Faith, Hope & Charity
At Vatican City, I overheard two American tourists with distinctly southern dialects discussing the beggars who were asking tourists for change.
“You’d think they would do something about it,” the man said to the woman, who nodded in agreement while admiring her recently purchased crucifix.
Visitors waiting for their designated museum times can sit in the square or stroll through any one of a dozen souvenir shops that sell religious artifacts for exorbitant amounts of money. Things that generally sell on Kijiji or Amazon for next to nothing are priced three or four times higher in the square. And these tourists beside me had opted to give their money to thieves in suits rather than beggars in rags. Interesting. I have to assume they were religious; hence, why the crucifix? True, it could have been a gift for someone else, but even so, it seemed so biblical, sitting at the Vatican beside two reasonably well-dressed people who were loudly condemning the poor.
I’m not against people with a belief. I’ve known some incredibly kind Christians and some indecent ones too. I’ve dated Jews, Greek Orthodox, Coptics, atheists, and agnostics. Sometimes I meet people who tell me they’re spiritual, and I take that to mean that they believe in a higher power but not an organized religion. The thing about organized religion is how desperate they are to recruit you. I’ve made the mistake a few times of accompanying a friend or boyfriend to their church or temple of choice only to be cross-examined at “friendship hour” afterwards.
“Don’t forget to sign the registry.” “Be sure to leave your e-mail!” “How did you like the service?” “
I’m always so tempted to say, “I didn’t like the service at all. I thought the little speech in the middle was boring as hell. In the theatre, you’d never be able to get away with so little effort.” In fact, during a few of those boring lectures, I’ve actually wondered what it would be like to review them. Can a person be a homily critic?
Last Sunday at St. Thomas Episcopalian, Reverend Porter spoke on the story of the Good Samaritan in what can only be described as a futile effort to instill any empathy whatsoever. His monotone delivery showed no sign of excitement or interest in the very subject of which he spoke, and his overuse of gesticulation could be better served as choirmaster. I highly recommend any churchgoer avoid this Liturgical season until Easter, when things will hopefully become a bit livelier.
I’ve often made the mistake of expecting more from believers. After all, the general consensus (and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here) is that someone who follows the word of God is most likely going to practice kindness, love, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. It’s like a person who boasts of being a great chef and then serves you store-bought pasta with a lumpy Béchamel. “I don’t wish to offend,” you might say, “But do you really expect me to swallow this crap?” If Catholic school taught me anything, it was how rarely one saw the word of God put into practice. Not that everyone was mean, but the “Do unto others…” doctrine wasn’t generously applied. Sadly, more often than not, I’ve often been disappointed by those who claim to be followers of Christ. I think, if Jesus were around today, He’d be disappointed too. Sometimes I imagine Christ with a Twitter account and millions of followers towards whom He’d constantly have to correct in a never-ending stream of tweets like:
“I cannot be held responsible for everything the prophets said,” or “I didn’t even know Leviticus.”
People who have no religious beliefs whatsoever can also be surprisingly horrible. I’m always slightly taken aback when they denounce religion taking the stance that this makes them somehow better than everyone else. I’m easily tricked into thinking they are, then let down when they behave just as badly. These are the people who fight for climate control while driving an SUV. They’re firmly against bullying, then bully you when you disagree with them. I kind of subscribe to the whole: Let he without sin cast the first stone. As advice goes, it’s pretty good.
My belief system runs somewhere between Spiritual Deism with a side of Christianity and a strong desire to be Jewish. My Jewish boyfriend for seven years reminded me of what it meant to be part of a family -- something I always wanted. I looked forward to Friday Shabbat dinners where we’d gather over brisket and discuss important issues like the colour of the car Bernie was going to buy.
“It’s red.” He’d nonchalantly say while savouring the dinner.
“Red?” his Mother would announce. Fork down, dinner halted. “You’re not a red car sort of guy.”
“What does that mean?” Bernie would ask, oblivious to where this was going.
“You’re a blue car or a gold car-- not red. You’re brother here; he’s a red car driver. Mr. Flashy. Mr. Look-at-Me. But you…you’re definitely not red.”
“I can be flashy!”
“Sure, I can.”
“Not going to happen.”
“There are plenty of times when I’ve been flashy.”
“Aunt Zelda’s birthday party?”
“Aunt Zelda’s birthday party? What are you talking about?”
“I did that impersonation of Lenny Bruce.”
“Oy vey. Shut up and eat your brisket. And tomorrow, change the colour of your car.”
My first husband’s father, Ezzat, was completely the opposite. A proud Egyptian, he’d grill me over dinner with questions like, “Do I or do I not ALWAYS ask you about your father?” to which I’d cautiously reply, “Well…I wouldn’t say always.” The next thing I knew, I was being called a liar, and he’d refuse to cross the threshold of my home. Once, while I was still suffering from dry sockets after having my wisdom teeth removed, he blended lamb, lentils and carrots together in what can only be described as vomit. It was a lovely gesture, but he was deeply offended when I couldn’t stomach it. I offended him a lot. Looking back on old journals, it strikes me now that no fiancé in the history of the world was more disliked. At night I’d pray, “Dear God, what have I done to make everyone hate me?” And all I heard back was, “Who’s everyone?”
Christian or not, it isn’t easy being a good person. When people run a stop sign, then give me the finger when I honk, I’m apoplectic, ruminating all day on what an asshole they are. If someone cheats me or slights me or makes me the subject of a lie, I brood and stew, giving away too much power to those who wish to hurt me. I aspire to be most like my father, who was always kind and courteous. Walking down the street in his later years, he would say hello to everyone and mean it. He was genuinely interested in people. I was grateful that he didn’t seem to notice women blanch when he called them “dear” or, after exchanging pleasantries, would leave someone with a “God bless you.” As his dementia grew worse, he appeared to become more and more beatific. Whether playing monopoly or eating a sandwich, he relished every moment accepting his fate with grace. As I sat beside his hospital bed and watched him pass from this world to the next, I believed he was embraced by something.
I think about my friends who have been oppressed yet still find the ability to forgive, celebrating at Baptist churches with a kind of joy I rarely see anywhere. I have learned a lot from my Black friends, and colleagues about what it means to be, if not Christian, then Christian like. I’m humbled by the love I’ve received when I probably didn’t deserve it.
Hollywood would have you believe that Christians are either assholes or saints, and regardless of which category you fall into, you’ll suffer in the end. The assholes are hoisted on their own petard, and the saints are martyred. I have a famous writer friend in L.A. who once said to me, “It was easier to come out as gay than Christian in Los Angeles.”
When I was seven, I saw the movie Song of Bernadette based on the true story of a young girl visited by the Virgin Mary. As a result of her miraculous visitations, Bernadette is rewarded with tuberculosis of the bone, suffers terrible pain and eventually dies—all while being persecuted by a nun who is jealous of her visions. At seven, I put two and two together. If that’s what happens to you when you’re humble and devout, then count me out. The last thing I wanted was for God or Mary or Angels to appear before me. And it wasn’t just Bernadette. Saint Afra, Saint Aggripina, Saint Basilissa, Saint Cecilia, Saint Dymphna, Saint Eurosia, Saint Susanna, Saint Juthwara, Saint Noyala, and Saint Winifred were all decapitated for their faith. To make matters worse, Faith was my middle name. What was my Mother thinking when she saddled me with a Christian moniker? From what I could tell, since the basis of sainthood appeared to be suffering under horrible circumstances, I was eager to abandon the idea of being good altogether. As long as I had a little larceny in me, I could stave off being burned at the stake or decapitated. When misbehaving, my Mother would ask, “Why are you so bad?” And I would answer, “So I don’t become a saint.” I could see no situation in which becoming pious was worth it.
Back in the Vatican museum, I stood beneath the Sistine Chapel ceiling with hordes of other tourists feeling a bit like I was in purgatory waiting for judgment. Guards constantly chastised us to be quiet as we craned our necks to catch a glimpse of God. “There’s so much nudity,” I heard someone say, “God doesn’t look like that.” I was tempted to say, “It’s not a photograph. It’s an interpretation.” But I wisely kept my mouth shut. As I stared at the Delphic Sibyl, I remembered the legend: …born between man and goddess, daughter of sea monsters and an immortal nymph; she became a wandering voice that brought to the ears of men tidings of the future wrapped in dark riddles. It sounds like Sibyl might be pretty busy these days. Finally herded outside, most of the people around me had already put Michelangelo’s frescos out of mind. It was just one more thing to cross off their bucket list. Instead, their attention was now on the line-up at the Vatican pizzeria where for 10 Euros you could have a slice with cheese. 2 more Euros, and you could have water add an extra Euro and you could have it blessed.
As my time to visit St. Peter’s Basilica drew near, I lined up like a good little pilgrim to enter the “Holy Door” and passed into the atrium. I didn’t feel the presence of God there, just tourists who couldn’t resist a good selfie in front of the Pieta. Michelangelo’s sculpture masterpiece conveys the sorrow of the Virgin Mary, her right hand clutching her dead son while her left-hand falls limp at her side, resigned. I was contemplating the gesture when the woman beside me asked her friend,
“What do you suppose it means?”.
“Maybe she dropped her cellphone,” her companion quipped, and they laughed. It echoed shrilly through the chamber like hyenas. I sometimes feel the same way about women as I do about Christians. I expect them to be better and disappointed when they aren’t. I’m sure they feel the same way about me.