Soon after my conversion, I was flabbergasted at a mass to hear a visiting priest state unequivocally that God only loves Catholics. (Hopefully, I misunderstood him, but at the time that is what he seemed to be saying quite clearly.) After the mass, I fumed up and down the blackberry-lined path that runs behind our mission. On the one hand, who was I to judge the priest? On the other hand, did not God send his disciples to Jews and Gentiles? And then there are atheists like I was. I have pretty strong evidence that during my decades of atheism God loved me in spite of myself. It seems to me, then, that God loves all of His children, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religious denomination (i.e. whether they get all the pieces of spirituality "right" or not), and, seemingly, even the nonbelievers. Now that is ubiquitous love. So, how could the priest state that only Catholics are worthy of God's love? Have we not progressed at all in 21 centuries? Hating those who hate you doesn’t make the world a better place, any more than hating your personal “enemy” makes your own life any better. When will people ever understand that God’s message is about love and inclusion, not about power and position and territory and domination and one way of doing things and exclusion? I saw in the priest’s attitude and words tonight the things that had kept me away from organized religion all these years: the “righteous” people (like abusive my mother and my molesting grandfather who were held up as role models by members of the church and community while committing vile atrocities behind closed doors). Yet, I now know that one cannot judge God by those who claim to be His people. Yet, that tendency is ever present, isn't it?
I had gone to the Saturday mass with my youngest son, Doah, who was staying with us that weekend. Doah, although severely mentally challenged, has always had strong faith; he usually attends a Mexican church, so this service was a little different for him, but then my childhood experience is Protestant, so some of the Catholic liturgy is unfamiliar to me, too. Sitting in the church, I realized with a deep sense of regret that this was the first time I have ever attended a church service with one of my children.
I was so distraught, though, that I sent Doah home after mass, and I spent more than an hour walking along the path that parallels EL Camino Real – I did not want to be near anyone – talking to God.
I kept asking, “Where are you?”
And the answer kept coming, “I am with you.”
But I did not feel God with me, perhaps because of the invasion of negative emotions that came from my reaction to the visiting priest's homily. So, I repeated the question with some frustration, "Where are You?"
And again I heard the same quiet response, "I am with you."
Still, I felt nothing. So, I wailed, "I don't feel You with me!"
At that moment, a near-blinding light enveloped the blackberry bushes, the path, me, and seemingly the entire world. Time stopped as in a science fiction movie except that it was real, or at least real to me. For perhaps 30 seconds, I was totally immobilized by this overwhelming light that carried within itself a sense of tremendous power. At the same time, I understood that this was just a fraction of the potential power that could have been directed at me. I immediately decided never to ask for that kind of proof again, and I am now very careful in general as to what I ask for (because I often get it). I am clearly in over my head with God; there is so much for me to learn.
When the light "released" me, I asked for an explanation of the priest’s commentary, but none come. I picked and ate the blackberries along the path that used to be the primary road, El Camino Real (The King’s Highway), from San Diego to Palo Alto, without paying much attention to what I was doing, until my hands were stained purple on both sides and somewhat torn by thorns. At one point, I sat down in the brambles, out of sight, and kept praying for an explanation. None came. (But I did later end up with a very bad case of poison oak, not having noticed the different kinds of leaves mixed in with the blackberries.)
Finally, I walked on, and there was light streaming across a field with the mountains in the background. I heard a voice say, “Stop and listen to the music.” I listened, but all I could hear were the sounds of life: the rustle of grass, the scratching of branch against branch, the whooshing of the wind, the loud hum of a plane, human voices wafting on the breeze, the soft crowing of sleepy roosters, the sawing of crickets – a cacophony of sound.
“I cannot hear any music,” I said.
“You are not listening,” came the answer.
I listened again to the cacophony and realized the problem. “I hear the sounds, the orchestra, but there is no theme!”
“There can be no theme where there is free will,” came the answer.
I knew I was being given a message and perhaps even an answer to my question about that day's homily, but I just could not make sense of it. And then the voice said again, “I am with you.”
I walked on and up over the hill, and at last, as I walked, I realized some of what I was being told, what I started out knowing but had ended up questioning, that God cannot be judged by the words or behaviors of people. The rest of the message I am still processing, but I don’t require a full explanation right now because I am at peace with the most important part of the message, which I did, finally, understand. I stopped in the shadow of one of the other churches in town, where a Spanish mass was being celebrated, and, at last, was able to answer, “It is enough that You are with me.”
(reposted March 6 2010, with more details, found in a letter written to a friend that same day)
Our Lady of Fatima [Flickr]
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