Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Into Church History. . . And Beyond

The little blue light flashed on my phone, still charging on my bathroom counter, when I woke up on February 11, 2013, alerting me that I had a message.  I swiped the screen to read the message:  "Did you hear the Pope is retiring?  Does that make him ex-Benedict?"  I rolled my eyes.  It was too early for one of Rick's pope jokes.

At work Ken stopped me in the hallway.  "So, the Pope's retiring?"

A few questions sprang to mind.  Could Ken and Rick be in on this together?  How did I become the default Catholic to ask pope questions of?  And. .  wait. . . The Pope's retiring?

By now the news has begun to sink in.  If you are Catholic, whether in practice or only in name, you have come to realize the secular world's curiosity about our Faith.  People have likely turned to you with their questions, and you've discovered how much you still have to learn about your own Church.  Perhaps you've learned that he is more than just a figurehead, he is our Papa.  If your experience has been anything like mine, it's only with the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI that you have discovered how much you love our leader.

The secular world may think us bizarre, almost cult-like in our adherence to one man who leads our universal Church.  They are intrigued by the mysterious selection process, and skeptical of our belief that the Holy Spirit moves the conclave of religious who will gather to determine who our next Pope will be.  I'm intrigued too.  And as time closes in on February, at the end of which Pope Benedict will leave the throne of Peter, I'm surprised by the sadness in my heart as I consider saying farewell.

My reversion to the Faith of my cradle began eight years ago.  Not long after I returned to the Catholic Church to begin a new stage in my own spiritual journey, our beloved John Paul II passed from this world, paving the way for Pope Benedict XVI's new stage of his spiritual journey.  Pope Benedict and I "grew up" together; he is, for all intents and purposes, the only Pope I've ever really known.

Benedict will be remembered as a theologian, who closely followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Pope John Paul II.  He is a man of deep thought, and deep prayer, and though our first instinct at his announcement of retirement was to be shocked by this virtually unprecedented decision, we know that it is the product of much reflection.  We see that the world is changing.  We sense that morale is low among us and around us.  We see that people are leaving the Church.  But we also see that people are reverting and converting to the Catholic Faith in droves.  We trust our leader.  We trust the structure of our Church.  We trust that God always leads us where He needs us to go.

I will remember Pope Benedict's bold position on issues that are dear to my own heart.  Pope Benedict has been outspoken against the poor treatment of animals, particularly those raised for food.  He reminded us of our human obligation to be good stewards of this earth.  Like Pope John Paul II, Benedict was an advocate against the death penalty, calling on us to work to end this practice in our modern world where we have alternatives to execution.  And when Americans were rejoicing in the death of Osama Bin Laden, Pope Benedict reminded us that every soul belongs to God and that each one is part of His flock.  Our God never wants to see any of us go astray.  Every soul has value, and we should pray for mercy on every single one.

Even our Good German Shepherd is not assured that leaving this world will lead straight to Heaven.  Our eyes must always be focused on that reward; we cannot lose sight of that goal.  As Benedict struggles with his declining health, we can trust that he will continue to look towards Heaven and we should continue to pray that he, and all of our brothers and sisters, may find themselves there someday.

The world will keep speculating about "real" reasons for Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.  They'll gossip about scandalous allegations, even while they wait, fascinated, for the announcement of our new leader.  We faithful Catholics have a rare opportunity to share our Faith right now; the world is never as interested in the beauty and mystery of our religion as it is when our pope is being selected.

Somehow, in my faith journey I have become one of those people who listens to Catholic radio.  I've become hungry for knowledge and information about my Faith, and the timing couldn't be better.  I implore fellow Catholics to keep themselves informed as we go through this process together.  Protect your Church. Take this opportunity to educate and even evangelize - we don't do enough evangelizing, having relied for so long on breeding ourselves into domination.  Our friends will have questions about papal infallibility, the likelihood that a new pope will "change" the Church teachings on contraception, and even about rituals and customs involving silver hammers and fishermen's rings.  I've learned in recent years that the answers to all of our questions are somewhere to be found, and right now it's up to us to spearhead our own education in our faith so we can be prepared to answer the secular world's questions.

At the end of the day, we are not so very different from our dear pope.  Our hearts all long for Heaven.  We all long to hear someday the same words:

"Well done, good and faithful servant."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Saddling Up

Somewhere inside of me, I know it's not normal to feel this torn.

A couple of months ago, I started dating again.  My friends and even my parents were thrilled.  I had, in their opinions, earned a little companionship.  I had earned a reprieve from the loneliness that only a door held open, a nice dinner, and a romantic surprise text message can bring.

I kept the information closely guarded from the online Catholic community that I've been walking my spiritual journey with for the past few years.  I knew what their response would be: An annulment has not been granted - in fact, the process hasn't even begun. In the eyes of the Church, despite the fact that I have not laid eyes on my "husband" in months, I am still married.  Any romantic relationship I have until that annulment may be granted is considered adulterous.

 The guilt tugs at me; rightly so, I suppose.  I have chosen to be part of a Faith that requires discipline.  It is a rule-based Faith, and I have faith that the rules are there for a reason, for our own good.  I know that I cannot in good conscience just do what feels right - We're not animals, for God's sake.  We don't have to give in to our every whim.

At the same time, I struggle to understand why the rules have to leave me feeling so damn miserable.  I don't want to let go of my companion.  He is exactly what the word implies:  Good company.  A shoulder to lean on, a hand to hold, a drinking buddy (we can never have too many!), a dinner date.  He's not just a warm body.  He's not just someone to fill the space.  I don't know that the future holds anything for us, because that's not the point.  He does something for me today that no one else really does:  He gives me hope when my hope has been shattered.

I've listened to the warnings.  "You need time."  "Beware of your codependent ways."  "Be happy with you before you try to be happy with someone else."  I wonder if it's struck anyone how much time - my child's lifetime, a marriage that was supposed to last a lifetime - has been packed into the last few years.  Does the time I spent feeling alone in a marriage not count for anything now?  No sort of credit for time served?  One day I realized the life I'd thought I would be living was gone; one day I realized I couldn't go back; one day I realized I was okay with never going back and I charged ahead.  As long as I was charging ahead I was strong and willful; as long as I was submitting job resumes and finding gainful employment and making it on my own I was determined.  Am I now weak, for taking steps towards finding what I want most again?  Does someone wanna tell me when the right time to get back on the horse again is?  Does someone have some sort of step-by-step guide that could have told me how to get through the last few years, and how to move forward from here?

Where have the critics been while I was struggling to provide for myself and my dogs, while I was putting the pieces of my single life back together, while I was adjusting to a new career?  I wonder if they realize that I think I'm pretty fucking awesome, and it's beyond me and my vanity why I can't get the people that I want to realize it, but I'll sure enjoy the attention from someone who does.  When everyone around me seems to be sharing good news of engagements, weddings, pregnancy and birth announcements, and the most exciting thing happening in my life is putting on a pair of heels and running a brush through my hair to go on a date, it doesn't seem unreasonable to want to hang on to that.

I don't expect this man to work a miracle.  I don't expect him to erase my past, I don't expect him to ride up on a white horse and sweep me away.  What I expect is to wake up in the morning alone, to this life I didn't anticipate, and wander into the bathroom to find a text message saying simply, "Good morning." Maybe it will be a good morning.  Maybe it won't be.  But at least my morning will start with a little smile, and a little bit of hope.

Monday, February 18, 2013

God's (Least) Favorite

"If you wanna make God laugh, tell him your plans," our RCIA instructor joked.  I wonder if God got a hearty laugh from my belief that today I would be married for three years with at least one healthy child.  I'm sure it's hilarious to Him that I'm not.  That'll show me.  Right? 

Somewhere along the way, it happened:  The God who never gave up on me before, the God who guided me back to Him even when I strayed, stopped loving me.  In all sincerity, I believe that.  In all sincerity I believe that God exists, that God is in charge, and that God loves everyone. . . Except for me. 

If Job was God's favorite, I think I must be God's least favorite. Perhaps the correlation isn't obvious.  Job was stripped of everything he held dear, and of his wordly possessions.  I, on the other hand, have a comfortable life filled with loving family and friends.  What could I possibly have to complain about?  I know, trust me, I know that I have a lot to be grateful for, and I am.  Today as I attended the Rite of Election service for the churches of our county, I watched as hundreds of people waited to become the Church Elect; soon they will become fully initiated Catholics.  I watched as people from outlying farming towns were greeted by the Bishop.  Here were these people, who report to work as early as 4 in the morning and work for hours on end in the heat or the cold, laboring just to put food on the table, and I wondered how I dare think I am unloved when I'm been so fortunate. 

The joy I used to get from my home, from my dogs, from my work, even from friends and family, is gone.  I wonder why God has given me all of this, and stripped me of my capacity to enjoy it; or at the very least, He's abandoned me in my attempts to restore that capacity.  I'm faking happiness most of the time now.  I dutifully report to Mass but the homily and the hymns feel meaningless anymore.  I used to feel God's love.  Even in Gabriel's brief life and death, I felt God's love.  I know what love feels like.  I feel it from my parents.  I feel it from my dogs.  I feel it from my friends.  God's love, though, is distinctly missing.  It MUST be missing, because it's supposed to be the greatest love of all and we should feel that, right? 

But I don't. 

I don't know how to love a God that doesn't love me.  I'll play His game.  I don't care to see Him, but I long to see my son again and I know that God determines whether or not I do.  For anyone that thinks I don't realize that I'm tempting fate, they couldn't be farther off.  I think about hell more than anyone I know.  I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of hell more than anyone I know.  My friends are shocked.  "You worry about hell?"  they ask incredulously.  I know full well that as a practicing, informed Catholic I'm held to a higher standard before God.  I feel like a fool, constantly trying to earn His favor, but I MUST see my son again.  I know that someday I will have to stand before God and face judgment and right now, the only thing I want to say to Him is, "Can You put me through now?" 

"Pray," seems to be the constant advisal.  I don't want to pray.  I don't have it in me to pray.  I have no desire to talk to a God who doesn't love me.  What could I possibly say to Him to convince Him to love me again?  I'm flailing here, and I turned to Him with my grief and my pain, and I trusted His way until it just became to much to bear.  Arguably, my problem might be that I've got in my mind how I want to be soothed, and that's keeping me from feeling the relief God provides.  I remember distincly, though, desparate prayes to God, begging Him to grant me my heart's desire if it is His will, or to take that desire from me so I can go on.  I'm still waiting for an answer. 

Inevitably, I'll get responses like "God DOES love you, even if you don't believe it.  God DOES love you, even if you don't feel it."  I wish I could be like my dad, who just believes without question.  Blessed are they who believe without seeing, and all that.  My faith is hanging by a barely-there thread, and if I don't feel some relief soon I'm afraid it will break. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Our Short Piece of Time

Inevitably, as the sun starts to set the day before Valentine's Day, I get that ominous feeling that I got eight years ago.  Many people don't know that when I saw Sean Valentine's Day, the day I found him dead, I hadn't seen him in nearly five days.  We'd had a fight, and I had resigned myself to giving him the "space" he'd been asking for.  Monday would be Valentine's Day, and when I showed up at his apartment that afternoon I thought he couldn't possibly turn me away on the most romantic day of the year.  I thought the feeling in my gut was just the nervous result of not having seen him since the week before.  Now I know that even before I got to his place, my body was telling me that something was wrong and I had probably known it was wrong for days.

A few times I year Sean shows up in my dreams.  In every one, I have foreboding knowledge that he will be gone soon and I indulge in the chance to just enjoy this time with him.  This time, I know it won't last for much longer.  This time, our last words don't have to be angry.  This time I can say good-bye. 

The dreams are a manifestation of guilt, I've been told.  I feel guilty that I didn't stop him, but that's a manageable guilt.  I feel even more guilty that I waited so long to check on him.  I feel guilty that he had to die alone.  I feel guilty about our last words to each other.  I feel guilty for not taking his last phone call.  I'm just sorry.  I'm sorry and full of regret every day, but never more than on Valentine's Day, a day that's supposed to represent love so strong that it pierces the heart.  I'm sorry for loving him too much, or not enough.

This year I was struck by how subconscious my reaction to this time of year is.  My mood changes with the January gloom and my first thought is that the depression will pass with the seasons.  I see Valentine's Day decor while out shopping and I scowl as I remember that I hate the holiday but the thought passes while the mood doesn't.  I'm just sad.  And somehow, when I wake up on February 15th, the gloom disipates and I've made it through another year.

I've been told that I will never "move on" until I allow myself to feel the anger that I was evidently supposed to feel when Sean died.  If I haven't felt it by now, I suspect I never will.  Besides, my time with Sean gave me more reasons to smile than to be angry.  He was my best friend, and I miss him every single day.  But the impact he had on my life continues to touch me, and everyone around me.  The way I love, and the way I live are the product of his love and his life being taken from me so terribly.  Sometimes I'm afraid of wasting time and missing opportunities - How many times in five days did I want to reach out to Sean?  I know, though, that the way I seek what I desire with such ferocious zeal is the result of having lost Sean the way I did.  The experience carried me often when I wondered how I would be able to say "hello" to Gabriel, when it would also mean saying goodbye.  Losing Sean gave me the strength to hold on to a marriage that was quickly escaping my grasp, so that I could safely say today, "I did the best I could."  Finally, eight years later, I'm beginning to allow myself to believe that even with Sean, I did the best I could.  I don't know that I'll ever stop feeling guilty, or ever stop wondering about or praying for his soul.  I'm sorry about a lot of things, but I'm never sorry that I got to spend the last year of his life with him.  Though our walk together was brief, I'm thankful that he chose to walk with me.

Long Trip Alone

It's a long trip alone
Over sand and stone
That lie along the road that we all must travel down
So maybe you could walk with me a while
Maybe I could rest beneath your smile
Everybody stumbles sometimes and needs a hand to hold
'Cause it's a long trip alone

It's a short piece of time
But just enough to find
A little peace of mind under the sun somewhere
So maybe you could walk with me a while
Maybe I could rest beneath your smile
You know we can't afford to let one moment pass us by
'Cause it's a short piece of time

And I don't know where I'd be without your help
'Cause I'm not really me without you there

Maybe you could walk with me a while
Maybe I could rest beneath your smile
Everybody stumbles sometimes and needs a hand to hold

Maybe you could walk with me a while
Maybe I could rest beneath your smile
Maybe I could feel you right beside me 'til I'm home
'Cause it's a long trip alone
A long trip alone.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Have a Heart

"Are you still in love with Sean?"  The intake therapist's arm hovered over my intake survey.  I chewed on the question.  She glanced up at me when I hesitated to respond.  She pressed on.  "Are you still in love with Sean?"

Months later I've been struck by the answer, that I've never really fallen out of love.  With anyone.   When I was 12 years old I distinctly recall the moment I looked into Mike's eyes and knew I was in love.  A few weeks ago a message from Mike popped up on the corner of my Facebook screen and after all this time my heart still fluttered.  I never did fall out of love with him.  One afternoon someone told me that Mike's girlfriend was pregnant, that they were going to get married and move out of Bakersfield.  I had a good cry, but ultimately resigned myself to the realization that he was starting a family with someone else and I would have to move on.  But I guess, as the cliche goes, a part of me kept holding on. 

Sean was a different story.  He was gone so instantly, unexpectedly, and violently and I wasn't ready to let him go.  Though I saw his dead body and commanded it to rise and walk even while it laid stiff next to the gun that killed him, a part of me has always believed that someday he'll be back.  He couldn't really be gone - not with so much left to say to him.  I suppose I am still in love with Sean; more than I am in love, I think even after nearly eight years I am still in shock. 

As I tie up the lose ends of the last three years I'm advised often that I should take this opportunity to learn something.  There's nothing I learned from this experience and marriage and divorce that has been worth the pain.  I didn't need to touch a hot stove to know that it burns; I didn't need to feel this way to know that heartache is miserable.  I don't know how to love halfway, I fall deeply and swiftly, and I hurt the same way too.  Divorce certainly ties suicide as the worst ways to break up with someone.  The feeling of helplessness surrounding both is uncanny.  The afternoon that I arrived at Sean's apartment complex and started to put the pieces together that something was terribly wrong, a silent ringing began echoing in my ears, seeming to cancel out all other sound.  My fruitless pleas sounded distant and muffled even as I felt them tearing from my throat, but by the time the emergency vehicles began to arrive the noise had begun to fade back in, crescendoing with the sirens.  For the last year, the sound's been slowly fading back in.  I feel like I've been operating with only half of my senses.  I can only gather that the feeling must be some sort of defense mechanism - as if my mind is protecting me, aware that I simply can't absorb the experience all at once. 

Still, the biggest part of me can't wait to fall in love one more time.  The first time I felt that flutter again I think my first response was relief - My heart hadn't gone completely cold after all.  One might think I would learn to guard that heart a little better, but true to form I gave in to emotion.  I felt hopeful that I'd met someone wonderful and so special, and frustrated that the feelings were unrequited, but I also felt human.  Being human sometimes - frequently - hurts. Sometimes being human as meant waiting to hear from someone that my mind knows I'll never hear from again.  But sometimes being human means getting that unexpected message from someone from the past or from someone I hope will be a part of my future, and feeling my heart skip a beat, reminding me that I'm alive and still have a heart after all.