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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: The Problem With Purgatory

Purgatory-Traffic-SignI was nine-years-old before I ever heard the word “Purgatory.” I playing some elaborate pretend game with a friend of mine when she announced that her character was going to die and that she would continue to interact with my character from the hereafter. (Believe me, It made perfect sense in the context of the story and if you knew anything about the two of us at all, you would understand that we were a tad…unconventional to put it mildly. LOL)

So of course we staged this dramatic death bed scene in which I hugged her, told her character how much I would miss her and then laid her to rest near a bush in the backyard that quite frankly, looked like it should have been a tombstone. A few minutes later, I watched as she stood in front of the bush with her arms out like she was waiting for the mother ship to beam her up and said, “What are you doing?”

“Getting my sins burned off in Purgatory,” she said, solemnly.

Where? I wondered. She said it so seriously like it was a real thing, but the only place I had ever heard of where fire was possibly involved was Hell. I assumed she had made up the word. “But your character was good. She wouldn’t have gone…Down There.”

My friend looked at me like I was crazy. “I didn’t go Down There, I went to Purgatory. You have to wait there for a while before you can go to Heaven.”

This was a new one on me. Prior to this conversation, I was only aware of two final destinations and none of them involved what sounded like a celestial equivalent to a doctor’s waiting room. “Let me get this straight,” I began. “God’s in charge of this Purgatory place, so it’s not like where the Devil is.”

“Right. It’s not a bad place to be, but it’s not Heaven either,” she told me.

I ran that one around in my head a few times. “So how long do you have to stay there?” I wanted to know.

She shrugged. “It depends on how bad you were here on Earth. If you die with a lot of sins on your soul you could be there for millions of years.”

Millions of years? Oh, she had to be pulling my leg. “I don’t understand. Why do your sins have to be burned off? Can’t God just take them away?”

“It’s not like that kind of fire,” she informed me, as if she had personal experience with the place. “It’s not hot. It’s warm and it makes you better. It doesn’t burn you up.”

My mother called me in for dinner after that and my friend went home, but the conversation stayed with me all throughout dinner, as I took my bath and got ready for bed that night. When my mom came in to tuck me in, I came right out and asked, “What’s Purgatory?”

“Where did you hear about Purgatory?” She wanted to know.

I offered her the five second explanation of what went down in the backyard, but before I could ask for any clarification, she dismissed the whole thing by saying, “Oh don’t worry about that. You’ll go to Heaven.”

But I wasn’t so sure. So, naturally I went to my father. “What’s Purgatory?”

My dad looked a little uncomfortable as though I had touched on something forbidden or taboo. “It’s a Catholic belief,” he said simply.

“So you don’t believe in it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, I don’t.”

I thought my parents had a very strange attitude where this Purgatory place was concerned and it wasn’t helping me at all. My dad was pretty smart and even though I knew there were some “differences” between his faith and mine, this seemed like a pretty big thing to disagree on. I didn’t like the idea of believing in something that my dad seemed fairly confident wasn’t there. And what about my mom? Dad said that Purgatory was a Catholic belief, but my mom dismissed the idea of it so fast, I couldn’t help but wonder if she DID believe in it. After all, she had been Methodist before she was Catholic. Maybe she didn’t believe in Purgatory either.

And if this place was so important, then WHY hadn’t I heard about it before now? I was in fourth grade. I had two sacraments under my belt, a phenomenal amount of prayers committed to memory and logged more hours in religion class than I could count. How had I missed the Purgatory discussion?

After giving it considerable thought and reading the section of the Bible where the concept is drawn from, I decided it was too loose of an interpretation for me to buy into. Now, I know this will not make me popular with hard core Catholics, but I stand my ground. The issue of Purgatory was very difficult for me to write about in The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism because I just wasn’t sure. It was as if I couldn’t do it with a straight face or without rolling my eyes. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I just…struggled. At one point, I called my former religion teacher in desperation and said, “How am I going to sell this to the populous if I don’t believe it myself?”

“Wait a minute, why don’t you believe in Purgatory?” She asked.

God love this woman. She listened as I recounted the tale, laughing at the idea of two little girls talking about this over a game of pretend and how frustrating it must have been for me to ask my parents and come up empty on an answer. “No wonder you don’t believe in it. You grew up in a post-Vatican II world where no one talked about it. You lived in a home where it wasn’t discussed and then all of a sudden you heard about it and couldn’t confirm it? Why would you believe in it?”

She put on her “teacher hat” and began to explain Purgatory to me from the ground up. She didn’t tell me that I had to believe in it, but she gave me food for thought. I still struggle with the idea but if you haven’t believed in something for four decades, it’s a little hard to suddenly buy into it overnight. Thankfully she understood that and encouraged me to pray on it.

I have, but so far I have not reached a conclusion. While I would love to be a good Catholic girl with a rock solid faith, like it or not, God made me this way and He seems to like challenges. Who am I to deny Him of a great Fixer Upper project like me?

IG Catholicism Cover  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: The “daughter” of Man

womangod    It remains the finest moment of my eighth grade year, not to mention, my most controversial one. As you may have figured out from some of these posts, when I was a kid, I tended to have a healthy skepticism about a wide variety of religious matters, despite my upbringing and often grilled my religion teachers on a variety of issues that were long on faith, but short on logic.

Such was the case the day that my religion teacher told us how important it was to recognize Jesus’ return the minute the Second Coming got underway. He suggested that as good Catholics we would have no trouble with this because our faith would not allow us to question and doubt Him the way the Jews, Romans and other first century factions did.

As you can imagine, this didn’t sit too well with me. After all, if I understood the story correctly, the people who were waiting around for the Messiah to show up had a very definite image of what He would look like, what He would say and more importantly, what He would do. They were certainly not banking on a carpentry major from Nazareth whose birth story was tantamount to tabloid fodder. Think about it, when Jesus began His public ministry he was known for being a headstrong pre-teen who went off on His own in one of the biggest cities on Earth, making wine at a friend’s wedding, and having a loud-mouthed cousin who ate wild locusts and invented his own sacrament. Call me crazy, but does that SOUND the like the resume of a deity to you? I’m just saying.

So I couldn’t really fault people for not exactly “getting it” the first time around, and I thought it was rude to condemn a whole population for not jumping on the bandwagon right away. After all, whose to say we wouldn’t act the same way in similar circumstances? I brought this point up to my teacher, saying that it seemed pretty human to err on the side of caution and be suspect of anyone claiming to be the Messiah.

“Well, perhaps, but we won’t make that mistake,” he assured me. “When Jesus returns, we won’t question it, we will know.”

Hmmmmm….exactly how would we do that? I wondered. It seemed pretty easy to get things wrong from time to time. After all, only a few years before I had been duped right in Mass if you recall, so I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself to recognize the Second Coming if it were staring me in the face. I’d also heard of countless stories in which folks blindly followed crazy people that they believed to be God including Charles Manson and Jim Jones. It seemed to me that there was nothing wrong with their faith, it was just placed in the wrong thing. How would we somehow know the difference? “So let me get this straight,” I asked, “So, if I am walking home from school today and someone tells me that he is Jesus and He’s back, I am just supposed to drop everything and follow Him?”

“Yes,” my teacher told me.

This flew in the face of every “don’t talk to strangers” lecture my mother ever gave me. Not to mention, I could be following a lunatic. Yet, here was my religion teacher actually encouraging this behavior. I let it go for the time being and allowed him to continue on with the day’s lesson, but it continued to eat at me. A few minutes later, I raised my hand and he called on me.

“Yeah, OK…I didn’t want to bring this up before, but I’m Jesus…I’m back.” I told him.

The room fell quiet. There are certain things that you just don’t do in life.  You do not yell “fire” in a crowded theater. You do not say “bomb” on an airplane. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape and you do not claim to be the Son of God if you are a 13-year-old girl attending a Catholic school. I knew that I was treading on dangerous ground and I couldn’t help wondering just how much trouble I could get in for making a statement like that. Still, I knew that there was something wrong with this teacher’s theory and I would not rest until I had made my point.

“No you’re not, Julie,” he told me, his face growing red.

“Oh yes I am,” I countered. “Where is your faith? You aren’t supposed to question it, you are supposed to just follow.”

He tried telling me that I couldn’t be God’s “Son” but I was ready for that argument. “I’m God, I can be whatever I want. Isn’t that what you are always telling us? I know I was a boy before, but….now I am going to get it right and be a girl.” (The girls in my class were delighted with this pronouncement of course.) I told him that if he would like, I would make him an apostle like some of the boys in the class who were known for clowning around. True to form, they rose to the occasion and got behind my new “movement.”

I can’t imagine what was going through my teacher’s head at the time, but I suspected that he would have loved nothing better than to smack me. Looking back on it, I really couldn’t blame him if he did. I was wayyy over the line, even if my comments were justified. I was just so mad that he was promoting blind faith and maligning others for having their reservations.  We ask for proof in every other aspect of our lives, why not this one?

In the end, he could not prove that I was not the daughter of God and eventually he dropped the argument. (The class period was over by then anyway.) Unfortunately he never quite learned that some blanket statements should not be made. A few  years later, my son ended up in his class and came home all excited that his new religion teacher told the class that if they ever had a faith-based question, they could come to him and he would answer it.

“So, he still thinks he has all the answers, does he?” I sighed, feeling that rebellious teenager rise inside of me. “Great, tomorrow I want you to go in there and ask him if Adam and Eve had belly buttons. That will make him squirm”

My son did as he was told and sure enough the teacher took the bait. Of course the whole class was perplexed by the question which prompted a discussion about evolution vs. creationism. Eventually he had to admit that he did not know the answer to my son’s question, but he was fairly confident from where it came. “By the way Chris,” he concluded. “When you get home tonight, please tell your mother I said hello.”

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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: All in a day’s work

God-creating-the-galaxy-via-Shutterstock     I was in fourth grade when I discovered that perhaps the Bible wasn’t exactly…true. I’m telling you, for a kid like me, that was on par with peeking behind the curtain, seeing the secret behind the magic trick, spotting the wires or seeing a ventriloquist’s lips move. It was BIG.

Like most kids, I was raised on the concept of a “wham, bam, alacazam” God who could do anything with the snap of His fingers (well, I assume that He has fingers…the jury is still out on that one) and I heard stories about His creating the world in six days before taking Sunday off, how he put this apple tree in the middle of everything and told the kids not to touch it and how some talking snake convinced them otherwise, and I wholeheartedly believed it.

Then there came a day when I started picking at holes in the story. I had so many problems with this tale, I’m not sure where to begin. First of all: the talking snake or The Serpent, since a lot of people want to act as though it fell into a one-of-a-kind species. Where did it come from? If God was responsible for everything in this garden, did He make this snake and if not, then how did he get in? Why can he talk? Outside of Disney’s The Jungle Book, I don’t happen to know a lot of “chatty” snakes. After Adam and Eve get in trouble for listening to the snake, God tells the snake that he will have to crawl on his belly from here on out. So….did snakes have legs and feet before? If so, how many? The Good Book doesn’t go into all of that and in my opinion, those are some pretty important details to leave out. Did God also take away its voice box while He was at it? Does this account for the lack of snake/human interaction throughout the millennia?

Next: I had an issue with God’s version of “natural family planning.” If the whole tale begins with two people who are essentially responsible for putting God’s divine plan into action…what was the logic in giving them three SONS?? I mean, I am not a fan of incest or anything but there is some reason to believe that if you had a son and a daughter at least at some point there would be a diluted gene pool but even at a young age I knew this family couldn’t get very far with three boys. (Not to mention with one going around killing people.)

I will spare you some of my other problems with the “accepted” version of events and explain that naturally I was thrilled when my  religion teacher basically told us that you can’t believe everything you read. OK, she didn’t put it that way, but she did open up the concept of “symbolic interpretation” to me and I was extremely happy at the thought that somewhere along the line, someone took some literary license with the words.

I was so jazzed about this that I came home and announced to my parents that God did NOT create the world in seven 24-hour periods because TIME wasn’t invented until the fourth day. I was ecstatic when I told them that no one ever said it was an APPLE tree that was Adam and Eve’s downfall and that maybe the SNAKE wasn’t really there…it was just used as an example of evil entering the world and man choosing to exercise his free will over God’s instructions.

Needless to say, my father, who was a scholar of both faith and logic was thrilled by my being able to wrap my head around this heady concept while my mother, who preferred a more literal interpretation of the scriptures was mortified. “I guess I just believe that if they said it happened in seven days, I believe it.”

“Yes, but what is a day to God, Mom?” I asked. (My father beamed with pride.)

Dad brought the message home by telling me that my mother was not wrong in her convictions and that even if it took “billions and billions” of years (please read that in your best Carl Sagan voice) for God to create the process that lead to our evolution, He still did it in less time than we could. I could accept that…this is not to say that I never questioned the existence of God, but this knowledge of symbolic interpretation made the entire Old Testament a lot easier to swallow.

My mother didn’t buy it however, and the following Sunday we were at Mass when our priest stood at the ambo to give his homily and opened with with his thoughts on Genesis. “We are told that God created the world in seven days,” he said, leaning into the microphone and offering a Cheshire Cat grin. “You didn’t really believe that did you?”

 

 

 

 

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