Tag Archive: faith


Say it ain’t so

I don’t know about you, but there are times in my life when I wallow in fear rather than live in faith. I subscribe to the motto typified in the musical the Wiz where the character sings, “Don’t bring me no bad news.”

I’ve been throwing up a lot lately and it has me concerned. Something like seven out of the last ten days within fifteen minutes of waking up I have to race to the bathroom to visit the porcelain God, and dry heave what little water is left in my stomach from the night before. This morning I was driving in my car to get my morning java when I had to abruptly pull over to the side of the road, and now, after seven days of vomiting, my voice is kind of hoarse. So I screwed up my courage and made an appointment to see my doctor today.

I don’t drink alcohol, and I don’t smoke, so in reality it’s probably a case of end of school term nerves, but now I need to schedule an appointment with a Gastroenterologist to make sure my system is still in good working order.

My doctor put me on Protonix, a cousin of Prevacid, but stronger, apparently, and I’m hoping to stop the excess acid production in my stomach. I said, half jokingly, mock serious, “I hope I don’t have stomach cancer.”

“Don’t even say that,” the receptionist cautioned me. It’s almost as though if you give voice to your underlying fears, that somehow might make them come true. People don’t want to hear the “C” word, nor do they want to confront the uncomfortable reality that some people die before their time. A good friend of mine who used to be head librarian at my local library is bravely battling brain cancer, and the longterm prognosis is in months, not years, although she has survived over a year already.

I still want to write my first, second, and third full length novels, and I don’t feel ready to die, but I get nervous that the “best laid plans of mice and men” are going to go astray and that I’m going to be thwarted in my ambitions.

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I deserve good things happening to me. I think we’re so conditioned to believe that life is supposed to be a struggle that we don’t want to admit that we have been blessed, truly blessed beyond belief. I have great people in my life, including a support group that includes my mother’s cousin who loves me dearly and whom I love in return equally, and many other friends and family members.

The truth is: life is good, and I’m looking forward to creating many more meaningful days before I head into the western sunset. Just keep me out of the doctor’s waiting rooms please.

The Seventh Sense

People have long talked about the sixth sense being intuition, what some might call extrasensory perception. There’s a great movie, titled, The Sixth Sense, where a young boy can sense the intentions, wishes and desires of the dead. In many ways, belief in the sixth sense has taken the place of belief in a traditionally understood afterlife. Then, of course, there are those who dismiss the sixth sense entirely.

Never before, however, have I heard of a seventh sense. I’m reading The Once and Future King, by T.H. White right now, about the legend of King Arthur, Lancelot, Guenever, and the Knights of the Round Table, and the book mentions a seventh sense. Specifically, it defines the seventh sense in contrast to a different definition of the sixth sense. White writes, “Balance was the sixth sense, which she won when she first learned to walk, and now she has the seventh one–knowledge of the world. The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which both men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy–this discovery is not a matter for triumph.”

This seventh sense relates to our need to understand our place in the world, to understand our relationship with a God of our understanding, to make peace with the things we will accomplish and the things we will not live to do. I guess you could call it some kind of ordering principle. The interesting thing about the book The Once and Future King is that it tells the King Arthur legend from a modernist perspective. It references contemporary thought and contemporary belief systems. The author further writes, “Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty.”

One reason the King Arthur legend is so powerful and continues to resonate today is that Arthur established a code of conduct, a code of chivalry. This mythical character believed that people ought to behave decently, and his strongest proponent, his most chivalrous knight Lancelot, turned out to be the one to break the code most dramatically by having an affair with Guenever.

In many ways, White establishes the seventh sense as the “grown up” sense. I have long remembered the New American biblical quote, “When I was a child I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child, but when I became a man I did away with childish things.” I did my undergraduate at a Catholic university, and my belief system then was simpler, more well ordered. I look around at the seeming chaos in the world, and realize that now, the trick is to hang on to faith in spite of doubt. There’s a good reason why doubting Thomas has become one of my heroes. That’s why, I suppose, they call it a leap of faith. To put it another way, an author named Julia Cameron wrote a book called, The Artist’s Way, and she said, “Leap and the net will appear.” She is talking more specifically about creative leaps, but isn’t the same thing required in religious terms? When bad things happen to good people, we are called to use our seventh sense, not to abandon faith, but to embrace it all the more.

My philosophy is to aim high. You may not hit the bull’s-eye, but you’ll have a better chance of hitting the target. In terms of my religion, I try to be faithful, but as a gay man, it can be a challenge. Today, when it came time for the announcement of what the faithful should pray for, we were instructed to pray for the preservation of family values and the definition of marriage as between a man and woman. For this very reason, I consider myself a freelance Catholic, what some would term “a cafeteria Catholic.” These kinds of prayers and admonitions tend to leave me feeling left out, and I am considered by those in the Church to be saddled with a special burden to bear in reconciling my sexuality with my religion. No wonder Reform Judaism seems especially appealing!

I am a hypocrite in the sense that as I sat through Mass, and said the revised version of the Mass (which if you’re Catholic and haven’t been to Church for a while–Church with a capital “C”–you will notice things have changed, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically), I kept thinking, “Well at least I know the new liturgy,” unlike my neighbor sitting next to me. I took special pride in speaking out all the new parts, secretly gloating while trying to keep my face pious.

In many ways Catholicism is more than a religion. It is almost an ethnicity, something so indoctrinated in your soul as to become a very part of your Being, much like Judaism is both a religion and an ethnicity. It would be hard for me to leave my religion behind for this very reason. It’s a part of who I am, for better or worse.

Speaking of shooting for the stars, and aiming high, I strive to be the best person I can, yet one particular moral failing haunts me. I fear the future, in particular I fear poverty. My very own financial cliff. At one time I was on disability, Medicare, and Social Security, and lived in what could be politely termed a hovel with a man who has both cerebral palsy as well as a mental illness. I hid my impoverishment from friends, didn’t dare date, and grew ashamed of my life circumstances.

Later, my mother’s cousin moved to the area and helped me rebuild my life. I have even gone back to school, grad school at Northwestern for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing, but somehow, in some ways, have continued to resent my past. I still take Eric, the man I lived with, out to see movies, but sometimes his behavior embarrasses me, especially when he starts talking to himself, often quite vocally (it’s a part of his mental illness). I even, at times, grow embarrassed by my mother’s cousin’s condition. She’s practically incapacitated, and can no longer walk on her own. I take her to church, out to eat, and to movies in her wheelchair, and I love her greatly, yet at times I find myself praying selfishly, “Please let her live until I graduate,” since I could not afford school on my own. Fear of financial insecurity and impoverishment rules my very being.

I pray in the year to come for greater faith, to accept whatever comes my way. This is not an easy prayer, even for someone who went to a small, liberal arts Catholic school as an undergrad. To whom much is given, much is required (this is not something which I naturally consider). I also pray not to resent those around me or the services I perform for them. For the last six years, I have changed my cousin’s bandages, and I hope to be more like Jesus in washing others’ feet, without expecting accolades for my service. I also pray not to be embarrassed by my circumstances, by the fragility of the life I have constructed. Anne Lamott has written a new book: “Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” She comes from a place of gratitude, but doesn’t whitewash her struggles, most especially her struggle to be grateful.

Please, Lord, make me more grateful this coming year, and maybe just a little neater and organized, and maybe more creative as well, but if you can only make me grateful for my blessings, so be it.

Thanksgiving Prayers

When it comes to God, it’s easier not to believe than to believe (that’s my theory).

This morning I came across an essay in the Sunday, November 11, 2012 Chicago Tribune Parade magazine, written by Anne Lamott. Here’s what she wrote:

Counting Our Blessings

“No matter how you say it, grace can transform an ordinary meal into a celebration—of family, love, and gratitude.

“We didn’t say grace at our house when I was growing up because my parents were atheists. I knew even as a little girl that everyone at every table needed blessing and encouragement, but my family didn’t ask for it. Instead, my parents raised glasses of wine to the chef: Cheers. Dig in. But I had a terrible secret, which was that I believed in God, a divine presence who heard me when I prayed, who stayed close to me in the dark. So at 6 years old I began to infiltrate religious families like a spy—Mata Hari in plaid sneakers.

“One of my best friends was a Catholic girl. Her boisterous family bowed its collective head and said, ‘Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts. . . ‘ I was so hungry for these words; it was like a cool breeze, a polite thank-you note to God, the silky magnetic energy of gratitude. I still love that line.

“I believed that if your family said grace, it meant you were a happy family, all evidence to the contrary. But I saw at certain tables that an improvised grace could cause friction or discomfort. My friend Mark reports that at his big southern childhood Thanksgivings, someone always managed to say something that made poor Granny feel half dead. ‘It would be along the lines of ‘And Lord, we are just glad you have seen fit to keep Mama with us for one more year. We would all strain to see Granny giving him the fisheye.’

“I noticed some families shortened the pro forma blessing so they could get right to the meal. If there were more males than females, it was a boy chant, said as one word: ‘GodisgreatGodisgoodletusthankHimforourfoodAmen.’ I also noticed that grace usually wasn’t said if the kids were eating in front of the TV, as if God refused to listen over the sound of it.

“And we’ve all been held hostage by grace sayers who use the opportunity to work the room, like the Church Lady. But more often, people simply say thank you—we understand how far short we must fall, how selfish we can be, how self-righteous, what brats. And yet God has given us this marvelous meal.

“It turns out that my two brothers and I all grew up to be middle-aged believers. I’ve been a member of the same Presbyterian church for 27 years. My older brother became a born-again Christian—but don’t ask him to give the blessing, as it can last forever. I adore him, but your food will grow cold. My younger brother is an unconfirmed but freelance Catholic.

“So now someone at our holiday tables always ends up saying grace. I think we’re in it for the pause, the quiet thanks for love and for our blessings, before the shoveling begins. For a minute, our stations are tuned to a broader, richer radius. We’re acknowledging that this food didn’t just magically appear. Someone grew it, ground it, bought it, baked it; wow.

“We say thank you for the miracle that we have stuck together all these years, in spite of it all; that we have each other’s backs, and hilarious companionship. We say thank you for the plentiful and outrageous food: Kathy’s lox, Robby’s buche de Noel. We pray to be mindful of the needs of others. We savor these moments out of time, when we are conscious of love’s presence, of Someone’s great abiding generosity to our dear and motley family, these holy moments of gratitude. And that is grace.”

(Anne Lamott has a new book out this month, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” For writers, her book on writing is seminal, titled, “Bird by Bird.” The first book of hers I read is called “Operating Instructions,” about her life as a single mother, just getting sober, and her discovery of God’s presence in her life. She’s a wonderful writer, definitely worth getting to know through words on paper).

The End, Begin Again

While Judaism emphasizes actions over beliefs, there is some evidence, according to my very well-informed Orthodox Jewish creative writing instructor at Northwestern, that Jews do consider reincarnation a possibility. The brilliant film “Cloud Atlas” tackles this theme and explores its nuances, weaving its story around six reincarnations of the individuals it follows, including storylines featuring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, and even Hugh Grant. The villager that Tom Hanks plays in the not-so-distant future starts the film, saying, “I’ll yarn you about the first time we met.”

I found it interesting that two of the directors, Lana, born Lawrence Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski are Jewish-Polish Americans while the other director, Tom Tykwer, is German. I felt the pull as to how their lives, their upbringing, their ethnicity, their experiences and unique outlook informed the making of “Cloud Atlas.” Previously, they directed the Matrix films. It seems fitting that Lana Wachowski, is, in fact, a male-to-female transsexual while Tykwer is gay. One focal point in “Cloud Atlas” is that our role in determining who we become is the major task during our lives.

Author of the 2004 book, David Mitchell, originally told the story chronologically, then circled back over his tale at the end. The movie directors made a conscious decision to interweave the six reincarnated stories throughout, making it much more difficult to follow, but it more poignantly draws together the interconnectedness each of us feels to the others around us, and the influence of our past lives on the lives we lead now. I found myself wondering if all of us, in fact, re-experience trauma from former lives. One of Berry’s characters says, “Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over?”

The story hinges on the exploration of what happens in in the 1970’s between a reporter, played by Berry, as she investigates a corrupt businessman, Hugh Grant, who plans to create a nuclear meltdown. In that life, she once again bumps up against Tom Hanks as they work to overthrow a corrupt system. The point made over and over: “separation is but an illusion.”

A futuristic South Korean, taken advantage of the system, highlights that same idea, saying, “From womb to tomb, we are bound one to another.” We can always work toward and hope for a better tomorrow based on the little steps, the ripple effect, of the lives we lead here and now. The search for all the characters is a search for freedom.

The number six is especially important: six lives each, and the most important musical composition in the story, the Cloud Atlas Sextet. In the bible, the number six is thought to represent man’s rebellion and imperfection. This number once again reinforces “Cloud Atlas’s” reaching out and longing for freedom. It seems no accident that in the bible, humans were created on the sixth day.

I end with my favorite quote from the movie, as it reverberates throughout the entire story. “The half-finished book is, after all, a half finished love affair.”

Lately, protest movements have come under fire as superfluous and ineffective in stirring up the masses.  It’s more popular these days to become a radical whether your position makes sense or not.  The general public these days seems less and less interested in radicalism.  Two movements in particular strike me as creating a backlash as to what the causes purport to support:  the protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street as well as the archly conservative Republican Tea Party movement.

If you really want to be Radical, stand up for what you truly believe, even if it doesn’t support the status quo, to a position without feeling the need to take to the streets or shout the loudest in order to register your opinions.  Below are a couple ways to stand firm in your opinions without becoming didactic.

  1. If you happen to be gay, go to church anyway, and if you really want to challenge yourself, attend mass at a Catholic church.
  2. Sign up for a marathon or half marathon, and raise money to support the cause of your choice.  The point is to continue to challenge yourself physically, if you are able.  If not, find other ways to challenge yourself.
  3. Leave a bad, completely broken marriage.   Take a leap of faith, and trust that the net will appear.
  4. Pursue your passions, no matter that the odds may indeed be against you.
  5. Keep in contact or attempt to reconnect with those teachers, mentors, and friends who have most affected you.
  6. Leave behind and let go of hurts that have limited you.  Remember the adage:  I have no interest in returning to the past because I’ve already been there.
  7. Love your parents unconditionally; on the flip side, love and support your children unconditionally as well.
  8. Set limits without preaching, all the while showing love through patience.
  9. Read books and limit the amount of mindless television you watch.
  10. Find idols to influence the way you walk with integrity, dignity, and grace through your life.  Make your time on earth matter.
  11. Quit drinking, even if virtually all your friends disagree with your decision.
  12. Turn your liabilities into assets.
  13. Wait for the right person to come along rather than settling for what’s convenient.
  14. Challenge yourself to go somewhere new instead of following familiar paths.  Take a different route on your daily walk.  Go to see a show or an exhibit.

Please let me know the innumerable radical thoughts and ideas I have missed.  As Robert Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in a woods, and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Chasing Prophets

I recently reread one of my all-time favorite books, A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.  At one point I even read the entire book out loud to someone I was dating, a chapter a night for all 543 pages. 

In the book the diminutive main character, Owen, feels he as a special calling, that he is destined for greatness.  His best friend even comments, “How could I have known that Owen was a hero?”  I believe that we can all be the main character, and the hero, of our own story, just as Owen believes he has a special purpose.  Would that all of us shared that belief that we matter, that our actions are not in vain.  Prophets, in my mind, are individuals who embrace their destiny, and actively seek connections to the greater world.

E M Forster said it best with his mantra, “Only connect.”  Our world has gotten away from organized religion, and now, people who connect through good works as well as faith often pursue a spiritual path not designated by any particular religion. 

The main thing to remember is that judgment kills, and is the source of much misunderstanding and prejudice.  I like to think that good people think, how are we alike?, not how are we different?  What tracks will you leave behind after you’re gone?