I couldn’t think of any sins. I was a pretty good kid. Yeah, I’d hit my brother a time or two, but only because he’d hit me first. Okay, maybe I’d stolen a cookie here and there but only because if I didn’t, my siblings would swipe every damn one of them before I even knew they were in the house. When you have multiple siblings it’s a dog eat dog world.
My sister who’d gone through the thing a year earlier told me, “Just make up stuff. Say you stole twice, lied 3 times. You’ll have to say ten Hail Marys and an Our Father and then you can get out of there.” I was thrilled with this elegant solution, but I was also a fairly serious kid and realized that in following my sister’s advice, I would be lying to a priest thereby compounding whatever sins I was not fessing up to in the first place. Doing this, I realized, would have severe consequences for my immortal soul.
But in the end I took the easy way out and did as advised. My penance was 10 Hail Marys and an Our Father.
I was pretty sure I was damned from an early age; and if not damned, destined to spend a long fucking time in Purgatory.
Some religions have Purgatory, others do not. The Holy Roman Catholic Church definitely does and in those days it was one of 4 places you could go after you died. The first and most highly prized was of course, Heaven. Heaven was all clouds and holy songs and whatever you wanted as long as it was consistent with pictures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Also, you got to sit at the right hand of God. This sounded boring as hell to me— there’s nothing little kids hate more than having to sit still for more than 5 minutes-- but Heaven was certainly the best of the alternatives. Another was Limbo, which is where unbaptized babies went. I spent many an hour wondering if there was any way I could become un-baptized and get into Limbo. Sure, it sounded boring but if they sent little babies there how bad could it be? They weren’t going to put thumbscrews to little babies, were they? Limbo was so ill-defined that the Church eventually cancelled it.
Then came Purgatory. Purgatory was exactly like Hell, only it didn’t last for all eternity. Eventually you could work off your unconfessed sins and ascend into Heaven. It was all a very complicated business because God’s time isn’t like Earth time. When you’re dead you’re not on Earth anymore; and since there’s no planet going around the Sun regulating the days, months, and years, time spent in Purgatory could be weeks, months, or millions of years. The good news was you could and would get out at some point. And it was LOTS better than going to Hell.
Hell was the worst. Supposedly run by The Devil, but clearly an extension of God’s agenda since He’s all knowing and all powerful, Hell was eternal suffering. In Hell, you could be thrown into a pit of hot lava, burned to death, re-made whole all over again, the process repeating and this could go on forever. This was one of the better scenarios. Demons might peel your skin off strip by strip then throw you into a volcano of hot lava and acid, or you might be chopped up into tiny pieces, reassembled then chopped up all over again and roasted on spits; all of this after having had your eyes gouged out with a hot poker. (In Hell, obviously, most things have to do with heat.)
These torments, as described by various part-time catechism teachers in astoundingly graphic detail, were all part of teaching little children to walk the straight and narrow.
I’m a big girl now, have been for many years and while I read scholarly books by enlightened Jesuits along with various modernists trying to explain that God is Love, or all-encompassing compassion, He is neither to me. I’ve come to understand that within myself, the word “God” defines a terrifying and angry entity worse than any Halloween goblin could ever be, with a book full of arbitrary rules penned in almost indecipherable English that I was supposed to memorize and follow under threat of eternal damnation.
I guess this is why I embrace Tibetan Buddhism now. Buddhism requires no God and of course having no God, it’s not really a religion but a way of life. When asked about his beliefs once, the Dalai Lama said, “my religion is kindness.”
Kindness I can get with.