For Chris and Caity, who seemingly survived the side-effects of my spiritual journey. This is where I am with God, and how I got here.
The most intriguing aspect of any spiritual journey is that, quite simply, there are no rules. We each get to decide how much, or how little our religious beliefs, lunar cycles, family traditions, birth order, or disposable incomes influence the way we think about what our purpose in life is, and how we relate to this thing called “God”. One thing for certain is there will always be those who ‘believe’ their path is the only “true path”; and those, who have found true contentment in the journey.
My experience suggests that spiritual journeys are best shared only with those who inquire about them. Family members and close friends, unfortunately, seldom enjoy the benefits of this suggestion. More often than not, the spiritual seeker takes hostages – andwhipsaws them through mountain-side hairpin turns and epic elevation changes at break-neck speed. Such was the experience in my household in 1994 when, at age 35, I was diagnosed with advanced stage Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
First, I need to introduce my bride, Leigh, a grizzled survivor of my spiritual truth-seeking. She has managed to not only keep our family intact through this roller-coaster ride, she continues to practice, and grow in, her own Christian faith without the “big bang” epiphanies that have dominated my ride. In fact every time I come across yet another “Ultimate Truth”, she smiles, shakes her head and calmly suggests I be quarantined for a minimum of 90 days.
Even beyond the delicate balance of power in any marriage – Leigh’s influence on my spiritual path is ever-present. She is not of the clanging gong “born again” variety – she simply never died. She is far less interested in convincing people who have different ideas, than she is in looking at how much Christianity has changed in her lifetime, and what it may look like in another 200 years. Many Christians give Jesus a bad name. Leigh is not one of them. She has consistently demonstrated support for my journeyman approach without compromising her own journey.
She recently shared this with me:
God had decided He was going to share the Ultimate Truth with all of humanity. He sent an angel down with a glass sphere holding the Ultimate Truth. As the angel descended, the sphere was dropped to the earth and smashed into a million little slivers.
We went on to discuss and surmise that perhaps the biggest challenge facing humanity is that while individually we each only have a sliver of the truth, we often act as if we have the entire sphere.
With that in mind, I now set out to share synoptic glimpses of my journey through the prism of my sliver as I understand it today, with the full expectation that my understanding will continue to evolve. I am entirely comfortable with the notion that evolution is not always progress, and that my perspective is quite possibly ‘wronger’ than yours.
My first recollection of competitive religion came in the late 1960’s while living on a military base in Germany. I was 10 or 11 years old. We were at the height of the Cold War, always fearful of the imminent attack by the Russian Army. The base chapel served as the host for not only Catholic Mass, but also Protestant services. Until that point I didn’t know there was any other religion but Catholicism. As I recall, my religious training had been about Holy Communion, where I ate and drank the body and blood of Christ, and Confirmation, here I became a soldier in God’s Army. Regular attendance of CCD classes was mandatory in our family, although I do recall “being excused” if we volunteered to help ‘Father Jack’ pack up cassocks and Catholic literature to be smuggled to struggling Catholics behind the Iron Curtain. This seemed like important clandestine work for God’s young soldiers, plus it had the added benefit of getting me out of that silly classroom.
I don’t recall many formal discussions on the topic of Catholics versus Protestants, but I was able to draw some important conclusions. I knew this was a really tricky topic and it shouldn’t be discussed openly. After all, some of these boys were my teammates. Plus their dads were in the same military as my dad. There was one thing, however, that did stick with me. A friends religion could be determined by one datapoint; brand of toothpaste. Catholics used Crest, and Protestants, Pepsodent. I don’t recall which scientific sampling method was employed, but I know I it was straight forward and easy to remember. Most importantly, I believed it.
The “two-party” religious system firmly rooted in my mind was not without its bumps in the road. During this timeframe it had become fashionable for professional athletes, like Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor, to convert to some religion called ‘Islam’ because they were against killing. Really? What kind of bullshit religion doesn’t celebrate the willingness to sacrifice ones life in order to convert non-believers? It just seemed preposterous; particularly watching Mohammed Ali beat the shit out all those boxers. There was also the question of the Jews who survived the holocaust. Living in Germany we were very sensitive to the atrocities of World War II, and the near eradication of the Jewish population. I understood there were a few Jews remaining, wandering in small groups, like gypsies, heading to Israel where everybody in the world agreed they could have a country. Since this was the birthplace of Jesus, I naturally assumed they would see the light, and convert. So there we have it, by age 12, I understood a simple two-party system of Catholics vs. Protestants.
We moved from Germany to Hawaii where I attended Catholic schools from 8-12th grades. It was the ‘70’s, it was Hawaii, I was a teenager playing sports and focused on developing my social and interpersonal skills. Although I would learn to deliver the party line on weighty issues such as transubstantiation, abortion, the works of Father Damien, and Papal Authority, it was always in the context of a Catholic vs. Protestant discussion. I was never trained to attack any faith other than the Protestants.
So this is how, in 1977, I entered adulthood. The two-party system is all I knew about God and spirituality.
Leigh and I married in 1981. By this time I had realized my perspective of the global religious landscape was somewhat limited. Leigh had been raised in the Lutheran church (apparently there were several Protestant ‘sub-religions’?), and her family’s toothpaste of choice was Colgate. This discovery alone rocked the very foundation of my belief system and nearly caused my head to explode. I had no idea what else lay in store for me.
Getting sober in 1988 kicked off my spiritual quest in earnest. I heard a lot of talk about people getting sober through a personal relationship with a higher power. I felt like I was back in high school with everybody else talking about “going steady”, and I wasn’t. All I knew was I just didn’t want to be left behind, and alone. I immediately began to incorporate prayer,spiritual reading, retreats, and even a return to my Catholic roots and daily Mass. Other than not drinking and not wrecking any more cars, this seemed to have had a fairly benign impact on my family. That would soon change.
It was in September 1994, when diagnosed with Stage III-B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, that I immersed myself, and by default, my family, into new depths of spiritual seeking. My children were 8 and 9 years old. With my diagnosis, not surprisingly, I became entirely open to a wide range of healing practices and modalities for pursuing a physical cure. I had even joined Leigh’s church.
Somewhere along the line the seed had been planted in my now richly religious mind that if I were troubled about anything, I could “just open up the Bible, and the answer would be there”. I was somewhat conflicted by this. As a Catholic I’m not sure I was ever allowed to actually read “The Bible”. As I understood, the Vatican would choose the readings that were necessary and had them printed in the Mass bulletin. I didn’t think it was a really real sin, just a minor one, like eating a burger on Friday or sneaking the holy wine with the other Altar boys. Leigh had a bible or two in the house, although I never recall her reading it (or even thumping it). But desperate situations called for desperate measures; and this qualified. It is with this basis I found myself after a couple of weeks of chemotherapy, lying awake and alone one night.
So with some trepidation, I picked up Leigh’s bible, and bravely, just opened it up;
If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.
Could I get that cross-stitched and framed?
Then I then remembered that the back half of the Bible was supposed to have a kinder, gentler God, (or God 2.0). So I flipped to the back and tried again. This is what I got:
In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
Jesus throwing a temper tantrum? Really?
While I clearly did not possess the gift of randomly selecting appropriate bible verses, I could barely wait for morning to share the results of this experiment. Leigh, Chris and Caity were stunned by both the enthusiasm and the content of my early morning rehash of my early morning exercise. This would only be the first of many bible-driven harangues I would inflict upon my loved ones during that strained period.
I have grown fond of several scriptures; Paul’s dissertation on love often read at weddings is a terrific example. I find many of the psalmist pieces wonderfully comforting. The most dramatic synchronicity linking Bible verse and my direct experience came about later, after the second round of chemo and the first X-rays since diagnosis. I had prayed for a dramatic decrease in the tumor size. Unfortunately for my family – the prayer was answered. The next afternoon while parading the physical proof of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures, my office manager showed me the bible quote from her daily calendar:
Pray and ask for what you need; believe you have received it, and it shall be yours.
Although I did it backwards (finding the quote after the ‘answered prayer’), I became absolutely convinced that I was rewarded physically because of the divine conflux of my raw (although previously underappreciated) intellectual powers, superior spiritual talents, and pristine moral righteousness. Quite candidly, I was just plain special. I had the X-rays mounted and framed, and embarked on a mission of spreading the word; the Gospel according to Pat!
My poor, poor family. To this day I consider it a real miracle they even call me on my birthday.
An important part of my mission was the written word. More importantly, specific words became very important. Since the House of the Prophet Pat had witnessed a miracle (please bear in mind early results are nice morale boosters, but generally shouldn’t be classified as miracles!) , it was mandated in my house that with God all things are possible; therefore, the words ‘unbelievable’ and ‘impossible’ were deemed blasphemous, sacrilegious, and punishable by an angry, self-righteous lecture. I forbade my wife and children from using these words.
Can you imagine? Thank God I still have a family!
Now, I’m on the other side of the coin. Today I find it is the word “believe” that blocks my spiritual growth and healing. Where ideas enable one to make sense of daily life on a spiritual plane, ‘beliefs’ proactively mark a territory, and declare, with unparalleled volume and conviction, “You are either with me – or you are against me.” There is no middle ground with ‘beliefs’. Ideas can be exchanged, challenged and debated. Changing a belief is not so easy.
Today I believe the phrase “I believe” should be removed from the spiritual vernacular. 🙂 Tomorrow – well, let’s worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
That’s my sliver and I’m stickin’ to it!