Remembering a Story

It's funny how you remember stories from your past.  You can forget something for years and years, and all of the sudden it comes back to you.  I am not a neuroscientist or cognitive researcher, but I have a theory as to why that is.  The stories are all there in the enormous filing system that is your brain, but you can't really access it because there is no context or significance attached to the story.  But then something happens that puts a significance onto that story, and the story gets flagged and comes to the surface.  The story becomes prominent in your memory because you understand it to be important to the story of your life, and how you see the world.

Here's an example of a story like that, one that I hadn't thought about in a long time.

My 8th grade year was really, really lousy.  I get that Middle School is tough for most people--maybe everyone--but my 8th grade year was one weird and dislocating event after another.  In September, my youngest sister was born, who I love with every fiber of my being, but having a new baby in the house is stressful for everyone, and a baby in the house inevitably means that other people get pushed down the priority totem pole.  In October, my grandfather died; it was a long time coming, but it was still tough.  In December, I was diagnosed with Scheuermann's kyphosis, which is a curvature of the spine, and so in January I was put into a metal brace that I had to wear under my clothes, which was painful and uncomfortable and embarrassing.  Throughout all of this, we were in our second year in Jacksonville, Florida, a place where we knew essentially no one and that my mother hated with a passion, so there was this ambient level of unhappiness that pervaded the family.

Into this mix comes San Jose Catholic School.  My parents put us in Catholic school after moving to Jacksonville because the public schools were/are so terrible, so the decision was motivated entirely by academic rather than religious considerations.  Nevertheless, being in Catholic school was the first time I was exposed to a systematic presentation of the Catholic faith on a consistent basis.  Before, it was CCD once a week, which was not nothing, but it was not nothing like what we were getting now.  But the real issue, which I can see now in retrospect, was that I wasn't just getting Catholicism at San Jose, but I was getting 90s Southern-flavored Catholicism.  It is exaggerating a bit, but only a bit, to call the style of Catholicism I was receiving "Southern Baptist Christianity with the Mass and a dash of Mary and the Saints."

I've mentioned before my 8th Grade religion teacher Mrs. Powell.  I don't want to pile on her--she wasn't/isn't a bad person, but she was the epitome of the Southern-flavored Catholicism that was the order of the day.  It was precisely the wrong message delivered in precisely the wrong way by precisely the wrong person, and I wasn't having it.  Simply put, I was not buying what she was selling.  If I had to identify a point in time when I least believed in God, it was probably some time during that 8th grade year.  And there is no question that somewhere in that 8th grade time frame was the low point with regard to believing in "the Church,"--which, at the time, I saw as being one-in-the-same as the Roman Catholic Church.  I think if that arc I was on in 8th grade had continued, I would not be a practicing Christian of any sort today.

But that arc did not continue, and I think the origin of why lies in the story I have recently remembered.

One of the things they did in Catholic school was round us up once a quarter and bring us to Confession.  Confession for me has always more or less been like pulling teeth, and I can't remember if I actually went to Confession on that day.  But what I do remember clearly is sitting in the pews, waiting for everyone to be done going to Confession.  It was killing time, and I did the thing that I usually do when I want to fill time--I looked for something to read.  All I had to read was the Bibles that we were supposed to bring with us, and so I opened my Bible to one of the Gospels (I'm pretty sure it was Matthew) and started reading.

Now, a couple things to note here.  First, it's really fortunate/a sign of God working that I didn't open the Bible and start reading, say, Leviticus or Joshua or Judges or Revelation, or else this story and my life may have gone in a radically different direction.  Second, I don't believe that prior to this point I had ever sat down and read any book of the Bible as a cohesive text.  Prior to this, all of my interaction with the Bible had been through isolated pieces of Biblical text--mostly in the context of the Lectionary at Mass, but also through kid-friendly "Bible stories."  So, it's not that these stories were completely unfamiliar, but I was engaging with them in a different way--as a single narrative that builds on itself, in the way that other sorts of writing or literature does.

I don't remember how long I sat and read the Gospels.  I know I didn't get through all of the Gospel I was reading, because I remember not get to the Passion.  But I read long enough to be struck very powerfully by the person of Jesus.  There was something about the things He said, but more importantly the way He interacted with the people around Him.  It wasn't any single thing or any single saying--I was just struck by the whole thing.  I came away thinking "I don't know how seriously I can take any of the rest of this stuff, but this guy, this Jesus, is worth taking seriously.  This guy has something to say that is important."

What I've noticed recently, and why I think this story has come to the forefront of my mind, is that that incident in that church in 8th grade really has been something of an anchor in my life.  My understanding of, and confidence in, "the rest of this stuff" has ebbed and flowed and changed over the course of the last 25 years.  But every time I lose faith in "the rest of this stuff," I always find my way back to the man from Nazareth traveling the roads of 1st Century Palestine, talking to people and healing them and giving them hope in their struggles and sufferings.  Since that day in 1992, I have never lost the sense that what He did and what He had to say was important and something worth taking seriously.

Chuck D of Public Enemy once said, "Elvis was a hero to most. But he never meant sh** to me you see."  That's basically how I feel about C.S. Lewis.  I tried to read Mere Christianity at the end of high school, but I never got beyond his famous "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic" argument.  That argument is directed at people who want to appreciate the things Jesus said or did without necessarily embracing the claim that He was divine.  If you don't believe Jesus is divine, says Lewis, then Jesus is either a liar or a lunatic, so there is no point in listening to anything else He might have said.

Now, as it happens, I do believe that Jesus is divine, but I think Lewis's argument is bullsh**.  My faith, at its most fundamental level, is anchored in the words and actions of Jesus.  I don't need, and didn't ever need, some divine sanction to make those words meaningful to me.  If anything, the words and actions of Jesus are the thing that has brought me back around to the idea of Jesus's divinity when I feel that slipping, not the other way around.  The experience of my life has been that my faith in everything else might pass away, but the meaning of Jesus's words and actions will stay steady.

P.S.  Also, Lewis's argument that sexual modesty is appropriate because we don't parade food around for people to look at is dumb and absolutely not true, as five minutes watching the Food Network will reveal.  Mere Christianity might be the most overrated book out there.

Comments

Carl said…
Ditto the Jesus resonance. Even when I was an athiest, I couldn't help but be drawn to Jesus. He's absolutely magnetic.

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