Mystery and the Sacredness of Life
Roman Catholicism and the Marian Miracles
I grew up in a 1950s Roman Catholic culture in which I was taught that a virgin gave birth to Christ. I was later told that, several centuries later, the same virgin, Mary, appeared to a select group of barely literate, impoverished Portuguese children at a place called Fatima. Secrets were to have been revealed to these children, the specifics of which, to the best of my recollection, neither my elementary school teachers, nor my pastor ever revealed.
The dogma of the virgin birth was complemented by the infallible ruling of a nineteenth century pope that Mary was taken to heaven, body and soul. This dogma is celebrated in the church as the feast of the Assumption.
The Catholic Church, an untiring supporter of these Marian miracles, added to the repository of these mysterious events by claiming that Mary was to have been conceived without sin (the Immaculate Conception) and that she was to have received a visit by an angel announcing to her that she would be the mother of Christ, the Messiah (the Annunciation).
These miraculous happenings obviously violated all the laws of nature known to me and to scientists of my generation. And yet, I accepted them, without question, as part of my Roman Catholic heritage.
The Incarnation, the Resurrection, and Transubstantiation
I also accepted the other more fundamental tenets of my faith—the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and Transubstantiation. The Incarnation and Resurrection stories were daily repeated in the “Apostles Creed” of the Roman Catholic Mass: “And He was made flesh from the Holy Spirit” and “On the third day, He rose from the dead.”
Transubstantiation is the theological article of Roman Catholic faith that Christ exists, body and blood, within the wafer of Holy Communion.
During my pre-pubescence, there was something very sacred in walking to the communion rail almost every day to receive holy communion. I was assured by confident priests and nuns that Christ’s body and blood were indeed inside the communion wafer, in spite of all physical evidence to the contrary. This eating-of-the-god ritual became for me the closest experience to transcendence that I remember having as a pre-adolescent.
The Soul as a Depleting Gas-Tank of Spiritual Sustenance
God was literally inside me almost every day, so I believed. I would be daily nourished by divine grace, grace that would ward off all temptations, grace that would connect me to a spiritual force that could withstand all seductions.
Paradoxically, however, I just assumed that, as the days of the week wore on, the abrasive force of sin would wear me down until Saturday afternoon or Saturday night when I could “cleanse” myself of sin by going to confession.
I think it would be accurate to say that, as an elementary school kid, I saw my soul as a kind of gas tank—full on Sunday, empty by Saturday. I, literally, believed that a week in the world (about five or six days) would prove that my spiritual endurance level, my psychic survival rate, would always prove to be at low tide by Saturday. It became the inevitable reality of my ten year old life that I would always be on empty by the end of the week.
Marian miracles, life-after-death narratives, the descent-and-sacrifice of-a-god story, spiritual sustenance myths—these comprised so much of my living-the-dream of otherworldliness that I cherished as a kid.
A Child’s Need For Order, Mystery, and Nurturing
I also needed order as a child, some form of constancy that I could depend on, no matter how lacking my otherworldly life was of any empirical evidence. I was inside my shell of comfort. That’s all that mattered.
That need for order, predictability, and constancy would take me down a road of surrender that I later would discover was not unusual for those of who are high maintenance, psychologically.
Ironically, I have always prided myself on being intellectually independent, even radical in my thinking. And yet I willingly surrendered to the entire edifice of Roman Catholic theology throughout much of my young adulthood. I can only assume that I needed to live inside the worlds of mystery and the inexplicable, justifying those worlds as forms of a higher reality. After all, I believed I had a higher calling in life. And that calling could only be special if the cosmos of my beliefs were beyond the reach of the rational.
But, like every other child, I also needed to be safe, to know that my parents would always be there to protect me, that the world would have consistency and predictability, that people could be counted on.
The Roman Catholic church fulfilled all of those roles for me. The clergy, especially the nuns, were all kind and supportive. They would become my surrogate parents, talking to me quietly, writing with perfect penmanship, organizing all knowledge on the blackboard in Roman numerals, small and capital letters, and Arabic numbers ( I remain convinced, by the way, that I was drawn to teaching because I believed everything—I mean everything—could be explained on a blackboard in neat categories and sub-categories and, of course, with perfect penmanship.)
It was the safe world of Roman Catholicism that enabled me to surrender to all the mysteries and miracles of that faith. And I was also a willing participant in the learning environment of my Catholic elementary school days that taught me the world could be understood, that it could be reduced to easily defined categories and subcategories on a blackboard.
Needless to say, I was hooked.
Infallibility and the Certainty that Protestants Were Hell-Bound
All of this may explain why I never questioned the entire Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. I believed in my heart and soul that if the pope decreed that Mary was “assumed” into heaven, body and soul, then that was what had happened. The pope said it was true. Therefore, it could not be false.
It was never defined as a dogma that must be believed under the threat of hell; however, I definitely believed in my youth that Protestants were going to Hell (a belief derived from the famous “there-is-no-salvation-outside-the-church” school of thought that was so popular during the 1950s).
That is not to say I was wary of playing kick the can with my Protestant friends across the street. Or of being seduced into dark, sexual secrets by my Protestant cousin from Ohio. My thinking at the time could be split into two screens: on one screen was the Inferno pit I imagined all Protestants going to after death; on the other, was the here-and-now reality that Wayne, across the street, could playfully and competently kick a can and that my cousin would seductively try to tempt me into looking at pornographic playing cards (My cousin, by the way, was concerned that I would be forced to mention names when I made my confession. I assured him the whole process was anonymous).
I also had this kid’s notion that Protestants had nothing to lose. They were all going to hell in a hand basket anyway, so why wouldn’t they be more easily seduceable. Oh, the webs we weave.
The Arrogant Special Status Given to the Miraculous
So, what happens when, as St Paul says, we “put away the things of the child.”? When did I begin to figure out that my attraction to the whole panoply of faith doctrines and mysteries was a form of spiritual arrogance. A faith based on miracles, I came to believe, was a faith that had a built-in certitude that all other spiritual journeys could not compete with. Since it was a faith beyond reason and the laws of nature, it could not be taken to task. For it had that special status of the inexplicable that only fools would question.
Mystery, after all, does have its advantages. It doesn’t need proof. It doesn’t have to be explained. A divinity does not have to justify. And that same divinity is under no obligation to perform miracles on call. He can pick and choose, so to speak.
It is that arbitrariness that I came to suspect was used by many religious experts to prove that the divine is beyond all human reckoning. Keep saying that over centuries, and you develop a cult-of-miracles-and-mysteries following that will go to the ends of the earth to defend the inexplicable as a special ontological dimension that humans have no business interfering with or questioning.
That dimension of course, is left to religious experts who claim that miracles are a result of a divinity’s direct intrusion upon nature. The tautological circle is then complete: miracles happen because of a god and that god exists because miracles occur.
It would be arrogant of me to try to wipe the slate of the natural world clean of all mysteries. But mystery, in my judgment, does not rest in sacred texts or traditions created by humans, although those with a literary bent have to admit that sacred stories and myths contain a kind of sacredness in the telling, if not in the ingenuity of their tellers and creators. And few would disclaim the nurturing and consoling nature of a familiar sacred tune or passage from a sacred text.
The Miracles of the Natural World and Life’s Daily Routines
The real mystery and miracle that exists for me is in the world that is all around me: the seasons; gravitation; the near perfect rhythm of the earth turning on its axis; the natural ritual of conception, birth, growth, fragility, death; and now, the discovery of sub-atomic fields and particles as we wait for the potential discovery of more dimensions beyond the three that already give us enough headaches.
Today, I am on a very, very different spiritual journey. I consider the very space that I occupy one of the most sacred places of my small universe. That holy space expands when I bring in more people and experiences into my life. And it expands even more with literature, music, and art.
The sacred space of my daily routines has a richness and fullness that, too often, I take for granted—reading, writing, cleaning, talking to my children on the phone, shopping, going out to dinner with a friend, listening to one friend sharing her discouragement with chronic pain or another over his frustration with his job.
And when that particular space is interrupted with illness or a trip to the emergency room, I call that brief experiential blip, “life interrupting life.” It’s all part of the sacred space of just being alive. I cannot ask for more.
The Mystery of Life’s Final Interruption
Am I prepared for the final interruption? There are days when I am confident that I will willingly surrender to what Hinduism calls moksha (release). That willingness, I believe, comes from the knowledge that I have lived the fullest life that I could have lived.
I am sure, on the other hand, that I will probably want one more stab at life. Nostalgia runs deep in my soul. And, if I am not in too much distracting pain, I will grieve over not being able to participate in the many conversations of my life (written and oral) or to hug someone, or to whimsically smile at the innocence of my grandchildren, or to hear the voices of my adult children over the phone, or to see one more beautiful object, or…….
I think you get the point. I will miss life and all of its tender sacredness.