Monday, March 21, 2011

That's Me in the Corner


More often than I'd like to admit, I miss the church.

There was no single moment when my faith--in Jesus, the Trinity, the resurrection of souls--died. It was more like a receding tide. The water slowly crawled away from the land, and when it was time for it to make the gradual march back toward the shore, the moon fell out of the sky, and the water became stuck in place.

In some ways I'm still a Catholic, even if I've stopped attending mass and receiving sacraments. Even if I stopped believing in any kind of God.When the tide goes out, shells and seaweed are left stranded on the sand, where they dry and bleach in the sun. There are remains.

There is that sense of justice, that power should be redistributed from the powerful to the meek.

There is that notion that redemption, be is supernatural or secular, is earned through good works; action trumping proclamation.

There is guilt. Always guilt. If something bad happens, chances are, we brought it on ourselves.

And there is a kind of certainty in our smallness. Doubts, questions, the fracturing of faith; these sins were forgivable because of the tininess of our human scale. God and heaven eclipsed time and space. Of course our human minds found theistic existence impossible to comprehend. We lack the proper frame of reference. Our world is confined to the phenomena our senses perceive; what our eyes see, ears hear, tongues taste, fingers touch. By the capacity for our hearts to hold love. God the Father is big and we his children are small. That's why the multiple incarnations of the Trinity: in order to understand his wishes, God needs to step down to our level, He must inhabit a burning bush, a gust of wind, or a boy carpenter.

This is the flotsam left in the wake of my receding faith. They are the bones of my belief, but during hard times they begin to glow with life, and beckon me back. It's a brutal fight I have to wage against them, and there is always a little less of me whenever it ends, even though I've won each time, if the outcome of such a struggle can ever be considered a victory.

The first true test was my uncle's funeral, five years ago. He requested that I act as a pallbearer, along with my brothers and male cousins. At his funeral mass, our place was in the first pew, nothing but red carpet between us and the altar, my uncle's widow and his two daughters behind us. When the time came to receive the host, I stayed behind while my brothers and cousins left.  I'd always liked my uncle, my mother's oldest brother. He'd been kind and funny and generous. He'd married a good woman and raised two awesome daughters. He suffered through a lot of pain because he didn't want to leave them behind. He wanted a Catholic burial because that was what he believed in. And because I didn't, I wasn't about to insult him by pretending, putting on a show of a ritual. It wasn't an act of defiance that kept me seated in the pew, and that's how I knew. And that's how it has been.


I had another test this past Sunday, a week from yesterday. Wife miscarried for the second time in four months. She bled so bad I drove her to the emergency room at Quincy Medical. They didn't have the facilities to help her, so doctors had her transferred to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston in an ambulance.That was where she delivered our son. In the emergency room at Brigham's, a resident did an exam. We hoped that with all the blood she'd lost at home, QM and in route, the D and C procedure that had been necessary the first time could be avoided. Judging from what the resident told us and the look on the face of the nurse, "the material" was very close to coming out. Wife was moved out of the ER, up five floors to labor and delivery triage unit, five rooms down from the first room she was checked in while in labor with Boy.  An OB doctor did another check, hoping he could remove everything right there. He couldn't. At least for this D and C, Wife was drugged so well she doesn't remember anything and I was spared being present in the room while it happened. We got home at 430 Monday morning. Wife is in fine health. In two weeks we visit her OB and try to figure out what happened.

Men don't pay the physical or emotional price women do in reproduction. But there is a cost for us. Mine is this:

As I was waiting in triage room 5 on the 5th floor, alone, Wife was in the operating room, all I could picture was this tiny, twelve week old baby, curled into itself and soaked in blood, be taken from her body, with an expression of pain etched into the tiny features of its face. And all I could wonder is how everything could be so wrong.

Because of the first miscarriage, we had an ultrasound done at 8 weeks. We saw a heartbeat. The midwife told us that if you see the heartbeat this early the chance of miscarriage is reduced by about 97%. But forget that: when Wife started spotting on Friday night, and after a midwife couldn't hear the heartbeat on Saturday morning, I had a feeling that the baby was going to be OK. Right up until Wife doubled over with cramps for an hour before the bleeding came, I knew the baby was going to be fine. This was going to be a special kid, and after he was born (I was also sure it was another boy) we'd look back at all this and say, "See? We should have known he was going to be special, surviving what he did before he was even out!"  I'd told my mother and sister about this feeling. In my heart, I'd been 100% certain of it. So what the fuck went so wrong this time? Why did this baby, who I was sure was going to make it, not survive?


Of course, I know that there will be a scientific reason for this miscarriage. After we learned about the first one, the OB informed us that 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Often it is the woman's body protecting itself from a biological hazard. Difficult pregnancies are hard to survive. The species can't propagate if the most important half of the reproductive duo is lost. Nature is frugal in her calculations, if cold.

Or it could be something else. Maybe each of us have a recessive gene. Maybe Wife's thyroid is blame. Maybe, maybe, maybe times a thousand. There are reasons I don't even know about, I'm sure.  That "feeling" I had? Probably wishful thinking, or denial, or whatever else we like to call the mechanisms the merciful subconsciousness employs to keep us stable in times of stress. It doesn't mean I'm no longer tethered to reality or have come unhinged. Just the opposite. My mind can adapt explanations and emotions to keep me going through stressful situations. My brain can create for me a path to survival. Again, the gears and levers of nature going about their functions.

The only problem are those petrified remains on the beach of my soul. As rational as I want to be, they push me toward an explanation that defies reproductive biology and neuroscience and the power of adaptation and self-preservation. There is a whisper of the smallness, that everything happens for a reason. Or, as the ER nurse so kindly put it just before Wife was wheeled to the elevator, "There's not a leaf that falls from a tree if isn't God's Will."

Before Catholics receive communion, we say this prayer, together, as the priest stands at the altar and holds the transubstantiated bread above his head. "Lord," goes the refrain, "I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." At every opportunity the faithful are proclaiming their insignificance before God, and it is a comfort to them, that they are but small motes in the face of a higher form of consciousness.

Lately, that is what I miss. Holocausts, earthquakes, breast cancer, wars, miscarriages, poverty, calamity of every kind; I want to renounce the rational reasons for them all--resource scarcity, group-psychology, plate tectonics, cellular science--and embrace the expansive largeness of God and admit my own feeble grasp of His plans. 

I wish I could go back to time when I could just sit in a pew, inhale the fragrance of burning incense, chant in time with brother and sister parishioners, close my eyes, open my heart and watch my questions and doubts float with the sweet-smelling churls of smoke into the air above the apse, toward God, who should know what to do with them.


  1. When I read this, I was listening to A Secret Gift and thinking a lot about the Great Depression and what seems to have motivated people then. It is difficult the way that listening to A Christmas Carol--which the author references--is difficult. It calls into question everything that I call faith, which despite its label of Catholicism feels too fraught, too complicated, and too frail to withstand much scrutiny.

    Faith is for the times when reason fails us. It doesn't matter much whether your faith is religious or literary or scientific; it just matters that you keep looking for a way to make peace with the world you live in and what it gives you to cope with. In a way, I think that academics spend a lot of time on rational reasons so that we don't have to keep our souls healthy; we talk about feeding our souls with our work, but how many of us have healthy souls as a result of what we do? I know the bright line between what I do that I consider a mitzvah, and what I do that really improves my life. Nor are truly irrational people the best advertisements for a faith-driven life; they tend to be charlatans. Somewhere in the murky middle is where those of us with the courage not to be followers but too many questions to be leaders must find our way.

    Keep looking, John. Surrender is one way, but not the only way.

  2. This is beautifully written Johnny. Thank you for sharing it with us, even though I wish with all my heart that this story didn't exist for you to write.

  3. this is beautiful john. love you guys.