In the movie, Angels and Demons, there’s a scene where the Cardinal asks Tom Hanks if he believes in God, and Tom Hanks’ character replies, “Faith is a gift I’ve yet to be given,” and no matter what side of the faith continuum we fall on, we nod our heads in understanding. Faith is an argument neither side can win. The believer’s faith is unshaken by the doubter’s ridicule, and the nonbeliever remains unconvinced by the faithful’s devotion. You either believe or you don’t. You’ve either received the gift of faith or you haven’t.
So are the recipients blessed or cursed? Do not the faithful sometimes look with envy in the direction of those who still call their lives their own? Does the believer not look back on his own carefree days and wonder how he got from there to where he now finds himself? Ask a priest if he always wanted to be a priest and you’re likely to receive a response ranging from the sheepish to the incredulous. Some might be willing to share their struggles with you. How they never in a million years saw the priesthood in their future, how some of them weren’t even Catholic when God came knocking on their door with his preposterous invitation.
If you’ve never been on the receiving end of a divine demand, so often cloaked in the polite façade of a request, you might not realize how difficult it is to say no. God doesn’t give up easily. No matter how many times you slam the door in his face, he just stands there on your front porch patiently knocking on your door until you give up and let him in. Once he takes up residence, you’re toast. He’s there. Always. In the back of your mind. Prodding, pushing, nagging. A gift or a curse?
I take comfort from the stories of reluctant, sometimes astonished priests, as if even now, years later they can’t quite believe the crazy turn their lives took. I look back on my own road to faith and laugh with the same delighted amazement as the dumbfounded priest.
My upbringing was somewhat unusual. My father was a contradiction, both Catholic and a professional scientist in a time when science was challenging God for supremacy of the universe. My mother was no less a contradiction. She too was Catholic, having converted as young adult, but she possessed another source of faith. She was psychic back in a time when her unusual gifts and interests had to be kept secret from the neighbors. So intermingled with First Communions and Confirmations were crystal balls, tarot cards and the occasional séance.
My siblings and I were encouraged to develop our relationship with God in our own way. Not surprisingly we left home and set off in all different directions. I followed my mother’s path even when she warned me her way would not be mine. The church I was brought up in held no real appeal for me. My mother, who spent her entire life with one foot in this world and the other in the next, never saw the need for the formality of a weekly Mass. Hers was an intensely personal and private devotion.
I learned from her, then studied at the feet of my aunt and grandmother. The Awakening series is my tribute to those women I loved, who mentored me and taught me the ancient ways largely lost when science replaced faith, and words like sacred, holy and reverence became obsolete in a world where mankind claims equality with God.
Imagine my surprise when years later, after all three had passed from this world, one morning I found myself at the entrance to the church where I grew up. I pulled open the door with a feeling of both anticipation and reluctance. At the sight of the familiar crucifix above the altar, I knelt and made the sign of the cross, then unsure of my welcome, took a place in a rear pew in the near empty church. Daily mass was offered early so the faithful could get to work on time. I knelt in the silence before the pre-dawn Mass and offered a hesitant prayer.
As if only a moment had passed rather than long years, I heard His familiar voice asking me if I was ready to come home now and what kept me away for so long.
I still have my mother’s crystal ball and tarot cards, and her picture of the Blessed Mother she always kept by her bed. She was right. My way is not her way, but I still remember and honor the ancient ways passed mother to daughter for generations.
The knowledge rests uneasily within me. They’re gone, and I’m the only one left who still remembers.