The Burning Cathedral
It was lifelong process —
not a growing as much as a shrinking.
Shrinking that big shadow from that giant burning Cathedral
until it no longer felt like shade,
no longer shielded me from the scorching fear,
until it didn’t suffocate me with comfortable assumptions,
until it became simple darkness.
The black hole of superstition that swallows everything
and calls itself light.
The edifice of tradition hiding the lack of wisdom.
The substitute of dogma for fact.
The looming non-answer of faith.
The unlikely story told over and over
until I could recite it by heart.
But I finally stepped out of its shadow
and found the world did not crumble to ashes,
I did not die,
I had escaped the fire.
The Beginning of Memory
The world began for me
the day my Momma beat me
because I spilled my milk.
She threw me out of my chair
and smacked my head against the cool kitchen floor.
Then she put my plate there
and made me eat off of it.
I remember the mashed potatoes swimming in milk
like mountains after a flood.
(This is my first memory on earth.)
She told me over and over I was a dirty filthy boy, a bad boy.
Later, it was dark, and I was still crying.
She held a wet dishtowel full of ice cubes against the lump on my head,
rocked me in the rocker
and whispered soothingly.
What can a four-year-old learn from that?
The First No
Then there was Church
and the angry priest who barked a homily at 8 o’clock Mass
and the more he scolded, the angrier I got.
And when he concluded, all red-faced and spittle,
“And you’re All going to Hell!”
Five-year-old me stood up and shouted back, “NO!!”
and cracked up the congregation at St. Christophers.
and no doubt mortified my parents.
So I had an early start as a Contrarian.
The Catholic Family
My parents were good people.
Not perfect people. Good people.
We were a large Catholic family.
They were devout.
The kids gave up chocolate for Lent.
We all recited the rosary on Good Friday
on our knees.
There is no better way to teach your children
about the virtue of torture.
Call it “holiness.” Call it “mortification.”
Call it “fasting” — the most ironic of words
for something that moves as slow as starvation.
Mom read us the Catholic Lives of The Saints.
Real inspirational, character-building stuff.
Like the one about the boy
who held the white communion host in his hand
and wouldn’t show the Roman soldiers
what he was hiding until they beat him to death.
That’s what good boys did: suffer.
Clearly Suffering was the crux.
God was that guy suffering on the crucifix.
(None of this mamby pamby Protestant “cross” stuff:
We showed the bloody wounds all year round
and we were forbidden to watch Oral Roberts healing revivals on TV.)
Then there was the week in the hospital
and missing Christmas morning
when I was 5 and really sick.
(I’ll spare you those details.)
I was convinced I was being punished
because I had been a bad boy.
It took me decades to ask one simple question:
“How bad can a five-year-old be?”
But in the hospital, in pain, and after my 15th tetanus shot,
I made a terrified bargain with god:
No Lies, No Death.
So I became honest.
and I lived.
The Good Boy
I became devout.
You know what happens to a devout boy?
He gets beat up a lot.
He tells on friends who steal candy bars
at the dime store
and they beat him up.
I was insufferable.
I was asking for it.
But Mom smiled and God understood.
I became a good boy who wanted to be a priest.
Not sure about the whole “no sex” thing,
but my life was a whole “no sex” thing
so it wasn’t like I was giving up anything.
That didn’t last long.
Jesus. My personal Lord and Savior
Within 5 years I was molested by a priest
went to the Seminary,
got my girlfriend pregnant,
and was drafted into the Army to fight in Viet Nam.
(Amazing what can happen when you are spared
the facts of life and instruction on birth control.)
I got out of the Seminary (a great school with great people
and (years later I learned) a great haven for child molesters
on the faculty and in the upper classes.
I was spared a vocation of celibacy.
My girlfriend put up our child for adoption
(You can read that story here).
But my draft lottery number was very low.
The only way I got out of Viet Nam (unlike several friends)
was by being a new Christian and a Conscientious Objector.
I also got a 4-F rating which meant I was too nuts to serve
and too dangerous to risk alternative service —
(Mopping floors in a psych ward).
I mean, it’s not bone spurs, but it’s damn lucky.
My jaunty tone here should not hide the fact
that I was more terrified and suicidal than the typical college freshman.
I found solace in faith. I found I still believed in a god
who could spare me from celibacy, combat and marriage.
I met some Jesus People.
They hugged a boy who had never been hugged by
anyone in his family in his life (read that again).
They were great hugs. Thanks, buds — I needed that.
They said this was Jesus Love.
They were nice people.
And they gave me all the words for what I was missing.
Mercy. Joy. Forgiveness. Blessing.
and continually: Praise.
Praise seemed to be the trick: the answer to anything.
No matter what happened, Praise The Lord.
If you repeated the praise “Alleluia, etc.,”
it began to sound like God deserved it.
And if you held up your hands, palms to the sky,
tilted back your head and closed your eyes,
you could convince yourself you were receiving a lot of blessings.
But after 8 years of credulous praise I began to notice
how the Jesus people seemed desperate and afraid.
“That’s how it crumbles, cookie-wise”
I’ll never forget a lecture by a clearly gay priest
(I’ve been surrounded by them; I have radar.)
in the basement of a House of Prayer
and his articulate dismissal of homosexuals,
and the gasps from all the old ladies when I asked from the back:
“Who are they hurting?”
Clearly, they knew what god wanted.
No gays. No unmarried sex. No abortion.
No thinking. (That was C.S. Lewis’ job.)
Just praying and fasting and hugs and love.
Man, the praise was like a butter you spread over everything.
Corn on the cob. Toast. Steak. Facts.
It meant God was great no matter what.
The Devil in the Details
But the details kept bugging me.
You know: like bugs.
Did Christians really know what God wanted?
Seems like lots of different people
believed lots of different things about god,
just as fervently, just as confidently.
I started questioning their dogma, their assumptions,
their stack of assumptions that rose high above me,
buttressed by tradition, habit, Bach, incense
and some, admittedly, superb architecture.
A pyramid of cards balancing precariously on each other…
until you moved just one card.
Speaking in tongues. Celibacy. Gay marriage. Prophecy. Miracles.
Honestly? You swallow one miracle and the rest go down easily.
But you swallow one bug, and you don’t forget it.
Then the foundation shifted.
and I started to really ask questions.
God was a man and a God?
God was a Father and a son and a ghost?
Mary got pregnant but didn’t have sex?
God can’t die?
But he sorta died?
Jesus rose from the dead (unlike anyone you know)?
And we all will, too!?
Because he died. And we will live forever.
We only seem to die.
Doesn’t it all sound ridiculous once you say it out loud?
Once you stop praising for a second.
But, for me, finally, the Big Cookie crumbling
was the big idea at the heart of it.
The ancient idea so absurd nobody talked about it.
They made it a First Principle
so they could slide it past us quickly.
“For God so loved the world he gave his only son…”
Sacrifice — the word that means “to make sacred.”
But his sacrifice meant that we were so wretched and disgusting
god had to kill and torture his only son.
To clean the slate. To purify us.
I kept hearing my Momma acting that out.
Sacrifice only made sense to me if you could imagine yourself doing it.
I couldn’t. Especially after my first child was born.
The story of Abraham and Isaac became something
other than a parable about Obedience.
Holding my newborn son in my arms, it became a horror story.
I could not conceive of a world where that was necessary.
Then slowly, like tinder catching the flame bit by bit,
none of it made any sense.
Lotsa suffering to end suffering forever?
We eat god’s body and blood?
Starving doesn’t make you crabby, it makes you holy?
Suffering is either purifying or a great mystery?
In any case god won the suffering prize so Shuttup.
Priests couldn’t have sex but they could fuck children?
The Church didn’t banish them; they covered it up
and turned them loose on a whole new batch of kids.
All over the world. Kids like me.
The next to final straw was the day I was strolling around
The Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan —
Home of the famous Radio Priest, Father Coughlin
who, in the 1930’s, was a very loud voice for fascists and anti-semites
before The Church silenced him.
Forty years later
I had been a devout evangelical for nearly a decade:
praying and singing in the music ministry in Father Coughlin’s church:
a stunning international Shrine which he had built
by collecting donations from around the planet
(after the KKK burned down his original wooden church).
You can walk a circle around the stone altar
and admire that artistry of stained glass, statuary,
engraved cornerstones and painted shields
each representing all the countries that contributed to this monument.
I was enjoying the architecture when I spotted something.
I had never seen that before.
Wow, I thought, nobody knows it’s there. I’m the first to see it!
Then a chill ran through me.
Forty years since it was built and I’m the only one who saw this?
No, I thought. No, I concluded.
People prayed by the swastika, sat at Mass beside the swastika,
knelt next to the swastika, shushed their children by the swastika.
Of course they saw it. Everyone saw it.
They didn’t care.
Fr. Coughlin built this church praising the policies of Hitler and Mussolini.
Of course, they knew.
If you visit the shrine today you will see Germany represented by a
black eagle on a red shield. (See Above).
That was my contribution.
Like a good boy, I told the pastor (an old friend) about it.
And he had the swastika painted over a few days later.
After all my Catholicism crumbled
I became a Science Fiction writer,
which accommodated my sense that
the universe, while wondrous and strange,
ultimately had an explanation.
Jung’s ideas seemed to provide me
a framework to understand myself, the psyche
and the cosmos — a web of continual patterns
spun into archetypes. The Hero. The Shadow, etc.
That worked for a while as a sort of substitute religion.
The human journey was one of consciousness
unpacking the mysteries of our past, our traumas,
understanding the ghosts that were controlling our machine.
But that failed too and I became an alcoholic.
Why couldn’t I stop drinking?
I couldn’t stop drinking because I was an alcoholic.
I’m Irish. I come from a family of alcoholics;
it’s amazing that I held out that long.
I came very close to destroying myself.
Sobriety saved my life but not my marriage.
(It probably revealed what a toxic thing it had become.
I doubt I could have managed it without drinking.)
Sobriety became my new faith; I learned to believe.
It was a painful wakeup process;
all the feelings you’ve repressed come back to visit you.
The Twelve Steps are like Scrooge’s Christmas Eve ghosts.
Many feel like death. The one with the black cloak and boney fingers.
But the others are hearty dames and fellows.
Angels of sorts. With burning swords.
They speak in the voices of broken people who sit in a circle.
People without last names in a dingy excuse for a church.
There’s coffee and donuts and you can smoke outside.
At first you think: these are people you’d never be caught dead with.
They are Other. Their hands tremble and they look haunted.
Obviously you’re not like them. They’re losers.
You just had a run of bad luck. You just had a beer too many.
Then they speak. They speak plain truth.
Not gussied up with pretty words and advertising promises.
They are the opposite of all the bullshit your addiction
has been filling your ears with for years.
They are so sensible, so practical.
They say: I’m powerless. I’m insane. I can’t do this alone. I got help.
I apologized. I make amends. I try to help others. I use my higher power.
What higher power? you ask.
Pick one: It doesn’t matter, they say.
Like I said: Sensible.
It wasn’t easy. But I listened. I got a good therapist.
I thanked whoever was listening for my sobriety every night.
I asked for another day of sobriety every morning.
That one day at a time thing? Try it sometime.
The secret is that it’s true: you only live one day at a time.
Today I go into a bar and a buddy says, “Don’t you want a drink?”
No, I say, “I want all of them.
There’s not enough alcohol in this whole bar for me.”
That doesn’t make sense, he says.
You’re not an alcoholic, I say. We’re insane.
I haven’t had a drink in 21 years.
I really don’t feel like I’m missing anything.
Or sacrificing anything.
Sobriety is understanding that at any moment
you could destroy yourself.
And choosing the simple misery of a bad day
is something of a miracle
when you’ve fallen for the grand lie of inebriation.
I don’t feel like a saved man.
I feel like a drunk who stumbled into a hole.
And found he wasn’t alone down there.
You can call that divine intervention.
I call it sobriety. The gift that keeps on giving.
All that was left was love. Not religion. Not god really.
Strangely love still made sense.
I hung with love for a long time.
I sifted the magical stuff out of god (he was lower case now)
and declared the impulse to believe was a desire for love.
A love we either never had or one we lost somewhere along the line.
Love became what I believed in.
Maybe we incarnate the transcendent, universal desire to love,
the impulse to rise above our failings and do good, be kind.
It’s a nice thought.
For decades I retained the idea that there is a force
in the universe which compels us to love,
to care for one another, to do good —
for after all — don’t we all share that? Want that?
Where on earth did that come from?
And every night I went to sleep
praying for my loved ones. My wife and children.
Clinging to the holy quantum science of action at a distance.
Hoping that somehow maybe the mere impulse of good will
would extend across the miles, to touch them, and make a difference.
I was not naive. I could see the failures of humans. And myself.
But I had something like hope for them.
That the best of us could change the world.
That was the last religion I ever believed in.
And then my country elected a man
without goodness, qualifications or intelligence
— a man with no redeeming qualities. None.
A liar. A bully. An assaulter. A con. A fraud.
A billionaire with a golden pile of loot and a trophy immigrant wife.
And a ton of attitude.
A man who when Christians prayed for him
puckered his face into the absolutely worst imitation of solemnity
I’ve ever seen. And, believe me: I’ve seen a few.
I watched my old Christian brothers and sisters praise him.
Praise him, as if he were an answer to all their prayers.
Sixty Four million of my fellow Americans
thought that This was God’s Guy.
And the only sacrifice they had to make
was brown people, poor people, gay people, foreign people, weird people,
kids shot dead in classrooms, our burning planet and women
— you know: The Others. The different ones. The nasty ones.
The ones who aren’t blessed.
The ones who said the wrong magic words.
The ones just asking for hell.
So I lost all faith in faith.
I saw the true face behind the bloody veil of Church.
I lost hope in magical forces
that would rescue us in the nick of time.
I lost the faith in the last remnants of my Mother’s faith
as I lost faith in my Mother.
Abruptly. I knew: I could never trust her again.
But I never stopped loving her. Never.
Imagine living with what she did to me.
No wonder she believed in a forgiving god.
Knowing she was not the saint that everyone else took her to be
did not make me love her any less.
I hope my children feel the same.
In the end we don’t really choose who we love. It happens to us.
But I finally said, No.
This is not something to praise.
This is something you run away from.
Or something you must turn and face
like a tank interrupting your shopping.
This is the start of a battle.
It’s the battle for what is real and true and just
and everything else that is not.
I am alone. You are alone. We are alone.
And nobody’s coming.
It’s up to us.
And today the closest thing I got
to what you might call god
is the face of a beautiful person
who says No.
I will stand against this darkness.
Because as long as it stands
it will burn all of us.
It is the opposite of god.
And if there’s one thing I know,
it’s that I don’t believe in that.