When The Saints Came Marching In

 

I hear some people say they knew this or that at age 5, 6, 7 or 8. They knew there was no Santa Claus or they knew their father was having an affair with the neighbor. Not me. Throughout grade school, with all evidence to the contrary, I trusted that the adults in my life knew what they were doing, didn’t lie to me and moved our family around for good reasons like better neighborhoods or better schools. Then my mother yanked us from our midwestern roots, away from my absentee father and took us to the East Coast. My sister Erin and I landed at the doorstep of my mother’s sister, Aunt Joanne, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, with her husband Bill Dorsey and their seven children. It was Christ-Rohrmid-May when we entered St. Mary of the Assumption School where the nuns “sought to imitate Jesus Christ.”  In 1959, St. Mary’s was still segregated except on the playground where I joined girls and boys, blacks and whites defiantly playing baseball all together.

The eighth grade class at St. Mary’s had spent the entire year before I got there memorizing one poem a month. In order to graduate, I had to memorize all nine poems. Not only did I rebel against this arbitrary standard, I became hysterical over it. My mother had taken two of my sisters to New Jersey to live with other family members and for the first time in my life I absolutely knew that she had gotten it wrong. I needed her with me, to defend me against the injustice of those nuns. I had sacrificed a lot for her and it was time she helped me.

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The Dorseys at Bethany Beach, Delaware

Uncle Bill had a different idea. He told me I could do it, that we’d do it together. Never before had anyone sat me down and given me a pep talk. Every night after dinner for four weeks he helped me learn those lines. Poems like “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tyger” by William Blake, “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman and my all-time favorite, “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Uncle Bill’s love flowed through me and poured out onto the paper, lighting up the poetry. He gave those words to me. And now, when I hear or see them, my heart pounds with a thunder of love for his eternal soul.

The Dorseys threw a party on my 13th birthday just before I graduated. They invited all their friends and children. My mother arrived from New Jersey with my baby sister. The backyard ballooned with streamers and bunting, barbecue, birthday cake, and something I’d never seen before – a keg of Budweiser. Uncle Bill gave me the first draw of the tap. I gulped it down without tasting it. My first beer. Then I had another. And another. And suddenly I loved everything around me. I knew I belonged, in that family, at that party, with those saints.

The St. Mary nuns blundered in their seeking to imitate the Christ. But Uncle Bill Dorsey? He was the real deal.

Does Anyone Really Like to Read This Stuff?

Does Anyone Really Like                                 to Read This Stuff?

From the backseat of my earliest memories I hear, “Why did God make me? God made me to know Him and to serve Him in this world and the next.” It’s the first lesson I memorized in Catholic grade school, before I could even read. Sometime in my early life I heard about the Bible but our religious lessons were taught from the Baltimore Catechism with no mention of the Bible. Nuns told me Jesus was my friend, but never cited Scripture to back up the claim. Some have said the Church of Rome never wanted the Flock to read the Bible lest they start thinking for themselves, rather than having their theology managed by priests.

UnknownAt Sacred Heart Academy the high schoolers were graded on their verbatim delivery of the 1700-word Passion of Christ from the Gospel of John. Seventh graders were required to sit through a recitation of the Passion as part of Religion class. I never listened at Sunday Mass, so my first hearing of Bible passages was the torture and execution of my friend Jesus. These bloodcurdling passages sparked a morbid curiosity about the rest of the Bible, but I didn’t have a Bible to read on my own. My parents, indwelled with a long lineage of Irish-Catholic hatred for non-Catholics, refused to have a Bible in the house “like those Protestants.”

I borrowed a Bible when I enrolled in a Bible course, part of the initiation rites of the born-again cult I belonged to in the 1970’s. The elders used Scriptural passages to confront me and my live-in, abusive boyfriend with an ultimatum to either marry or separate. We chose marriage because neither of us could face life without sex. For a wedding gift, we received a gilt-edged Harper’s Study Bible, inscribed in gold, with my name misspelled (Reagen). Owning the Bible exalted me into the fellowship I craved, and I feverishly used that Bible for the next three years, marking the margins with exclamatory words, folding over pages and bookmarking meaningful passages.

I didn’t reject the Bible when I left the cult, rather I never liked the Bible and was even repulsed by it. Aside from my own bad experiences with it, the Bible’s first book, Genesis, talks of God creating Paradise and throwing out the first humans because they wanted toth be gods themselves (who wouldn’t?). Then, that couple had two boys and one of them killed the other. Most of the rest of the Old Testament describes violent gangs warring over territory, an angry God, and thousands of flawed people wandering in the desert.

In February 2013, I heard Catholic contemplative Richard Rohr say to 1,500 retreat-goers that Bible stories are myths to provide insight into human nature. The simple transformative act of spiritual hearing jolted me into a surprising love for reading the Bible—the same Bible that has been there all along.

The Big Lie: Catholic Hell

The Big Lie: Catholic Hell

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. Theth-2 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.