St. Catherine

Proverbs 22: 6 reads, “Train children in the right way, and when old they will not stray (NRSV).” I often heard this proverb used to raise children in a particular brand of Christianity. While I agree there is a solid argument in raising children to be a specific kind of religious person, I think the interpretation too narrow. I think if you raise a child in a specific manner—for good or for ill—they will have difficulty parting from the teaching as adults.

This is why my brother and I have such irreverence and criticism when it comes to religion. Growing up, our father had religion forced down his throat by his boor of a sperm donor, Horace Eugene Smith. I won’t say “father,” though. The way my dad described Horace, and the way my great grandmother and mother described him, Horace procreated for the sole purpose of producing a farmhand he was not obligated to pay or treat humanely. Horace had no paternal love towards my father. When my father was fourteen, Horace broke his back with a steel toed boots, he would beat my father with planks of wood or barbed wire, and turned a willfully blind eye to his brother sexually abusing his son. Nothing was said or done by anyone in the community, and they knew what was happening. What I was told by my mother and her family is in those days people didn’t interfere with another family’s child rearing no matter how vicious. Even if the times were different, nobody would have stepped up out of fear of Horace. In the 1950’s, Horace stood at 6”4 with broad shoulders and a barrel chest, and overwhelmingly strong. While his wife would drive the tractor to pull the trailer for hay, Horace would toss—with one arm—150 lb. bales on to the trailer one after another like you and I would toss a succession of paper wads into the trash can.  Horace was also mean spirited and had no qualms whatsoever about throwing the first swing at whoever crossed him. He played the part of the amicable, good Christian elder at church, but the people saw through the farce. At home, he would choke my father with his narrow religion that created a vengeful God who was deaf to his son’s cries and did not hold him accountable for his many abuses. The only person who wasn’t afraid of Horace was my great grandmother Hansing–my mother’s grandmother. Over the phone she told Horace he was an awful man who had no right to beat my father as he did, and said my father would be better off with her. Horace threatened to come after her and put her in her place. My great grandmother told him to bring it. He knew where she lived, and she would wait. Horace never followed through with his threat. You know what’s more fierce than a giant, foul tempered, Irishman? A stubborn Scots-Irish woman with a mean streak a mile wide.

Horace died when my father was twenty-one. After the funeral, Pop made a vow to himself that he could read and think on his own, and no one was going to tell him what to believe without question. So when his ten year old son defends his argument with “Pastor said…” you can imagine the amount of rage and fury going towards the boy that was meant for the sperm donor. He was doing his damnedest to not have the home he endured. He struggled the break the cycle of anger, he read and thought on his own, and, by God, that’s what his sons would do. From where did that desire come? How did my father know there was a better way, and it was worth all the struggle and scraped knees to break that cycle. Pop didn’t speak up about his sexual abuse until the last year he was alive. He carried that pain for fifty-five years—almost fifty-eight. After I was told about the sexual abuse, I understood why my father was so full of rage when I or my brother would get out of line, and by rights, his behavior should have been worse. Statistically speaking, people who go through the years of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse my father went through they struggle with fits of rage, and are strung out from various substances. The only substances my father would abuse was nicotine and caffeine smoking five packs of Kool Filter Kings with six pots of coffee a day. He quit smoking when I was thirteen, and cut back his coffee consumption to two pots a day until he was diagnosed with cancer. In truth, he should have ended up as a transient dependent on alcohol and heroin, but he wasn’t. The anger was there when we were kids, but in an attempt to have a different home, he would make us read the book of Proverbs. After we finished the entire reading, we would tell him what we learned, and if there were reparations to be made like a face to face apology or some kind of manual labor, we would do it. Friends, later, would ask what it was like to be punished by the bible. I’d laugh. That wasn’t punishment. Punishment was a right cross on the jaw that knocked you to the floor. Over and done with in two seconds. With the reading of proverbs we were disciplined, and the quickest I have seen this discipline last was three days. Both my brother and I agree, we would rather take the hits and move on with life than spend hours or days in our own private furnace of Purgatory. How did my father receive such grace into his life that he was able to make alterations in his mind to be different than his father? Two words: his grandmother.

Catherine Williams was born in Lebanon, IN in 1885 to parents who came from County Cork, Ireland a generation after the potato famine, and died in Lebanon in 1983. She once quipped that the reason she had such a long life is because the Lord had a lot of work to do, and was gracious enough to grant her the time to do it. She married Horace’s father, Roy who was a womanizer, a drunk, a gambler, and would beat the shit out of his wife and Horace. He walked out on them when Horace was twelve for a woman of ill repute, or so says my family. Catherine never sought a divorce and neither did Roy. Horace never forgave the man, nor did he forget. The only good thing Horace did was resolve to never touch alcohol—a vow he kept till the day he died. Roy came around in the 1930s when my great grandmother Catherine was in her late forties, and that resulted in her having twins. Today, women becoming pregnant in their late forties is simultaneously risky for the mother and the child because of the high risk for birth defects. Catherine’s twins were no exception. One twin was diagnosed with schizophrenia and the other, who molested my father, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During her tough times she read her bible constantly. When there was trouble, of which she had many, she turned to the bible. She became a mystic who had tremendous compassion for  my father, and favored him more than the other grandchildren because my father needed it. I saw a picture of her at a Smith family reunion. I was only two months old, but everyone, including my father, averaged out to be 6”3, broad shouldered and well-muscled surrounding their matriarch, Catherine. She sat in a peaceful pose with a strong jaw and a cleft chin. Her eyes smiled, and you would never know the years of sadness she carried. My brother and I owe a great deal to her. Without her influence, our father would have been a monster twice the son of Hell Horace was.

Our father struggled and stumbled constantly trying to free himself from the violence given to him by Horace and Roy. He died believing he failed, but I disagree. My brother and I still wrestle with our minute to minute existential crises. We read and think about belief and faith, and daily, we strive to be a little better than we were yesterday.

One night, I sat at the foot of my father’s bed as he rested. The chemo took away all of his energy, and he spent most days asleep—one week he was awake for a total of twelve hours, and they were not twelve continuous hours. When he was awake, his mind was sharp, and he was social. While my mom and girlfriend sat in the dining room to talk, I approached my father as a penitent coming to a priest for confession. “Pop, I mean no disrespect, but I want to succeed as a man where you failed.” I heard him inhale as he took in my words. The directness of the words is something common in our family. Delivery style is irrelevant. As my mother put it to one of my girlfriends whose passive-aggression annoyed her to no end, “We spit it out, we duke it out, we work it out, and then we move on.” Still, though, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. Pop has always been too familiar with his temper, and he constantly failed in being better only to get up and try again. He never made excuses, but went back to the work of improvement. He could either get pissed and tell me to get the fuck out of the room, or we could have a discussion. Those few seconds in between breaths were stretched out and pressed by lead weights to the point of suffocation, and the light streaming through the cracked door was the distant echo of a star that died long ago and far away. At last he exhaled, “I don’t take it as disrespect, I take it as you paying attention.” That’s our father’s success. That’s the grace of our great grandmother Catherine who is the patron saint of the Smiths and intercedes for us when we don’t know what to pray. We keep going forward with the grace that is stronger than a potato blight and solid enough to weather the deepest betrayal. We are broken, but we are not shattered, and we can still walk even with a limp.

Satiated Thirst

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This morning is crisp with a sliver of ice in the air, and a bright sun unlike yesterday with a gray sky and gusts of wind knocking about my van on I-465. How my little van made it through the mountains of Northern California and Northeastern Utah without being knocked off still amazes me. No mountains in central Indiana to speak of, save for a few slight hills and smaller inclines. I am sitting at The Thirsty Scholar Coffee Bar at 16th & Pennsylvania, and I managed to get one of the bigger tables resembling a German setting. According to my late, great aunt Barbara who lived in Germany for a few years, German restaurants are designed with big tables, and people who don’t know each other are often seated together. The way she described the setting there is a real sense of community. But the functions of these two settings are only similar in appearance. There is a dark haired woman sitting diagonally from me, and the table next to me are two people poring over a computer. Diagonal to them sat an agitated man who left after slamming down the screen of his computer. During the day, students, corporate movers and shakers, hipsters, and regular folk off the street come in to discuss the day, write, and research over coffee, specialty coffee drinks, tea, wine, and beer. After 6:00, The Thirsty Scholar becomes like a restaurant where you have to make reservations, and waitstaff.

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Sometimes there is street parking along Delaware next to historic houses and the Greek Orthodox Church, Joy of All Who Sorrow, or Redeemer Presbyterian Church depending on which side of Delaware you park. Today, though, Delaware was packed, and when I went to the little parking lot behind Thirsty Scholar there was no parking available. Lucky for me, though, there was an available space one hundred feet away from the parking lot. I didn’t see a sign that said I could be towed, nor a yellow paint so I took the space. Because of the weather today, I decided to wear socks and my chuck taylors with my baggy black, chef pants. I tend not to wear my chucks if I’m walking for an extended period of time. I have flat feet. Flat feet and shoes with no arch support wrecks the ankles causing me to limp and shuffle. Walking half a block is of no consequence to my feet, and not to mention, chuck taylors go well with this outfit. I appreciate my chuck taylors in the same way I appreciate my rope sandals I bought at a mall in Joliet, Il. I can feel the concrete with each step, and I feel connected to the city where I walk. There is the added ambiance of walking downtown that I enjoy. No matter what city I am in, downtown has its own rhythm I like to feel with each step.

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The amount of cars on the street led me to believe there would be no place to sit in The Thirsty Scholar, but as I mentioned above, I found one of the tables that Ronnie I always wanted to get. Those tables are popular, and seem to be constantly occupied. The bell rang as I pushed open the old black door, and I saw people at my usual table. Before I looked towards the back, I saw the bar stools and bench facing Pennsylvania, and I sighed. Those chairs are ascetically pleasing but they kill my back, and I was not interested in spending hours of writing or talking on those Nazi torture devices. I was relieved when I looked over and saw only one person at the back table, and she was at the far end. Whew! I won’t have to worry about any discomfort from sharing my personal space with someone I don’t know, and likewise her. I’m clumsy in my social interactions, but I try to treat them as I want to be treated, and in cases such as these, I prefer unknown people to keep their distance. It’s an anxiety thing for me, somewhat, but mostly it’s about safety. Consciously, I understand I am in a gentrified area during the day and nothing is going to happen. In fact, people in this area are more intimidated by me because of my 6”8 frame. The best example I can use is muscle memory from old experiences in my neighborhood. I’ve improved in these situations by taking people case by case, but I have the occasional twinges.

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Today, I’m meeting with Ben who is the senior pastor of Lynhurst Baptist Church so we have a chance to talk more. We talk here and there after service, but between talking to all the people leaving the sanctuary, and herding his kids with his wife there isn’t much time—nor do I demand it. He offered to meet up sometime this week, and, through facebook, we agreed to meet at Thirsty Scholar around 11:00. I got here at 10 because Ronnie didn’t have to be at work until 9:45, and I thought it would be a waste of time to go home for twenty minutes only to leave for downtown. I had something brewing in my head, and I knew I would have a good introduction before I saved the piece and turned off the computer. An hour is not really enough time to write, but I wanted to see where my thoughts were going. Normally, two hours is a good time to sit around typing, inhaling coffee, dancing to avoid the distracting power of urination, and produce a first draft. I thought about saying the first draft would be strong, but when I finish it and go into editing mode, I cringe. The thoughts feel strong, and I feel like I’m writing in the rhythm of Sun Ra and His Arkestra. I’m part of the musical genius typing with the piano and saxophone keys blowing beyond all dimensions. Oh yeah, I snap, and say to myself, “Dig it, man,” and “Eat your heart out, Kerouac,” but mistake the cacophony of clanging trash cans rolling down the road for the drums guiding me to the face of God. As I read through the preceding paragraphs, my omission was a wise approach.

As I get up to get a refill, Ben walks in the door. I get my refill, he orders his coffee, and we sit at my part of the table while I save my introduction and shut off the computer. As we talk, I found myself vomiting all my hang ups with religion that began with and continued with abuse until I stopped attending church altogether. I had not meant to go into such digging, but the basis had to do with my existential dissonance believing while simultaneously desiring to no longer believe. For this, I am envious of my atheist and agnostic friends who are at peace with their point of view and are at the end of their internal struggle. There may or may not be a god, and even if there was, life still continues. My issue is the faith I was presented with as a child was the same faith I encountered as an adult with the same flavor of violence. When I returned to school, I majored in Literature and Religion, studied the evolution of Christianity in America from Plymouth Rock to Donald Trump, and learned I had been correct to dismiss such an infantile savagery. I had intellectual and academic grounds to turn back to my abusers, and dub their faith as worthless. Also, I could face current religious bullies and intellectually pants them with scholarship and credible sources.

The depth of my passion caused many people in my life to assume I was an atheist. I wanted to be, though, but in my heart, I am not. Before I had religion crammed down my throat, I did have mystical experiences, and assumed there was a god before I had been forced through church doors. My early experiences notwithstanding, I knew there was something better to Christianity than what had been presented. I’ve read the bible several times, and I pored over the writings of the early church fathers and Christian thinkers. For me, those leaders and thinkers had something I found absent in my own church experience. I didn’t know what was absent, but I knew I was fed up with the abuse I received in Jesus’ name. I didn’t want to believe because I didn’t want to associate with brutes in any form, nor was I altogether certain about my own level of faith.

Ben addressed the abuse with the story shared by one of the people in the congregation this past Sunday. This guy spoke of the abuse he experienced at the hands of his father, and how he sees his father differently as an adult. The abuse he experienced from his father was a shadow of the violence his own father endured. The man was trying to break his own cycle and embrace the truth, but his filter distorted everything. Looking upon those who have hurt me, I realized how glib I had become in dismissing them as hypocrites. There are legitimate hypocrites in the world, but understanding the truth and expressing that truth are two different things. People who are hurting, and come to something good in their lives, distort that good in their practice because of how they understand the world. Sometimes that distortion is harmful, but that distortion in no way nullifies the quality of the good. The people in my life who have done hateful things to me have gone through some traumatic experiences, but they found hope in Christianity. They really do believe that God is love and Jesus is the icon of God, but their limited understanding from the trauma gives way to a malevolent inconsistency. If I am to be completely honest, I have done the same thing to people in my life—even going so far as to flip off cops and truck drivers when they cut me off and put my life in jeopardy. Hurting people hurt people, and everyone does it to some degree. This approach changed how I related to myself and to religious people in my past and present. This approach helped me understand grace from a different perspective.

At 1:30, Ben had to leave because his water heater broke down this morning, and he had to return home to meet with a repairman. He mentioned he had KLOVE on the radio. I shook my head, “Why? What did you do wrong?” If you’re not aware, KLOVE is a Christian station watering down Christianity with the positive, corporate schmoozing of Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. It’s god awful and enough to make Jesus do naked cartwheels out of the church. From what I’ve listened to, I think the demographic is complacent suburbanites who need an easy faith to swallow. The kind of language that will satisfy a five year old, but will insult adult sensibilities. Ben echoed a similar sentiment, “’Jesus loves me’ is good enough for my six year old daughter, but that is not enough for me.” Ben said that is why he became a pastor. All the studying, writing, and speaking in seminary gave his faith a depth that is simultaneously intellectual and mature. I slammed my hand on the table, “That is exactly my problem!” The tension I have with the current expression of faith is that it does not address my issues with poverty, dignity, or theodicy. The old answers don’t satisfy, nor did they ever. Faith is not a one size fits all, and neither is there one suited for all terrain. For shorter periods of easy walking, chuck taylors are suitable, but when I’m going through some gnarly hills, I need runner’s shoes with good arches that won’t wreck my feet.