February 24, 2011
I grew up in an era when the Mass was all in Latin and as a Catholic school student, I had to go to church every morning before class. I remember sitting in pews crammed with children like me, all wearing our coats because it was Wisconsin and cold outside, our bookbags and metal lunch pails taking up what little room there was on the floor in front of us behind the kneelers and on the wooden pews where we were supposed to sit. It was kind of like a contest to see who would pass out first—I bet today it’ll be that third-grader, little Johnny B. in Sister Agatha’s class…
All the while, men in robes at the foot of the altar chanted in Latin and waved incense that made my nose sting and my stomach churn. I didn’t understand it, but that’s the way it was, so I didn’t question it. Then afterward, back in our classroom, our teacher, Sister Bernadette, would tell us about how we were supposed to fear the Lord and if we didn’t spend our whole lives repenting, we would go to hell when we died.
Okay, this is my interpretation. Organized religion satisfies the spiritual needs of a lot of people and I think that’s great. It just didn’t work for me. I saw too much hypocrisy there and too many double standards, like why couldn’t women be priests? And how could a priest counsel people on marriage if he wasn’t allowed to marry?
And how could I ever be really happy since, being born a sinner, I was supposed to spend my whole life pleasing God, who, because I was a sinner, I wasn’t humanly capable of pleasing in the first place? But I was obligated to try anyway. And if God were in a particularly agreeable mood the day I died, He might consider letting me into heaven if I was lucky and if I’d been good. But there were no guarantees. All this did was make me feel small and inadequate.
The more I thought about it, the more I decided that gnashing my teeth and burning in hell didn’t sound like my idea of a good time. On the other hand, cloud-squatting didn’t sound too interesting either. I mean, just how many clouds can one count and how many songs can one learn to play on the harp before one gets bored, even if one has an inclination to these types of activities, which I don’t? Eternity is a long time!
I also don’t think God is vengeful. I don’t think God can be anything but love. And I don’t think God wants to be feared because fear is the opposite of love.
The best definition of heaven and hell that I’ve ever heard, comes from an ancient Zen story. It goes something like this:
“Is there such a thing as heaven and hell?” a student once asked his teacher.
“Oh yes!” replied the teacher.
Surprised at this response, the student asked his teacher to explain.
“And how are you feeling right now, at this moment?” the teacher asked.
The sun was shining, the day was warm, the student had just finished a nice breakfast and was basically in good health.
Confused, the student replied, “Fine, why?”
“That is heaven,” the teacher told him. Then without missing a beat, the teacher promptly picked up his foot and stomped it down as hard as he could upon the student’s bare foot, causing the student to cry out in excruciating pain. “And that, my dear student, is hell,” said the teacher.
Like all Zen stories, this story is open to one’s interpretation. To me, it means that heaven and hell are here and now, not some place we go when we die. It also means that heaven and hell, like all things, are subject to each person’s perception and may mean something different to you than it does to me.
At first glance, my Catholic background would have told me that if there’s no “place” called heaven, and no reward for living a good life, that makes me feel kind of empty and that my life has no meaning. But the more I think about it, the more I see it’s quite the opposite. I believe in reincarnation. I believe in God. I believe in living my life right now, to the best of my ability to be a good person. And I believe that God has given us gifts and when we discover them and implement them, we become a light unto others. These things bring me to God and that, to me, is what it’s all about.