“So that’s it?” “I’m just supposed to accept so many things that don’t make any sense??”
I just smiled at my beautiful 18 year old boy, who’s new-found enthusiasm and truth-seeking I found inspiring and a blessing. “Cullen,” I replied, “you are a really intelligent person, a torch-bearer for the next generation. You are supposed to seek the truth. Fortunately, our faith tradition is a logical one. Ours is the church that Jesus Himself built. He appointed the apostles, He handed the keys to Peter, he instituted the sacraments, and on and on. Question, research, dig and seek for the truth, the dig some more. Pray for answers and revelation. Our faith tradition has a reason for absolutely every thing we believe, either written in scripture, or passed along in the oral tradition, started before the followers of Jesus could even read and write.”
“You may well find that you don’t like what you find, and you may well not agree. And that’s your prerogative, believe it or not, to disagree. But you can’t leave it there. Keep looking, deeper and deeper until you at least understand where these beliefs came from and why. Two thousand years of theologians who devoted their entire lives to discovering the truth, and thousands of Christians over the centuries, martyred because they were convinced that their convictions were indeed the truth, have certainly made a case for the truths of our tradition. Of course you’ll agree with most things, because it feels like common sense – you’ve been brought up to accept certain truths that others may disagree with. But you will most certainly disagree with other things.”
“Like the whole Adam and Eve story, when science tells us that’s a ‘fairy tale’?”
“Yes, of course, Cullen, like that, among many, many other things. But certain things in scripture may or may not have been meant literally. There are lots of literary devices in the bible – prose, poetry, allegory, hyperbole, metaphors, parables, etc, etc. The whole ‘Adam and Eve thing’ may indeed be literally true, or simply an allegory of how the first man’s original betrayal of God, because of his pride, arrogance, and disobedience led in some way to our sinful nature, our concupiscence, what we call ‘original sin.’ Could God have created two original people from “dust?” Of course He could have! Could He have caused the ‘big bang’ and directed an evolutionary process over millennia? Certainly! Wouldn’t that be “creation” also? We aren’t required to believe many of the traditional teachings of our faith, only the “dogma.” Many things are symbolic and have very deep meaning even though we don’t interpret scripture as “literalists” would. The stories in the Bible were written over many centuries for audiences in many different cultures, so they had writing styles that they would understand, and lessons that they needed to hear at that time. So as we read the inspired Word of God, its important to extrapolate, to glean the real message that God wants YOU to hear for your own life in our own times. This does take a lot of work sometimes, because you must immerse yourself into that culture. St Ignatious of Loyola showed us one way to do this – to focus on one lesson or passage, and to meditate or contemplate on it deeply, placing yourself into the event. Feel the hot dust through your sandals, hear the voices, smell the place, really feel the message because you are actually there.”
“Ok, I’ll try that,” Cullen promised, and then… “What about me, dad, doesn’t Catholicism teach that its a sin to be gay? Doesn’t the Church say I’m going to hell?”
Of course, I was waiting for that, and I really thought I was ready. I had read several books, and spoken with psychologist clients. I had downloaded and almost memorized Always Our Children, the pastoral letter from Catholic Bishops directed towards clergy as well as parents on dealing with this difficult subject with loving compassion. So I intended to pour forth with all my “knowledge.” And I did, and I agreed it was pretty compassionate (compared to Westboro Baptist). So out came the “Love the sinner/Hate the sin “clear explanation.” We’re all called to chastity, outside the confines of a sacramental marriage.
“No! Of course not Cullen, the Church does NOT say you are going to hell. You were born with a same-sex-attraction (SSA), and we all have temptations that lead us to sin. Now, acting on those temptations, now that’s another matter. Yes, the Church WOULD consider the same-sex physical act sinful – just as it would consider it sinful for your unmarried sister to be having sex, or myself, before I was married.”
Knowing full well about him and Tim, his “best friend” for two years, I was quick to clarify. “But Cullen, here’s the thing, and the beautiful thing about our faith. Forgiveness is the biggest and quite unique component of Christianity. We believe that God sent His son to walk among us to show us how to love, and the lesson he most often taught in words and action, is that of forgiveness. We’re ALL sinners, and we all make mistakes. Every Day! I do! In fact, I screw up more than anyone I know. But God does know how hard I try, and how sorry I am when I fall, and how I really do love Him and other people the best that I can. In walking with us, Jesus was like us in all things but sin. He was tempted, He hungered, He felt loneliness, He grieved and wept, and He felt pain. He really felt all of our emotions, because although He was fully God, He was fully human also. Now here’s something that requires “faith.” Faith is required not when something can’t be proven, but when it also can’t be disproven. It’s a true mystery, the ‘mystery of faith’ that He was God AND man both at the same time.
“Yeah dad, I know all that, but you never answered my question. Does the Church say I’m going to Hell?”
Cullen didn’t know the times I had literally wept over this very question – alone, in prayer, and in conference with priests at several of my annual Jesuit Retreats in St. Louis. How could the loving God that I know, sentence my son to life with such a burden? To create such a yoke of burden to bear all his life. How could a loving God be so unfair? To create a person who must choose between the love, affection, companionship and intimacy that we all long for or eternal salvation? Seriously? That just feels so unfair, even cruel! My Jesuit confessors were very sympathetic, it wasn’t the first time they had heard this lament. One even cried with me. “Remember, He is God, and we are not. And He IS the loving, forgiving, compassionate Jesus that you know. Love your son as He loves us. Let your son walk with God, and he will find salvation.” But we do suffer with our children.
I’m sure Cullen knew I was fumbling for his answer, but he knew I was always honest with him, and that I did my best to lead him. “The Church’s official position is that your SSA is the cross you must bear, and that you are called to celibacy. I realize it doesn’t feel fair, and frankly, I don’t know what I would do if I were in your shoes. One thing is for certain however. My strongest advice is to pray, talk to God, pray for guidance for the truth. Your relationship with our God is just that – YOUR relationship with a God so loving that He suffered and died on the cross for YOU. Kneel down in adoration at the cross, and see the definition of perfect love. Close your eyes and talk to Christ on the cross. Pray and contemplate like Ignatious suggests. Listen in the silence for His love poured out for you. That’s all I know. And always pray for strength to do what you know he is telling you. Just know that He will pick you up, time after time, when you fall down. Remember that God loves us, but He doesn’t just love us, He IS love itself. That’s why His is unconditional, unfaltering love.
I felt like I dodged the bullet, the hardest question of all time for someone like him when he then asked, “Dad, that’s the other thing, what’s the point of the whole crucifixion thing? I get the whole cultural thing back then, about offering sacrifice and all that, but – really? He was God. Couldn’t he just snap his fingers and forgive our sins?”
In retrospect this was really the question of existence, His and ours! But at the time, compared to the previous question, it felt like an easy one.
“Of course He could. But we wouldn’t see His love. He showed us He knows all our emotions: loneliness, isolation, and betrayal. He showed us He knows pain and physical suffering. That’s why He has the utmost empathy and compassion. He actually walked in our shoes, because He was one of us.”
That’s the gist of what I remember about our conversation that night in the kitchen. We both had lots to think about.