My father was a complicated man. Gregarious and generous, he loved nothing more than to invite strangers to our home for dinner and engage them in debates about politics and religion. Often, if his guests’ views were in alignment with his, he would pick the opposing perspective, just to get the conversation going.
He was a man of strong opinions and loud voice.
Conversely, he was soft-hearted and an easy mark for travelling salespeople who came to the door. I wondered sometimes if they had a secret list that only those who took to the road to sell vacuums and china and encyclopedia and Bibles knew about. On it, my father’s name was at the top. Go see Louis. He’ll buy one, maybe two of whatever you’re selling.
Over the years, my father bought pots and pans, a vacuum, a floor polisher, cutlery and sets of knives, beautiful china and at least two sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He also bought a Bible.
It was bound in red leather with gold embossing. The pages were paper-thin and silky. And then, there were the pictures. Beautiful, full colour, full page photos of paintings of biblical theme. Delilah cutting off Samson’s hair, pillars of salt, caravans to Damascus and Jesus and Mary and Joseph and all the Saints.
I loved the photos and would spend hours lying on the floor on my stomach, pouring over the Bible, reverently running my fingers over the paper as if through osmosis the stories could come alive in my veins, and thus my heart.
Along with the Bible, my father also purchased a companion set of four books. Bound in red leather, The Books of the Saints told the stories of all the Saints ever canonized. From A – E, G – L, M – R, S – Z, each book also included beautiful photos of the Saints. I coveted those books, would sometimes sneak into the living room, take one down from the shelf and sit in the quiet of the morning eagerly reading and re-reading the stories of these what to me seemed almost deities and what they’d done in the world to become a Saint.
I wondered if I would ever have the courage, the strength of character, the heart and The Belief to do the kinds of things they had done to find my place not just in Heaven, but among the Saints of the world.
My mother told me I wouldn’t. I was no saint.
In fact, according to my mother, I was so far from being a saint she despaired there would ever be enough prayers in the world to get me out of Purgatory once I died.
It didn’t seem right to me. How could my fighting with my sister over who got to turn the pages of the Bible when we prayed together as a family on Friday nights keep me from Heaven? How could arguing with my brother over which Saint was the best Saint prevent me from one day being canonized myself? And how could asking question and after question about Who is God and where does he live if he’s only in church on Sundays displease God so much that he would slam the gates of Heaven shut even before I reached them?
These questions and more plagued me as a child. They caused me many a sleepless night, many a furrowed brow as I tried to figure out how to be God-fearing, as my mother told me to be, when I knew that when I was scared, I always acted out.
Acting out was my middle name, or so my family told me. In fact, I came to believe so whole-heartedly in my inability to toe the line, conform and behave like everyone else, I gave up all hope of getting to Heaven, let alone becoming a Saint.
Which meant, I gave up on God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
In my pre-teen, I think I’ll take this literally because it doesn’t make sense to me mind, it was God who put his son on the cross. Why would I want to have anything to do with someone who thought it was okay to crucify his only child? If it could happen to Jesus, it could happen to anyone and I for one had absolutely no desire to be crucified by angry, vengeful crowds who feared anyone who believed differently than them.
Turning my back on my Catholic upbringing, and the faith of my childhood, has been a blessing. It has given me space and courage to separate faith from religion and find myself where I stand, completely and fearlessly in Love with all humankind. No matter which God or what pew we worship from there is nothing separating us except our differing viewpoints. It’s allowed my heart to embrace my saintly and not so saintly qualities without fearing that the God of my childhood would not accept all of me.
And, it’s allowed me enough time and space to see that those four books and the beautiful Bible of my childhood were a rich and verdurous field of possibility. Filled with wonder and awe they continue to inspire my heart to seek the saintly in every sinner and the beauty in every soul today.
May this Easter weekend bring each of you great richness of spirit, beauty of heart and wonder in your soul.