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September 26, 2022

What Do I Know 3

By Bernie Pilarski

The Third in series of "Unresearched Essays," short, one topic essays, written using only information from memory, that perhaps provide an opportunity to shed a little light on who I am.

One of the more sobering aspects of having undertaken this task of writing "unresearched essays" is this idea of unplugging from the internet and staying away from the bookshelves, relying only on what I think I know. I am suddenly confronted with how much I don't know, or at least can't remember, and what's worse, how much of what I know is probably just anecdotal. Brian Blanchfield, the author of Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, the book that challenged me to try this, was obviously a brilliant individual. It was very obvious that he had a lot of "book learning" and appeared to have a lot of stuff crammed into his head.

I've met people like that. There are people that just seem to be thoroughly immersed in their field. I had an opportunity to tour a navy ship in the company of the captain (he was a family acquaintance), and I was blown away with the intimate knowledge he had of every aspect of the ship. I can't remember exactly why he did it, but at one point he pulled up a section of plating from the floor to reveal dozens of pipes and conduits and proceeded to tell us where each was coming from and where it was going. Probably just to impress us. He made believable the scenes in the movies where the captain of a damaged ship runs down into its bowels and amidst hissing steam and showers of sparks is able to find the exact valve to turn that saves the ship.

I've only been able to demonstrate that depth of knowledge on occasion, but it's generally in areas like being able to identify which of my feet is the left and which is the right. Even though there are subjects where it might be said that I have above average knowledge, there is nothing in which I am considered an expert. I am a jack of enough trades to have done okay for myself, but it is a fair assessment to say I am master of none.

I do have a pretty good knowledge of Catholicism that might be considered noteworthy. I know more about the Church than probably ninety-five per cent of the people sitting in the pews, and saying so is not a boast as much as an indictment of the laity who by and large don't put a lot of thought into what they're doing at church. This leads to a lot of misconceptions. I am routinely appalled by what I read in the press about the Church, most especially the material written by "ex-Catholics" who frequently claim their previous association with the Church as giving them some kind of authority on the matter.

Religion is important. Religion is a peoples' accumulated experience of the world. It is the human activity that grapples with the questions "why the hell am I here, and what am I supposed to be doing?" Of course, everyone is free to start from scratch and come to their own conclusions about life, the universe and everything, just as if you wanted a car you could design and build you own, but really it is much easier to hop on down to the local car dealer and buy one that already has an automatic transmission and power windows. Doing so enables you to take advantage on more than a century of engineering work that has gone into producing today's cars. People have been "engineering" religion for thousands of years, and there is some pretty impressive work out there.

Religion provides us with truth, that is, it provides an understanding of our relationship with creation. Truth, not facts, and the distinction between the terms is important. Facts are those things which are known to be real (or true) because they can be proven -- there exists real, demonstrable evidence to support their veracity. Truth not so much. Truth is that which illuminates, which helps us understand what really is. For example, love. When someone says "I love you," there is no known way to prove that. There is no chemical test, no visual confirmation of love. There is nothing that can be done that would prove the existence of love, for any action that can be attributed to love could easily be done in the absence of love.

And yet, if love exists, it can profoundly change what is possible in a relationship and indeed can fundamentally alter how an individual understands and experiences the world.

Within months of having gotten married, I was diagnosed with cancer and in very short order was flayed open on the operating table and had bits of this and that removed. The chemotherapy that followed was brutal. The doctors battled and defeated a deadly disease, but there was significant collateral damage to the patient. I was no longer the handsome young man that had just months before married the beautiful girl. I was now scarred, emaciated, and hobbled. I remember one night in particular in the hospital. I had been given permission to take a bath, and wanted to because I felt dirty. I needed assistance to get out of bed, and had to have help to walk the short distance to the room with the tub. My wife was there, as she had been throughout, and she and a nurse made sure I completed the exhausting journey from bed to tub. As I sat in the tub, I looked at myself, and was appalled at the damage to my body. I had an ugly incision that ran from my sternum to my crotch; I had lost a considerable amount of weight and looked sickly thin. I was an invalid. The thought crossed my mind that this wasn't what my beautiful young wife had bargained for, and that I would not have blamed her if she fled.

I did not understand love at that moment. I had been too infatuated by her beauty and too intoxicated by her touch to have seriously thought through the concept of love. Had I been pressed to explain love I might have described it as a kind of quid pro quo relationship where affections were exchanged, where the amount of love I received was based on the amount of love I gave. At that moment in the tub, I felt that I had nothing to give. I was physically unattractive. I could not work. There was even doubt that I would be around long enough to make any difference.

I looked up at my wife who was sitting beside the tub. I was embarrassed and discouraged. What I dreaded seeing in her eyes was disappointment, would have settled for pity, and hoped for sympathy. What I saw stunned me. She looked down on me with an expression filled with kindness, contentment, and joy. She saw me as I was and, for lack of any other words to describe it, I felt her love wash over and through me, unconditionally and abundantly without even a hint of aversion to the damage the past several months had done to me physically. I felt warmed, calmed, healed. If I were not already ensconced in a tub of water (and otherwise unable to move), I would have fallen at her feet in gratitude and awe.

At once, I had become a devotee. My life, if there was to be one, would necessarily take the form of response to this encounter, not because it was required or demanded, but because it was the only currency I had that was worthy of the gift I was given. God, I know how quixotic that sounds, but it is the truth -- it was there in that tub in that hospital that I began to understand what could be if only I would consent to being loved. In a glance, our relationship was defined -- her interests, welfare and happiness became mine. There have been very few days in the past forty years when I haven't thought of that moment. I've stumbled around and been an ass more times than I would like to admit, but I've never forgotten what I felt that night and how it changed me.

I suppose it would have been easy enough to have been duped by those eyes back then, to have stupidly misinterpreted a kindness simply because I needy. My life is littered with people for whom love soured and died along the way, where the truth was that there really was no truth to their relationship. Fortunately, as I took on her wellbeing as my own, she did the same, so we have largely been able to live our lives like the cartoon birds Heckle and Jeckle, going about saying after you, pal, and no, I insist, old chap, after you. Finding one's place in creation is a lot like that -- there is a great chorus of causes that want a piece of your soul, and authenticity is hard to find -- but finding one's place in the world, knowing how you fit in, is a wonderful experience. Religion is a touchstone of sorts, a resource with which to authenticate what we encounter in life.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, in his book The New Man, makes a very keen observation, and I'm going to paraphrase it a bit because I've never had the kind of mind that could memorize a lot of detail, but what he says is that all things praise God, and they do so not to make God notice them, they praise him because they have been seen by him.

I don't think I could have understood what Merton meant had I not been married, not had cancer, not had the opportunity to get over myself and see something real, but circumstances conspired to put me in the right place at the right time to see something truly remarkable. Religion does that too, trying to keep people gravitating around the places and things where the truth can be encountered, trying to keep them close to where the lightning strikes. Whether it takes the form of ritual killing of food animals, celebrations of the changing of the seasons, music, sacred writings, the manner of burying the dead, religion plays matchmaker between nature and man, setting us up not so that we can summons the gods to do our bidding, but rather that we can be startled by the complexity of creation and touched by its care. Then, as Merton points out, we will praise God.

For me, Catholicism is that response to God that results from the encounter with his creation. The way in which its prayer grows out of and mirrors the natural rhythms of the earth, the thoughtful depth of its knowledge, it all works for me. Does it work for everybody? It should, and I wish it would, but the truth is (truth, remember, that which helps me understand the relationship between things) there are a lot of reasons why it might not. The Church does unequivocally state that "outside the Church there is no salvation," and while that is true, it is a statement that can make people hop up and down and howl since it is often narrowly interpreted to mean 'only Catholics get to heaven," not infrequently by Catholics themselves who are of the mind to believe that that which is not required is prohibited.

Salvation is a complicated concept, and if anyone asks us how to obtain salvation, we Catholics are obliged to say that path to salvation is the Church, which is the Body of Christ, and Christ is the source of salvation. Is there any other source? No, otherwise, Christ's death on the cross would be a superfluous act, and that would certainly be senseless. Is there any other path to Christ than the Church? Here's where it gets a little tricky. The easy answer that I'm sure countless catechists and parents have given is "no, shut up and sit down." The technically more correct answer would be, "don't know, and we've been given no authority to judge the efficacy of any other approach, and because of the serious nature of the issue, we can't be seen as in any way validating other approaches, but we do know that if you truly understand who and what Christ is and did, and you none the less reject that, then you are entirely on your own and are probably in trouble." However, the other thing the Church unequivocally says (in the documents of the Second Vatican Council) is that since it doesn't control God, God will deal in his own way with people who are sincerely looking for him and haven't found him in the Church.

"Shut up and sit down" is a whole lot easier to explain to second graders, and unfortunately second grade was the last time a lot of Catholics had any formal religion education.

I'm pretty sure that's the truth, and I would have thought that having reached this point in my life (as in getting old) I would be more certain of myself, and while there are things I am pretty sure of, I am painfully aware of the things I don't know, and of the things I've forgotten, and I am wary of how much I know is anecdotal. And yet I am hopeful, for I am certain I am seen.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-09-11
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
Ralph Bland
02:52:53 PM
Bravo, Bernie! Even being a reformed Southern Baptist and older than a lot of people who are dead already, I grasp and agree with much of what you have to say. Like you, it took me a long while to accept the fact someone could actually love a jerk like me. Perhaps we have both spent far too much time being too hard on ourselves?
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