An experiment in shame

When people praise me for my bravery in sharing so much about myself, I think it means they would be embarrassed to do the same. Ironically, I’m more like them than they know because I too withhold things that would embarrass me. And what sorts of things embarrass me? The ones I haven’t forgiven myself for. I’m going to experiment with sharing some of these things in the area of religion. I’ve chosen religion because I’ve long been bothered by the fact that I write about it a great deal, yet I’ve purposefully withheld some things that are important for a proper understanding of my journey. Such withholding constitutes lying, and I’m here to correct my error.

I’ve belonged to four churches. I was baptized into Central Church of Christ when I was twelve, which is about the customary age. What you do when you want to join the Church of Christ is to walk to the front when the invitational is sung and tell the preacher what you want. He then asks you in front of everyone if you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior; you say yes; and he baptizes you right then and there for fear you might go to hell if the ceremony is delayed and you die in the interim. The country church at which my best friend, Grady, and I spontaneously walked to the front one night during a revival didn’t have a baptistery, so we were taken to one in town.

My second church was The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, which I started attending when I was eighteen. The Church of Christ was as plain as concrete, both in its looks and in the way the service was conducted. By contrast, the Episcopal Church was a veritable heaven of beauty and ritual. They still used the formal 1927 liturgy, and then there were all the decorative accouterments (the photo is of Redeemer Church the night Peggy and I were married in 1971).

I also adored the priest, Father Hale, although I didn’t realize how much I adored him until years later when I got a better handle on how rare good men are. He was so clumsy at conducting the ritual that I think he must have had a learning disability, but this failing seemed like nothing compared to his gentle, loving, unpretentious nature. He listened to me more intently than any man I had ever known.

When Father Hale moved away, the fact that I had no faith settled back upon me like an icy fog. It wasn’t long before I started attending American Atheist meetings 100 miles away in New Orleans, and I eventually became a non-resident editor for American Atheist Magazine. I knew several inspirational people in that organization, most notably Madalyn Murray O’Hair who was the most imposing person I’ve ever met. If she had possessed physical strength and ferocity to equal her mental strength and ferocity, she would have scared people off the sidewalk. She asked me to call her Grandma because she liked my writing. This was in the early or mid-eighties.

My next adventure in faith—or the lack thereof—started in 1988 at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis (you would be corrected if you called it a church). Its minister, Khoren Arisian, and most its large membership were atheistic, and I took to it like a duck to water. This was during my group marriage phase, so Vicki and I joined together in 1989 simply by walking into the business office one day and signing the registry. Peggy never had any interest in religion, atheism, or anything in-between, so she stayed home. If she and I hadn’t moved to Oregon when things with Vicki fell apart in 1990, who knows but what I would still be a Unitarian.

St. Jude’s Roman Catholic. This is the one that I most hate to tell you about. First, some background. Peggy and I went through years of hard times in the ‘90s, much of it due to me being in a state of deep anguish for reasons that I won’t go into. In my desperation, I attended an Episcopal Church for a few months, but I thought it seemed more like a social club than a place of worship. I then took a class called A Course in Miracles at a Unity Church (not to be confused with Unitarian). This was way out in woo-woo land, but I grabbed onto it like a life preserver for about six weeks, after which I realized that there was no way I could ever really force monistic idealism down my throat.

Then, I started thinking about all those Medieval Catholic statues, crucifixes, triptychs, and so forth at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I had been blown away by their antiquity, their beauty, the talent that went into them, and the deep reverence I felt in their presence; I grieved that they were now 2,000 miles away. And so it was that I came to long for the art, tradition, architecture, and liturgy of Catholicism, this despite the fact that I despise almost everything else about the church. I soon signed up for confirmation classes at St. Mary’s, the oldest and largest Catholic Church in town. Doing this was an instance of magical thinking (more accurately, magical hoping) on my part, my hope being that the very act of becoming a Catholic would cause me to feel deeply connected to many things, for instance, the sense of oneness of which the mystics write, and to the ancient carvers and painters who created all that wonderful art. I believed that such a connection would heal me of my anguish.

Unfortunately, St. Mary’s was a conservative parish, and the priest who interviewed me quickly concluded that I was a poor candidate for Catholicism. No problem, I just drove across town to St. Jude’s, the most liberal Catholic church in the area, and the priest there was fine with me joining. I’ve since wondered if I might have been a tad less forthcoming with him than I was with the priest at St. Mary’s, but that was too long ago for me to even remember what we talked about. The class lasted for several months and climaxed in a confirmation ceremony. At the class’s outset, everyone was assigned a sponsor to meet with him or her once or twice a week until confirmation, and then to vouch for his or her worthiness to join at the start of the confirmation ceremony.

My sponsor was a man named Gary who had devoted years to the study of church history and theology. As did the priest at St. Mary’s, Gary quickly concluded that I wasn’t fit to be a Catholic, but he said he would continue as my sponsor if I was hell-bent on joining. Then, he looked me dead in the eye and warned that I would never be forgiven if I should join another church after converting to Catholicism. Because he didn’t respect me, Gary gave as little of himself to our relationship as he could without violating his conscience, and this discouraged me from volunteering information or even asking very many questions. As for the class itself, I enjoyed that very much.

I was horribly sick with a cold the night of Holy Saturday, 1999, when the class was to be confirmed, but the priest strongly encouraged me to attend, so I did, only to discover that a Catholic with a cold feels just as crummy as a non-Catholic with a cold. Aside from feeling a little disappointed (though not surprised) about that, I was so touched by the ceremony that I shed tears. This embarrassment occurred when the time came to baptize those who had never been baptized (my Church of Christ baptism was considered sufficient). One of the baptismal candidates was a fourteen-year-old girl whom I had known through the class. As she stood there in her new shoes and lovely white dress, I felt that I was looking upon the very essence of sweetness and innocence, and I wanted more than anything to protect it and was sick to the heart that I could not. I determinedly held myself together until the priest poured the Holy Water over her head, and then my tears flowed. After my confirmation, I attended mass no more than five times before I took my little crucifix off the wall and packed it away with my rosary. The first priest and Gary had been right.

Since then

I’ve gone to Sunday school from time to time at liberal churches, not because I had any thought of joining, but because I lack a permanent community in my life and because I enjoy studying at least parts of the Bible. Church is also the only place where anyone ever seems to discuss morality, and, aside from fraternities, it’s the only place a person can participate in a communal ritual. I might still attend an occasional Sunday School session if living with pain didn’t tire me so.

I remember desperately trying to sleep—in a recliner—on a particular night after the second of my three shoulder surgeries. I had been in significant pain for several years by then, and I had ice packs on both shoulders, a heating pad on my chest (to keep the ice packs from freezing me), and was loopy on narcotics. As I sat there, hour after weary hour, despondent and hurting too much to sleep (at least without taking so many drugs that I would have feared for my life), I began to wonder if it just might possibly make me feel even a little bit better to pray. I got to wondering this because I was becoming focused on suicide, and on that particular night, I had the urge to get out of my recliner and run head-long into the stone fireplace mantle. In my desperation, I finally started to pray, but I didn’t get far because I immediately felt completely asinine for betraying my intellectual and moral integrity yet again in a desperate attempt to attract the notice of a deity that I didn’t believe in and would have hated if I did.

Perhaps you’re wondering why, instead of joining churches, didn’t I join some other kind of religious group. Well, there was that Unitarian Society, but it’s true that I’ve put a lot of energy into Christianity. This was largely because it was almost certainly my forbearers’ faith (my white forbearers anyway—I’m ¼ Native American) for well over a thousand years, and some of them were even clergymen. I wanted to tap into feeling that I was a part of that history and community because I often feel crushed by the thought that I am but a dot in time and space, a dot that is completely cut off from every other dot, all of which are themselves cut off from one another. Sure, I checked out Baha’ism, Buddhism, Wiccanism, New Age Sufism, and lots more isms, but all I felt a familial connection to was Christianity and Native American spirituality, and I never could find much about the latter that interested me.

During those hard times of the ‘90s, I think I mostly wanted to believe that there exist these wonderful places where everyone really is loved and really is welcome. I knew that was hopelessly naïve, and I doubted that such an institution would welcome atheists if it did exist. But then what about John Spong, the atheist who became an Episcopal bishop? From the time I joined the Episcopal Church in the ‘70s, I had been astounded by its diversity of belief, and this was why, in the ‘90s, I considered returning. I thought it would be fairly easy to find a spot where I could sit comfortably under the Episcopal umbrella much as Jonah did under his vine.

However, there is one way in which I differ dramatically from every Christian in the world—even the atheistic ones—and it is that Christians respect the person and message of Jesus (not that they agree about who he was or what he meant to communicate), whereas I view Jesus as delusional, bigoted, hypocritical, conceited, contradictory, judgmental, bad-tempered, nasty to his family, a purveyor of bad ideas, quite possibly fictional, and so on. This means that I wouldn’t be fully accepted—or fully accepting, for that matter—in a church presided over by the most non-dogmatic atheistic Christian in the world. The Bible is simply too divisive even among those who don’t take it literally. In my relationship with religion, I spent a lot of time determinedly trying to ride a horse that was clearly dead. My attempts to be a Christian after any fashion were doomed by my twelfth year to be disheartening and self-destructive. I sought comfort at the cost of integrity and didn’t get it anyway.

You trash him now, but what would you do if God suddenly started talking to you from your monitor?

If he didn’t resort to the cheap trick he played on Job (scaring him half out of his wits) I would say, “Hello, God.” Then, I would ask which God he was unless, of course, he had his name on his shirt above the little alligator. If he said, “I am Jehovah, the God of the Bible,” I would say: [After much thought, I’m going to delete what I wrote here because leaving it would offend people for no good reason that I can see.] Afterwards, I would stop smoking pot and consult a psychiatrist.

So, how did my experiment with sharing something shameful go? Writing helped me to better understand why I behaved as I did, and, although I still consider it regrettable, I’m less ashamed of it. I doubt that there are many who, if under sufficient stress, wouldn’t violate their integrity, but it’s not useful to hold onto mortification, and it’s probably not even justified. In my case, a scary religion got me early and held me tight, so given the kind of person I am, it’s unreasonable to expect that my escape would be a straight path. I think it might even represent the biggest battle of my life.

To be a brother to the insensible rock...the sluggish clod…*

I meditate on death and little but death. In every face, I see the eyes of a corpse, but it’s also my own corpse that I see. My body becomes cold and rigid, my skin bloodless and waxy. My eyes glaze and liquefy. My back mottles with coagulated blood. I stink and bloat until I burst. Nowhere in the universe does there exist the being that was me. After a few years, it’s as if I never lived.

I tell myself: “Death is the way of things, and is only fearful for thinking it so. Besides, death has its advantages. No more wiping my ass, going to the dentist, catching colds, cleaning dog vomit out of carpets, or a thousand other chores and maladies. And then there are the big things that death transcends, things like war, crime, cancer, accidents.”

At sixteen, death seemed mysterious and exotic, a merging of God, sex, Satan, angels, heroism, white marble, moldy crypts, dying kisses, and last words. When I was even younger, my inability to imagine my own death led me to believe I would never die. When I asked myself why others and not me, I concluded that I was the sine qua non of reality. In essence, I was God. At 63, I no longer see my death as one link in an endless chain of experiences but as a dissolution of the chain into insensate matter and insensate energy.

We are all made according to the same shabby design. Likewise, we all came from the same cold ground, and it is to this ground that we all return. That which is euphemistically called faith when the word is applied to religion is but a person’s terror of death subtracted from the ignorance and pretense needed to assuage that terror. The maintenance of this ignorance and pretense is why the suppression of dissent is characteristic of religion.

Hell would be to lie on my deathbed and look back at a life that was mean, petty, or mercenary. How odd that, given the brevity of life, our species places so much importance upon wealth, fame, power, and sensuous experiences, all things that are ultimately meaningless. What, then, can give us the strength to face death with equanimity? I believe that the best way—if not the only way other than delusion—is to practice equanimity in every situation, that and to live a life devoted to honesty, kindness, courage, wisdom, and rationality. I fail continually in all of these things, yet they remain my only salvation.

I tried to push thoughts of death away, but resistance made the nightmare stronger. Now, I say to death, “I can’t fight you. I can’t even make my body stop hurting. The ugly brown spots on my upper body continue to multiply, as do the white spots on my legs. My teeth, my vision, my hearing, my memory, my strength, my attractiveness, my ability to sleep, and a hundred other things are dying by inches even while my physical pain increases. Truly, you reign supreme.”

*from “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant.

Dogs are like girlfriends; cats are like wives

I’m going to catch hell if I really use that for a title, so remind me to change it to: Dogs are obedient children; cats are thieves and vandals. The former eagerly intuits your feelings and lives in endless gratitude for your patronage. The latter coldly observes your actions and ponders your motives so he can more efficiently thwart your desires and demolish your property. This is the bad news about cats; the good news is that the sneaky little bastards are entertaining, and the fur on their bellies is delectably soft and fragrant and atones for numerous sins. Brewsky even prostitutes his belly in a cynical—yet successful—attempt to avoid punishment, but more about that later.

I bring greater intelligence to our contests, but he brings speed, agility, perseverance, and unrelenting focus—at least during the few hours of the day he’s actually awake. For it is then that his scheming little brain is working overtime to obtain some object that I don’t want him to have, or to con me into feeding him early, or to find a three second window of opportunity in which to sneak into the garage and thence to the attic where I have to lure him down with treats. Such dastardly behavior as he regularly exhibits (including the premeditated murder of a large peace lily that lived atop the refrigerator) would almost justify shooting a dog because even one such outrage—much less an hourly repetition of them—would violate the trust and integrity that makes a dog man’s best friend and distinguishes him from a rabid wolverine. But a cat, being a psychopathic felon at heart, requires that we show it endless mercy, or else there would be no cats.

And I do—show mercy. Just last night, I was chasing Brewsky with a towel when he suddenly rolled over on his back, stretched his front legs straight forward and his hind legs straight backwards, and began to squirm slowly from side to side, brazenly exposing every color and pattern on his wonderful belly. Humiliating as it was, I had no choice but to kneel and rub that belly, me laughing, and him looking at me with intense curiosity about what such a display could possibly mean. For the 15 months that I have known him, he has devoted scores of hours to understanding the human phenomenon of laugher but without the least indication of progress.

It was only this year that I could say an unreserved yes to having a cat, and I still feel treasonous at times for bringing home the worst enemy of the many generations of dogs that I have been privileged to love. I saw the movie Cool Hand Luke last month for the first time in 42 years, and I must give it some credit for my growing acceptance of life with a cat. As you might recall, “Luke” was a convict who was murdered by his guards because he was insubordinate and prone to escape. The escalating punishments that he brought upon himself combined with the fact that he was in prison for the ridiculous crime of vandalizing parking meters, made him look stupid. Yet, it soon became apparent that his problem wasn’t a deficit in intelligence but an inherent inability to accept authority. He himself chafed under this inability, and railed against God for having made him that way. Outwardly, the movie changed nothing about how I interact with Brewsky, but inwardly it gave me a greater sympathy for him.

People debate the imagined superiority of cats over dogs or dogs over cats, but the truth is that, like ourselves, they are simply what evolution made them. Dogs hunt in packs, and therefore regard love and cooperation as essential; cats are solitary hunters to whom love of family (except for a mother for her kittens) and cooperation for the common good just aren’t terribly important. Maybe this is why many dogs—and many people—hate cats. We humans can see ourselves in dogs, but cats are as disturbingly strange as space aliens.

Yet, there’s no sweeter time in my day than when Brewsky lies in my lap in bed while I’m reading. I’m sterner with that cat than I’ve ever been with any dog, yet when I go somewhere, he comes to see me off, and when I return, he’s there to greet me. When I get up in the morning, he’s standing joyfully outside my door, and many times throughout the day, he comes to me for a cuddle. Nothing impresses me more than the fact that’s he sees through my gruffness and trusts my love. I can’t hold a creature like that at a distance.