In every one of the thirteen grade schools I attended in the 1950’s, Catholic nuns taught me about Heaven and Hell, including the nugget that Heaven was only for Catholics, but there was no guarantee I’d go there. From the age of six I knew if I, as a Catholic, died with a “mortal” sin on my soul, I’d go to Hell, or perhaps Purgatory, the halfway house to Heaven.
This teaching dwelled in the official Catholic textbook for American children used from 1885 to the late 1960s, the Baltimore Catechism. The Catholic Church denied that physical Heaven, Hell and Purgatory are part of Church doctrine, long before the Pope declared in 1999 that heaven and hell were “primarily eternal states of consciousness more than geographical places of later reward and punishment”. But that turnaround came after these medieval lies were grafted onto sapling children like me.
The only non-Catholics I knew as a child were our babysitters. I always felt sorry for them because they were headed straight to Hell when they died. In 1957 when I saw a TV ad for Old Orchard Shopping Center, I asked my mother, “where’s Skokie?” “That’s where all the Jews live,” she answered. At 11 years old, I didn’t know there were Jews alive in the world. I thought they were all burning in Hell.
I’ve come to believe that my own personal heaven and hell do exist. I visit hell whenever I relive the last time I got sober forty years ago, or when I regret insensitive words I spoke five minutes ago. And heaven appears when my 10-year-old grandson texts me photos of his lizard.
At the suggestion of my fellow seeker Terry, I crammed into the O’Hare Hilton with 1,000 other souls one weekend in 2012 for a retreat, “Transforming the World through Meditation” with Franciscan Richard Rohr and Benedictine Laurence Freeman, two men I’d never heard of. I had started meditating a few months prior in a Buddhist group and asked Terry if she knew any Christian meditation groups.
In addressing heaven and hell, Rohr said the ego prefers winners and losers. He offhandedly mused that if Jesus descended into hell, as it says in Church doctrine, than there is no more hell because, ”Hell cannot exist in the light of God.” I lost my breath, sprung out of my seat and staggered to the door for air. A volunteer brought me a chair and water. “Raised Catholic?” I nodded yes. “Yeah, this happens a lot.”
If my subterranean soul had known all my life that I wouldn’t go to Hell for attempting suicide or stealing pens from the office, if I had known all non-Catholics were not doomed to go to Hell; I would have been a better friend to Jesus. I didn’t know my nature was adolescent, fertilized with dead ideas about Hell, sprouting false judgements on myself and everyone I knew.
Uncovering the lie is heaven indeed.