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The Real Thing

“My name is not ‘Hey’!” is pretty much the first instance of religious education that I can recall. That admonishment came from a harried Sunday school teacher whose name (and denomination) I still cannot remember. But for quite some time, those words and a gold star in a little book were the only things I associated with God. My father, who owns a T-shirt that reads “Born Again Atheist,” is amazed that he allowed my mother to talk him into sending me to a Bible study one summer, and I am equally amazed that my mother, then a professed agnostic, even suggested the idea.

During my youth, although I had both a witchcraft phase and a New Age phase, I more often than not declared myself an atheist. But my atheism came and went. One year, after being shown seemingly contradictory Bible verses, I attempted zealously to discredit the book to friends; another year, after seeing Jesus Christ, Superstar, I calculated how long I’d have to save my allowance to become a traveling preacher (guitar lessons, $400; muslin robe, $25; spreading the gospel—priceless).

In college, I was indignant when a secular Jewish friend remarked that the only other religion he would ever consider was Catholicism. Didn’t he know the Church oppressed women? He nodded his sympathy, but explained that, besides Judaism, only Catholicism seemed like “a real religion.” 

Once I married, my husband Ed often said the same thing, but more colorfully: “Every Protestant claim sounds like the Pepsi Challenge; it’s just not the Real Thing.” Ed was a lapsed Catholic but with no bitterness toward his faith. For ten years we lived a secular and (due to our addictions and a couple of nifty phobias) somewhat dependent and depressing life. I often thought of us as cripples supporting each other against the cruel world. We wanted kids but were not thus blessed, so it was just the two of us. Ed was my sweetheart, my best friend, my counselor, my teacher—and on August 10, 1992, at about two o’clock in the afternoon, I came home to find that a heart attack had turned him into my late husband.

His vigil service was like a Fellini film. No one but the volunteers from the parish knew any of the rosary, not even Ed’s parents. A friend of Ed’s brought a pine cone to put in the coffin, and it fell off a pew and rolled down the aisle—one of the parish volunteers had quite a time catching it.

The funeral was more dignified. The priest read a half-page eulogy I had written and from it was able to really capture what Ed, whom he’d never met, was like. 

At the veteran’s cemetery, there was a twenty-one-gun salute. A different priest called me “brave” for looking the soldier in the eye when she handed me the flag. We all went home, and I began praying to God to please, please, please let me die. I wanted God to have the kindness to let me die a natural death so that my family would not have to suffer guilt if I committed suicide. But I began plotting my suicide just in case God, if he existed, proved to be merciless.

A couple of weeks later, after a particularly hysterical hour of sobbing, I managed to drag myself down to my mail box. An old friend of the family sent me a booklet: Fifty Ways to Get Help from God. I devoured it. Basically, in fifty different ways, it said, “Don’t pray for anything specific; meditate for guidance.” I had never attempted meditation, but I did what I thought I was supposed to do—lie on the bed, close my eyes, and attempt to let go of myself and allow God to speak to me.

Perhaps it is because when one is deep in grief due to death, he is closer to the invisible world, or perhaps it is that two weeks of living on nothing but cigarettes, vodka, orange juice, and instant breakfast make one susceptible to hallucinations, but for two hours I felt plugged into the supernatural. I tingled, I saw all kinds of scary visuals that made no sense on the back of my eyelids, and I came out of it all considerably calmer. But no wiser. I stared at the ceiling and thought, “Okay, so I’m calm. Now what do I do? Go out to dinner? My husband’s dead!”

At that very moment, the telephone rang. It was a Catholic priest whom I had never met. 

I discovered later that the woman who was helping me with my paperwork at the mortuary had grown concerned about my state of mind and had asked the priest to call me. The priest himself did not find such things easy to do and had put off the task for a day or two. His timing could not have been more dramatic.

The drama did not, of course, constitute any kind of proof of anything. What if the call had been from a telemarketer? Would I determine that God wanted me to devote my life to Amway? Still, when you meditate for guidance and immediately receive a call from a priest, it is impressive to say the least. I met with Fr. Kevin, asked him if you had to quit smoking to become a nun, was advised to take one thing at a time, and was invited to attend RCIA.

RCIA has some beautiful rituals and is probably an excellent program for people who have already decided to become Catholic. But it is not at all geared to the person who wants to know why he should become Catholic, who wants proof that the Church is true. 

Sr. Mary Cronan, the nun who co-coordinated the program (and who is the only sister left in her order who wears a veil, God bless her), affectionately called me “a Doubting Thomas if there ever was one” and kept me in her prayers. I went to Fr. Joe, the pastor, and requested to join a more remedial group; I assured him that I would not be embarrassed to be educated with first graders. He laughed and insisted I was where I belonged.

But one thing that had been instilled in me by my parents was an intense respect for the truth. And Ed, better than any teacher, had taught me how to analyze arguments to determine their worth. “Because the Bible/Church/Pope—even because Jesus—says so” is not a valid argument until it has been shown why a person should care what any of those sources say. Although Jesus and the Bible may have impressed me to various degrees at various times in my life, I now realized that I had never been given a reason to trust them. And when you are interested only in truth, you need reasons.

For it was only truth that I wanted. I was on a mission. It was not exactly the mission I should have been on, but it was a mission just the same. See, I was not searching for God for his sake but because he was the key to my seeing Ed again if it was possible to do so. I was not interested in any comforting philosophies that would soothe me; I wanted to know the real truth so that I could really be reunited with Ed.

If reincarnation was true, I wanted to know it so that I could do what it took to speed along my next incarnation. If Christianity was true, I wanted to do what it took to get Ed and me into heaven. If atheism was true, I wanted to know it so that I could end my meaningless suffering and at least mix my dust with Ed’s.

At a parish bereavement meeting, I expressed all these thoughts, along with the belief that I would end up quitting RCIA because, interesting as it was, it offered no proof. The counselor took my rant seriously and brought a book back to the next meeting. She had never read it, but she had a feeling it was the type of thing for which I was looking.

The book was C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and the chapter titles alone told me that, at last, I had what I was seeking. I read it and re-read it. I realize now that, although I was committed to truth, I was secretly wishing for no God. I was tired of the pain. A cool grave held a big attraction. Although I found a leap or two of logic in Lewis’s evidence, I became convinced that Christianity must be true. This did not bring me joy. I thought of all my beloved friends and relatives (including my fallen-away Ed) who were far from Christ, and I was convinced that God was unfair. 

But being unfair did not mean he wasn’t true, and, as Lewis pointed out, if Christ is God, how does denying him help our loved ones? Still, I was infuriated. I heaved the book against the wall. I swept knick-knacks off tables. I overturned chairs. After my tantrum, I threw myself into a kneeling position at my bed, c.asped my hands together, and yelled, “Fine, fine—fine! I have to be a Christian? Fine! But please, please, please don’t make me a jerk!” It is amazing to me that even though the only actual Christians I had ever met (the priests, the nuns, my sponsor) were all terrific people, I still held my secular prejudice against Christians as hypocrites at worst and fools at best. 

Upon seeing what Lewis did for me, my sponsor Annie (St. Annie of Norwalk!) began lending me tapes by Scott Hahn. Hahn beautifully presented the rich treasure that is the Church. I went from being the most reluctant member of RCIA to being the most enthusiastic. During the Easter Vigil homily, Fr. Joe joked that he’d considered putting a guard at the baptismal font to keep me from jumping in prematurely. That night, April 10, 1993, I received baptism, confirmation, and First Communion. It was exciting beyond words. I went home and stared up at the ceiling all night, smiling, the alleluias still ringing in my head.

Thanks be to God, by the time I was baptized I was no longer looking at God as a means to get to Ed, but seeking him for his own sake. That being said, I was not fully convinced of every doctrine yet, either. Fr. Joe had been glad that I insisted on evidence before becoming Catholic, but he also told me that I did not need to have 100 percent certainty. He stressed an element of faith, and it was by faith alone that I accepted the Eucharist, and that fact nagged at me.

One day, Ed’s pine-cone-toting pal Claude broke down my resistance to his repeated pressure that I simply must meet Steve, a Bible-quoting friend of his. What a surprise to find that the born-again Bible-thumper I expected to meet was actually a devout Catholic! Steve gave me a copy of Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and every doubt I’d ever had about the Eucharist was swept away by that book’s chapter on the body and blood of our Lord. Steve and his wife Jo have been cherished examples to me—activists, artists, and apologists, they inspired me to lead a Catholic life.

I have not found doing so to be easy. I expected to struggle when I stopped smoking and faced my alcoholism. I knew that claiming all my tips and tithing would hurt a bit. I braced myself for uncomfortable moments with family and friends as we moved away from each other. But I was unprepared for the disharmony and outright hostility that I have sometimes encountered from fellow parishioners and even from some vowed and ordained for merely wishing to be obedient to the Bride of Christ.

Not that I am any kind of model of obedience. It is unnerving to see how easily I can fall into sin. What I refer to is an attitude of obedience. A mindset that says that following Christ and his Church in all things is the proper goal and that doing otherwise is wrong and to be fought against and to be repented of. It is difficult for me to understand why anyone who does not have this attitude even bothers to be Catholic at all. I know that I would have given up Catholicism years ago if I didn’t believe the Church was true; and if you believe the Church is true, why on earth would you disagree with her?

While it was incredibly disappointing to discover that the one place I expected to find spiritual comfort (the parish community) is often the place that brings me the most spiritual pain, I have not been without my rewards. On May 12, 2000, after a three-year chaste courtship, I married my husband, Juan. He was a lapsed Catholic when we met, and I flatter myself that I helped him renew his faith. I had insulated myself from the world, and he helped me appreciate it again. I am a lucky woman.

One of the many things I love that C. S. Lewis wrote was that if you look for comfort, you will not find it, but if you look for truth, you will find it and, perhaps, comfort as well. I looked for the truth about death, and I found it. It was not particularly comforting because Ed died without reconciling himself to the Church. However, I was given a gift that keeps me from despair:

The night before Ed died, he was extremely repentant. Among other things, he cried about the people he had killed as a soldier in Vietnam and recanted some racist opinions he had formed. His sobbing was loud, but I did not console him because we had had a fight and I was still angry. After he died, I chastised myself for quite some time about having allowed him to have such a heart-wrenching last night of life. But while I still think I was wrong to obey my anger, I am now glad that I did not comfort him in the way that I then would have. I’m glad I did not sweet talk Ed about his sins and there-there him to sleep. I’m glad that he had that moment, like the tax collector, to beat his breast and ask for mercy.

I would greatly appreciate all prayers for Ed’s soul—and for that matter, for the souls of all my family and myself. After all, “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).

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