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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: That Certain Undefinable “Something”

Cathbook    I knew I was in trouble the minute that I had to define “faith.” I knew the definition I had learned when I was 11 watching Miracle on 34th Street, “Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” but somehow I knew that wouldn’t fly as it pertained to the Catholic Church.

Two days ago my latest book, The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism was published and as I celebrate this accomplishment, I have had several people ask me some of my thoughts on the writing of it now that some time has passed. As I have said before – and will repeat time and time again – the fact that I was even asked to do this is proof positive that God has a sense of humor. After all, I was the one with all the questions…who was I to start offering answers?

One of the things that surprised me the most in writing this book was how little I felt I DID know…even the definitions that I had memorized fell apart under scrutiny leading me to wonder more that I care to admit if some of the things I professed to believe were nothing more than a game with words. Think I am kidding? Try defining “sacrament.” Go ahead…I’ll wait…

Chances are, you learned some variation of the same definition that I did: “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inner grace.” Wonderful, but what does it mean and how do you explain it to someone brand new to the Church if you aren’t even sure you understand it yourself? I don’t mind telling you that I  spent hours trying to pick that one apart until I felt like a dog chasing its own tail and finally called a former religion teacher to try and get her to explain it to me in plain and simple terms. “If you know of a way to do that, you tell me!” She retorted. (Somehow I wasn’t comforted.)

We eventually figured it out, and the explanation is in the book, but it wasn’t easy. Neither was writing a brief history of God. Although He  has quite an impressive list of accomplishments to his credit, God’s actual biography is more than a  little hard to track down. Don’t even get me started on that kid of His. FOUR men tried to put the life and works of Jesus in to writing  and could only agree on two things: that He was baptized by John the Baptist and was ultimately crucified by Pontius Pilate. (Yes, there are other similarities within the Gospels but I am focusing on what all four attest to.) As for the Holy Spirit…well, I admitted that this part is the hardest to grasp and offered a less-than-helpful anecdote involving St. Patrick and the shamrock. Beyond that, you’re on your own.

Heaven, Hell and all that might be in between were another fun section I battled with. While I understand the concept of Purgatory, I am one of those weird Catholics that is not sure she believes in it. (But I’ll save that saga for another post.) As for the process by which someone enters these various locations…there seem to be a lot of loopholes. I was told as a child that good people, of course, go to Heaven while bad people went to Hell. It seemed pretty cut and dry to me early on but then the questions started. Why do you have to be Baptized to go to Heaven? What if you were a baby who just died suddenly? Well of course God would look out for them. What about a mentally disturbed person who killed someone but didn’t go to confession? Would God have mercy on them? What about all of the countless stupid-but-not-too-awful things I did throughout my life? Did reconciliation really wipe those away or am I going to have to answer to a highlight reel of all my shortcomings on Judgement Day? What about Hitler? What happened to him? (This is the go-to bad guy most of us assume didn’t make the cut for Heaven and who we assume we have a better chance than for admittance.)

My point is that writing this book was HARD! Harder than anything I have ever done in my whole life. Like it or not I was forced to confront all of my cynicism, make peace with it and find a way to take everything I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain and….somehow find a way.

There were subjects I wanted to tackle, like saints and Mary, for example. I never understood what is so hard to grasp about all of that, but it is a sticking spot for some people and I really wanted to try and make sense of it all. After all, my father was Baptist, and while I am sure that he had his reservations about it, he never told me that I was wrong or that I was worshipping false idols. I really tried to step out of my comfort zone on that chapter and look at the whole thing from another point of view. Maybe if I wasn’t Catholic it would look weird to see a guy who was alive only a decade ago canonized on live TV and revered by billions of people as if he were something other than human.

But there were also subjects I wanted to avoid like the plague…one in particular that I kept successfully dodging until I could not sidestep it any longer. For weeks I felt like a slime ball for not facing it head on and at one point I wondered if I might take the cowards way out and eliminate it completely. I don’t mind telling you, if I had…it would have been my biggest regret. However, one morning last spring the perfect opportunity presented itself and thanks to one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen, God showed me how I could be “Both” true to the Church, “And” true to all that I believed in.

That’s the only hint you are getting…read the book and you’ll figure it out.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism is available wherever books are sold including:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/idiots-guides-unknown/1119619022?ean=9781615647194

 

 

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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: “Julie is ready to be baptized”

VBS Jesus     It was all my cousin’s fault that I started attending Vacation Bible School at my father’s church in the first place. She was spending a few nights with my grandmother and going to VBS so she invited me to come along. We were like Frick and Frack and when she told me how much fun she was having, of course I wanted to go along too.

So the very next day, we were sitting together in a pew singing The B-I-B-L-E song…I loved that tune. There is a lot of stand up/sit down action in that song and…hey, I’m a Catholic…so you know I can totally do that! When the pastor’s wife asked if anyone had brought a friend with them that day, my cousin jumped up and said “I brought my cousin with me, Mrs. Chapman!” which resulted in a huge smile from the pastor’s wife and a special sticker for my cousin’s special evangelization efforts. I narrowed my eyes  suspecting that my cousin was less interested in my theological development as she was about sucking up to the Lady in Charge.

But whatever. We had to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian flag. Neither my cousin nor I had ever heard of this practice. She attended public school and wasn’t overly religious while I started every morning with the traditional Pledge, a quick Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be so neither one of us were familiar with the words and had to mumble through 95 percent of it.

The rest of the morning was spent learning the special VBS song, making our crafts, having a snack and learning about Jesus of course. I couldn’t help noticing that as we listened to the Gospel stories and discussed them as a group, I was one of the few kids who tended offer a lot of input to the conversation. I would bring up a LOT of different things, ask questions and give responses that boggled our teacher’s minds. I remember my cousin asking me “How do you know all of that stuff?”

“Religion class,” I shrugged.

“Well the teachers sure are impressed with you,” she noted.

It appeared that way and boy, did those teachers beam at me later in the week when the Pastor’s Wife took a moment to offer  one last solemn prayer just before the end of VBS Ice Cream Social and ask if there was anyone present who “wanted Jesus to be in their hearts forever.”

I was stumped. Wasn’t He already there? What kind of guy was He to leave me hanging like that? Here I am going to a Catholic school, attending Mass each week and praying to Him and He isn’t even THERE yet?? Well,  I wasn’t going to wait a minute longer. I looked at my cousin and nodded and we both raised our hands. The Pastor’s wife called us up to the altar along with a few other kids (I was surprised that there were not more people getting in on this deal…after all, this was JESUS we were talking about!) and took us off into another room to discuss Jesus’ life and ministry while everyone else went outside to eat half-melted ice cream in little plastic pods with tiny wooden paddles. (Yes, I seriously questioned the fairness of this in my head.)

I don’t remember the exact line of questioning, but I do remember Mrs. Chapman asking me why I wanted a personal relationship with Christ and my offering a very long, drawn-out, parochial school child answer. I’m sure I mentioned something about how God made us and wanted us to belong to Him forever, that Jesus sacrificed Himself for me and that I couldn’t take something like that for granted, etc…She had to think that she hit pay dirt with me. LOL Finally she taught me some little prayer in which I was supposed to “invite” the Lord in…as a girl who was a little more accustomed to elaborate rituals this was a bit….simple, but hey…simple can be good.

It didn’t matter. Me and JC were good to go and I happily skipped off to get my ice cream. (I have no clue how my cousin did in the cross examination.) I didn’t give it another thought until a few days later when someone from my father’s church called my mother and said, “We feel that Julie is ready to be baptized.”

“WHAT???” My mother said. I recall her sending me to my room while she and my father gently explained to the well-meaning person on the other end that I was already baptized and a practicing Catholic. When they got off the phone, my mother rounded on me. “What on earth did you tell them to make them think you wanted to be baptized?” She demanded.

“I never told them that I wanted to be baptized,” I countered. “I did that two years ago, remember?”

“So what happened?” My father asked. “Did they say something to you about it?”

I shook my head and then remembered the prayer session. “They asked me if I wanted Jesus in my heart and I said yes, but what’s so wrong with that???”

My father groaned, realizing what had to have occurred. He assured me that I had done nothing wrong but told me not to worry and that Jesus was already there. I didn’t have to go say a special prayer for that. “So if you are ever asked about that again, don’t worry about it and don’t answer the Altar Call.”

I wasn’t completely sure what an Altar Call was, but I was glad that I wasn’t in any trouble and that I was not going to have to endure the dreaded “Dunk” (aka a Baptist Baptism.) I don’t tell this story to bash my late father’s religion or its practices. To the contrary, I am proud that they offered the opportunity to the VBS kids, I just wish I would have known what that whole thing was about before putting my parents in an uncomfortable situation. Still, I can’t help wondering how bummed my father’s church was not to score the child prodigy who waxed ideology in Bible class  and answered deep, theological questions just like she was a 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple…

Of course if I recall the story correctly…His parents put the kibosh on His plans as well.

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