Personal Narrative

The indifference of Heaven

By Patrick Vecchio

I am quarreling with God. No, wait—I can put it a better way: I have had a quarrel with God, and I have walked away from him. That’s all, amen, don’t bother to see me out, I’ll close the door behind me.

I always had hoped God was a woman, because I felt a woman God would be easier to get along with. I prefer working with women. The most important people in my life are women. I probably wouldn’t have quarreled with a woman God. But, even though I am not a scholar when it comes to the Bible, I have a hunch the men who wrote it weren’t exactly feminists, so of course they were going to say God is a guy: “Our Father, who art in heaven …” In my opinion, it turns out they were right. Before I walked away from God, whenever I tried talking to him (praying, if you will), I felt like a kid again, trying to talk to my father after supper while he was reading the evening newspaper in the living room and watching the nightly news at 6:30. What did my father do in that situation? Maybe grunt in assent to what I was saying, utter a sharp word in dissent (“No!”), tell me to get the hell out of the room, or ignore me.

The God whom the Catholic priests and nuns taught me about when I was growing up was a real “no!” guy. Look at the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not. It wasn’t long into my voyage of faith before I was seeing faith in just two terms: sin and guilt. Adam and Eve fell, and the rest of us were stuck with a bill we can’t ever pay.

In catechism class, around the first grade, the nuns taught us that even a just-born baby has a smudge of sin on its snow-white soul. Original sin, they called it. Instead of the idea making me more pious, it made me wonder, “A baby? Born with sin? How can a baby sin?” I didn’t make sense; it made me begin to question the firmness my faith was based on. My questioning grew stronger in about third grade, when a nun could not answer what I posed as an innocent question: “Did Adam and Eve exist before the time of the dinosaurs?” If it had been 1480, the Spanish Inquisition probably would have burned me at the stake as a budding heretic.

When I was still older, I hadn’t abandoned the faith, but confessing my sins caused interior conflict because I’d get into the confessional and freeze up. I then came up with the idea of making lists of sins to recite, and not only that, I’d enumerate how many times I had, say, lied since my last confession—as if anyone else kept track. “Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been one month since my last confession, and these are my sins: I lied 48 times, I took the Lord’s name in vain 12 times,” etc. One of my more frequently confessed transgressions was “having impure thoughts.” If that’s a sin, I’m headed straight to hell, which is fine, because I’ve got some grudges to settle, and the people I’m looking for are dead, and they aren’t exactly playing harps now, so I know where to find them. This all reminds me of the line from the old Woody Allen movie Take the Money and Run, when his father is talking about Allen’s character: “I tried to beat God into him. He was too tough.”

I never understood why those guys in the Old Testament always were hearing from God directly. Moses and the burning bush, God talking to Job, etc. These days, if anyone hears from God directly, he or she had better not let anyone else know for fear of being ridiculed or, more likely, committed. But I know for sure God never has spoken to me, either directly or indirectly. He’s dad on the couch reading the paper, watching the news. I’m not sure he even knows I’m here.

I’ve always believed in God; I don’t know when I started. I can tell you that the rites of the Catholic Mass scared me at first. When I was very young, my father took me to Mass. This was back when the Mass was celebrated in Latin. Our church had small public address speakers built into the walls so the congregation could hear better. I got scared because I thought a man was actually in the wall, and he wasn’t speaking English. The smell of incense scared me too. Needless to say, my father didn’t take me to Mass with him for quite some time afterward. By high school, I would tell my parents I was going to Mass and instead ride my bicycle to the river. I always found a spiritual calm there.

Three decades or so later, I decided to start again with Catholicism. I confessed face-to-face with a priest; it seemed more real than the semi-anonymous shrouded-in-the-confessional version. We had a good talk afterward. Now this is a priest, I told myself—someone who could lead me back to the faith. I started going to Mass again, and I sat in the last pew as a sign of humility. I took communion. I went to confession regularly. I recited prayers along with the congregation. But I never felt as if I belonged.

And now I have quarreled and walked away from God. Why? It’s personal. If I were to explain, you might say I’m making too much out of my complaint, that the event in question certainly isn’t worth the dispute. I would disagree. I would say the matter is serious business. Some of you would see why. You might not understand the all-or-nothing extent of my reaction, but you could see where I’m coming from. Let’s leave it at that.

I used to think God spoke to me in metaphors and through images. The sun’s rays fanning in the distance, breaking through a layer of clouds. There’s a sign. An insect with an impossibly beautiful black body striped in iridescent green? That’s a nudge from above about the art of the Creator. A gull soaring against a charcoal gray sky, illuminated by a single sunbeam? There’s a heavenly sign of hope. Now I see those things and think, “That’s sunshine, those are clouds, that is a bug, that is a bird.”

Before I sleep at night, I lie on my back and stare at the ceiling. I think about what life has been like that day, that week, that month, that year, or any particular moment of any particular year. I used to ask God, “What was the point of that?” In my mind, I would hear the reply: “God works in mysterious ways.” Occasionally, I would pray for a clue, just a single clue to figuring out the mysteries. I never received one.

It’s tough to break the bedtime habit. I lie on my back and begin the conversation. I begin to ask, “What was the point of … ?” and then I have to stop myself, saying, “It’s over. Conversation is a transaction. You’ve only ever talked to yourself.” So now it’s just the dark, just the ceiling, and just me. I no longer want to, or have to, ponder the indifference of heaven.

Image credit: SodaHead

8 replies »

  1. God is not in your comfort zone, nor in the box you’ve placed him. He is not in a church, or a religion. He speaks with his spirit and often through others, who are unaware of the power of their words. What are words? Sounds? They’re vibrations that have the power to change things. You can walk away from God, but He will continue to follow you until the day you die.

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting, Liz. But as the poet, preacher and prophet Bob Marley once observed:

    Most people think
    Great God will come from the skies,
    Take away everything
    And make everybody feel high.
    But if you know what life is worth,
    You will look for yours on earth:
    And now you see the light.
    Stand up for your rights.

  3. I get a certain comfort from the words of Brother Vonnegut, too, Pat:
    “Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’ Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand.”

  4. Jim Booth: I know you, right? Musician and trout fisherman, as I recall.

    As far as “Man got to tell himself he understand,” I don’t think I ever have or ever will. Might be better off being a bird; at least there’s *some* degree of certainty there. Like the late, great Chris Whitley sang:

    See the migrant wing against the sky
    Know exactly where, don’t know why

  5. One thing I never understood about prayer: why pray to God when there’s obviously too many people for him/her to be individually overseeing their affairs? Why not direct your prayers to your, uh, caseworker and curry influence with that person instead?

  6. Russ, you’re right: My therapist is excellent and always manages to get my head on straight. It’s those periods between appointments where I’ve been backsliding to the God thing.

  7. Glad to hear that, Patrick. But by “caseworker” I meant one’s “angel,” spirit guide, or whoever God’s administrators have assigned to one. (Incidentally, though I have a deep faith, I don’t believe in a personal God.)

  8. Ah, Russ, your caseworker metaphor blew right by me. I know what you mean now. I look back and, without being dramatic or exaggerating, can think of a half-dozen or so instances when I could easily have wound up dead. I don’t believe in the “there but for the grace of God” explanation, but someone/thing kept me from the brink.