Sneaking back to Church

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic ChurchThe toll of Sunday church bells clears away the fog of early morning. A zombie, wearing slept-in basketball shorts and stained T-shirt, I shuffle in flip flops to mass at the the church a block away.

I look at my feet and wonder what is happening as they take me across a hushed street, up steps and through a Spanish archway. I’m late so I crouch into the nearest seat. My interruption is covered by organ music. Maintaining my irreverence credibility I slide my butt back and forth like a toddler on a pew polished smooth by decades of pious asses. 

I feel slightly dizzy–unmoored–like when I forget which direction I’m going. Can’t remember when  I last attended mass and I’m unclear about what I expect. I guess something other than burrowing in a dark room for days, torturing myself over what I could have done different, how I didn’t see it coming.

This colorful, spacious church is different from the stoic, small-town brick house of prayer in which I grew up– but oh so familiar: the smells, the music, the cadence of prayers.

 I like the pastor immediately. His voice makes me comfortable. It’s his last Sunday. He is retiring. He speaks easily and unsentimentally to the parishioners he’s served for 20 years about turning over his ministry to a new priest.

Having no expectations begins to feels like freedom, less self-conscious. Freedom is a new experience for me inside the formality of a Catholic Church, I realize, not listening to the lector reading from the Epistle of Paul.

Long lapsed and out of favor I ease back in my seat during the kneeling parts, still remembering the words. Comfortable with the mystery of doubt, I’m agnostic about what they profess.

I’m experiencing the beautiful buzz where holiness and heresy meet.

But like the alcohol that killed her, this high won’t last and it won’t wash away the pain..

“Who do you think I am?” Jesus asks from the Sunday reading.

I settle in. I enjoy playing amateur biblical scholar.

It’s a trick question, I interpret on the fly. The Apostles’ answers don’t matter. Jesus, a man, a teacher, a friend has done his best; he has no expectations or claim to what comes next. What they do with his teachings and his name — spread peace or wage war, open hearts or close minds– is beyond his control.

Who do you think I am? he asks, knowing what they will seek in his name: whatever they most desire.

I don’t wait around for the bread and wine forbidden to me by church law

Grace has found me.

 

 

Tidings of Acceptance and Peace

cropped-lanterns.jpgThe first hint of silliness came from a coworker who said “Bless you,” when I sneezed. She waited, expecting a thank you, like a bellhop looking for a tip.

She became further irritated later when she sneezed and I didn’t bless her.  I don’t think Pope Gregory the Great, who started this little superstition during the Bubonic Plague, expected it to become contentious. And if Medieval denizens were correct, my soul might have escaped through my nose when I sneezed, so I had more important things to worry about.

In an effort not to offend, I wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, or Merry Holidays. I hope I’m covered. Oh, and Happy Saturnalia to my pagan friends. Sorry Jews, you haven’t made enough fuss, and Hanukkah came too early this year.  And Kwanza, well people who celebrate that are used to being ignored.

Some Christians (too many)– in a world filled with real problems — are again grinding their teeth about the expression “Happy Holidays,” which is not a new expression. I remember it when I was a kid. I always assumed it was a succinct way to cover Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. I see it on Facebook: “If you still say Merry Christ then repost this…”

I’m not sure who’s not saying Merry Christmas, though. I hear it about 10 times a day. Our Muslim president said over and again on TV last week. My Jewish friend at work even said it to me.

There are rumors that atheists out there are snapping at every person who deigns to wish them a Merry Christmas, but I haven’t met these people. And I know atheists; I live in California. Legendary American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll, would probably have at most poked fun at Christmas’s lumbering presence. I’m sure he would have congenially said “Merry Christmas” back to well-meaning Christians. He made his point while keeping long friendships with his Christian opponents. Granted, atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins might take a crankier approach.

However, if non-Christians have any reason for discontent, it is the protest from Christians who feel they are being oppressed in a country where they are the overwhelming majority. It’s like the coach whose football team is up 60-3 and still complains to about officiating. I have never understood why any religion feels the need to be the one, true path to salvation. Likewise, why does the way someone celebrates or greets others at this time of year untitled.png1matter.

Several 24 hours ago, I stopped drinking. The first approach of Christmas was reason for anxiety. This was a season during which whiskey flowed and I had done more than my share of damage. On Christmas Eve I felt as fragile as a the decorations on the tree. I did my best to shrink Christmas like the wool Reindeer sweater your great aunt gave you. It was in my interest to watch it pass like any other day. I read a slender book by the environmentalist Bill McKibbens called the Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, in which he called for simplifying, and then simplifying more.  His advice was exactly what I needed as I tried to make a big, loud drunken holiday into something small, quiet and sober. A holiday that had promised regret and disappointment now was simple and reflective. I observed Christmas.

I have continued to be something of a wallflower at the Christmas dance, keeping my distance from the noise and size of the season.

I am not opposed to Christmas. It is my wife’s favorite time of the year. My children’s too. My daughter’s bedroom looks like a scene from the film “Elf.” We don’t live in a Christian country, but most Americans are Christian. This holiday will never hold the warmth, comfort and magic of childhood.  I sought that in  deceptive warmth of my special Christmas bottle (which ended up being bottles), but I always ended up filled with regret, and sorrow, a failed father who couldn’t remember his children opening presents.

I see no reason to concern myself that this season doesn’t fit my expectations. I have made it an exercise in acceptance, a reminder that all I have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. To do otherwise would be a waste of energy and peace of mind.

Christmas concerts have been renamed winter concerts. There are no more manger scenes or Christmas trees at schools. On the other hand there are no Menorahs or Stars of David either.

If parents are concerned about the presence of Jesus in their children’s lives, they can do something about that at home. Those who clamor for Christmas and prayer in their schools claim they are only concerned about their children, but I suspect they want things the way they used to be, when they were kids. This desire is as old as civilization. The result is, too. The only thing that stays the same is change. No matter how much we want it–no matter how much whiskey I drank– we’re not going back. The reason is, the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t know any different, except from our stories, and those get boring after a time. They don’t care what their concerts are called. Mostly, they don’t want to sing in them. They don’t notice that there are no Christmas decorations at school. They have them at home.

When we look a little deeper at the past we will find that things weren’t as different back then as we remember. Our parents talked a lot about times gone by.

Our kids share one very important thing with us. We didn’t care much about what our parents did when they were young either.

All we wanted to do was open our presents.

Now and at the hour of our death

This is a work of fiction.

He returns from the daydream, and is lost in the chant of Morning Prayer. Pressing his finger to the page he finds his place in the text. Awkwardly he edges back into the singing, drawing cringes from the monks standing next to him. He is tone deaf and his voice buzzes and bobs like a discombobulated June bug as his brother monks lift their rich, well-rehearsed voices on a ribbon of prayer to the ceiling of the basilica. Undeterred, Brother Lucius singsimagesBKZGVSUA with enthusiasm that would make St. Benedict proud. But he thinks with a hidden grin that his voice might cause the 1,500 year-old saint to rise and appear in the Church, bewildered at what had woken him so rudely from his slumber.

Brother Lucius shifts from cheek to cheek on the seat of the oak choir stall and tugs at his habit, snug over his plump belly. The black garment is not his preferred monastic garb. Underneath, he is wearing the true vestments of his calling, a T-shirt, denim overalls, and work boots. The other monks have come to accept the pungent smell emanating from Lucius, a familiar perfume of dried sweat, grease, motor oil and dust. His face smudged black, callused hands permanently stained. Crescent moons of dirt under fingernails from digging and scraping in gardens and orchards.

During the sign of peace, the one moment of intimacy in the monks’ Liturgy of the Hours, Brother Lucius forgoes the traditional embrace, perhaps to spare his confreres contact with his perpetually soiled habit, or maybe out of simple mischief. Instead, he sticks out one finger. Amused the monks return the gesture in E.T. fashion. Morning Prayer ends, the monks file out of the church. Brother Lucius sheds the habit. This morning, he pulled on an unblemished white T-shirt he bought at Wal-Mart and a stiff new Pioneer feed cap, as if he would be going somewhere special. He cinches the straps on his overalls and heads to the courtyard, still and silent within the high ramparts of the monastery like the mustering ground of a fort. It used to be crossed by two cobblestone sidewalks that met in the middle at a large Terra cotta fountain. The grass was mowed and a garden of flowers and manicured shrubs were tended by a large contingent of novices.

Vocations have dwindled at the Abbey in the past forty years and time has not been good to the courtyard. The fountain and sidewalks crumbled and eventually were carted away. Their pieces were hauled by wheelbarrows to the borders of gardens throughout the Abbey grounds or crushed into gravel for the road pinched between rows of live oaks to the ruins of the Abbey’s ancient dairy operation.

The shrubs in the courtyard died and were uprooted with chains. The hands of novices these days are soft from studying theology and cleaning bathrooms.  Now the courtyard is all Brother Lucius’s. He has answered the call by raising roses, rhododendrons, miniature pine trees and cherry blossoms. He nurtures a magnolia tree, and cares for bursting prisms of perennials. This morning his entire focus is on a small pine at the fringe of the yard. He waters it furiously, hoping to save it from rust corroding it’s branches. He quietly prays that it isn’t bark beetles.

Finished with watering, he returns to Common Room in the monastery for a cup of coffee. Anxious to get back to where God always awaits him, he rushes into the hallway leading toward the back porch. He hurries down the dark hallway and startles and elderly man emerging from an adjoining passage. Lucius greets the man but realizes something isn’t right. No one but monks are allowed in the cloister. The man doesn’t respond, but lifts something from his side. Lucius isn’t sure what strikes first, the electric jolt inside his ribcage or the ringing in his skull.  A muffled explosion echoes off the polished walls. He sags to the floor and looks at his outstretched hand. The tips of two fingers are missing. The man steps closer, his eye’s are pewter, holding no light. Lucius now recognizes the black of the rifle.  He pleads, No, don’t. Lucius feels bad for the man. He knows something terrible is happening. No, don’t, he says again, this time a whisper.

Brother Lucius is standing on the back porch of the monastery. A June breeze is carrying the faint aroma of manure from a pig farm on the ridge two miles to the north. He casually lifts the feed cap off his head and adjusts it like all farmers do, and wanders south past the Guesthouse. There is no one about, only a cardinal chiding him from a linden tree and silent robins divining for worms. It’s unusual for the Abbey grounds to be so empty on a warm spring day and he feels lonesome. Near the parking lot, he passes a white statue of Mary, brilliant in the morning sun. The Holy Mother holds her arms out, beckoning him to a maternal embrace. He thinks cheerfully of the rosaries he makes for the Abbey gift shop. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…” he says. The loneliness lifts.

Entering the walnut grove he is among friends. The old monk planted these trees as saplings four decades before. Now they provide shade to pilgrims who come to the middle of nowhere to find peace at his Abbey. He lovingly opened the path he is walking on now, not paved or graveled, but carpeted in soft grass. It moves unobtrusively, like an ocean jet stream through tallgrass and timber floor, to the spongy edges of moss-covered wetland. The trail climbs across sun-bathed ridges and through the apple orchard where Jesus could easily have led his Apostles.  One of the red-cheeked novices who helped build the trail is now in his 40s and gray around the temples. He runs the guesthouse, inscribed at the entrance with the words of St. Benedict: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Brother Lucius practices Benedictine hospitality by taking local farm children on hayrides in autumn and by baiting hooks for Catholic school students from the city who come to the Abbey to fish for bluegill and crappie.

Lucius enters a small stand of timber and is blinded by shadows.  He blinks his eyes in the muggy darkness and steps around muddy grass where a small stream trickles across the trail and pools in the cottonwoods. The glade is haunted by a dilapidated shack, not much bigger than a child’s playhouse. A shoddy Cross of St. Benedict hangs on the front door, faded to strained pink by years of weather. A small sagging porch hangs on for dear life. Spiders and centipedes have taken up residence. The Abbey hermitage hasn’t known human habitation for two decades. Father Placid, a delightfully odd monk, last lived there for a two year period. He slept on a cot, raising his food in a small garden that has since melted back into the forest floor. Brother Lucius occasionally visited Father Placid in the cool of the evening. He usually found the monk sitting on the porch with a childlike smile on his face, tapping his toe to music only he could hear. Father Placid was considered strange by many of the younger monks, who didn’t approve of the old monk’s use of marijuana, but Brother Lucius liked his strange confere, though they had little in common. The priest deemed himself a mystic, a spiritual descendent of the Desert Fathers, whose writings he had taught in the seminary. He studied Islam, Buddhism and Judaism, and he read Greek, Latin and Hebrew like a New York Times Best Sellers.  Placid was fascinated by extra-terrestrial life and loved the alien conspiracies bandied about on 2 a.m. radio talk shows, which he listened to on a transistor radio (his only concession to technology). Brother Lucius chuckles quietly at the thought of his friend, now in his 80s, tottering on a cane still spinning wild theories.

The trail leaving the timber climbs steeply into the Midwest sun. Brother Lucius is again blinded. He sympathizes with guests who often retreat from the humid ascent to the shade of the grove or the air-conditioned guest house. Lucius wipes a work-coarsened hand across his glistening brow and bends to massage his arthritic knee. His own Mount of Olives awaits. The ridge, baked dry by hostile summers, is balding at the top like Brother Lucius, combed over by bluestems, fescue and Indian grass.

He breathes deeply as he enters the apple orchard at the end of his climb, enjoying the familiar sticky sweet smell in the air. June drop, the trees discarding the apples left after harvest. He drags his feet between the trees,  kicking up rotting apples in the grass until he swears he can taste the pungent fruit on his tongue.

Brother Lucius looks down from the hillside on the Abbey lake where he goes alone when the darkness takes him. The doctors finally came up with a name for it. They told him he was bipolar. But he prefers what he had suspected for many years before the diagnosis. That he is so bound to nature, to the land and to the seasons, that the great joy he feels in the outdoors has come with a price. In the winter when cold and dark take the land, he knows he is closer to death. In the spring, nature is struggling to be reborn, mothers are giving birth and babies are fighting against their own birth. The shoots on trees are straining toward the sun. Growth is painful. Brother Lucius suffers with this knowledge. In summer when the world lazily marks time Lucius loses himself in long sweaty days, satisfied with the exhaustion from manual labor.  It is the only time of year that he sleeps soundly. When crisp fall evenings slice away the cottony heat and the land swells with abundance, melancholy settles on Lucius. He is spotted in the lengthening shadows of the woods, or trudging the lakeside in his Carhart jacket. He drifts silently away from the community, like the leaves falling from his precious trees.

A streak of lightning dissects the horizon. Emotions swells in his chest as they always do when tortured weather is about. He walks to the water, slides his hands comfortably into the bib of his overalls and gazes at the purple storm groaning toward him.

Lucius, or William as he was called as a child, is standing in the rain staring at the sky above his family’s farm outside Wichita, Kansas. A faint bark cuts through the hiss of the downpour. He swivels quickly and sees his father’s silhouette through the rain, near the storm cellar. William moves toward him and makes out his father frantically waving him toward door to safety. The obedient boy runs through the mud to where his father his holding the unwieldy door open. William drops into the cellar foxhole, his father ducks quickly behind him. Immediately, as if giving chase, what sounds like an assault of baseballs crashes into the cellar door. The hail stops so suddenly William’s ears lurch. William waits, his body like one tense muscle. He looks around at his mother, his younger brother and his father. Only his father, who looks no different than if he’s come in from another day milking cows, is breathing.  The silence is broken by a distant voice outside. His mother’s eyes widen, she squeezes William’s brother to her side. William’s father calmly walks to the top of the cellar, pries the door open and peers out. He turns and says, You boys don’t go near this door, and slips away. William notices a strange green stillness through the slamming door.

The wait for his father seems like hours . Without preamble, the storm erupts again. Terror rises like vinegar in the boy’s throat. The door to the cellar bounces like a bed in a horror movie. But more terrifying is the roar of a freight train above his head. Just like they had described it in school. Even though he has lived his whole life in “Tornado Alley” he has never been close to one. Now a twister is trying to rip his family from a root cellar. And his father is gone. He rushes past his mother to the top of the stairs o open the door, but something (a demon?) is pushing against him. He digs in against the top step and presses both shoulders against the door, head bowed beneath the weight. He thrusts upward, leaping out of the earth. The door breaks free for a moment. He peers for a moment out into an abyss of purple and black, tangling and boiling like evil. A crash of lightning splinters, clean and malicious, and he tumbles down the stairs.

An explosion ruptures the darkness.

Brother Lucius lies on the floor of the monastery. The thunder of the second shot surrounds him. His ears scream. He is sucking rapid gulps of oxygen but he can’t swallow fast enough. The old man stands over him,  rifle barrel cutting into his sternum. For a moment Lucius sees regret in the weary eyes, but then nothing. The man lifts the barrel from Lucius’s chest, struggles to gather it, then cradles it to his bosom. He turns away  and limps down the hallway. A cough, deep and ragged, bubbles to Lucius’s lips, and blood splatters onto his new white T-shirt.

Surrender is my superpower

There’s a certain surrender to a criminal background check. Even if I know they won’t find any sexual offenses or violent crimes, I hold my breath when the woman takes my fingerprints. I guess that feeling will never go away.images (1).jpgsurr

The woman smiles and says, “That’s it.” I joke about the high-tech way they do it now days,  like a mini-copy machine. No ink to wipe off my finger tips. I smile slightly as I reach my car. It’s nice to go free this time, clean fingers and a clean conscience.

The late great comedian George Carlin said, “I get a nice safe feeling when I see a police car and I realize I’m not driving around with a trunk full of cocaine.” 

That’s sort of the way I feel these days. When I see a police car, I enjoy the way my heartbeat remains steady.  The DUI is too old to be a concern on background checks. No beer cans to hold below the line of sight, no bottles under my seat.

Six and a half years ago, I really had no choice but to surrender. The highway patrolmen, his face about three inches from mine, demanded, “How much have you had to drink, Sir!” I think he already knew the answer well enough for his purposes. When you’re drinking out of a Big Gulp cup, you really don’t know how  to answer that one. I replied, “I don’t know.”

A few weeks later a group of people listened as I said those words in a different context.

“I don’t know how I  got here.”

“I don’t know how to stop drinking.”

It would take a while longer, but they nodded and smiled when I admitted “I don’t seem to know anything.”

I grew up in a culture of self-control. When I failed, I was told to work harder. My teachers, at every parent-teacher conference,  said I simply needed to apply myself. I tried and too often failed to “win” the pretty girl. My church told me to suppress my urges. I used to wonder if my good deeds would outweigh the impure thoughts and “self-abuse” when it came to the question of hell. When I developed “nervous tics” in junior high (not until my 30’s would I learn it was Tourette’s), a neurologist told me I was high-strung. Mind over matter. I could will myself to stop.

Surrender, quitting, giving in, was a sign of weakness.

I am not complaining. My childhood was like most. However, there are times in life when self-control, will power, hard work or mind over matter are not the answer.

For me it was drinking. I worked hard, didn’t show up late at the office. I didn’t even get hangovers. I told family and friends I could control it. I think people who are not alcoholics have a superpower. They might as well be able to leap a tall building in a single bound. They don’t have to say, “I can control it” anymore than they would insist that they can control themselves at a water fountain.

I could drink in moderation. Of course my idea of that was four drinks a night. I would stop at four each night until one night I didn’t.  I plowed on through to eight, or nine or maybe even 12. I gave it up for periods to show others that I could. Once I gave it up for Lent. It was pretty easy. But on Easter I embarrassed myself. I had willpower. Actually most alcoholics do. Problem was, for the stretches that I wasn’t drinking, all I could think about was that I wasn’t drinking.

I wrestled with this cunning, baffling chemical like Jacob and the angel. It’s been said that alcoholism is a low-level search for God. I believe that. Once in a while I would find that perfect buzz for a few precarious moments.  There was a longing in my drinking that felt sacred and traditional.

“If I had to offer up a one sentence definition of addiction,” said author Ann Marlowe, “I’d call it a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time…addiction can show us what is deeply suspect about nostalgia. That drive to return to the past isn’t an innocent one. It’s about stopping your passage to the future, it’s a symptom of fear of death, and the love of predictable experience. And the love of predictable experience, not the drug itself, is the major damage done to users.”

Toward the end of my drinking, I feared I might have ruined a good thing. But I refused to give up. I knew when the time came I would be able to stop.

I grew up understanding surrender as weakness, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that. However, nowhere in the dictionary definition is weakness mentioned.

Merriam-Webster: “to agree to stop fighting, hiding, resisting, etc., because you know that you will not win or succeed.”

Jonathan Franzen said, “It’s healthy to say uncle when your bone’s about to break.”

The second definition: “to give the control or use of (something) to someone else.” Alcoholism is a lonely condition. For that matter many of life’s travails are. Rugged individualism is overrated.

An Alcoholic is often described as a person with a huge ego and a tiny self-esteem. The ego said I have this under control. The self esteem said I can’t go on without it. Surrender said, I’m defeated, please help.

Surrender is a great relief in a world that demands that we hold onto life tightly with both hands. Surrender gives us permission to let go. It says we don’t always have to win. Today I can surrender the last word in an argument. Surrender allows me to slow down and let the aggressive driver have his waysurrender on the road. Surrender gives me patience. Surrender provides the humility to make amends. Surrender is the wisdom to go through grief rather than around it. Surrender is falling in love.

Perhaps its greatest gift is the ability to acknowledge fears and failure without dwelling on them.

It’s OK to look at the past, but it’s not polite to stare.

Surrender is the willingness to be rigorously honest.

Walt Whitman rejoices at the scientific spirit, “the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”

My background check hasn’t come back yet. There will be a six-year-old DUI on there which could cost me the job.

But on the bright side, I don’t have any cocaine in my trunk.

Tidings of acceptance and peace

cropped-lanterns.jpgThe first hint of silliness came from a coworker who said “Bless you,” when I sneezed. She waited, expecting a thank you, like a bellhop looking for a tip.

She became further irritated later when she sneezed and I didn’t bless her.  I don’t think Pope Gregory the Great, who started this little superstition during the Bubonic Plague, expected it to become contentious. And if Medieval denizens were correct, my soul might have escaped through my nose when I sneezed, so I had more important things to worry about.

In an effort not to offend, I wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, or Merry Holidays. I hope I’m covered. Oh, and Happy Saturnalia to my pagan friends. Sorry Jews, you haven’t made enough fuss, and Hanukkah came too early this year.  And Kwanza, well people who celebrate that are used to being ignored.

Some Christians (too many)– in a world filled with real problems — are again grinding their teeth about the expression “Happy Holidays,” which is not a new expression. I remember it when I was a kid. I always assumed it was a succinct way to cover Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. I see it on Facebook: “If you still say Merry Christ then repost this…”

I’m not sure who’s not saying Merry Christmas, though. I hear it about 10 times a day. Our Muslim president said over and again on TV last week. My Jewish friend at work even said it to me.

There are rumors that atheists out there are snapping at every person who deigns to wish them a Merry Christmas, but I haven’t met these people. And I know atheists; I live in California. Legendary American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll, would probably have at most poked fun at Christmas’s lumbering presence. I’m sure he would have congenially said “Merry Christmas” back to well-meaning Christians. Agreed,  atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins might take a crankier approach.

However, if non-Christians have any reason for discontent, it is the protest from Christians who feel they are being oppressed in a country where they are the overwhelming majority. It’s like the coach whose football team is up 60-3 and still complains to about officiating. I have never understood why any religion feels the need to be the one, true path to salvation. Likewise, why does the way someone celebrates or greets others at this time of year untitled.png1matter.

Several 24 hours ago, I stopped drinking. The first approach of Christmas was reason for anxiety. This was a season during which whiskey flowed and I had done more than my share of damage. On Christmas Eve I felt as fragile as a the decorations on the tree. I did my best to shrink Christmas like the wool Reindeer sweater your great aunt gave you. It was in my interest to watch it pass like any other day. I read a slender book by the environmentalist Bill McKibbens called the Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, in which he called for simplifying, and then simplifying more.  His advice was exactly what I needed as I tried to make a big, loud drunken holiday into something small, quiet and sober. A holiday that had promised regret and disappointment now was simple and reflective. I observed Christmas.

I have continued to be something of a wallflower at the Christmas dance, keeping my distance from the noise and size of the season.

I am not opposed to Christmas. It is my wife’s favorite time of the year. My children’s too. My daughter’s bedroom looks like a scene from the film “Elf.” We don’t live in a Christian country, but most Americans are Christian. This holiday will never hold the warmth, comfort and magic of childhood.  I sought that in  deceptive warmth of my special Christmas bottle (which ended up being bottles), but I always ended up filled with regret, and sorrow, a failed father who couldn’t remember his children opening presents.

I see no reason to concern myself that this season doesn’t fit my expectations. I have made it an exercise in acceptance, a reminder that all I have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. To do otherwise would be a waste of energy and peace of mind.

Christmas concerts have been renamed winter concerts. There are no more manger scenes or Christmas trees at schools. On the other hand there are no menorahs or Stars of David either.

If parents are concerned about the presence of Jesus in their children’s lives, they can do something about that at home. Those who clamor for Christmas and prayer in their schools claim they are only concerned about their children, but I suspect they want things the way they used to be, when they were kids. This desire is as old as civilization. The result is, too. The only thing that stays the same is change. No matter how much we want it, no matter how much whiskey I drank, we’re not going back. The reason is, the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t know any different, except from our stories, and those get boring after a time. They don’t care what their concerts are called. Mostly, they don’t want to sing in them. They don’t notice that there are no Christmas decorations at school. They have them at home.

When we look a little deeper at the past we will find that things weren’t as different back then as we remember.

Our kids share one very important thing with us. When we were young, we didn’t care what our parents did either.

All we wanted to do was open our presents.

 

 

 

Getting past this ‘God shit’: Recovery of an agnostic

Lost-Highway-In-Blogging

I believe in prophecy. Some folks see things not everybody can see.
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me.
I believe in miracles, something sacred burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing.
I believe in God, and God ain’t me.

Steve Earle

I didn’t have much starch in me the night I went to my first meeting. I had publicly humiliated myself, and more important, lost my way as a father, the only true moral compass I had left.  Alan (not his name), a recovering alcoholic, was gentle with me as he picked me up in his car. I was talking rapidly, nervous and eager to do this thing right, afraid of looking foolish. As we approached the doors, I stiffened and found what little bit of defiance I had left. “I don’t want any of this God shit,” I said.

Alan grinned kindly and said, “That’s Ok, you don’t have to think about that right now.”

No one enters those rooms on a winning streak. It was a strange mixture of fear, anger and brokenness that led me to the tables after 23 years of very determined and passionate drinking. A looming court date, a waiting jail cell, and a brutally honest court-ordered drug and alcohol counselor left me little wiggle room.

At the time I thought my agnosticism was principled. But If I’m honest, I was probably still looking for a way out. I had known for some time that my drinking was a problem. I had said it aloud to myself late at night when I was alone and at my worst. But now, despite all the evidence to the contrary, my brain was telling me to run.

I stayed that night. I kept coming back for a variety of wrong reasons. I wanted to show people that I wasn’t that guy, the drunk fool. I wanted to prove to my kids that I could change. I had to get that damn sheet signed for my probation officer. Through it all I flinched at each mention of God.

Eventually–I’m not sure when it changed–I was coming for the right reasons. Not for other people, but for myself.  I realized that if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to lose everything–even my life.  Tolerating a little God talk seemed a small price to pay.

Today, five and a half years later, I am still sober. I’m still not sure about God.

Almost a year into sobriety, when I was on the pink cloud of recovery, a friend who is a Benedictine monk asked me to define God. I said, “Oh, no, I’m not touching that.”

I felt my heart pounding as he pressed me: “Come on, try!”

I insisted that I was perfectly comfortable not naming my higher power. I’m not superstitious but I was still pretty fragile. I didn’t want to mess with a good thing.

But my friend wasn’t letting me off easy.

I thought for a moment and then looked at him. “It works,” I said, “That’s my answer. Whatever is keeping me sober is not me and it’s working.”

He grinned broadly, like I’d passed a theology exam.

I remember when I struggled with the second and third  of the 12 steps, I considered returning to church. A Catholic priest, who had been in recovery for a long time, warned me, “Don’t let it interfere with your sobriety.”

His message was that my relationship with the Church and my relationship with a higher power were two entirely different things and I shouldn’t confuse them, especially when the most important thing in my life was on the line.

For those who are curious, alcoholics and addicts who have found a daily reprieve through the 12 steps have admitted, in Step 1, that we are “powerless over alcohol and that our lives are unmanageable.” In Step 2 “we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

The italics are mine. Frankly, I never have gotten past the possibility and mystery in the word “could.” And I never needed to. My first sponsor asked me if I could accept that it was possible, not even likely, that something greater than myself could restore sanity to my life. Of course, I admitted, there was the slightest possibility.

I’ve stayed sober for a lot of 24 hours on that slightest possibility. For a while, my God was a Group Of Drunks who didn’t judge me and expected better from me. Sometimes it was the Great Out Doors. It didn’t really matter what or even if I believed as long as knew God ain’t me. I learned that almost everything in my life is beyond my control. One thing I was certain of: what I had been doing wasn’t working. I had to change my entire way of thinking, let go of self-will and accept life on life’s terms.302811_3913001063340_2085956480_n.jpg

In Step 3, “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

These days I meet people who want to stop drinking. But like me five years ago, they say they are turned of by all the God talk. My response is that perhaps the 12 steps isn’t for them. There are other options. Or maybe if a little God talk is too much of a burden, then perhaps their not ready to quit yet.

I grew up in a family that was certain about God and religion. I, however, have grown comfortable with doubt, with mystery and uncertainty. I have accepted the fact that I will probably go to my death unsure of God’s existence.

My higher power could be sobriety. Sobriety is not simply abstinence. It is knowing that each day is another chance to get it right. It is letting go of resentments and fear, trying to make amends where I can, and to live with gratitude. It is seeking not to judge lest I be judged.  I find it liberating to make decisions by asking whether I will be more sober. You could say it’s a form of prayer. I get into fewer conflicts. I’m a better husband, a more patient father. I’m even nicer to referees when I coach basketball. I’m more honest, more aware of my shortcomings and more willing to acknowledge my strengths. I tend to be more forgiving, less anxious about tomorrow and less likely to regret the past.

There have been times in the past couple of years, mostly during financial crisis, that sobriety was all that stood between me and the abyss, when sobriety seemed to be all that I had, when sobriety got me out of bed in the morning.  If that isn’t a higher power then I don’t know what is.

I told Alan I wasn’t having any of this God shit. But I endured, I tolerated, because my sanity and my life depended on it.

God isn’t necessarily the word I use, but a lot of people on this journey with me do. And they have convinced me that it is a miracle I’m sober today.

I guess you could call that faith.