Monday, June 13, 2011

Sister St. Lawrence

I’ve been told, and I’m willing to consider the truth of it, that I hold a grudge against the Church because of things I was taught to believe when I was young. If so, this incident played a big part.

One day in the fourth grade I was eating lunch on the playground with my friend Larry. I had just taken a bite out of my sandwich when I looked up and saw the dark figure of Sister St. Lawrence standing over me. In a harsh voice that everyone could hear she shouted at me, “What is that you’re eating?” I told her it was a ham and cheese sandwich that my mom had made. She was appalled. I can still see the way her mouth fell open. “Don’t you know this is Friday?” she said. “And you’re eating meat? Haven’t you been taught that that’s a Mortal Sin?” Her voice got even louder. “Don’t you know what an offense that is to your Heavenly Father“? I was mortified. I did know what an offense it was. I told her I was sorry. I forgot it was Friday and so did my mom. I immediately crushed the rest of the sandwich and stuffed it back into my lunch box. But Sister St. Lawrence wasn’t done. Back in class she spoke to me again, this time quietly, and very seriously. “I hope you didn’t forget the penalty for committing a mortal sin. If you die in your sleep tonight you will go straight to hell and be there for all of eternity.” I couldn’t have been more terrified. I knew Father O’Connor would be saying Confession in the morning. That night I had the worst sleep of my life - waking every few minutes to check the clock and thank God I was still alive.

I was first in line at the confessional to tell Father O’Connor about my sin. He prescribed five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys for my penance. I hurried through them and immediately felt better - like the weight of the world had been lifted off of me. I thanked God again and prayed with great sincerity that He would never again let me make that kind of mistake. He never did. But some years later I read that the Pope had changed the law. It was no longer a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday. It occurred to me that anyone who had done so - and then died while it was still a sin - hadn’t been as lucky as me. Or maybe they somehow got pardoned. The point is, I never saw Sister St. Lawrence again after the fourth grade and she never apologized for making me go through that. I’ve never spoken to the Pope either, so no one has ever admitted to me that the church had been wrong in its understanding of God and his requirements. I’m sure this has caused some anger and frustration that I’ve had to internalize all these years. If nothing else this blog may bring some kind of closure for me.

But there is a deeper issue. If the church could have been wrong about something it was so sure of then, isn’t it possible it could happen again? It did. In January of 2008, after being part of the teaching of the church for more than 700 years, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Limbo, the afterlife state reserved for the un-baptized innocent, did not exist. It’s important to note that it didn’t “no longer” exist. It never did exist. Apparently the Pope had finally come to that awareness. He is to be commended for receiving a new revelation and for accepting the fact that our understanding of God can change, but Sister St. Lawrence wasn’t around to explain it to me. 

I remember what the church taught about Martin Luther too. He was the worst heretic the world had ever known because he said it was impossible to pay for someone to get out of Purgatory. But I did that all the time as a child. The church taught that we could buy Plenary Indulgences for people who had died in their sin, and so enable them to go on to heaven. How we ever believed that is a mystery now. Fear of what might happen if we didn’t do it, probably. Anyway it turns out Luther wasn’t a heretic after all. He simply had a new revelation from the Spirit of God that went against the established tradition of the Church. (Jesus had one several years earlier). As such, Protestantism was a big part of the awakening of our planet. We still aren’t free from the fear-based religious beliefs that separate us, but it was a step in the right direction. The long process continues today with discoveries in Quantum Physics that show us our relationship to the “One-ness” of all life.   
I’m optimistic about the future, but I’ve been suspicious about Church ever since grammar school. What else does it teach that it could be wrong about? 

And I’d still like someone to apologize, maybe even get a refund for all those Indulgences I paid for.

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