The religion I grew up with had a preoccupation with saving one’s soul, avoiding hell, shortening purgatory. Religion was identified with rules, regulations, customs. A certain punitiveness and pettiness was projected onto God. The childhood image I had of God was that of a Super Bookkeeper. I experienced religion as a rulebook. There was a spirituality of good works and merits. Billy Graham noted that “the trouble with many people is that they have just enough religion to make them miserable.” I struggled with excessive fears of eternal punishment, and legalism.
Spirituality was devotional. There were devotions to this saint and that saint. As I remember, I rarely, and maybe never, came across saintliness. The Mass in those far off days was in Latin. The school year opened with the Mass of the Holy Spirit.
I never thought my childhood religion as ruining my childhood. It made me feel cared for.
Like many, I have problems concerning God. Let me hear someone speak of God’s unbounded love and mercy, and images of the Holocaust and Hiroshima appear before my eyes—no divine intervention. Hitler and, for the most part, those who ran the death camps were baptized Catholics.
How could it possibly be good and loving to slaughter the first-born Egyptian children who did nothing wrong? And there’s that description in the book of Joshua of what Joshua, under the direction of God, did to the Canaanite cities of Jericho, Ai, and Hazor. “They butchered every living thing in the city, all the men and women, all the babies and old people, all the oxen and sheep and donkeys, not sparing anything that breathed” (Joshua 6:21).
At different times, we burned heretics and witches, forbade scientists to look through telescopes.
I don’t understand why God allows children to suffer. I cannot grasp why God created pain, why so much pain, such raging pain. I don’t know what is happening and what it means. As the Book of Job reveals, God doesn’t offer an explanation. God doesn’t explain.
There are two sayings of John XXIII that influence me. His motto was “In essentials unity, in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity.” The other saying is the reply John XXIII gave to the question “what should the Catholic religion do?” He answered “to make the human journey on earth less sad”—marvelous. There’s Theresa of Lisieux fascination statement that “in order to be holy, the most essential virtue is energy.”
One of my favorite Old Testament tales is the wrestling match between Jacob and God
(Genesis 32:24-31). Jacob wrestles with a divine being till the break of dawn. The divine being says “let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” The divine being says “you have contended with the divine and have prevailed. Jacob then asked “What is your name? The divine being answered “Why should you want to know my name?” With that he bade Jacob farewell and blessed him… And Jacob called the place Peniel: for “I have seen God face to face, and my life was spared.” Jacob boasted that he had wrestled with God and survived. What does it all mean?
When I examine my life, there have been a few unmistakable and precious moments when God revealed Himself. For example, there was a time when I was hurrying home, alone, shriving under a downpour of rain. Another time I was on a train staring thoughtlessly at a gray overcast sky. In both situations I suddenly felt a “holy sadness” accompanied by a yearning for the Eternal. I’ve written before how there were a couple of times when I felt, all of a sudden, and only for a few seconds, an experience of God. There was a special consciousness of the Divine Presence, an intuitive contact. These were what Thomas Merton called “low-grade mystical graces.” And Karl Rahner held that all people have these mystical moments. Indeed, Rahner. In the 1960s, famously said that the Catholic of the future will be a mystical or s/he won’t be anything at all.” Theologians speak of “the universal vocation to mysticism.”
The Lord leads each person on the individual’s own path to God. As Teresa of Avila pointed out, “Different people are led by different paths.” There is the variety of ways people encounter God. God treats us individually and differently. Each of us has a unique relationship with God. There are as many paths to God as there are people living in the world. But God divides His graces unequally. He does not give everything to everyone. To some He gives more, to some less. There are a couple of mysterious Bible quotes: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious; and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy” (Ex.33:14). And there’s “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me” (Isa.65:1). How does one explain these?
God will draw near in His own time. God is not predictable. He is not bound by our rules. Yet, I sense He is closing in again, and I yearn to call out to Him.