The Baltimore Catechism tells us, “God is everywhere.”
I sheepishly admit that is all that I can remember of the Baltimore catechism, which was taught to me as a wee lad on Saturday mornings at Immaculate Conception in Madison, Ohio. I can recite most of the lineup of the 1970 Baltimore Orioles, but can’t remember much of the catechism.
God is everywhere.
This is the story about a vital part of my cancer experience that I must tell. I wish I did not. One of the sticking points in the PD’s rejection of my story was my treatment of my religious experience during the process. An editor did not think I was truthful, that I had tried too hard to make myself look good.
I might be a coward, a hypocrite, a backslider and a lousy bowler, but I’m not a liar.
This is my story, my truth. It’s presumptious, to say the least, to believe you know another man’s truth. Know why?
God is everywhere.
My parents and my church raised me as a perfectly fervent Catholic boy in a perfectly fervent Catholic family. I grew up at a time when, at least in Perry, Ohio, being Catholic was different. I can remember being upset by the anti-Catholic tracts that would occasionally arrive in the mail.
We literally built our church, St. Cyprian’s, which is still standing strong today. Our priest had an office a couple blocks from our house when our parish first organized and I would hang out with him often. He became an important role model. One of my good friend’s father, who had nicknames for everyone, dubbed me “Cyp.”
I became an altar boy and faithful congregant who took his Cathollic vows quite seriously. I considered whether the priesthood might be calling. As young as I might have been, there were times when I felt filled by the Holy Spirit.
Things change. I can hardly discount puberty. And, as children inevitably learn, there are deep disappointments waiting just around the bend.
I’m not sure how old I might have been, probably 13, when the priest asked me to accompany him to Cleveland to help order new cassocks for the altar boys. He asked me because of our close relationship and my status as Altar Boy No. 1. Weddings, funerals, high holidays, it typically was me up on the altar ringing the bells and handing over the water and wine.
Father A. and I had made it to the religious supply store somewhere in Cleveland and then headed for home.. I have a clear recollection of where we were, on the Shoreway near Liberty Boulevard, a road that longtime Clevelanders will now recognize as Martin Luther King Boulevard. I don’t remember the context of what Father A. was discussing, but the word “nigger” comfortably rolled out of his mouth.
I was shocked. Ultimately, I did not want to believe that this holy man, my hero in many ways, had uttered the most vile word I knew. But he had. I, of course, said nothing in response. I recall the rest of the ride being quite silent.
I left the church right around the time I got my driver’s license. I would lie and tell my parents I was going to the 5 o'clock Saturday evenings at St. Mary's and would end up elsewhere. The downy feathers of Catholicism had molted into the sturdy wings of agnosticism. I saw no path for my return.
Mary Lou has raised our children in a wonderful Methodist church. She and the kids have been active members of a congregation that formed years ago as an amalgam of a predominantly black and a predominantly white church.
Redeemer looks like our community. Pastors there have long made a point of welcoming everyone and everyone came: the rich, the poor, folks of all color, gay, straight and transgendered. I’d attend on some of the high holy days. I've always felt warmly welcomed by the wonderful folks there, but it’s not my church.
Sam was around 7 when he asked Mary Lou why I didn’t go to church. She said she told him to ask me, but I can’t recall that he ever did.
Ironically, not long before they found the spot on my lungs, we had a conversation at Sunday dinner when I surprised ML and the kids when they learned that I believe in God. They had assumed all along that I was an atheist. I started to blather on about St. Thomas Aquinas and the Immoveable Mover but decided to drop it.
This is complicated stuff in my mind. As much as I can comprehend, I also accept the precepts of string theory and multiple dimensions and believe there is so much we don't know.
I believe in God, and I believe in science. I’m not sure how the two can be separated.
After I began writing this post, another bit of the Baltimore Catechism came back to me: What is a mystery?
A mystery is a truth we cannot fully understand.
So I won’t try to understand what happened to me after I learned I had cancer. But something did happen. Something wonderful that has helped guide me to this particular point in time with all the strange twists and turns that make us human.
It’s my truth, and it remains unknowable.
Something made its presence known as I began my journey through cancer, something I can only describe as grace. Something good. Something kind.
What is grace? The Baltimore Catechism tells us it’s a “supernatural gift from God bestowed on us, through the merits of Jesus Christ, for our salvation.”
I’m not sure about all that. That’s what grace might be in Baltimore. But in Cleveland, grace appeared in the form of small gestures and deeds. Grace enervated me to an almost manic level at a time when I my being could have easily been consumed by sorrow and despair. Grace fed the wellspring of the tears I that served as a soothing balm.
The abundance of grace allowed me to believe that everything could be okay. It wouldn’t necessarily be so, but I knew I had a chance, slim as it might be. That’s all I really wanted. A chance.
Grace, I discovered most, was the presence of Mary Lou in my life, a person without whom I'm not sure I could exist.
This was not the first cancer rodeo for the Gillispies. Mary Lou is 11 years clear of recovery from breast cancer. After her diagnosis we agreed that we’d push through, do what needed to be done, and move on with our lives. We had babies who needed their mother. Everything had to be alright. I would not allow myself or anyone else to think otherwise.
We adopted the same attitude this time around. We’re going to get through this. We will be okay.
My belief in me is not so steadfast, however. If you were to press Mary Lou, she might say the same thing. We knew we were in big trouble. No one had to remind us what happens to the vast majority of people with smoking-related lung cancers.
I have and continue to tell people that I'm an outlier. Damn the numbers. I want to live. But the fearsome specter of cancer's return can't and won't leave. It probably never will. I push it as far into the background as I can.
After my father moved into his upscale senior digs, I tried to make sure he got to various Catholic events, such as praying the rosary. Not long after treatment began, I arrived on a Tuesday afternoon just before rosary. I pushed him to the gathering of a half-dozen residents, all in wheelchairs, all cradling their rosary beads.
It had been 40 years since I prayed the rosary. I remained silent at first, but soon joined them in the prayers I knew. I cried silent tears as I prayed. Grace subsumed me in a way that I had not felt since my youth. I felt something deep and abiding.
The next morning, I got up early enough to arrive 20 minutes before the 6:45 a.m. Mass. I knelt and prayed in the darkened sanctuary while waiting for the priest to arrive. The retired priest who presides over the early morning Mass was running late when I stopped him outside the sacistry.
“Yes?” he said gruffly, clearly in a hurry.
“I need to take communion this morning and haven’t been to confession in a long time.”
“Okay,” he replied, perplexed.
“No, I mean a really long time. Like more than 30 years.”
He allowed himself a small, knowing smile and placed his hand gently on my shouder.
“I think it will be okay if you take communion. We’ll talk after Mass.” He then went inside to don his vestments.
I did take communion. It filled a hunger I had never realized I possessed. After Mass, the priest and I sat in the sanctuary and talked for about 20 minutes. He didn’t ask for a laundry list of my sins, which I admit was a relief. I’d have needed to transfer the data to a thumb drive to accurately account for all of the iniquities since my last good confession.
Not long after, I officialy joined the church. I met the main priest, a kind, intelligent man who left nothing to chance. He administered the sacraments of sacraments -- extreme unction. The last rites.
Mary Lou (and Hanna) were confounded by my decision to rejoin the Mother Church. I had become hard to live with. My mind raced, my energy coursed somewhere near the manic level. As patient and kind as she might be, even Mary Lou has her limits.
“You’re going a million miles an hour and I can’t keep up,” she said.
I told her I understood, but there was nothing to stop the runaway train my life had become at that particular point in time. I was trying to learn to cope with the very real possibility that I could soon be dead. Finito.
My father converted to Catholicism after he and my mother married and, in our family, his faith was the strongest. There were many Saturday afternoons when my father would stand in our back yard and yell out over the neighborhood that I needed to come home so we could go to confession.
Dad seemed as confused as Mary Lou when I informed him that I had rejoined the church. He told me he had never loved me more than he did at that very moment. But then he said something surprising.
“I don’t feel a need to go to church anymore. I get by just fine with quiet contemplation.”
A year later, quiet contemplation is my church as well. The path I started down early in my cancer journey proved not to be mine. The Catholic faith I thought I had discovered proved illusory.
There is a path is out there for me, but I don’t know yet where it starts and have no idea where it leads.
Quickly spurring my rejection were the trappings of the church that cannot and will not ignore. It began with the pastor reading the bishop’s sanctimonious letter about the Obama-fueled controversy over birth control. I refuse to believe that the priest did know that more than 90 percent of the women sitting in the pews before him had used one form of birth control or another at some point in their lives.
And that caused me to contemplate the sanctimonious and ridiculous notion that only men can serve the Lord in the Catholic faith. Any religion that insists on putting men, and men only, in charge is not one I want to embrace.
My move away was hastened about six weeks into treatment, a time when the toll of chemo and radiation made me quite ill and I no longer had the energy to drive anywhere, much less to a church whose morality I once again questioned.
That, gentle readers, is my truth. I wish it were not so. For a minute, I enjoyed the mysticism, the song, the prayers. But I cannot separate the men in the pointy hats from the people in the pews. I wish it were not so.
I guess my actions here are craven, crying out from the foxhole for God and dismissing him/her/it once the shelling had stopped. That's not completely true. I do think about God every day. I wish I knew how to pray. Sadly, I do not.
I’m just another confused human being, unsure of where to turn and unable to assign himself to the acceptance of any belief system, whether it's Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Vishnu or some other mystical figure keeping the religious ride on the road.
I believe we’re all comprised of an energy that makes for strong and wonderful connections, boundless love and, yes, mind-numbing hate.
There are no easy answers, so I won’t try to make any up. Judge me if you will, but please accept the fact that I'm trying to tell the truth as best I know it.
And do know this: God is everywhere.