Into the Lion's Den
As I grew further and further away from my seminary studies, having successfully finished my master's degree in divine theology, and after having served some time working as a priest, my doubts about faith and god shifted further and further to the back of my mind. Those doubts, which had on many occasions kept me awake were like distant memories, and if I turned my focus from them they didn't exist at all.
At my parish, which I joined in the spring of 1998, a year after my ordination to the priesthood, I worked with our pastor Father Ed on a key ministry, care of the sick and dying. The parish was located in the southeastern part of city, near a major highway, and we had easy access to all the area hospitals. Our ministry, while focused in only one parish on Sundays, was city wide when it came to visiting the sick in hospital. We would drive from hospital to hospital, hospice to hospice to visit the families of our parish, their loved ones, and sometimes strangers.
I am a glutton for punishment. Well maybe not punishment, I'm not a sadist or masochist, I guess I should better describe myself as someone who loves the darkness, the sorrow of life. I listen to music written primarily in minor keys. In hero stories I am most attracted to the darkest of heroes (Batman for example). I have always preferred late night musings to those in full daylight, and I dwell in sorrow more frequently than joy. I was the perfect theologian to preach happily about the death of Christ. And increasingly, as I stood at the pulpit, at the altar, I focused my ministry almost entirely on the theological significance of the cross to Christians.
I knew I was personally unable to reconcile my own sinfulness to ministry as a priest. I wanted to be the most holy priest, a saint. I built in my house a chapel where I left the Holy Eucharist exposed in adoration so that I could prostrate myself before my God, the person of Jesus, beheld in the mystery of bread become flesh. I would stop at the chapel and kneel for hours in contemplation, trying to weave my own desire to end the suffering I experienced in my personal sin into the experience that was described by the Gospels of Jesus while he knelt in the garden the night before his crucifixion. My own desire to end this inability to reconcile my weaknesses to my priesthood translated strongly to my preaching.
I journaled while I was a priest, letters I wrote to a young man that I had wanted to help on his journey, I was hoping he would want to become a priest. Again I wanted to find that way to holiness, I wanted God to show himself to me, and I thought perhaps my doubts were the greatest test of my faith. In my journal to him I wrote, "I complain like a spoiled child sometimes in my own weaknesses and sufferings. Compared to my sweet savior, who carried his cross without complaint, with grace and dignity I cannot go a day without feeling sorry for myself in my very minor sorrows and sufferings......yet we must join our savior in carrying the cross to know salvation and the fullness of joy, life and peace."
On those days when we, Father Ed and I would travel to the hospitals, I would wrap into a silk lined satchel my pix, filled with the sacred Eucharist. I would tighten my collar, its gleaming white top shining above the rich woolen black cassock that I wore. I knew the white collar represented a glimmer of hope in the cloud of darkness that we so often find ourselves in. I would strap around my waist my silk sash. I buttoned the 33 buttons of the hand woven cassock each time, thinking of the 33 years of Christ's life on earth. I would tuck my prayer book under my arm, and always ensure in my pocket traveled with me my rosary, shiny black beads placed upon the silver chain, ready to acknowledge with my flock the mysteries of the life of Christ and his mother.
Most of the people I would visit at the hospital on a regular basis were there for a serious condition. Rarely did we get called to minister to minor ills (tonsils out, minor surgeries, etc.). We spent most of our time visiting the terminally ill, or visiting people who fought most often cancer. Several times I visited with a woman named Pat O'Hare who was dying of brain cancer. When I first started to visit with her, she was awake, alert, full of life and a powerful example of a woman determined to beat the disease that eating away her life. I struggled with seeing those people suffering so slowly, and what to me seemed in such a lonely place. Hospitals, with all their technology are so cold, and the beeping monitors and neutral colors are depressing. The more I visited Pat, the further she slide into the toxic depression her disease flung upon her, and increasingly she became less and less the vibrant joyful woman I met the first time, and more and more she became the woman afraid to die, not willing to let go of life. The last few times I visited her lying in her hospital bed she was no longer conscious and finally my visits were one sided. I would hold her hand, tell her that I was there, anoint her head with oil, pray over her. I would beg God that in that moment, looking at the shrunken cheeks of Pat that God would give me her cancer so that she might live. I hoped, I prayed that my life would be miraculous and I could lay in her place on the bed and she would jump up and be free.
When I would return to my parish life after holding the hand of a dying woman, I was always at odds with the life I returned to. Most people don't experience this type of suffering very often and frequently when we do we forget, move on, return to life as it was, Focusing on our own needs, shopping, eating out, movies, sports. Life becomes so mundane, and as a young priest I so wanted my parishioners to spend their days contemplating the life they profess on Sunday, and more than in profession, live the life they proclaim. I felt so powerless being the only person in the parish, along with the other priest, Father Ed, to spend time with the dying. Sure we had a group of Eucharistic ministers who would take the sacrament of communion to shut-ins, and occasionally to the hospital bound, but they didn't spend their time praying over the dying, the sick. They weren't trained for such ministry. Their job was to bring the sacrament of communion, offer an "Our Father" and go to the next person. Yet in this parish of nearly 10,000 people, even those who were carrying the sacraments to the home bound and sick numbered only 10 or so. The rest of the parishioners would leave their profession of faith on Sunday and head home to catch a "game" or breakfast with the family. I knew as soon as I said the words, "the Mass is ended, go in peace", the parishioners would run out the door and leave the world of prayers and sacraments behind.
Increasingly over those months in the summer of 1998 I would focus my homilies on the connection that the Church makes between sin and suffering. I would emphasize that our own sins, while forgiven through Christ, still had an effect on pushing us further and further away from God. Our sins, no matter how minor, caused suffering in the world. Our sins were the cause, the reason for death, cancer, we were like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, each time we choose to move away from Christ, from God by not being holy, we cast ourselves, our loved ones, into the abyss and there we were going to continue to find death, suffering, pain, loss and sorrow. My preaching would remind the parishioners that Christ's time on the cross was meant as a sacrifice, but even in that sacrifice, we were still called to sin no more. We were waiting here, for the second coming of Christ, and until that day arrived we had the mission to join Jesus as the most holy of holy's, to be saints in our time. Yet increasingly, as I spent time with the faith filled people, I realized that holiness was not the primary goal of most worshipers. I discovered pettiness, bickering, mean spiritedness. There were lots of people who were good, kind people, but as I contemplated increasingly the life I was called too, that path I walked down, I realized that my emphasis on faith wasn't being returned by the very people I was ministering to. I realized that my preaching about needing to be holy, to be "Christlike" fell on deaf ears. My time spent so many days with the dying filled me with sorrow, but I had originally hoped as a young seminarian that my ministry as a priest would set the world on fire and people would flock in droves to support one another, to care for each other.
I know that many people did just that, cared for each other. Yet those wonderful volunteers were ever increasingly the minority. Of the 10's of thousands of parishioners, it was the same 100 or so people who did good work. Faith for the majority was an obligation to come and pray on Sunday in Church, then the rest of the week was left to be their own. My parishioners would return to their large homes in rich white suburbia, and the lonely dying woman with brain cancer would rest in her hospital bed alone until finally her body could take no more and ceased living. Those few volunteers were heroes in my parish, but even they would have their moments. Many of them did their holy work for recognition, to be acknowledged in the parish as leaders. Many would do their holy work simply because they felt obligated, but not one of them worked to expand this mission beyond their own work. In my proclamations of the Gospels, in my preaching, I would pound my fist on the pulpit calling these believers to take action, spread their belief, proclaim to the world without fear that they loved God, Christ. No one ever did. They would shuffle uncomfortably in their pews hoping I would wrap up my homily quickly.
That summer in 1998, I would rest for hours by the bedside of dying people. Yet I would grow angry, hurt, that on my Sunday worship services, 50% of the congregation would leave the Mass immediately after receiving communion. Here where we worshiped together, beheld what was taught to be the greatest mystery, we received and ate the flesh and drank the blood of God, yet people, more than 50%, fled the church as soon as they could. Most complained to me that my homilies were too long (10 minutes), or that traffic getting out of the parking lot was too difficult, or that the sports team that playing was too important to miss. I would preach ever increasingly that their faith was broken, that it was fake. I took to finishing my masses in the back of the Church to confront people who desired to leave early. They wrote letters to the bishop, told the pastor that I wasn't kind. The more complaints I received the more justified I felt. Yet the more time I spent with the dying the more lonely I became, clinging to a faith that I didn't truly embrace. I had hoped that as a priest the faith of the faithful would fill in the gaps of my own disbelief. Instead like dynamite it blew my disbelief apart. I discovered that people found faith only when they or someone they loved rested quietly on the bed in a hospital. Otherwise, faith was a routine event that was endured. And even in those moments of crisis, after the crisis fades, the suffering is healed, the faithful return to faithless lives.
I know I'm painting with broad strokes, and there are a few believers in Christ, in the Catholic Church, who truly embraced the life of Christ. They want to reconcile themselves to the God they've been taught to know. Yet my broad strokes are built upon a lifetime experience. As a theologian I knew that true Christian faith, the one that so many profess to hold, means a sacrifice. The Gospels and writings of the New Testament are clear about the faith. Great saints were notable because on some level they exhibited the dedication to the God that all faithful are supposed to exhibit. Instead most people who are "Christian" move from routine to routine, ignoring each other until they're forced to do otherwise. As a priest I wanted to wake up in the faithful a life of prayer, passion for God that set them on fire. I wanted the parishioners to eat of the body of Christ with me, drink his blood with me and then be so beholden of their faith that they would have to rest in the Church for hours. Yet I found this was not the case, instead the parishioners would take of the Eucharist and most would practically run out of the Church, glad it was over. I knew that from my study of the Gospels, the teaching of the Church, that the call of Christ was an all or nothing call. The lukewarm faith that I encountered was the faith that most people professed. Saints are remarkable because they are so few and far between.
If Christians really studied and knew their gospels, sacred texts both of the Old and New Testaments, if the Catholics truly studied their doctrines, they would be surprised at how infrequently they were in good standing with their own faith. As a young priest, struggling with disbelief, I became invested fully with wanting to be a saint. I threw myself, prostrate, before the altar. I breathed upon the bread and wine during Mass with such reverence that many people would weep. Yet, I would look up from my sacramental offering, and see a distracted majority. I ever proclaimed to my parishioners that it was their own lack of holiness that contributed to suffering in the world. Their sinfulness, their disinterest, their lack of genuine passion for their god was a direct cause of evil in the world. Yet upon this preaching, most people would shift uncomfortably. People would approach me after mass and ask that my homilies focus more how nice god is and less on the need to not sin. My preaching they said made them uncomfortable. I nodded then, smug, and said good, my preaching, like the Gospel, was intended to make you uncomfortable. My preaching was a challenge for them to be the Christ in life themselves. To take literally the words of their god and live them. Yet most people did not.
It was these moments, seeing people interact with each other, with me, that helped to drive that disbelief I had in my heart further home. I realized as a priest that faith was play acting for most people. Platitude's that people could spout off, yet in their "non" faith time, they could return to being petty, bickering, judgmental, hurtful. Their faith didn't matter if saw a beggar, someone of color, a gay person. They didn't need to be like Christ all the time, just when it was convenient. I had hoped as a priest creating sacraments, acting as the person of Christ to the faithful, that I would be inspired to grow myself in faith. Instead what I discovered was a faithless world of Christians going through the motions. Those small motions were the ones that made me realize how far I was from faith myself. It was seeing the gospels in action, living faith with a parish of faithful, I realized it was a myth. A story told to make us feel better about ourselves. It was a story told to give us hope when we are lonely, dying, afraid. They are stories told to control us, make us respond to those in power so as to keep them in power. No amount of gospel reading, homilizing, or sacramental life changed these things. No amount of holding dying women's hands made me see God. It was in the heart of the lion's den I had hoped to find faith, but there was no faith to be found there, instead it was in the heart of the lion's den that I was eaten alive.