I described my spiritual history in the previous entry. I left out the agon (Greek for agony, as I learned Wed. night in Doctrine 1). I have a peculiarly consistent theological complaint. It started in first grade and has continued right into adulthood. There is no single answer to this question. I know because I've lived every answer I've run across in an attempt to resolve it. Part Two looks at where it all began.
Let's start with the big, driving question of my life:
Who goes to heaven?
Right off the bat you know this is not an innate curiosity. It's a question on top of another question. (I'll leave the real question out of it for now since it's taken me my whole life to discover what the root is.)
Asking who goes to heaven is, in fact, an utterly unnatural inquiry for a child. Children are blissfully ignorant of the metaphysical realm. They're too preoccupied with how furry a caterpillar is and "Did you notice that hawk that just swooped over our backyard?" They play in the mud, swing upside down on monkey bars and want seconds of ice cream. Heaven, death, the future, faraway places - not real to the average pagan-child.
I was not like other children. Right from the get-go, I wondered about unseen things: like, How far was it to Japan and when could I go there? and How did Santa's elves hide in my backyard every day to keep track of me?
I believed in things I couldn't see because they stimulated my imagination to create new things to see. I had a knack for making the unseen real in my experience. So it's not surprising really that my earliest theological wrestling centered on this invisible place called heaven. I can think all the way back to 1st grade CCD where heaven and hell were already not new to me, but were Very Important.
I had a teacher who described heaven to us as a beautiful "place" above the clouds where all the people we loved would be after we died (which was hard to understand since I didn't have anyone I loved already dead and I didn't like thinking of the ones I did love as dead some day). She told us that our bodies didn't go to heaven but that our souls did.
I raised my hand: "What's a soul? What does it look like?"
"It's invisible, sweetheart."
The idea of an invisible soul immediately troubled me. I wanted to picture it. So instead, I asked her what a soul could do. Could an invisible soul take my favorite pillow and new go-go boots to heaven? She remarked that our souls were like our hearts and that when we died they'd go to heaven and we'd leave our bodies behind. Then she handed out crayons and white paper and we were asked to draw a picture of our invisible souls in heaven where we'd never been.
Now this project totally stumped me for about fifteen long minutes. I still remember sitting there, other kids happily scribbling, thinking about how to draw something invisible above the clouds. But being a good student, I made an attempt. I drew clouds at the bottom of the page. Above the clouds, I drew a human heart. Not a Valentine's heart, but the organ. It was a crude drawing. I was young and had only seen the heart organ in an encyclopedia. But mine had valves. That's what I remember.
Then I looked around the room. Other kids had drawn Valentine hearts. Some drew themselves. All had clouds.
I've never quite gotten over the soul-as-internal-organ image.
Rigorous CCD training taught me that only pure souls went to heaven - well-confessed souls, rightly Catholic souls. I realize now this was preparation for that most egregious of childhood Catholic experiences: First Confession. Confession meant we should examine our consciences (I had no clue what that word meant) in order to prepare ourselves to receive the body of Christ in a wafer.
Now imagine me, the soul-as-organ child, who wonders where the heck heaven is and why I want to go there without my go-go boots, trying to picture Jesus squished into a tasteless wafer. Yeah, I struggled with that one. Still, I love a good academic challenge as much as the next straight A student and decided to tackle the confession project and do it right!
For the whole week before first confession, I watched myself hoping I'd do something bad to confess. I wanted a good sin—a real one. And you may not believe this, but it's true. I didn't do a single thing wrong all week. I couldn't help it. I was a good kid. By the Saturday morning when my dad had to take me to confession (instead of playing basketball with friends), I was both excited to go inside the dark box (where I'd never been allowed to investigate) and nervous that I hadn't done anything wrong all week and therefore wouldn't be able to confess so I could eat the Jesus wafer.
While driving, I bubbled with enthusiasm. I wanted to be admitted to the adult club of confessional secrecy. My dad, however, was in a funk. He thought I was perfect, and hated the idea that I had to make up a sin to confess. Suddenly a brilliant solution occurred to me.
"Dad, I know what I can confess!" I erupted triumphantly. "Last night when Mom cleared the table and did the dishes, I didn't help her. That counts as a sin, right?"
My dad visibly winced and groaned. I still remember. But I didn't care. I had discovered the power of the sin of ommission. When in a pinch, figure out what you might have done differently. You can find a way to feel awful about yourself if you must. And there were sure to be future occasions where feeling bad about myself would come in handy. (The humorous part of this whole experience is that my mother hated having any help with the dishes and, seriously, never let us help her my entire childhood.)
Still, the sin of ommission saved me.
Into the gorgeous church we walked. Lots of nervous first graders were ahead of me. Clear blue, yellow, green and red light flooded the sanctuary through the stained glass. I loved our church. The pews were warm wood.
I pulled back the dark curtain of the confessional. I couldn't kneel. Couldn't see over the ledge to the window poised to receive my deepest regrets. A disembodied voice asked for my confession. I eagerly offered it to him, enthusiastic, happy, thrilled to have a sin to confess.
And do you know what I remember? He stifled a chuckle. He did! He regrouped and asked me to help my mother with the dishes that week, and then gave me my penance (a couple "Hail Marys" and "Our Fathers" which I happily rattled off with rosary in hand, in the pew by myself, head down feigning regret, but secretly thrilled with my success).
I marched triumphantly toward my dad at the back of the church. He smiled at me and grabbed my hand, swinging it as we walked. In the bright sunshine, I felt complete. In spite of my happiness, my dad grumbled about the absurdity of a child confessing sins, perhaps to show me that he thought I was just fine without Catholic guilt. But that moment is frozen in my memory too, because it was the first time I noticed that my dad didn't approve of the Catholic church.
And so it began. Two critical ideas competed with each other. What does it mean to be a good Catholic so our invisible heart organs can go live above the clouds after we die and why did my dad dislike what Catholics teach?
Part Three will take these thoughts further.