I grew up about a quarter-mile away from the University of Notre Dame in a creekside brick Tudor home with an acre of lawns and big trees.
If this sounds great, it wasn’t. Almost the whole time we lived in that house, I was enrolled in Catholic schools and hated it. I lived through six-and-a-half years of mean-nun hell.
All Catholicism ever did for me as a kid was to make me feel bad about myself. The church taught me I was born in a state of “original sin” and were it not for their ritual of baptism my soul would have been hellbound—or, if I had died as a baby before the sacrament, I’d have been damned to Limbo, a boring place where the souls of babies sleep in a perpetual vegetative state. Either way, the church said, you were screwed without them.
The church conditioned me, through its ritual of weekly confession, to think of my life as one damnable sin after another—a rather gloomy view of existence, don’t you agree? In a perverse way, however, the prospect of easy absolution also encouraged me to view life as offering an endless string of opportunities for carefree sin, of which I availed myself repeatedly with mindless ardor. As long as I remained within the church’s net and made it to confession every Saturday, I had little skin in the deal. I could still look like Mr. Perfect and take communion on Sunday.
As soon as I realized I was able to, though, I left the church and never looked back. The only times I’ve ever been sentimentally tempted to reconsider my chosen path have been on those fewer and fewer visits to my old home town. Since my mother died fifteen years ago, the only times I’ve returned was to attend a couple Notre Dame football games in my great-grandfather’s 50-yard-line seats, which my family still owns after more than seventy-five years.
My last visit there was last November for the Navy game. It erased forever any lingering doubts. The University has mestasticized into an industrial-strength campus much different from the Bells-of-St. Mary’s place I remember so fondly as a boy. My own guild-laced memories, combined with the revelations of clergy child sex abuse scandals in the US and now in Ireland, have amply reinforced my decision to move on. Seeing Notre Dame on this last visit home helped me see, once and for all, the church for what it is: Big Business.
In South Bend the church has taken the concept “fishers of men” to new heights. Notre Dame has turned into a sprawling, university-gothic-on-steroids complex on the scale of River Rouge but without the smokestacks. I don’t care if I never go back.
I had been accepted there and was actually planning to attend Notre Dame before I changed my mind about it and Catholicism. While making a painting at age 18, I remember seeing just a brief glimmer of what I was to eventually discover in a stunning moment of profound insight. Unfortunately, it was a thread which remained unexplored in the hangover which followed my early intoxication with the church.
The vision did not re-emerge for me until twenty years later when, at age 38, I met Jim and Ellie Newton, a man and wife from Fort Myers, who claimed me as a “grandson” and introduced me to the concept of non-intermediarianism in religion or, more precisely, in one’s spiritual relationship with God.
They pointed out that religions almost always position their clergy and institutions between the individual and God as a “one true church.” Since the beginning of time, like fishermen netting spawning salmon in a river, the priests have known that one of the strongest urges of man is to achieve unity with God and all creation and, most especially, a connection between the individual and God.
I have since come to think of the church as basically a system of diversion gates and entrapment ponds which takes advantage of the blind desire of human “fish” to make their ways to God. Since the beginning of human history, priests have created sacred texts, stage-set temples and churches, doctrines, laws, and rituals as paraphanelia for shunting, diverting, and controlling human perception and behavior. In this way they dominated the masses and the mass mind. Even the kings of old could not be crowned without the intercession of the church.
Jim and Ellie were personal friends of at least one such king and queen (and at least one prince of the church), and they taught me that intermediarianism is a strategic sham regularly perpetrated by the powerful in government, banking, and religion. They told me we individuals can do more by ourselves than we may think. They said that each of us can establish a direct connection with God—a palpable, numinous, life-changing connection—any time we want. They showed me how. It is not difficult. They showed me that each of us has had the innate ability to connect with God since the day we were born.
God, they said, is like a radio station that is always broadcasting. All you need to do is tune in and listen, and heed the flawless directions you receive. That was twenty-four years ago, and since then my life has never been the same.
Seven years ago I met Paul at the coffee shop in Marathon. He had come in from the wind and rain while traveling cross-country from San Antonio to California on his bicycle. Each day, reading and quoting Tolstoy and Ghandi, he was guided by the same inner “voice” Jim and Ellie had taught me to hear. Paul was the first person I’d met since Jim and Ellie who self-evidently took the idea of following the Guidance of God so seriously. Then, as now, he seemed to have been a literal godsend in my life.
Paul has been living with me off and on for seven years. He has the gifts of foresight and healing, and he is inventive with his mind and hands. He can build or fix anything; the work here at Estrella Vista would not be moving forward without him. He is as a son to me, and he well tolerates my quiet, monkish ways.
The main thing I find challenging about living with Paul is listening to the daily news headlines interspersed with explanations about how this or that latest outrage or statistic or natural disaster relates to an End Times sequence of events foretold in the Book of Revelations. Paul has the whole Bible memorized and sees in it prophesy as well as hidden codes, guideposts, and formulas for achieving enlightenment and union with God. Paul seems to welcome every misfortune as a milepost marking the approach of a dawning Age of Enlightenment. I do not discourage his ideas because I believe Paul was sent to me so I might learn from him and his example. But this doesn’t mean I must always find it enjoyable living with a Jeramiah who is always quoting scriptures that I associate with an unhappy period in my life.
I personally believe the sun will rise on the morning of December 22, 2012 (or any other day-after which may be scheduled as the end of the world). Paul believes this, too. Yet, as Paul is quick to point out, the sun will likely rise on a very different world than we live in today.
If and when that day arrives, people will be motivated to turn to the religions of their childhood for answers which might assuage their fears. If they can find such solace in organized religion, I will not begrudge them any comfort they may find there. As for me, however, I need only listen in silence for that voice deep within that will never betray my trust and faith.
As Paul so often tells me. “The Kingdom of God Is Within You.”