My parents raised me Catholic. My mother, an Episcopalian—the word uttered by the nuns of my youth as if “Episcopalian” was a horrid vulgarism—had signed a statement upon marrying my Catholic father that she would not stand in the way of their children raised under the watchful eye of the Vatican mandarins. My mother, I imagined, hoped that we would come to our senses and become Episcopalians or, at the very least, agnostics. So when I entered the stygian pit of chronic pain, like others before me, I, after several decades of avoiding Catholic precincts, returned to the religion of my youth with a vague hope that the ancient rituals would somehow salve the pain in my body.
One afternoon on a raw March day with a damp wind blowing fitfully off the lake, I was walking from my office through the Loop to my teaching job. I veered a few blocks west and entered a Catholic church that served downtown workers and the parishioners that lived close to the Loop. I opened the tall wooden door and smelled the faint odor of incense. Two scents automatically transport me through time to memories of my childhood: incense and honeysuckle.
There were about thirty people in the pews looking as if they were praying or meditating, and a few older women in long wool coats with scarves over their heads praying the Stations of the Cross. There were young men and women dressed in dark business suits, a couple of construction workers and a cop in full uniform. There were about a dozen elderly folks dressed against the cold winter day, who looked quite at home. I guessed that I had just missed Mass and that these people were lingering in the quiet before returning to home or work.
The church, sandwiched between buildings was windowless on the interior giving the space, despite its size and soaring arches, a coffin-like feel. Up to about ten feet, the walls were a light colored marble, and above that, the walls were painted white. Lights ensconced in brass cones hung down from the ceiling at close intervals to make up for the lack of natural light. It was a utilitarian church—no frills, no intricate stained glass windows—a no-nonsense work-a-day church.
I walked down the center aisle and entered an empty pew, sat down on the wooden seat and let my eyes wander over the altar about fifty feet in front of me. As I sat there in the softly lit church, I was enveloped by silence punctuated. From time to time, someone dropped a book or a purse on the pew that echoed through the vaulted space.
In a recessed alcove painted sky blue stood a four-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary wrapped in a simple cerulean robe. This vestal sanctum sanctorum was separated from the aisle by a bronze stand that supported a few dozen small white candles that the parishioners lit when praying for to the Virgin. Along with the faint smell of incense, there was the underlying pleasant odor of burning candle wax. Catholicism, if nothing else, is a religion of the senses.
Sitting there I remembered the Boy Scout troop I belonged to that was a part of my grade school, a thoroughly Catholic organization. I remembered how at summer camp on Sundays we would attend Mass in a small outdoor clearing surrounded by a dense forest of fir trees. There were split log benches to sit on, and the ground carpeted in the long brown needles that fell from the towering pines. Mottled sunlight filtered down through the pines, and a cool breeze whispered through the branches. There was no other sound in the forest except the rising and falling song of a lone bird. We gathered around the carved wooden altar and a priest wearing his black clothes, and white collar said the mass in hushed tones. Though I had been losing what little faith I had, I enjoyed the familiar service. It was an ancient rite performed in a dense forest where my friends and I were alone, pioneers in a foreign land. I felt a sense of awe deep in my chest, and if a miracle happened before my very eyes, I would not have been the least bit surprised.
With the lunchtime parishioners coming and going, I closed my eyes and inhaled the lovely mix of incense and burning candle wax I always associate with a Catholic Church. I was transported to the age of 12 when I was an altar boy. I was kneeling on a step on the altar as the priest, with his back to me and the congregation, raised the host, a small round piece of flatbread, above his shoulders while intoning the Latin phrases that served to consecrate the bread turning it into the body of Christ. Not the symbolic body of Christ, but the literal body of Christ. The same Latin phrases pronounced over the priest’s chalice turned the wine into the blood of Jesus; transubstantiation—the miracle of the presence of God. We got to eat the body of Christ. We were god’s little cannibals.
This part of the mass always threw me; I couldn’t believe that with a bit of Latin mumbo jumbo a piece of bread some could become the flesh and blood body of anyone, let alone the body of Christ. Little did I know that I was on my way past agnosticism, to atheism. Non-belief aside, I longed for the rituals of my childhood.
At the end of my aisle was the confessional. There were three dark oak doors with the crucifix cut out of each at eye level for ventilation. The entrance in the middle was for the priest, and the two wing doors were for the confessants. There was a small line for each indicating that the priest was in and confessions were underway.
The cavernous silence settled around me. I felt like I was in a cave completely cut off from the outside world, a timeless place where everyday concerns and worries vanished like fog under a warm sun. I decided that I wanted to speak to the priest, not for confession, but of my wish for the calming effect of the Catholic rituals. I had only a vague idea of why I wanted to talk to him. Maybe I was looking for permission to be an interloper, a nonbeliever trespassing in his house of God.
I got up and went over to the small group of people waiting for the priest and took up my place at the back of the short line on the right of the confessional. I could smell the earthy perfume of the tall young woman in front of me. I didn’t have my cane with me, so standing became hellish after about five minutes. Soon I was next in line. When the door opened and out stepped the young woman who was ahead of me, I entered the dark confessional, closed the door behind me, knelt on the padded kneeler and waited for the priest.
Pain from being on the padded kneeler shot up from my left knee and mingled with the electric pain in my lower back. I was not going to be able to stay in this position for long. The small confessional box smelled faintly of wood polish and candle wax. Within a couple of minutes, I heard the other parishioner open his or her door. A moment later the priest slid back the small wooden panel, and I could make out his outline through the nearly opaque screen that separated us. My knee and spine begged me to sit down, to lie down! My mood sunk in inverse proportion to the mounting pain. The priest patiently waited for me to begin.
“It’s been nearly 25 years since I’ve done this, Father.”
“A long time,” he said. “What brings you now?”
“Well, to be honest, I’ve fallen ill with a chronic disease that causes me unbearable pain, and it has completely upended my life. I’ve been going to Mass occasionally, and have been looking to the old rituals for some comfort.”
“That’s reasonable,” he said with a thick Chicago accent and sounding a bit bored.
“Here’s the dilemma. I’ve been trying to believe in God, but it’s just not happening. I don’t think I ever believed even with my Catholic education, being an altar boy, the works,” I said holding my breath.
“So, you doubt in God’s love for you?”
“No, it’s not doubt, Father. It’s non-belief.”
“I see,” he said gently, no longer bored.
“God’s omnipotent, right?” I asked.
“Yes, omniscient, all loving and all forgiving, too.”
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot. If god’s omnipotent and all-loving, why does he allow so much misery in the world? Why does he sit back and watch my misery when he’s omnipotent and can stop all misery?”
“It’s all part of God’s plan; plans that are mysterious to us. But that’s where faith comes in,” he said in a confident voice. “We have faith that His plans for us, even if we can’t see them at the time.”
“That’s a cop-out, Father. Whenever nothing makes sense that argument jumps up as if it means something.”
“But it’s the truth,” he said earnestly.
“Wouldn’t you say, father, that misery in the world is evil?” I felt sweat running from my armpits down my sides.
“Yes, there is evil in the world. God gave us free will and many people don’t choose right and end up behaving in evil ways; that’s not God’s doing, that’s man’s doing.”
“But pain and misery are evil. An omnipotent god could step in and prevent evil, prevent suffering. You know, death and destruction from tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes. Young children with cancer,” I said insistently. “People like me suffering from painful diseases. If god is so powerful and omnipotent, then he’s guilty of standing by and doing nothing in the face of such gratuitous evil. He could easily prevent it, and he doesn’t. That’s evil. It makes god evil.”
“But God stands with us…comforts us in an evil world,” the priest said haltingly.
“I don’t buy that, Father. If god exists, gratuitous evil does not exist, and, father, gratuitous evil does exist. Just look at what has happened to the millions of people like me: it’s gratuitous evil. And if this evil exists, then there is no omnipotent god.”
“You’ve thought this out,” the priest says.
I can hear the smile in his voice. “Yes,” I said. “I have.”
“Let’s say,” the priest said in a low voice, “that your pain is gratuitous evil in your life. It’s giving you a chance to act with courage and grace. Who knows, without the disease, you may have never had this chance. Maybe you can become an example to your family and friends on how to face setbacks with dignity.”
What I wished to address began to sink from the pain of kneeling. I would need to stand soon.
“Father, with all due respect, that’s crap,” I said raising my voice. I wiped the sweat from my upper lip and wiped my finger on my coat. “You’re assuming I would accept that role and you compound the insult by assuming that my family and friends need that kind of symbol in their lives. I don’t need the role, and I suspect they don’t need the role model. What I’m going through is gratuitous evil. And there are millions of people like me suffering randomly, for no apparent reason. God has a hell of a lot to account for.”
“Do you think there’s a chance that your anger gets in the way of belief?” He asked with the same gentleness.
“I’ve already thought of that, Father, and it doesn’t wash with me. No, I’m angry at your conception of god,” I said in a rush of exhilaration. “Your blind adherence to the church’s teachings. Think, man. There’s no way that god exists. You’re the guardian of a fantasy.”
“It sounds like you’re angry at God which implies belief.”
“Not at all, Father it implies how pissed off I’ve been at crap. You sound like you’re about my age, so you know what I’m talking about.”
“You’re right,” he said in a hushed voice as if I made him think about his creeping doubt. “But I was able to see beyond it and connect with good people including priests.”
“Lucky you,” I said, unable to conceal my sarcasm.
“Is sarcasm how you deal with people who believe?”
I laughed, but the pain in my back was shrieking up my spine. I stood and bent over to relieve the pain. “No sarcasm for people who believe, Father: just those who peddle belief based on fairy tales.”
“Are you open to a little advice?” He asked with a muted chuckle.
I paused letting my sarcasm and anger die down a bit and knelt back down. “Shoot,” I said cautiously.
“Keep going to Mass. You like the tradition, the routine, so keep going.”
“You’re hoping, Father, that if I keep coming to Mass that I will wake up one day as a believer in fairy tales; that I’ll embrace Christianity and be saved,” I said with the edge of anger back in my voice.
“Miracles happen,” he said with a short laugh.
“No they don’t, Father, and I suspect you know that,” I said resisting the temptation to blast him.
“Oh, but I do believe in miracles.”
”So you believe in that virgin birth and rising from the dead business?”
“Yes, I do,” he said disarmingly.
I felt how vulnerable he was at that moment declaring his simple belief to a querulous non-believer. He seemed suddenly vulnerable, human. My anger disappeared. I had no business attacking this man’s belief no matter what I felt. I could be an unbeliever no matter what he or anyone else believed, and I didn’t need to attack him to bolster my atheism.
“The trouble is, Father, if I came to Mass, I’d feel like an interloper. An atheist among the Christians,” I said, feeling the loneliness of my position. It was the first time in my life that I said to another person that I was an atheist. I felt lonely and liberated.
“That’s right. That’s what you’d be, an interloper. But nobody else will know that, just you. If you keep going my bet is you’ll soon discover what you are, the atheist you claim to be, or a closet Catholic who’s temporarily lost his faith.”
“Therein lies the rub, Father,” I said feeling like I had taken up too much of his time. “I haven’t temporarily lost my faith. I’ve been a non-believer for years, at least since I was fifteen. Thirty years.”
“Keep coming anyway,” the priest said in an even, friendly voice. After a pause, he said in a confidential tone, “I don’t suppose we ought to change this into an ordinary confession, do you?”
“No, I guess not. Thanks for your time.”
“I found it interesting,” he said with a friendly laugh.
“It has, hasn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said in a soft voice. “This I truly mean: Go in peace.”
I smiled. That’s the last thing the priest says to the congregation at the end of Mass. It was, in fact, the part of the Mass that I liked the best. “You too, father.”
I put the palm of my hand on the screen between us for a second, withdrew it and pushed myself up painfully from the kneeler, opened the door and walked to the nearest pew where I sat down.
He was right. I didn’t have to be a believer to enjoy the rituals, and I had no delusions about suddenly believing in God.
I’m a sick man in need of a little ritual, a little comfort.
Am I an atheist?