Losing My Religion
This is a cautionary tale and one that is not intended to promote or denigrate a specific religion. I used to be an extremely devout catholic. I taught Sunday school, I was a Eucharistic minister, I was an altar server, and I was pretty active in my church. Below I am going to share with you a story that caused me to completely change my outlook on life. It truly was a moment in my life when I realized that everything I believed might be wrong and that you should never approach anything blindly.
Losing My Religion
It was April of 2007 and I was teaching Sunday school. I was finishing up my senior service by teaching catechism. One day a student started crying in class, I took him into the hall and asked him why he was crying, he said “I am really sad and I don’t want to be here”.
I responded like a teacher at first “well we have to be here don’t you want to learn about God and Jesus’ teachings?”
He said “I do but I am just really sad right now” I said “Why are you sad, did something happen?”
I had to word that carefully because I was not allowed to ask him if anything was happening at home, it was “to intrusive and none of my business” according to the head nun.
“They are here to learn about the lord and his teaching and you are here to teach them that properly and according to catholic canon” she told us all at orientation. Regardless, the student decided to tell me what had happened the Friday before class. He told me that he was afraid. I said “afraid of what?” knowing I was asking too much according to the sister, I felt bad for the child and hoped I could help him.
He told me something horrible, “Mr. Pezzino?” he said “My cousin killed himself and I am afraid that he is in hell….I overheard my mother talking to my grandma and they were really sad because they thought he might be in hell” he began crying really hard and asked me “Is he in hell Mr. Pezzino?” I cannot explain the thoughts that went though my head.
I had no idea how to respond!
I knew though that I could not respond with the “catholic answer” the answer I knew but could not say to a sobbing child who just lost his cousin. So I responded how any compassionate human would respond to the question. I said “Your cousin is of course in heaven with God. He is looking down on you right now upset that you are sad. God forgives all who are truly sorry. Life is a precious thing but God will not punish someone for not wanting to live anymore.” “So my cousin is in heaven?” he said. “Of course he is” I responded. I then brought him down to the office told the secretary that he wasn’t feeling well and to call his mother to come pick him up. He was in no condition to listen to me talk for two hours.
After leaving him in the office I felt good about my answer. I felt like I did the right thing “the good Christian thing” and I was so sure everything that I believed was right. I knew that the power of God to make someone feel better was right. Not because of some mystical idea but because knowing that God is there to help and guide you, and that it was simply a good thing. How could anyone tell me different? Little did I know that I would be telling my self that wasn’t true?
Two weeks later I was having difficulty because I needed to develop a lesson plan about the Ten Commandments and I was having difficulty deciding how I was going to teach the seventh commandment to second and third graders without talking about sex. For those of you who don’t know the seventh commandment it is “Thou shall not commit adultery”. I decided that I would yield to the nun who was in charge of the Sunday school.
After speaking to her about my concerns and confusion she decided that she would come into my class and teach the lesson for me. So I sat in the back of the classroom grading the homework I had assigned from the week before and she began teaching. Now when I approached her early that morning she said that she would just teach the seventh commandment but for some reason she decided that she would teach all ten. Far be it from me to interrupt a woman of the cloth so I decided to sit back and see how they used to do it back in the day. So while I was grading I would get quick sound bites of the things she was saying. For example likening Elmo to a false God, she felt that children’s obsession with Elmo and Pokémon was blasphemous and that when they made their first confession this is something they should bring up to the priest. I couldn’t help but think that was a little antiquated for 2007, but I decided what the hell, these kids know she is just old. After a while though it became evident that this woman would have been considered extreme during the dark ages!
As I sat in awe of this woman’s ignorance I saw a hand rise ever so hesitantly and slow. My stomach dropped and I wave of terror came over me. It was the student from two weeks earlier who had just told me that he was scared his cousin was in hell. She called on him and the words came out of his mouth that I was terrified to hear, “Sister, my cousin killed himself, is he in hell?” I stood and began to speak “sister can I……” she put her hand up very forcefully meaning that I should be quiet, and made eye contact with me indicating that I needed to sit down. I did do so as if she put me in some mystical catholic trance. This is the moment when my entire view and outlook on life changed. The moment when I realized that everything I believed, deserved and needed to be questioned. She bent down and said the words I will never forget, “your cousin is BURNING in hell, with the rest of the sinners.” Not only was there an audible gasp throughout the class but the saddest thing I have ever experienced happened. The child began sobbing and looked back at me. I have no idea how to explain the look that he gave me. It can only simply be described as betrayal, as if I was the one who lied to him. I was furious inside, how a woman with no more power than me in the grand scheme of things could simply undo the good that I had done.
How she could take away the comfort of an eight year old so quickly without even thinking about it. Then I realized it’s not the thought of God that comforts us, it’s the way we treat each other. It was the thought of the power of God that made this child feel sad in the first place and it was me who comforted him. Then it was the sister who took away the comfort I gave that child not God. I would like to say that there is some heroic ending to this story like I walked up to the sister and beat the crap out of her or even some sort of verbal exchange, but not even that. I guess at the time the significance of the event hadn’t sunk in yet or even made sense. I know that I so desperately wanted to say something or do something but I just didn’t and I am fortunate enough to say that in my life that is one of my only regrets.
What does that story have to do with anything? It is not my intention to espouse specific religious beliefs or values, if that experience taught me anything it was to question everything and believe nothing. Life is precious and wonderful outside of the blinders of religion.
Again I am not attempting to put down religion, I am just saying that we are surrounded by endless and wonderful forms of life that are so complex and beautiful that no religion should be able to trivialize their grandeur by attributing their existence and majesty, to the seemingly simple acts of creation by some deity. Even when it comes to the universe itself. Looking up at the night sky, it is just so much more beautiful knowing how everything really works. Some people find the thought of how the universe actually works and how it was created disturbing, I find it thrilling. A simple truth put forth by astrophysicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss, is “We are Stardust” this idea is so much more exciting to think of then any other religious or mythical story that pretends to explain our origins. “We are part of this universe, we are in this universe, the universe itself, exists within us.
“We are Stardust in the highest exalted way.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson
“Every atom in your bottom came from a star that exploded.”
- Lawrence Krauss.
If I can bring this back to the story I told, I am not trying to change anyone’s mind. I am simply trying to say that life is so short that living up to the expectations of an imaginary deity is not the way to spend your limited time on this earth. All I ask is that you question everything. Those of you who will thumb your nose at this post and argue with me in the name of your religion I welcome it. Please though in life, think before you speak and act. Especially when it comes to teaching children. Just remember the Golden Rule, a rule that existed thousands of years before the birth of Christianity and hopefully will exist long after Christianity dies out. Treat others, as you would want to be treated.
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