Bless her father for she has sinned

Way back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Sister Monica was principle and eighth grade teacher at my parochial elementary school in upstate New York. When I first knew her, she almost looked like a Talibani woman. Like all the sisters, she wore ankle-length black dresses, black shoes with black hose, a belt with beads and a crucifix on one end, and a habit so severe that you could not see a hair on her head other than on her eyebrows. After Vatican II, they literally had a change of habit, which got considerably smaller to the point where we could make out actual hair. Today, even modest habits are history. I doubt there is any way I could tell a Sister of St. Joseph from any other woman on the street.

Sister Monica had to deal with two hundred or so of us pupils who suffered from the sin of being, well, children. Yes, amazingly we had not mastered adult skills such as not squirming in our seats or talking in class. Sister Monica would permit none of these childish things. From our uniforms (pressed black pants, white shirts and a green tie for the boys, and really ugly plaid green dresses with a white blouse for the girls), the idea was to extinguish all signs of difference. Sitting in our squat and tiny desks, we looked like budding Catholic Dilberts destined to spend our lives in cubicles, which way back then had not yet been invented. Sister Monica took it as her personal mission to obliterate all signs of personality from us. She had two hundred plus students to deal with, dammit (not that she would swear). We were but sausages in her grinder. She had to turn us into good little Catholic sausages, educated but obedient. We were destined to be interchangeable gears for the betterment of society but far more importantly, good, dutiful and faithful Catholics. We were to be the type who went to mass every Sunday and never miss a Holy Day of Obligation.

In short, in Sister Monica’s universe there was virtually no room for either tolerance or deviation. Absolute conformity and obedience were required. Silence was required during class. If you had a question, of course, you first had to raise your hand and be allowed to speak. Being children, we tended to tune out a lot of her teaching. We fidgeted. We spent inordinate amounts of time sneaking peaks out the window, doodling, watching the clock and waiting for the liberation of recess or the final bell. If our attention ever wavered, she would call out to us in her sharp raspy voice. Her long, wooden pointer with its rubber tip was her constant companion. She would smack it down loudly on your desk to get your attention. We were there to learn and generally, that meant a lot of lecture, rote memorization and few questions.

It is hard for me to give Sister Monica her due, but I will try. In fact, she was a pretty good teacher in that it was hard to leave her class without having learned the material. I remember her primarily as my math teacher. By the end of the eighth grade, we were already doing algebra. Homework certainly was turned in on time and was promptly graded. Since she was so vigilant about students looking out the window most of us realized we had best pay attention. Moreover, Sister Monica liked having an audience. Her pointy stick was one way that she expressed her personality since with all that black garb on, there wasn’t much else of her to see.

Back in the 1960s, and in particular, in parochial schools, someone like Sister Monica had near absolute and unchecked authority. The only liberal aspect of Sister Monica that I can recall was that she was liberal at meting out punishment. I am sure a class full of elementary school children could be a handful. It was not natural for us to stifle ourselves or give the teacher our full attention.

A teacher certainly has the right to maintain order in the class. Sister Monica though was a big believer in spare the rod and spoil the child, and it was hard to find any infraction too trivial for her justice. Her preferred instruments for meting out punishment were two yardsticks held together. Her preferred location for executing sentence was her desk at the front of the class. Her instructions were simple: “Form a right angle.” There in front of the class the recalcitrant student (in my memory, always a boy) would receive a dozen or so sharp whacks with her doubled yardstick, sometime but not always inducing tears, but often involving a lot of wincing. If it was painful to endure it was perhaps more painful to repeatedly witness. Publicly meting out punishment also had a deterrent effect. I cannot recall ever being at the end of her yardstick. Yet for every student who endured her yardsticks, it was as if I could feel their pain. It made me angry but of course there was no way to express it. My own mother was much like Sister Monica, so I would find no sympathy at home.

Many of us got worse than Sister Monica at home. This was an age when, if your father beat your bums and back black and blue with his belt, child welfare workers (to the extent they existed) would generally look the other way; he was your father, after all, and society assumed he knew best. Perhaps some of the frequent victims of her yardstick grew inured, since many of them were repeat offenders. Yelling in the halls or in class, repeatedly looking out the window and arriving in class sweaty from running around too much during recess were typical violations that required swift justice.

As a child, I found her behavior hard to reconcile. While it was consistent with what I saw outside of the school, it seemed cruel and vindictive. Yet, the faith I was given told me we should look at clerics like Sister Monica with respect, if not something bordering on adoration. By contemporary standards, she would be fired on the first incident with the yardstick. Today, civil suits seeking damages for physical and emotional abuse might even succeed. Once in high school, when our bus rolled past our elementary school I found that I had to deliberately look away. It was thirty years before I found both the time the courage to examine my old haunt of a school. A haunt it remains to me, although the school has long been vacant.

As for Sister Monica, I assumed she had gone to her reward, or was close to going there. I did not think she was web savvy. I did not think I could find her, but last week filled with mild curiosity I left an inquiry on her order’s website. To my surprise, they provided me with Sister Monica’s email address! She is still affiliated with her order but is now semi-retired. I inferred her last name from her email address and Googled her. Google pointed me to a fairly recent online article where she is featured. There in glorious color on the World Wide Web was the now habit-less Sister Monica, much aged of course, heavier, but with much the feisty look that I recalled.

From reading about her online, I got the feeling she has mellowed quite a bit. She held the job of principal in a number of other parochial schools, helped developed curriculum for her diocese, and was involved in at least some charitable work running a food donation center. There are likely many layers to Sister Monica and perhaps I saw her least Christ-like layer.

Although I do not plan to email her, I do fantasize from time to time on what I might say to her. I would ask if she felt bad about the way she treated us. My suspicion is that she would say no. I would suggest to her that she should repent by asking forgiveness from those she hurt, including me. She would probably say these sorts of sins, if they occurred at all, are easily absolved in the Sacrament of Confession. I would reply that there are two types of forgiveness. God can forgive some sins but those against other people can only be forgiven by those who were hurt. If she were to ask my forgiveness, I would grant it. It might heal her soul, presuming it is troubled, which I doubt. Moreover, it may help me put these sad past events forever under the mattress.

Unquestionably, they affected me profoundly as a child and still somewhat as an adult. She likely affected hundreds of other students of hers over the years, and most I suspect have few charitable memories. I am no longer a Catholic for many reasons, but in part because I could not as an adult be a member of a religion that would look the other way while people like her abused so many children. I worked hard to be firm but tolerant parent, never raising a hand to my daughter and trying, but not always exceeding, to never to throw a deprecating remark her way.

Today virtually all schools, except in a few Southern states, are free of faculty-induced violence. This is particularly true of parochial schools, although in numbers they are today a small fraction of what they were in their heyday. This may be in part because Sister Monica was one of many sisters, as unfortunately there were many Catholic priests, who crossed the lines. I doubt her behavior gave her any qualms. She was probably instructed by her clerics to mete out corporal punishment. She may have witnessed it herself had she spent her childhood in parochial schools. It may have seen as natural as eating and breathing.

In the grand scheme of things, these sins were probably of the venial variety. No one died. Many bottoms may have gotten a bit red, but only temporarily. Sister Monica might have induced a blister or two, but she also succeeded in making us learn. As best I can tell none of my classmates grew up to be axe murderers. Still with me, my friend Tom who was also there and I am sure many others, she did leave scars, scars that do not always completely heal even so many decades later.

I imagine someday the pendulum will swing back and teachers may be empowered to mete out punishment again. I can only hope that if this happens, future parochial school teachers will retain nonviolent ways to discipline their pupils. Given the certainty of Catholicism about so many things, I am not entirely convinced those days are gone forever. Absolute power allows these transgressions to occur, and at the very least in Sister Monica’s case, the Catholic Church watched askance.

Review: Doubt

Doubt director and writer John Patrick Shanley can be forgiven for framing his movie inside the insular world of a Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better setting for this movie. Catholicism of course has little room for doubt or uncertainty. Its priests and sisters are expected to have a finely honed sense for the presence of sin. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principle of a parochial school in the parish. From her long experience among the unwashed and sinful masses, she can sense a fire long before there is any combustion. For a Sister of Charity she has few things charitable to say about the students she oversees. It seems that without her constant vigilance all her pupils are doomed to lapse further into a life of sin. She rules the school through fear and intimidation to such an extent that even her fellow sisters are cowed and silent in her presence. She makes no apologies for her methods and cannot conceive of any other way of governing.

Meanwhile over in the rectory Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is hard at work trying to become a more liberal and expansive priest. He is full of enthusiasm for Vatican II and wants to be known as a warm and accessible priest. This naturally raises Sister Aloysius’s suspicions. What does it mean when the school’s only African American student is called into a private conference with Father Flynn and he returns smelling of communion wine? For Sister Aloysius, this means something sinful and unnatural must have been going on. She plunges headfirst into these dubious moral waters, determined to make Father Flynn accountable for his behavior. After all, she has spent a career witnessing it among her pupils. Confirmation of her suspicions is rather beside the point. She must bring a stop to whatever immorality is occurring, no matter what the cost.

Streep and Hoffman provide fine performances as you might expect. What you do not expect is that Amy Adams (who plays Sister James) will rise to their level and by many measures give the finest performance in the movie. Sister James is deeply troubled because the boy is in her class. She becomes anguished and feels pulled both ways by Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. Her inability to resolve her feelings, which are amplified by both the stakes and the clarity of Catholic theology, nearly destroys her. Adams gets far less camera time than either Streep or Hoffman but in many ways her performance is the most memorable. Is Father Flynn a child molester? Are Sister Aloysius’s suspicions unjustified? The film magnificently explores the issue of reasonable doubt in a climate where none is permitted, and the havoc the dichotomy can cause within such an insular community.

If you enjoy fine character driven and human stories then without a “doubt” you should see Doubt. If you are a Catholic or ex-Catholic, you also might enjoy inhabiting again the world of the American Catholic Church in 1964, which is flawlessly rendered. As a result a number of those Catholic hymns that I had thought I had purged from my brain are now running around in my mind again, along with long forgotten memories of my own time as an altar boy.

I spent nine years in parochial schools. We had our own Sister Aloysius, so I can attest that Meryl Streep’s portrayal as school principle is dead on for the period. We had our Irish priest too, whom we secretly suspected of drinking too much communion wine. Consequently, I found the plot entirely plausible. The Catholic Church, like many moral institutions can run but not hide from the moral squishiness and ambiguity of life. Doubt captures it brilliantly.

3.4 on my 4.0 scale.

P.S. The metaphor of the windows in Sister Aloysius’s offices so often being unexpectedly open is, I am sure, quite intentional.

The pope pays a visit

Count me as one of those not lining the streets of Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. trying to get a glimpse of the pope. This may have something to do with me not being a Catholic.

Of course, I understand Pope Benedict heads the Roman Catholic Church. To those vested in the faith I am sure his visit is a big deal. Even if I were inclined, it would be devilishly hard to even get a glimpse of the man. Getting a ticket to the mass he held today at the new Washington Nationals Stadium was challenging even for devout local Catholics. Most area Catholics will have to be contented watching him on TV. The good news for Pope Benedict XVI is that he picked a wonderful time to pay a visit to Washington. You could arguable that the weather was heavenly inspired: clear blue skies, abundant sunshine, mild winds with flowering trees everywhere.

Yet I find nothing particularly holy about Pope Benedict or the institution he heads. Like most large institutional religions, Catholicism has had big ups and downs. Unless you measure success in souls saved, it is hard to make the case that Catholicism’s pluses have outweighed its minuses. As much as the Catholic Church would like to pretend otherwise, I see it as an institution of men, not of God. It suffers from being guided by men whose lives are so warped from reality they have lost perspective. As a result, they needlessly lead billions down treacherous spiritual paths. It may be true that God’s agenda is very different from that of mans’. However, it appears to this observer that there is a causal relationship between priestly celibacy and priest abuse scandals here in America. It is easy to applaud Pope Benedict’s 25 minutes spent today with victims of priestly pedophilia. Nonetheless, I would feel the contrition were more genuine if the pope required that all priests were bonded by insurance companies. That way if there are any future victims they at least will not have to wait decades and file lawsuits to be reimbursed for the mental health expenses.

I suspect that for every indigent person helped by Catholic Charities there is another soul who was one of its victims. I count myself among its victims. Thankfully, I was never abused by a priest. However, I was abused and witnessed regular physical and emotional abuse from its sisters during nine years of parochial school. I have spent thousands of dollars on therapy over the years in part trying to come to terms with the abuse I witnessed. Somehow, I doubt the Vatican will be cutting me any checks.

Catholicism is hardly unique for instilling its values in the young, but few religions are so aggressive cementing a faith. You are baptized as a baby before you can babble a word and without your consent. You are typically confirmed when you are just entering adolescence, and sometimes a little before. This typically occurs at your parents’ prodding and long before you have an adult perspective of whether Catholicism is really a lifelong calling. You learn that even you, a sweet and innocent baby, was born with the stain of original sin. You learn that Jesus is forgiving, but except for a few asterisks, you must depend on your parish priest to act as your intercessor. God may be full of grace, but grace is largely earned by jumping through the hoops of its various sacraments. Your head is filled with beliefs that amount to nonsense, such as the consecrated host is the real body of Jesus and that Mary was immaculately conceived.

It is no wonder then that a church full of such cognitive dissonance is capable of soaring to great heights and falling to such great depths, sometimes at the same time. In many ways, the Vatican embodies humanity in all its highs and lows. For relatively benign and holy popes like John Paul II, there are execrable popes, like Pope Gregory XIII. When French Catholics in 1572 killed somewhere between ten and a hundred thousand French Protestants (Huguenots) on Saint Bartholomew’s Day, Pope Gregory was giddy in joy. He took it as proof that God was wreaking vengeance on what he saw as the apostasy of Protestantism. In his glee, he ordered a special Thanksgiving where a Te Deum was sung. To this day, the Catholic Church has not fully apologized for inciting this massacre, although some claim that Pope John Paul II’s 1997 statement amounted to an apology.

I realize my own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is figuratively an ant next to the institution called the Catholic Church. It too has suffered its share of sins. One of our interim ministers some years ago scandalized the denomination by faking some references so he could get a permanent ministry. I heard that some UU youth groups decades ago amounted to free love communities. However, our denomination never caused any wars, or tried to exterminate people who did not share their beliefs. On the contrary, the Unitarians experienced oppression by the early Christian church, which would not tolerate the Unitarian belief that there was no trinity. It is unlikely any of our heroes would qualify as Catholic saints, but had she bothered to twiddle a rosary Clara Barton could give Mother Teresa a run for the money. At least our denomination, rather than indoctrinate someone into a faith, is creedless. Our salvation may feel more ephemeral than eternal, but at least we make no claim to understand the mind of God. We realize that beliefs evolve just as people evolve because beliefs are a human manifestation. Consequently, what suits us today may not suit the changing world of tomorrow.

Pope Benedict of course sees truth like Prudential Insurance sees the Rock of Gibraltar. The same ideas that Jesus preached 2000 years ago remain wholly applicable today. The splintering of religion, and indeed the splintering of Christianity into innumerable denominations, is proof that Pope Benedict should take to heart: that no religion, not even Catholicism, can fit all souls.

The Catholic Church will always appeal to those who value constancy. Increasingly though constancy no longer works in a world that seems to reinvent itself with every generation. The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is proof that the square peg of Catholicism no longer fits into the round hole that is modern man. I find it hard to believe there would have been a sex abuse scandal at all had Catholic priests had the privilege of marriage, as they in fact had until about five hundred years ago.

It is a good thing I am not the President of the United States. I would not pander to Pope Benedict the way our president is doing. I would treat him as an honored guest of our country. I would never assert that he is any holier than any of us, only that he is holy to most of the Catholics in our country.

Instead, I might be tempted to preach to the pope. I would preach that the diversity and tolerance, which is built into the fabric of our country is a blessing. I would point out that the diversity of faiths in our country makes us a stronger country and a stronger people. I would celebrate our separation of church and state, one of the most enlightened and brilliant ideas ever practiced by a country, and the secret of our two hundred plus year union. I would show him our version of holy writ, the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. These too are solid moorings on how people can be happy and live in harmony. Our political faith is a pragmatic one that works with our natural weaknesses, rather than against them.

I have no doubt that the Pope would be unmoved. He spent too many years learning that the reason the Catholic Church survives today is because of its constancy. Constancy though is actually the faith’s Achilles heel. Because of the constant pruning by its clerics, the faith has become surreal and moribund. It is like a bonsai, always alive, but constantly pruned and propped up so that it can never grow naturally. In the end, it makes it weird and surreal, giving the illusion of wonder but leaving it nonetheless ultimately spiritually bereft.

My Inner Catholic

It has been thirty-two years since I last attended Mass as a Roman Catholic. After thirty-two years, you would think that I would have exorcised Catholicism from within me. Theologically, I am about as far from Catholicism as you can get. I have been a practicing Unitarian Universalist for the last ten years. This is a religion so Christian-lite that arguably it is neither a theology nor Christian. Rather than having to profess that I believe in the Trinity, to be a UU I do not have to profess to believe in anything at all, including God.

Yet I believe that if you took a survey of members in any Unitarian Universalist church and asked them what religion they grew up in, at least forty percent would say they were raised Roman Catholic. That was my experience when, some ten years ago, I attended an orientation on Unitarian Universalism. I expected myself to be nearly unique. Instead, I was surrounded by ex-Catholics, many of whom, like me, were still more than a bit traumatized all these years later by the whole weird Catholicism experience. I think it would be hard to find any drug that could mess up a logical mind more completely than Catholicism. (I am sure others would protest that their religion had this effect too.)

Perhaps subconsciously choosing Unitarian Universalism as my religion was an adult act of rebellion. “Take that, pope! Of all the religions out there, I choose the one that is the most unlike the Roman Catholic Church!” There is none of that contemptible original sin dogma in UUism. I do not have to spend my Sundays contemplating whether, after coveting my neighbor’s wife, the sin was mortal or venial.

I am 50 years old and I am free of Catholicism, except I am not. I do not think many of us who were raised Catholic ever fully escape its long tendrils. Deep inside me, like most of us ex-Catholics, there still lurks an inner Catholic. I have determined that no surgery can remove it from me, as much as I would like it to. No amount of therapy will assuage that small, frightened inner Catholic child in me that still thinks, “My soul is stained and I will go to hell.” For better or for worse, who I am is defined by the Catholicism that I experienced in my developing years. If I could remove my inner Catholic, I would be a stranger to myself.

Perhaps I would have happier memories of the Catholic Church had I had parents who went a little less heavy on Catholicism. Alas, I did not. Attending Mass once a week was not just a good idea, my parents demanded it. If I did not attend then I had committed a mortal sin, which meant that God was seriously pissed at me. The first bus that run over me meant that it was straight to Hades for me, for eternity, for missing a frigging Mass. (It was not until later that I learned about Cafeteria Catholics, who somehow got to heaven even though they only attended Mass on Easter and Christmas.) We had to go to confession about once a month too. I was generally too scared to tell the priest my real sins (“I jerked off twice today Father, and I felt guilty about it, but it also felt too good to stop”) and, bizarrely, made up fake sins, which logically further stained my soul. Bless me Father for I have sinned. I lied twice to my parents, even though I didn’t really. I took the Lord’s name in vain once, even though I didn’t swear. These were sins I felt comfortable confessing. After a while, I got the impression that these were the kinds of sins the priests wanted to hear. I was easily absolved with a few Hail Mary’s and Glory Be’s. I would never tell my parents, much less this creepy dark robed creature whispering at me from behind a veiled partition, my real sins.

I had many other issues with Catholicism of course, but it all boiled down to a couple points. As a parochial school student, I witnessed physical abuse by the sisters at the school who, when I think today about what they did so many years ago, still raises my blood pressure. Even as a child, I knew what I witnessed was deeply wrong, but it seemed blessed by the Catholic Church. Of course, at that age I was incapable of reconciling these evils with the absolute faith I had been handed. The second issue were its bizarre creeds that I supposedly subscribed to. Jesus ascended bodily into heaven? Jesus was conceived via Immaculate Conception? God was three entities at the same time: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? I don’t think so. It is unlikely that I will ever be Muslim, but at least they got it right: God does not suffer from multiple personality disorder.

I realize that billions of people believe, or at least profess to believe in these teachings. Moreover, I both respect these people yet cannot fathom how they can actually believe this crap. Catholics, do you really believe a consecrated host is both bread and the actual, living body of Jesus at the same time? If you can believe that, why it is that I cannot sell you swampland on which to build your estate? On the other hand, is your belief just pablum that you cannot acknowledge even to yourself?

Yet Catholicism for all its illogic still intrigues me, and remains a part of me. As readers know last summer, my family went to France. I spent much of my time inside the many Catholic churches, basilicas and cathedrals in and around Paris. For reasons I do not understand, stained glass evokes awe in me, along with statuary depicting long dead and likely wholly legendary saints. Visiting a cathedral like Notre Dame filled me with awe and reverence. While we were at Notre Dame, we watched a mass in progress. A soprano filled the cathedral with her ethereal music. The priest did his best to fill up the vast space with the pungent smell of burning incense. It was not really magical, but some part of me still perceived it was both magical and mystical, because I was viewing it through the prism of a naïve and trusting six year old boy.

While most of the church’s beliefs are just silliness, some of its practices are plain mean-spirited. For example, I think it is contemptible that they deny divorced Catholics access to the sacraments. Priestly celibacy is both unnatural and has proven unworkable. In fact, the male chauvinism of the religion simply reeks. How can any thinking Catholic woman put up with it? The second-class status it affords homosexuals, who are only seen as good Catholics providing they never act on their urges, is loathsome and truly makes me want to vomit.

Still, underlying it all are some kernels that still resonate with me. It is one of a small number of Christian denominations that still believes that all life is truly sacred, that the death penalty is just wrong in all cases, and that it is not enough to just say that you believe in your faith, but to insist that faith must be manifested by deeds. I have enormous respect for institutions like Catholic Charities, which do some of the hardest and most necessary charitable work in the world.

Catholicism thus remains something of a mystery to me, which both resonates at times and resurfaces feelings of loathing. I both admire it and despise it. I cling to those parts of Catholicism that so touched me as a child: the candles lit during a High Mass; the smell of incense; the sound of chimes as the Priest consecrates the host; their numerous saints; the virtuous Mary, Mother of God ™; and those engraved stations of the cross along the sides of the church. They personalized the poor, suffering Jesus who died so I could guiltily sneak peaks at Playboy magazines.

Perhaps what I miss the most about Catholicism is its utter and obnoxious certainty about everything. THE ONE AND ONLY TRUE PATH, from birth to death, was laid out with crystal clarity that was obvious to any true Catholic that stayed awake during CCD classes. All they had to do was walk its path. If there was any question about what the path was, your pastor could unambiguously clarify things for you, or you could thumb through a Baltimore Catechism and get a sonorous answer there. Its promise was not so much God and the hereafter as it was promises that with weekly injections of Catholicism you could get through life unafraid. All it took was utter faithfulness to its creeds, which I translated into the abandonment of reason on all things religious.

Now at age 50, the world is a cold place. Despite the silliness of Catholicism, its unyielding certainty (even when it is so completely wrong) and its proud obliviousness to the way the world actually works, it still holds some allure. I find Unitarian Universalism offers little in the way of comfort, other than the companionship of fellow souls with thoughts and fears similar to mine. I also know that even if I succumbed to the lure of Catholicism again, I would simply be deluding myself. I will never really believe in Immaculate Conception. There would always be some part of me that would say, “This is just utter rubbish.” Still perhaps someday as my life span narrows and my fear of death increases, my insecurities will get the better of me. Perhaps I will find myself engaged again in the adult thumb sucking that, sorry, to me epitomizes Catholicism.

The Pope Wears Prada for Christmas

It may be time for Pope Benedict XVI to go to confession. Greed after all is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas warned Christians about the mortal sin of greed. “It is a sin directly against one’s neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them… it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man contemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.”

I realize of course that a somewhat higher spiritual authority, Jesus himself, told us not to judge others. However, I am not a Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. I shall not lob a stone Pope Benedict’s way, but I will send a raised eyebrow. For if not a sin, this new sign of covetousness by the Pope is disturbing.

For as you may have read in the paper, the Pope has a fashion sense. Pope John Paul II did not. John Paul believed in off-white and skullcaps. It was pretty much the same vestments every day. Benedict must have tried on the off-white robes and found them not quite to his liking. He seems to want something dressier. His shiny red Prada shoes seem to be making a statement: there is a new pope in town and he’s not a John Paul II clone. This new pope will not join the voluminous list of popes who only stood out in a crowd because their off white was surrounded by so much cardinal red.

If it were just the shiny red shoes perhaps he might be forgiven. Alas, last week Pope Benedict also showed up in St. Peter’s Square in a fur-trimmed stocking cap. Moreover, he has been seen wearing designer Gucci sunglasses. In addition, in a recent visit to the statue of the Madonna in Spain he appeared in a bright red cape trimmed in ermine. Avarice, that’s what it is. Greed, covetousness and avarice: he appears to be guilty of all of them.

Benedict sees himself as a classical pope. In those nostalgic days before Protestantism the pope was not just the spiritual leader of all Christianity, he was also seen as something of a defacto uber-king. It was okay for a pope to be opulent. Indeed, popes were not just opulent; many were also corrupt to the core. Others had wives, mistresses, extended families and bastards. The custom of priestly celibacy did not evolve until the Middle Ages. With such power and influence there was little point for a pope to spend his life pretending to be miserable.

While it is unlikely that Benedict will diverge with his predecessors’ inclinations toward priestly celibacy, he does appear to be taking the first few tentative steps toward emulating a richer sort of personal life. This fisher of men seems to be appealing to a higher-class clientele. Perhaps there is some logic to his approach. While the poor will be always, it seems like most of the poor that can be converted to Catholicism are already members. Europeans seem to have moved on beyond organized religion. That churches survive in Europe today at all is largely due to governments refusing to let them die. Yes, countries such as Germany prop up their churches with direct subsidies.

Even so, Christianity has lost much of its appeal in Western Europe. In today’s Washington Post, for example, we learn that the Church of England has closed 1,700 churches since 1970. While 24 million Britain citizens were baptized into the Church of England, only 5 million can be found in the pews on a given Sunday. In England, churches are being rented out for rock climbing and acrobatic exhibitions. For many Catholics in Western Europe, the only time they are likely to see the inside of a church is when they attend a marriage or a funeral. Otherwise, they simply cannot be bothered. Religion is no longer trendy; it is so Old World.

Perhaps that is why the Pope is wearing Prada. Maybe he realizes he must make some tiny compromise with the 21st Century. After all, it is hard to bring in churchgoers if they cannot identify with you. Many ordinary Western Europeans and Americans are now rich beyond Jesus’ wildest dreams. Moreover, it seems they like their material comforts just fine and do not feel too disturbed by their apparent lack of spirituality. What was that advice that Jesus gave them? Give away all their possessions to the poor, live with no thought of tomorrow and follow Jesus? I don’t think so! They will part with their Land Rovers, Pilates classes and Caramel Chocolate Frappuccino Blended Crème coffees when Hell freezes over. But hey, if the Pope can wear Prada and nifty Gucci sunglasses, maybe he is not as uncool as they thought. Perhaps they will give him a listen.

So perhaps there is marketing acumen with Pope Benedict’s recent fashion statements. I have to wonder if one of his first actions as pope was to call in a Madison Avenue public relations firm. If he had then doubtless they would have recommended an image makeover. Perhaps ermine lined capes and fashion sunglasses were their top recommendations.

Still, you have to wonder what the late Pope John Paul II would have thought of his fashion statements. I get the feeling he would be giving him a jaundiced eye. As Pope John Paul II saw it, the truth never changes. Consistency has been the Catholic Church’s main selling point for two thousand years. For if Pope Benedict is to give in to marketing pressure what is next? Loosening of celibacy requirements for priests? Women priests? A pragmatic stand toward birth control? The devout Catholic mind reels.

While I am sure a pope never has to do more than raise their hand before a lackey attends to his every need, the Church has invested too much in the marketing of a pope as a spiritual creature wholly indifferent to the earthly desires. Were I a Catholic perhaps I would advise Pope Benedict to consider the message that he is sending.

A Modest Proposal: Bye Bye Vatican

Warning: people of sound mind who can separate fantasy from reality may read the following entry. The rest of you: out of here now!

I am not an evil person but I do have occasional evil thoughts. As I noted the pictures of black smoke rising from the Vatican today, indicating that it may take a while for the College of Cardinals to elect a new pope, the evil thought struck me: They’re all together in one place. If there is an ideal time to kill the Catholic Church once and for all, now is the time.

Yes it’s an evil thought. Just thinking it probably means I am doomed to spend eternity in Hell. But for some of us, particularly estranged ex-Catholics with axes to grind, the idea has a certain appeal. Those who suffered from the pedophilia problem in the church probably have no love for the institution and would just as soon have it banished from the planet. And then there are people like me who after years of psychotherapy should have forgiven the Church, but really haven’t. We should be able to forgive the heaping doses of guilt, the corporal punishment we witnessed in its parochial schools, the shame we felt when we wacked off reading Playboy magazines, the humiliation seemingly sanctioned by the Holy Father himself, or just the incredible over the top mysticism of the institution. For some reason life threw us into the toxic Catholic zone. If not exactly Hell on earth, it was a particularly miserable part of purgatory that we inhabited.

What if we could just do away with it? What if in one act of retribution we could finally get even? Clearly now we have a unique opportunity. Papal conclaves don’t happen every day. But they’re all there! All 115 voting cardinals in one place: Vatican City. There they are pondering which one of them, all pretty much handpicked by John Paul II for their conservative and bizarre otherworldly tendencies, gets to be the next one to wear the white uniform, the funky white hat and the cool ring. It’s not like they are likely to come to their senses; they long ago surrendered their minds to mysticism. Smelling salts won’t knock any common sense into them either. The cardinals will doubtless elect someone a lot like John Paul II: completely out of touch with the real world but with a passion to move the Catholic Universe back into the primordial ooze. First up on the next pope’s agenda: repealing that little concession that the world was round after all.

Perhaps rabid secularists surrounding the Vatican hundreds deep and refusing to let the Cardinals out until they elect a Pope with some lick of common sense could do it. But that’s really that’s wistful thinking. As Bill Frist considers using the nuclear option in the U.S. Senate, perhaps it’s time for the legions of disgruntled ex-Catholics to consider our own nuclear option. We need one neutron bomb in a hurry. Why a neutron bomb? Because we want to kill the Cardinals, not damage Michelangelo’s glorious paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and all the other precious art work. We appreciate good religious art. We’re not freaking Taliban.

Okay, a neutron bomb might be a bit much. A couple frescos might get damaged. So perhaps we need to hire the Russian Government. Their clever strategy in dealing with a Chechnyan terrorist attack was to gas the terrorists hoping to immobilize them. They caused lots of innocent hostages to die, but they were able to kill all the terrorists. But still this seems a bit inhumane. While we’d like to send all the Cardinals to live on an island somewhere, someone might discover them inadvertently. So perhaps the best solution is just to use gas to knock them out. Then of course would come the lethal injections. Yes, there would be a 115 or so dead men in red robes when we were done. But they would be with Jesus.

The upside would be that the Catholic Church could be gone for good. Or am I being optimistic? Perhaps the cardinals who were not allowed to participate because they were too old would select one of themselves to be pope. I don’t think there is anything in the latest Vatican coda that would make it legal, but it is a possibility. So perhaps the institution would survive anyhow. But maybe, just maybe, whatever church emerged would be a grounded in reality.

Okay, enough fantasizing. Very likely the Catholic Church will continue to hang around. Like an unwanted guest at a party, it just won’t leave. But it appears that it’s been a pretty rude guest and lots of others are leaving the party. We can see it in statistics that, here in America at least, only 25% of Catholics bother to go to weekly Mass. Or in places like Mexico and Brazil, long bastions of Catholicism, which are losing parishioners every day to up and coming evangelical churches. While electing another out of touch pope won’t kill the Church, the church is slowly killing itself. Not much blood is being let with all those self-inflicted cuts to its body (probably being done in memory of Jesus’ passion: cue Mel Gibson) but collectively it’s got one major psychosis. And just as most of these teenagers don’t usually die from their behavior, the Catholic Church is unlikely to either. But we can expect it will continue to move toward deeper dysfunction in the decades ahead.

I’m no longer a Catholic and I don’t pray, but if I were a praying Catholic I’d be praying that God would knock some common sense into those 115 cardinals. I’d pray for a miracle.

Prayer won’t solve the priest shortage

News Item:

Pope John Paul on Friday called for a national day of prayer to boost priestly vocations in the United States, where sexual abuse scandals have hit already shrinking numbers of priesthood volunteers.

“No one can deny that the decline in priestly vocations represents a stark challenge for the Church in the United States, and one that cannot be ignored or put off,” the pope said in a speech to American bishops visiting the Vatican.

“I would propose for your consideration that the Catholic community in your country annually set aside a national day of prayer for priestly vocations,” the 84-year-old pontiff urged.

Umm, a challenge for the United States Catholic Community? I don’t think so. What it represents is a challenge to the so-called leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. It will take a lot more than prayer to put more priests in American churches.

How bad is it for today’s American Catholics? Between 1965 and 2002 the number of seminarian students dropped 90%. 15% of parishes in the United States today have no priest. There are 350% fewer ordinations of Catholic priests in 2002 compared to 1965. There are 45,000 priests in the United States today, but it is projected there will only be 31,000 in 2020, despite a projected increase in the Catholic population during that period. As for Catholic religious orders they will soon be virtually nonexistent in the United States.

As bad as the problem is it could feel a lot worse than it is. Why? Because American Catholics increasingly can’t be bothered to go to Mass on Sundays. In 1958 74% of American Catholics attended Mass regularly. In 2000 the number went to 25%. You can bet if they can’t get their hineys out of bed to listen to yet another droning Mass with the same catatonic words and same boring songs they likely aren’t going to confession regularly either. (Not that Father John likely has the time to hear everyone’s confession anyhow.) Most likely their association with the Catholic Church is attending Easter and Christmas services, if that. The Catholic Church will be lucky if these American Catholics in name only decide to even marry in the church. One reason: the wholly insane policy that to marry a non-Catholic in the Catholic Church the non-Catholic spouse must promise to raise all children to be Catholics.

In short the Catholic Church in America is becoming increasingly irrelevant to American Catholics. There are likely lots of reasons why this is so. But with American priests in such short supply the laity is likely feeling more and more detached from their parish priest. If a parish is lucky enough to have a priest at all, the poor priest is likely wrung ragged. He’s probably delegating right and left. It helps to have sisters and brothers to assist but these orders are having recruitment problems also. From the 180,000 sisters in the United States in 1965 there were only 75,000 in 2002. Brothers went from 12,000 to 5700 during that same period.

It’s likely that Father John is not doing much in the way of pastoral counseling. If he is fortunate he will have deacons and perhaps some lay ministers to help out. Those who remember when the church was more flush with priests are likely to feel very short changed.

And the Holy Father’s brilliant solution to the problem? Have a yearly day of prayer. That will do the trick!

Unless the Holy Father wants an American Catholic community in name only it might be time for him to wake up and smell the coffee. It might begin with some old-fashioned market research. The number one way to solve the priest problem would be to allow women to become priests. But no Catholic who understands their church truly believes that this will happen in their lifetime. In fact Catholics will be lucky if it comes to pass in 500 years. But just why is it that fewer men want to join the priesthood? My guess it’s probably not because they object to wearing dark robes or even their miserly pay. It’s probably because they realize the celibacy tradition in the Roman Catholic Church is stupid and unworkable.

It wasn’t always this way in the Catholic Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church most priests have always been free to get married. In fact most are married. Until the Middle Ages most Roman Catholic priests were married too. Then slowly things changed. Even today there is no direct requirement from the Pope or in Vatican law that I can find that requires priests take a vow of celibacy upon ordination. Rather it is a tradition. Before ordination bishops will require priests to step forward and solemnly warn them that if they do so:

You ought anxiously to consider again and again what sort of a burden this is which you are taking upon you of your own accord. Up to this you are free. You may still, if you choose, turn to the aims and desires of the world. But if you receive this order (of the subdiaconate) it will no longer be lawful to turn back from your purpose. You will be required to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound forever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign.

Every year hundreds of priests come to the inescapable conclusion that celibacy is unworkable for them. The honest ones resign the priesthood and maybe earn a few wetbacks selling their services at Rent-a-Priest. (It’s got a shopping cart! I swear I am not making this up.) The dishonest heterosexual ones (and there are plenty of them) get their relief on the side, in secrecy and likely in shameful circumstances.

I feel sorry for today’s American Catholic priest, caught between the stark reality of the way the world actually is and their so-called leadership. The Vatican seems to have no inclination to bend even the tiniest degree toward policies that would clearly help the institution survive in the future. It’s pretty clear that apostle Peter, the first “Pope” was a married man as were many of the Popes through the Middle Ages. Even today it is possible for a married Catholic priests to get ordained. They just have to start out married in a different denomination. There aren’t many of these examples but it shows just how silly and hollow this tradition is.

In reality the Pope is destroying the Catholic Church in America slowly and methodically. And he will have no one to blame but himself for such pointless and obstinate behavior.

The Lure of Mommy Church

As an ex-Catholic of 28 years I don’t exactly go out of my way to imbibe myself again in that faith. But sometimes (my Mother’s recent hospitalization being a case in point) I realize I don’t have much choice. Both my parents are devout Catholics and they can no more be separated from their Catholicism than from each other. It is a fundamental part of who they are. Their whole lives are seen and experienced through the prism of Catholicism.

There was a time when this irked me, particularly when I was a rebellious teenager, but now I’ve learned to accept a person’s faith or lack of it. So visiting my parents means I must benignly tolerate grace at every meal (although I don’t participate), or listen to their morning prayers. I know that except for major physical impairments, such as my mother has had lately, that they will be at Mass every week. The crucifix will hang prominently on their wall. Christmas cards will undoubtedly arrive adorned with nativity scenes with Madonna, Joseph and baby Jesus surrounded by halos.

For the devout, Catholicism is really more than a religion; it is a way of life. This is true of lots of religions, of course. In some ways Catholicism is less demanding than other religions. Muslims, for example, pray to Mecca six times a day and spend one month a year fasting from sun up to sun down. Mormons are expected to tithe 10% of their income to the church. Ouch!

The sociologist in me sees religion fulfilling the incessant need in most humans for order and predictability in a world that is often cold and chaotic. Most faiths have a set of answers. If life is one complicated crossword puzzle, it is comforting to know the answer set is in the back of the holy book and catechism.

But I confess that while I was with my Mom in the hospital I was surprised that the Catholic Church was there for her. I don’t think there was one day I was there that someone from one of the local Catholic churches didn’t stop by. Mostly lay ministers and deacons visited, but on the last day a priest from her own parish showed up. My mother didn’t have to find them; they found her. They prayed with her in her room, and gave her the Eucharist. (Naturally they asked me if I wanted to communion too. That led to an awkward “No thanks” exchange.) And I was frankly quite comforted by the presence of the Church at such a time of need for my mother. I was there to offer physical and moral support, but the church was there to offer spiritual support. And, unlike the incessant stream of health care professionals running in and out, there was no bill to pay. It’s cheap medicine. After my Mom returned home she was still a bit too infirmed to go back to Mass. No problem, my father went instead and brought home the Eucharist for her.

While the Catholic Church has many faults (as I’ve enumerated elsewhere) I have to grudgingly give them credit for being there for my mother in a time of intense need. She has already received the Sacrament of the Sick in case her Lord calls her home a bit prematurely.

Still, it is clear the Lord works in mysterious ways. During this dark time three of my siblings made the journey to Michigan to offer Mom the physical and emotional support she clearly needed. But of the four of us, only my sister Lee Ann, who happened to be there visiting when my Mom fell, is a practicing Catholic. The rest of us populated the ranks of the unfaithed and religiously disenfranchised. This too was a wakeup call for my Mom, who was genuinely surprised that we took time from our busy lives to be there for her in her time of need.

On the way home from Michigan I had to pass ten hours in a car alone. So I spent a lot of time listening to the radio. I tuned to NPR Weekend Edition. Liane Hanson was interviewing Anne Rice, author of many a bestselling vampire novel. Ms. Rice a few years earlier had returned to the Catholic faith after many long years of estrangement and now said that she believed again in the Church and the sacraments.

Sometimes I wonder if I might be gripped by the lure of the Catholic faith again. I can certainly understand that as I age and as death becomes less of an abstraction and more of a reality that, like my parents, I might take some great comfort in something familiar. Mostly I think of Catholicism and similar faiths as sort of societal approved thumb sucking.

But deep inside of me somewhere is a Catholic core planted very deliberately by my parents. I saw in the Midland hospital how much comfort the Catholic Church can provide in times of great need. While I think it is more likely that if I need ministerial services I will do so in the context of my own Unitarian Universalist faith, my faith does not provide answers, only more questions. In rocky times, particularly when life hangs in the balance, the lure of Catholicism may prove irresistible. My parents will be gone, and when I want to cry and go home to Mommy, Mommy Church may be the only place to go.

Another Victim of Parochial Schools

Hi my name is Mark and I am a victim of parochial schools. During my nine years in parochial schools I witnessed abusive behavior by the Catholic Church that seemed both weird and natural at the same time. Because I grew up in a devout Catholic family in upstate New York in the 1960s the sort of behavior I witnessed was not at all unusual. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a frequent parental mantra of the time. Getting or witnessing a spanking at home from my mother seemed entirely normal, if somehow weird. I knew of other children who got much worse, including getting whipped with leather belts and the occasional shiner.

So I was not surprised that the sisters at our parochial school practiced this philosophy. The values in school modeled the values at home. I understand that parochial schools today, at least in this country, have now become violence-free institutions of learning. I am relieved to hear this, if it is true. I can tell you that I witnessed behavior from sisters representing the Catholic Church in the 1960s and 1970s that today would be considered physical and emotional abuse of children, and would put people away in jail for years at a time.

Now granted elementary and middle schoolers are little volcanoes that are frequently erupting. Many of the boys in my class were in fact little savages constantly getting into trouble. To keep the tuition low I doubt the good sisters got much in the way of an education in child psychology. I’m not even sure they were ever accredited to teach. But anyhow who needs to read psychology books when you have the Bible and the Baltimore Catechism with the answer to all of life’s persistent questions? Those of us who grew up Catholic know that somewhere in that Catechism were the answers to every conceivable moral or ethical question. There is no moral ambiguity in the Catholic faith.

The sort of behavior I witnessed was primarily a lot of physical abuse. For example, an overactive boy (these were the days before ADHD was recognized) running too much on the playground would get real sweaty during recess. This would infuriate our sister who would have the boy come up to the front of the class, bend over her desk, and wack him very hard, repeatedly, in front of the other children, with two yardsticks doubled up together. The boy would usually howl and sometimes cry. Such punishments were reinforced with the moral lesson that such behavior was sinful and against the rules of the school, thereby humiliating the student and causing emotional abuse.

The reason I bring up this unpleasant topic is because I am reading the book “Adult Children of Abusive Parents: A Healing Program for Those Who Have Been Physically, Sexually or Emotionally Abused” by Steven Farmer. It is an eye opener for me, although it should not be. One of the points of the book is that if you feel you were abused then you were. There is no question in my mind that I was both the victim of physical and emotional abuse meted out by the sisters at our parochial school. I am a somewhat dysfunctional adult because of this toxic environment that I endured for nine long years.

The book talks about certain roles that those of us who suffered this abuse bring forward into adulthood. I see elements of many of these roles in myself. For example I often find myself in the caretaker role of trying to make things better for everyone, almost obsessively so. In addition I often find myself emotionally distant. When conflicts arise in my life (particularly if it involves strong emotions) I run away from them and hide. I prefer a safe room somewhere so I don’t have to deal with the associated feelings. These are very powerful roles that I cannot seem to break, and probably won’t be able to break without spending a lot of personal energy and going through a lot of therapy. But it seems to be something I will have to work on, or I will likely make the rest of my life a lot more miserable than it would otherwise be.

I am actually looking forward to seeing the new movie The Magdelene Sisters. It depicts the lives of some “fallen women” in Ireland sentenced by their families and the Catholic Church to forced labor in Catholic laundries. I am hoping it will provide some sort of catharsis to my own feelings about the abuse I experienced and witnessed.

While I am glad that child abuse appears to have vanished from our nation’s parochial schools (although apparently not from its rectories, as numerous news accounts of abusive priests make clear), I am also still angry. Maybe I am an anti-Catholic bigot. If I come across that way, well tough – deal with it. I have noticed that the pews of Unitarian Universalist Churches are full of traumatized ex-Catholics. I have spoken to many fellow victims and the stories are similar. A significant number of those I went to school with I have learned, anecdotally, are carrying the physical and emotional abuse into adulthood and wreaking havoc on a new generation of children.

We have freedom of religion in this country. It is probably a good thing, since the theocracy experiment hasn’t worked out well elsewhere in the world. But when I think of my experience with Catholicism, that I know is replicated in many other religions in this country, I often think certain religions should be banned. In my opinion Catholicism is one very toxic meme. I won’t debate today the theological arguments but it is obvious that it has caused generations of wholly unnecessary suffering for millions, if not billions of people. I do acknowledge that Catholicism can be a beautiful religion. I can still be touched by the feeling of sacredness I get when I am in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, DC. The theater and drama of a high Mass can be quite a show. But in my opinion this religion is at its core rotten and evil.

But it is a meme that will keep going on. I am sure 2000 years from now, no matter how technologically advanced, we will still have a Pope. People will still be shuffling off to church to repeat the same words over and over again. It would be nice if, like a surgeon, I could remove the bad parts of the religion and leave its beauty intact. But that can’t happen. It is a hierarchical, top down directed religion that at its core tolerates no dissent and requires orthodoxy to many beliefs that are wholly unreasonable.

It is, in some ways, similar to an abusive parent. If you are a round peg of a person, you must become a square peg or you are not welcome. Junior must be whipped into shape with a belt by his Dad to stop his sassing. Similarly you, if you are gay, must not actually practice your homosexuality or you risk sin, the wrath and scorn of your clergy if it becomes known and possible banishment and excommunication. And if you are a divorced Catholic and your marriage was not annulled by the church, no matter how bad the physical, emotional and sexual abuse you encountered, don’t you dare take communion and don’t even think about getting remarried in the church.

Leaving the church is a very hard thing for most Catholics to do. Most are born into the faith and going to church is as much a part of their lives as is eating and breathing. It’s a fundamental part of who they are. Like the sexually abused child who later in life unconsciously seeks out co-dependent relationships, Catholicism warps the growing mind in dangerous ways. The institution is one large mortal sin, but too puffed up in its own pretentiousness to recognize it. And unfortunately we can expect a continued trail of human carnage from it and similar institutions for millennia to come.

Contemplating Purgatory

I’ve been working with strange metaphors lately. I play these metaphors around in my mind. And mind you I don’t necessarily believe them, but I often do think the metaphor is interesting. I throw this latest one out to you: we are in purgatory.

Purgatory is a largely Catholic notion that after death an imperfect soul goes to some spiritual realm, not Hell by any means, not Heaven either, but some place where the soul can go to contemplate all the nasty things it did while on earth, find true contrition and eventually achieve perfection. This happens after final judgment, of course, and I guess you have to be Mother Teresa to go straight to view the glory of God. The rest of us have to wait. This is sort of how I remember Catholic theology from the 60s. Perhaps it has changed, but since Catholicism basically thinks theological change is evil, it’s probably still the Pope’s gospel. I, BTW, am not a practicing Catholic (much to my parent’s grief, I suspect, because I was raised as a devout Catholic). I’m not sure what I am. I attend services at a Unitarian Universalist church a couple times a month, so if I must affiliate with a denomination this one will do.

But I digress. Lately, applying Occam’s Razor, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that reincarnation is much more likely than not. This is because I think it’s impossible for most of us in the course of 80 years or so to absorb all the richness and complexities of life adequately. In addition it seems unlikely if we are spiritual creatures that we can get all our spiritual business done in such a short time too. It is also quite possible that this life is it, but the more I chaw on that one the less likely it seems and the more absurd the notion seems to me. It just fails the common sense test.

It may be, as the Hindus and Buddhists suggest, that our cycle of life is endless and there is no way to escape it, unless we master the concepts of The Buddha and detach from all materialism and then, as I understand it, enter Nirvana and escape into nothingness.

Clearly our existence is a mixed bag. It is full of wonderful joys and horrors that make Hell look like an improvement. It is strange that the same country that could annihilate millions of Jews (not to mention lots of other races and cultures) could also produce Beethoven. In short this world is what we make of it and it is as good as the sum of our collective actions. We can make it a paradise or we can make it a hell. It’s up to us, and how well we organize and how well we communicate our values and live by them. You might say it is something like a classroom, or a simulator even. If that is the case then “Life on earth IS purgatory” is a pretty good analogy.

Perhaps, as some of these metaphysical books I’ve been reading suggest, we choose the lives we lead and the bodies we inhabit in order to learn specific spiritual lessons. I remember thinking in my teens “I didn’t ask to be born”. But perhaps I did ask to be born and I need the kind of experiences I’ve had to evolve as quickly as possible from one form of spiritual being to the next. Perhaps I selected, or at least approved, the body and the life I choose to inhabit.

Admittedly this analogy gets hard to understand sometimes. Why would someone choose to be a victim of Nazi gas chambers? Here perhaps is where my analogy breaks down. But the motivations of a soul may be far different than that of the body. If we are immortal then the form of death doesn’t really matter in the long run.