Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Long Night

I've been a Catholic for years now, but I had never really known God. The truth is, to me religion was something you did, like going to the supermarket, or showing up at a family reunion. My baptismal certificate says that I was baptized in the United Church. Once a powerful force in Canada, it's been expelled from the Anglican Communion for its permissiveness, and liberality. I never really knew much about the United Church, though, because my first memory of sitting in a pew and praying to God was as a Pentecostal. Everyone was all red faced and sweaty, swaying about yelling "Lord Oh Lord!" and talking in tongues. At that age it all seemed exciting, but though I went to Christian camps summer after summer, somehow never really got what was going on.

Later in life I decided to become an Anglican. Not for any pious reason really, but because there was this girl, you see. It seemed like a good enough reason at the time. Sunday after Sunday I got a ride from her parents, holding that secret hope, that full blown crush, deep within. Only one day that little secret, those hidden feelings, slipped. Red faces, and uncomfortable expressions all made it clear that I had better find God somewhere else.

Through high school, there was a prayer group in the mornings. Sometimes they would invite me to church, but their fierce predilection towards hellfire and brimstone, and fervent stories of three-day pray-a-thons in crowded stadiums, transported by holy bliss all had me heading on, elsewhere. I distrusted that sort of fervency, preferring the safety of my books, my thousand page epics which never failed to reassure me, calm me, and transport me. I believe that the moment I knew I had to move on was when a member of that prayer group told me, in all seriousness, "just tell me your schedule, and I will find you. Wherever you are, any time, day or night, and we will pray together." I'm sure he was quite earnest in his way, but his earnestness and my willingness to have my life taken over by that earnestness were far different things. So I left.

Later, I became a Catholic. No Saul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus conversion for me. Just an Italian girl who told me in no uncertain terms that to marry her, I was going to have to convert. Being in a Catholic high school at the time, it made sense. So every week for a year I went to a meeting with my sponsor, a teacher and mentor from my school, a man who was helping me into the faith, and a man who would later briefly introduce me to the world of Amway, and stadiums filled with the faithful preaching of commerce, God, and family, in that order.

While the Amway bit just wasn’t for me, I stuck with the program, the Roman Cathloic Initiation of Adults, and when Easter arrived, standing in a church full of well wishers and worshipers, I accepted the Catholic faith. The next year I went to university, and a year later that Italian girl and I parted ways.

As my time in university wound to a close, I eventually met the girl I would marry. It turned out she was a Catholic, and would only marry a Catholic to boot. Which, in a way, seemed like nothing more than pure providence. As far as I knew, my membership in the church was still valid, so we went to mass together on Sundays, and I never failed to annoy her with my inability to remember any of the creeds, even though I could sit, kneel, and stand with the best of them.

They say that the young and the old are the most religious because they are the closest to God. There seemed truth in that to me, and being neither very young, nor very old, I couldn't say as I felt close to God at all. Until there came that dark night of the soul that changed it all.

When we had been married for about six months, we learned that our fist child was on the way. But at that time, due to visa restrictions, my wife couldn't work, and the hours at my job had been cut in half, and eliminated entirely a month later. I was scrambling for work, jumping at anything that paid, but it never was enough. We kept falling behind on everything, barley making our rent, just scraping by until the end of the line arrived. It was the 28th of the month, in the dead of winter, January, as I lay unsleeping at night, enduring a level of stress I had never experienced before in my life.

We were broke. Completely and absolutely broke. For myself, being broke was not something new. I'd begun living on my own when I was sixteen, and knew what it was to have little or nothing from week to week, or month to month. Alone, the stress of my situation would not have bothered me much, but I wasn't alone anymore, I had a wife, and a child on the way. I had responsibilities, and I was entirley failing to take care of them. As I lay there, in the dark, I found myself completely debilitated by worry. I had no idea where the next rent payment was going to come from. In fact, we had so little money left, that earlier that day I had to shamefacedly admit to my wife that I didn't even know if we could even afford bread the next day. And that night I could see it all - the car would be taken away, we'd lose everything, and probably end up on the street.

That night I couldn't sleep, feeling overwhelmed, and for the furst time in my life, completely at a loss for what to do. My wife, who had never been in that situation her whole life, whose parents had always taken care of things, even shouldering the full cost of her years at university, was in tears. Her parents were half a world away, in financial straights themselves at that moment, while my parents were either unable or unwilling to lend a hand.

It was just us, alone, and the raging winter winds outside our window.

As flimsy as this sounds, as Hallmark movie-of-the-week as it seems, I swear I found God that night. I began to pray, but as I prayed, I felt like a charlatan, a fake, a fraud. There were so many things, good, bad, and indifferent that I had done in my life, but what haunted my mind most was not what I expected.

When I was five years old, wanting to impress friends, I'd taken my mother's old nickels, coins from around the world that she had collected in her years at the bank. I buried them in the ground in the woods near my home, and drew a "treasure map" and made it look old. I then told my friends I'd found a map to buried treasure. We dug up the "treasure chest," and I tried to act like one of those kids from the Goonies, amazed at what I was seeing. I could sense they didn't believe a word of it, that they thought the whole thing was a pathetic scam. So I took them to the store and used my "treasure" to buy them some chocolate bars.

I remembered my time as a Sea Cadet, in an elite summer program known as PL, or Practical Leadership. Crawling under wire, through the mud, I decided to be a funny guy and make a joke about my commanding officer, standing near by. He heard and asked me what I had said. Mutely I tried to pretend I hadn't heard him. When he told me he'd heard, and just wanted me to admit it, my heart sank. In his eyes there was nothing so pathetic. All I needed to do was admit what I'd done, and he would have judged me a man. But I hadn't, and I wasn't.

Scene after scene of things petty and small, the tiny infractions that one shrugs off as beneath notice, came to me. In that dark night, wife finally asleep, winds unabated outside, those old memories of many failings loomed large before me. The guilt for things so petty almost subsumed me. I saw clearly who I was, and it was someone that I hadn't really known. I'd thought of myself as the kind of guy who tool care of things, was a stand up, straight up guy, but the evidence being paraded before me in the court of my own mind said otherwise.

Shame is what I felt. I wanted to stop praying, feeling a fool for my temerity. But hearing my wife's now steady breath as she slept, and knowing that I had no answers, no plans, no ideas left that could help us, I prayed anyway.

And he answered, or at least I like to think he did. The next day, they very next day, Revenue Canada had deposited my GST rebate in my bank account. It was a sizeable amount, more than enough to solve our immediate problems. Three months later I learned that they they had made a mistake, but we had passed out point of crisis. By then I had four jobs I was juggling, and while we we're still only treading water, we were no longer drowning.

Today, almost three and half years later, living well with a good job, two wonderful children, a third on the way, and a wife who calls me at work every day to tell me all the stories about the sorts of mischief our little ones are getting into, I realized something. I'd been a Catholic for years, but I had never really believed in God.

Now, I think I do.

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