One byproduct of revamping the blog is that due to various formating issues, I’ve had to touch just about every entry again. It gives a girl a chance to rethink the blog — why I started it, what I want to do with it.
Among the many things I noticed was that although I started out with faith as a real topic on this blog (see the Fourteen Precepts in Fourteen Days series from 2003), it’s not something I’ve written about much in the last couple of years. There are a number of reasons for that, of course, and cruising through Salon last night Sara Miles‘s essay, My Daily Bread got me thinking once again about my own on-and-off relationship with the Catholic church.
Because there was a time during graduate school when I was a fully-fledged member of a parish, a lector in the Mass rotation, a person who wound up being quite good friends with a couple of the priests. This was just about the last thing I’d expected to happen to me, especially while I was in grad school up to my eyeballs in postmodern theory. I wrote a monologue for the Salt Lake Acting company about it, The Stigmata Incident — it’s linked on the left.
When I moved to Livingston, I went to Mass a few times. It’s an ordinary family parish here, with a priest from the midwest who sounds like all those diocesan priests I grew up listening to. Not a bad church, but since I wasn’t in the dire spiritual straights I’d been in grad school, I didn’t really mind much. I went a few times during advent or lent but it never became a real part of my life.
And then my brother Patrick died. Three and a half years ago I stood in a doorway of a little room in the funeral home where my younger brother lay on a gurney, naked, covered with a sheet.
His ear was torn and put back together with surgical tape. I knew, because the assistant coroner told me when he found me in my back yard, that his leg was broken and his chest was flailed. All I could see was that ear. If that’s what his ear looked like, what did the rest of him look like? I never did get much farther than that doorway. I’d seen what I’d come to see. It was Patrick. It wasn’t someone else. It was definitely him. And he was dead. They hadn’t made a mistake about that either. That grey color was dead. He wasn’t sleeping; he hadn’t gone to his eternal fucking rest; he hadn’t passed. He was dead. Inert in a way that had nothing to do with sleep.
When I lost Patrick, I lost my religion. I gave him a Catholic funeral because that’s what he wanted. He told me so. “I’m not a very good Catholic,” he said. “But it’s the only thing I am.” We had a Mass here, and then I took what was left of him back to Chicago in a box slung over my shoulder and we had another Mass there for my mother and all the people he’d known growing up.
During this whole process, I never quite got over my astonishment at how much the rituals mattered to other people. That they thought that by doing everything in a specific order we had some control over what happened to Patrick on the other side. That it mattered. One of my mother’s friends, a dear kind woman who I love like family looked at me and said, in all seriousness that I should be comforted by the knowledge that Patrick was now in heaven, with Mary and Joseph and the angels.
What are you, I wanted to ask. Five years old?
If there was one thing I learned looking at my brother on that gurney it was that he was gone. He was already wherever he was going to go and there wasn’t anything any of us could do to influence that at all. It didn’t matter what we did — whether we waved the incense over that box of ash in the right order or not — he was gone. All that stuff was just for us, to make us feel better, to make us feel like we were doing something.
It’s not that my faith has gone. What has evaporated is my ability to believe that we know anything at all about the nature of the divine. I am left with Paul’s words, words I chose for Patrick’s funeral here in Montana: “For now we see through a glass darkly.” And if I have faith, it is in my hope that Paul is right, that later we shall see face to face, that we shall know even as we are known. I may not have belief any more, but I do still have a sort of faith, even if it is only faith in mystery.
And so, because I am still interested in faith, interested in what it is that allows us to continue on in the face of the ordinary tragedies that fall into every life, I’ve left faith in the tagline. Where it belongs.