I was on a date this past summer when the young lady across from me asked if I held any religious convictions. I replied, “They haven’t been able to pin anything on me yet, see?” By the look on her face I sensed that her question had been sincere, not to mention my Edward G Robinson bit had fallen flat. I took a few moments before replying that while I did not subscribe to any one religion I also did not close myself off to the possibility that, somewhere in the universe there may indeed be a benevolent deity. Alas it was not enough to salvage the date, which sunk faster than the Andrea Gail. After boarding the bus and passing a gaunt looking fellow dressed in camo and suspiciously stroking a ripe banana in his lap, I contemplated the life choices that had lead me to this moment. It was the usual mixture of regret and self-pity that follows in the wake of such a failed enterprise. What did surprise me though was how quickly I transitioned back onto the question of my own beliefs. I strove towards deeper understanding as I sat, huddled in my seat, headphones on and practically Eskimo kissing the crack in the window so as to relieve the aroma of marijuana and ass emanating from the aforementioned gentleman with camo and banana.
The last time I put any serious thought into God was on Christmas Eve of 2014. The woman I was seeing at the time invited me to join her for a Christmas Eve mass at The Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in downtown Burlington. She was going to be singing with the choir and I very much wanted to hear that so I decided to go. At the time I was living in a ramshackle two bedroom apartment down at the bottom of King Street. I remember standing in front of the smudged mirror in the fading light of my bedroom, desperately trying to remember how to properly knot a tie. I had opted for my best brown suit, hoping to make a good impression after the unfortunate hangover I’d had a breakfast that morning. I walked out the door and down the creaky wooden steps on the side of the building. In summer months there was a fresh, fragrant sea breeze coming from the lake but by now that had turned to the damp, chilly wind of Burlington in December.
It was drizzling and the street lamps had an eerie glow as I shoved my hands in my pockets and climbed the slope towards Cherry Street. To my right exclusive condominiums and posh hotels climbed into the darkened sky while on my left a familiar vagrant roamed, looking for a place to hide from the uncompromising chill. My walk was slow and gaited but I made it to the cathedral square. The church was an enormous (by Vermont standards) concrete structure. I cautiously hiked up the grass and approached the large window that looked into the sanctuary. In the corner was a colorful and ornamented fifteen foot Christmas tree. Just to the right of it was the assembled choir, shimmering in brilliant red robes and swaying as if one body. I entered the church and, upon seeing the lower level packed to capacity sheepishly took my program and retreated to the balcony. Thankfully it was scantily occupied and I slid into a corner. The choir began singing ‘O Holy Night’ and the chill of the evening was replaced by the warmth of the collective souls gathered, the soft glow of the candles held alight and the comfort of the incense that filled the room as the thurible swung its way towards the alter.
It was indeed a beautiful sight behold, one which caused me to close my eyes and peacefully recall the ghosts of my own Christmas’ long since passed. Eventually though the music died away as it must, and regardless of how well spoken, thoughtful and even topical the remarks that followed were, my moment was lost. Even with the small sampling size of the sparse balcony benches, I looked upon the parishioners and saw deep within their eyes the indelible spark of belief. I couldn’t believe I was thinking this in a church of all places, but in my heart I had such a powerful envy of them. No matter how jaded, cynical or angry we as human beings become, I believe most everyone alive craves acceptance in at least some capacity. The man next to me smiled and tipped his candle into mine to light the flame. The music filled my ears once more and as the wax gently found its way down the candle, so the tears did down my face.
How could I, in the presence of such immaculate beauty and genuine fellowship, feel so hollow, so alone? Was I defective somehow? Was I so broken inside, so damaged that I was beyond the recall of salvation and doomed to this spiritual emptiness? I tried desperately to recall any one particular moment when I lost my religion, but the more I searched the more I became cognizant of the fact that one cannot lose what one never possesses to begin with. I remember my mother religiously shepherding me to Catholic mass at our Franciscan parish as a child. I can vividly recall the musical director borrowing generously from the time signature of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ for his spirituals and the wonderful brown robes the fathers wore that hearkened to Friar Tuck, but for the life of me I could not recall any moment of epiphany or accepting of the Holy Spirit into my heart. I can honestly say that I spent most of my time in church waiting for the service to be over so we could go to the 7-11 for a Slurpee. When I wasn’t thinking about that, I was thinking about something funny and desperately trying not to laugh and incur the wrath of my mother. There was never any true belief in my heart, not because my mother, the fathers and the Holy Spirit failed at inspiring it in me, but rather because I could never inspire it in myself, and I stopped going to church not long after my mother’s death because I didn’t see the point in feigning belief for the sake of appearances. However, despite all this I could not say that I was entirely without belief in a higher power, and one incident in particular came to mind as the congregation rose to its feet for another chorus.
It was a particularly chilly night some five years earlier. I had just finished the closing shift at Sears and was driving home from the U-mall in South Burlington. I was tired and frustrated, having spent most of the evening dealing with grown men and women who seemed to have regressed back to the terrible twos. Clothes were flung, tantrums were had and shoe boxes mysteriously acquired chocolate based accessories. I climbed into my freezing black Civic and tuned into the radio station hell bent on ruining the Rolling Stones for me. I placed one ill-fitting glove hand on the steering wheel, shoved the other under my thigh and pulled away. I cannot pretend that I had deep thoughts on that trip home. I was twenty two and not getting laid at the time so, more likely than not, I was thinking about the handle of Captain Morgan stashed away in my closet and logging onto “Call of Duty” for a while to chase the blues away.
I had just passed the Williston exit on I-89, heading towards Richmond. The Civic groaned uphill. I had set the cruise control to 70mph but was barely breaking 60. Lousy old hunk of junk! I pressed my foot down on the accelerator to help the old girl up the final stretch. Almost immediately I knew something had gone wrong. I was sloping down into the little valley before French Hill at an alarming rate of speed. The back of my throat became cold and clammy. I threw both of my gloves off and white knuckle gripped the wheel. I took my foot off the gas and pumped the break but to no avail. I got up to 95mph before slamming the breaks as hard as I could. Even with my foot down jammed down on the brake pedal I was still going 55mph. I reached down and pulled the floor mat back, thinking the accelerator might have gotten stuck on it. That too failed. The car was vibrating to a nauseating degree, the noise from the engine was drowning out the radio and I could smell the tires burning. I was going to die that night, the only question was whether my breaks would fail and turn me into a two ton missile or if the tires were going to blow and flip the car.
I briefly contemplated calling 9-1-1 to report myself speeding but, in the end there was only one voice I wanted to hear. When my dad picked up the phone I tried as best I could to explain the situation I found myself in. He immediately began advising me on what I needed to do (for those of you looking to glean something useful, you hold the break, shift the car into neutral, put your flashers on and allow the car to gradually stop as you move towards the side of the road. It could very well damage your engine but it will save your life). At the time though I could not focus on what my father was saying. All I could think about was making sure I said goodbye and hanging up the phone before I crashed so he wouldn’t have to listen to it happen. Then came the damnedest, most inexplicable moment of my life. The accelerator suddenly released and the car began to slow down. For a moment I sat frozen, my mouth agape and the bottom of my flip phone wedged between my right shoulder and ear. Only my father’s raised voice broke the stupor. I managed to croak out that I was slowing down, I was ok.
It is rarely in such moments that the enormity of what has happened is apparent, only afterwards when reality hits, and emotions flood your senses is everything illuminated. I had a lot of conflicting emotions when I got home that night, some of which are irrelevant to the story and others that belong only to me. The one thing I can tell you is that night, for the first time in my life I genuinely believed in the possibility that higher powers beyond our understanding might be at work. Now did I awake the next morning and find religion? Certainly not, but never again could I so easily dismiss religion as I had once before. So where did that leave me, being neither a devoted skeptic nor believer? As the service ended and we were bade go in peace, I filed down the stairs in search of my girlfriend. When I found her and we embraced, she asked how I had liked the service. How could I possibly articulate all that had crossed my mind over the course of that evening? I couldn’t, so I smiled and thanked her for inviting me as we put on our jackets and walked together into the quiet of the night.
.For me the question of religion is an ongoing, intense, and deeply personal examination of my own convictions and belief system that will last a lifetime. That’s the way it ought to be. Too often in our history, religion has been manipulated and mutilated into a tool of recruitment and reproach. Too often it has been a justification for unspeakable acts committed against our fellow human beings. I somehow highly doubt that the architects behind the various holy scriptures ever intended their text to be used to sanction such atrocities, none of which I will be listing here. Ideally, any one religion is when a community of people who share in the same beliefs comes together to pray with and support each other. To my mind that is perfectly healthy. But when any one sect decides that they must impose their beliefs upon others, that I consider a malignancy that the world would be better off without. All I or anyone else could ask is that we be allowed to explore what, if any role spirituality will play in our lives, free from any undue pressure or influence from those determined to convert or defeat anybody not already aligned with their own beliefs.