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In one of my earliest boyhood memories, I’m in a dimly-lit schoolroom lying on a cot for my nap. The nun in her black habit simply says “Children, close your eyes and think of your Father in heaven.”
Without fuss or squirming all of us kindergartners did, obedient and compliant.
In those early years I suppose my conception of God was that of an aged man with a kindly yet stern face, in white robes sitting on fluffy white clouds, as depicted in Catholic religious books and painted on church ceilings amidst the bearded saints and winged angels with golden haloes. Even at that young age, I saw clear distinctions everywhere that what was holy was separate from what a normal human being could attain.
I remember slices of my Catholic upbringing, firmly cemented by my mother’s single-minded devotion. She, a single parent to me and my younger brother, had gained an annulment from our philandering father when I was four. Every Sunday morning she would dress us to attend mass, at that time in the 1950s liturgized in Latin by our parish priest. Soon I attended St. Mary’s Catholic Grammar School in center-city Trenton, the capital of New Jersey. Second grade stands out because I had stolen two dimes from a classmate, confessed, and although bright and told I was capable, was denied promotion to the next grade with the words “A dishonest child does not deserve it.”
You can read many memoirs and stories of boys and girls and church practices, including hilarious ones like Growing Up Catholic: An Infinitely Funny Guide for the Faithful, the Fallen, and Everyone In-Between by Cavolina, Kelly, Stone, and Davis; or Pagan Babies and Other Catholic Memories by Gina Cascone.
But looking back on Catholic grammar school, I was fully saturated in the rituals of the Church, and nothing about it seemed funny. It was mass six mornings a week, regular confession of my sins and communion, catechism, indoctrination, and Confirmation by the bishop, altar boy training and service, choir practice for Holy Day services, schooling by no-nonsense nuns, along with Lent, Ash Wednesday, no meat on Fridays and much more. We learned the Old Testament stories, and heard the Gospels over and over again.
It all meant one thing to me: doing what was required or expected.
But I didn’t want to do what was required or expected. Internally and externally my spirit rebelled. By the age of eight or nine I roamed Trenton city streets and back alleys on my bicycle at will, often coming home late. I stole from my mother’s purse, broke into a church building looking for money and was caught; I lied and cursed, had fistfights and knife fights; and twice was forced to do obscene things against my will. My friend was the biggest bully in our school. I cared nothing about God, or Christ, or Church, or being kind, or helpful. I only cared about myself.
I wish I could say something or someone turned me around and helped me find the true meaning of religion and being a decent a human being. But even transferring to a new community and public school, making new friends, and working part-time at Woolworth’s barely managed to stabilize me a little. Four years of high school in the turbulent sixties only made my drugs, drinking, and sexual excesses more pronounced, even landing me in jail twice. The only sobering experience was reporting to the U.S. Army Evaluation Center in Newark, New Jersey at eighteen for possible drafting and shipping to the war in Vietnam. The 4-F designation I later received for a childhood disablement saved me from that hell.
By that time I had not attended Catholic services for years, or even thought about God.
But I had been searching. Becoming less wild, I wanted more meaning in my life. Studying the Book of Changes, the I Ching, and Taoism had kindled my spiritual longings. I felt primed for change. By this time I had met and fallen in love with girl from high school who was creative, energetic, fun to be around, and had a steady organized head on her shoulders.
Then, in 1968, I encountered the Baha’i Faith. Together, she and the Baha’i teachings were what I needed to become a better person.
Because of those experiences I believe life is a search for meaning and purpose, for detachment from material things and attachment to spiritual things. One of many writings of Baha’u’llah I read included this mystical passage from his Book of Certitude:
But, O my brother, when a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading to the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy …
That seeker must at all times put his trust in God, must renounce the peoples of the earth, detach himself from the world of dust, and cleave unto Him Who is the Lord of Lords. He must never seek to exalt himself above anyone, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vainglory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence, and refrain from idle talk …
When the channel of the human soul is cleansed of all worldly and impeding attachments, it will unfailingly perceive the breath of the Beloved across immeasurable distances, and will, led by its perfume, attain and enter the City of Certitude. Therein he will discern the wonders of His ancient wisdom, and will perceive all the hidden teachings from the rustling leaves of the Tree — which flourisheth in that City.
I would say that every believer in God, of the Catholic faith or any faith, seeks certitude that they are on the right or true path, that their souls are eternal, and that they will be known by their good works when they pass on.
The word “catholic,” with a lower-case “c,” means all-embracing, universal. I had turned to the Baha’i Faith in my search, but not away from God or his holy son, Jesus Christ, either his teachings or his spirit. From Baha’u’llah’s writings I have only gained a deeper appreciation and knowledge of Christ and the prophets, expanding my heart and mind to embrace truth from the One Source, God.