|Posted by C. Stan Asumen, Jr on October 30, 2015 at 9:25 PM|
Chapter 5: No Longer A Church-Going Christian
There was the Door to which I found no Key;
There was the Veil through which I might not see:
Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee
There was—and then no more of Thee and Me.
``` – Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat
In an earlier article I inadvertently volunteered the information that “I am no longer a church-going Christian.” Before some family and friends would inquire on what exactly did I mean by the ‘confession’, or maybe just for my own edification, I deem it necessary to elaborate on that state of affairs to the best that my selective memory can muster.
Suffice to say, memory is, of necessity invariably selective. As an organism with instincts for self-preservation, we only retain what serves to reinforce the prolongation if not perpetuation of existential well-being. No conspiracy theory here. It is just how the cookie crumbles. No grandiose designs or sophisticated schemes on how life is supposed to unfold. For which a bit of background is in order.
The Bucolic Beginnings
I grew up in a small farming/fishing village of fewer than a hundred households, of mostly relatives with the exception of two or three families. Close family ties were so pervasive one had to reach out to the adjacent town to get married. In terms of societal and civic activity, it would compare most appropriately with the fictional village of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof, but for three qualifications that need to be stressed. It was a catholic community; it was a farming village by the sea; and it definitely was not fictional.
These first two attributes were more important than one would ordinarily suspect. Firstly, my father converted a sizable tract of homestead virgin forest into a coconut plantation by spear-fishing at night and using the night’s catch to hire help during the day to work the farm. This required proximity to the sea to be remotely practicable. Having grown up ‘by the sea’ had a definite indelible influence on my psyche, so much so that I have not lived more than an hour’s trip to the sea my entire life. To a boy, the sea always presented the promise of infinite possibilities. By contrast, farm work invariably gave me the feeling of being hopelessly and helplessly grounded, with no prospect of liberation from the clutches of the soil and the vagaries of the weather.
Secondly, the catholic aspect of it was important in the sense that mother was a devout catholic and father was a nominal practitioner. As a pre-school boy I would go to town with mother and father and I would end up spending the Sunday afternoon with father at the town cockpit. (Then, cockfighting was one of the most popular pastimes in the old country, and father was one of the most acclaimed accomplished minder of fighting roosters in the town.) Mother would invariably spend the Sunday afternoon in church.
Nevertheless, I grew up a devout catholic since around third grade, circa the time when I went through catechism leading to my first communion, up through sophomore high school. Being devout meant as early as a third grader, I was one of two boys in town who could lead the novena, and frequently did so in public without embarrassment or reservation, notwithstanding that the chore was traditionally assigned to girls. The other boy was my brother, two years and eight months older than me. The point is, I took religion rather seriously starting quite early on. Going to church was a weekly ritual until my high school sophomore year.
The Burden of Conscience
Around that time, they stopped conducting the catholic mass in Latin. The veil of mysticism was lifted off the mass as a ritual. When I started to understand what was said and done in church, I began to gradually realize that my main reason for being in church was to get close to Evangeline, the prettiest damsel and most graceful dancer in campus, the girl I courted with the proverbial passion of first love. Somehow the realization made me extremely uncomfortable. Increasingly, the burden of inventing stories for the priest at confessional, so I could take the Sunday communion, became toilsome and intolerable. Sans provocation, my conscience started to kick in.
At the end of my sophomore year I was sent to represent my school at a national conference of students who were aspiring to pursue farming for a lifetime vocation. As a congratulatory gift, one of my maternal uncles, a practicing Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), gave me a bible. I spent a good chunk of my third year in high school reading that bible, which was one of the few books I had read cover to cover more than once. I may not be that much the wiser for the experience, but that was the first year of my not being a church-going Christian.
This was the first introspection phase of my religious meanderings. The days spent in the wilderness, so to speak. Or to borrow the brilliant formulation of Omar Khayyam,
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return'd to me,
And answer'd "I Myself am Heav'n and Hell:"
Having quit following her to church and miserably failing to learn the tango, or any dancing skills for that matter, I of course began to drift apart from Evangeline, the love of my life. But my love affair with the bible persisted through my final year of high school. It eventually led me back to church. During the first two and one-half years of college, I found myself a guest member of an SDA congregation right in the heart of Marawi, the largest Muslim city in the country.
The congregation consisted exactly of four resident families, with two to six members to a family, and four to five students from my newly opened university, as guest members. The fifth member of our group went to church rather irregularly. The four of us, more often than not, walked the five to six kilometers separating the campus from the city, both ways every Saturday regardless of the weather. There were times when we got an occasional break from the motor pool personnel and were able to hitch a ride, but they were too few and far between.
The congregation elder was a medical doctor and we held the worship services at the waiting room of his clinic. I was positive that he was not a pastor or an ordained minister because we never addressed him as such. Although I did not quite have a chance at a one-on-one dialogue with him, (I was only a taciturn college kid, he was the accomplished elder of the bunch) I held him in high regard and respect.
The congregation on the whole had a very congenial informal ambiance. The resident families took turns hosting us, the student guest members, for lunch each Saturday. I was content and comfortable with my new identity as an SDA congregant. I even managed to leverage my religious entitlement to have ROTC deferred for two semesters because a Saturday drill violated the SDA Sabbath protocol. Ditto with any special examinations, like the competency classification tests (which landed me into remedial English course) scheduled for a Saturday: we were allowed to take them some other time.
During this period, I however admitted to cringing with consternation and resentment every time I heard somebody remarked that I was a person who could be trusted because I went to church every week. That was, to my mind, the cliché case of putting the cart before the horse. To date I hold the deep seated conviction that I went to church on a regular basis because I was a decent person, mainly due to my upbringing. To formulate it any other way would be an affront to the honor and achievements of my parents, the most monumental of them I consider to be the success of their children.
I was blessed with loving and caring parents who inculcated into my consciousness an appreciation of the notion of the good, the beautiful and the true, along with the value of hard work and the mental habit to examine the merits of any proposition that needed to be acted upon or taken as gospel.
This was seriously important because my parents got married when they were in grammar school. Father was nineteen just on the verge of being promoted to seventh grade. Mother was sixteen, still in the sixth grade. Both of them were scions of farming and fishing families. Their moral and spiritual moorings essentially consisted of the goodness of their hearts and the desire to do what was right, tempered by the rigors of the elements associated with farming and fishing life.
It was against the backdrop of these introspections (my second over the last five years) that I was caught off guard by a sermon. The occasion was the Saturday following the second anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. The congregation elder chose the life and death of the iconic celebrity as the subject of his sermon. His thesis was that no amount of glamour, glitter, wealth and fame could work to your benefit if you lived a life of sin. The thesis as such was fine. But in the process of expounding on it, he proceeded to berate her judgment and vilify her character and probe into every conceivable aspect of her memory and legacy to prove his point. In his passionate eloquence he managed to impute the most negative nuance to every facet of her life.
Somehow this violated every fabric of decency that was planted in my soul by my parents. It took every fiber of self-restraint for me not to walk out of the service right then and there. From my farm boy upbringing one just should not speak ill of the dead. I could not remember being taught the specific reason for the proscription, but I hastened to guess: that it was because the dead was inherently incapable of defending itself. Or if you subscribed to the wisdom of Shakespeare’s formulation that
“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;”
the evil deeds have ample chance to speak for themselves. Therefore it became incumbent upon common decency to highlight the good deeds, especially when they were buried with the carcass. Thus the practice of delivering a eulogy at a funeral has become a well established protocol of decency.
What I even found more outrageous was the fact that no other person seemed to have found the sermon objectionable. It might of course have been the case that everybody was just as taciturn and reserved as I was then. Be that as it may, that was the last time I attended a church service as a congregant. Since nobody asked me why I stopped going to church, I did not think I needed to come up with an explanation, till now.
I still go to church on special occasions to count my blessings, more than to worship God. I do it mainly as a celebrant than as a supplicant; more in the spirit which Alexander Pope alluded to in An Essay on Criticism:
In the bright Muse tho' thousand charms conspire,
Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire;
Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear,
Not mend their minds; as some to church repair,
Not for the doctrine, but the music there.
I am more of a God-loving soul than a God-fearing soul. My God is more kind and compassionate than jealous and wrathful. I just had earlier arrived at the conclusion that to commune with my Maker is too personal and too important a matter to be outsourced or to be consigned to any mode of mediation whatever, for its proper and forthright fulfillment and unfettered accomplishment.