Letter #9 — It’s the Relationship
The “elephant in the room” that you mentioned has never seemed like an elephant to me. Does that surprise you? I have rarely felt in our relationship that I had to tiptoe around religious questions, challenges or differences with you.
When I was in middle school, you’d get home late from the store, come down into the family room and join the conversations my friends and I were having about religion and theology. You showed me how to be patient and listen to people with different views. Except for my first two years of college when I was growing increasingly frustrated with the church, I’ve always been comfortable having critical discussions about religion with you. In my late teens, my discomfort had more to do with my having been of sexually abused, the priest-perpetrated sexual abuse being exposed in the 80s, and my own homophobia than with you. You had your own inherited homophobia to work through, too, but as I said in an earlier letter, I don’t recall you using religion as a weapon against me. I’m sure there were times when you ordered me to go to church instead of sleeping in, but that’s different than telling me I’m going to hell because the bible tells me so. I never felt that you taught me to hold back from asking the hard questions.
I loved going to work with you when you worked in Davenport and Iowa City. My favorite part was the commute, the conversations we’d have in the car. As the lines of corn blurred by, my tween brain was buzzing, trying to think of questions to ask you. I always knew I had a good question when I felt fear about asking it. I’d stew over the really difficult questions and wait until we were about ten minutes from home before asking them. I might have been hesitant, but I wasn’t afraid to think freely around you. I think we bumped heads when I was in high school and started questioning your parenting techniques and asking harder questions about religion that you didn’t have answers to.
Remember that time that I debated you and Mom over the rule that I couldn’t go out to eat in the Quad Cities before prom? I remember it as this epic Lincoln-Douglas debate in the family room that ended with you guys conceding that I had won the debate but still couldn’t go. I was so angry and slammed my bedroom door as I retreated. Then a few minutes later you and Mom came in and said something like, “You know, we’re wrong. You’re right. You can go.”
That was huge moment for me. To realize that you guys respected my soundest judgement. If you hadn’t done that, I might not have respected your authority again. But you admitted you were wrong. That was a huge lesson that you taught me, too. I don’t have to win or always be right, and that countered the lessons that I’d learned growing up in the parochial world of my North Catholic youth where it was us versus them and we’re the best and they’re the worst.
Dad, it’s that parochial myopic view that I see has torn our family apart. It’s bullshit that your eldest daughter and her husband say that you have turned from the truths that you taught us as kids, unless they are talking about that tribal parochialism that plagued Clinton. You modeled love, forgiveness, graciousness, hard work, fidelity, social justice and outreach to those who had less, caring for ill and infirmed, and showing hospitality to everyone who came to our home. I remember taking leftovers to homeless people down on the dike along the Mississippi and sacrificing one Christmas so we could purchase presents for a family in need more than ours. I remember you serving on parish council and mom singing praise and directing choruses. I remember the work you both did on church fundraisers, the fish fry, the Seder, the talent shows and more. I can still see you, Mom, the Stones and other parents painting the rooms in that decrepit old school building. I remember you standing up to abusive teachers at North Catholic and making the difficult decision to challenge the parochial toxicity. You broke us out of that. We transferred parishes and from North Catholic to the public schools, and ultimately you taught us to forgive when the parishes ended their civil warring and consolidated. I remember tithing and feeling like a big boy when I passed on to Maria the great pleasure of putting our family’s envelope in the basket.
Your eldest and her husband are the ones who have strayed. Not you. They have embraced a cult. So please, please hear me, and I hope you can feel some peace with this: You and Mom have done nothing to betray your faith and the faith you raised us in, except for being compassionate, loving and accepting people. And if your daughter and her husband can’t see that, they are blind to the truth of your and Mom’s experience and being. They have not witnessed the relationships that you have sown and the joy the people you have known have reaped. And loving me, loving Maria and her family, that does not contradict any values that you raised us with. Just because we don’t believe and aren’t members of the church, that doesn’t mean you should condemn us. If anyone has abandoned the values you taught us, such as caring for and honoring your elder and infirmed parents, it’s your eldest and her brood. They are blinded by their parochialism, and that is not a value that you instilled in us as we aged into our teens and twenties. I hope you can find deep peace with this and let it go. Let them go.
Also, people grow and evolve. As do religions. They syncretize past religions and philosophies and they also subdue them and eradicate them. People of faith and their churches, and the Catholic Church in particular, have destroyed entire wisdom traditions, philosophies — libraries of wisdom — and other faith traditions by killing and beating and torturing and assimilating entire cultures. Look at how many religions, philosophies and wisdom traditions the Catholic Church had eradicated by way of war and introducing disease around the world. Their goal is to dominate the planet with their “one true faith.” Their one true relationship. That to me is the definition of evil. There’s no respect in that belief system for anyone who thinks differently. How can any culture truly evolve for the better if they believe they own the absolute truth at the expense of every other culture in the history of the planet? So, if that’s the part of the church that your daughter laments that you have evolved beyond, so be it.
You mentioned me having a higher purpose in life. I don’t believe that I have a “higher purpose” in life any more. That language feels icky to me now, because it is a value judgement based in the theological privilege of the Catholic Church, the view that we are the “one true church” and that we have the “higher purpose” in life. That language was used to control and shame me for thirty years. It also implies that others have a “lower purpose.” As for my purpose and need to achieve: As a teen and throughout seminary and priesthood, a lot of my desire to overachieve was about covering up and running from having been abused and from my gayness. I had to achieve to hide my truth, to maintain the illusion of being a straight-A student, leader, servant, self-sacrificing Fr. Super-Tom, so that no one could see abused, gay little “intrinsically disordered” Tommy who was full of sin. I couldn’t let myself feel the abused kid in me.
My desire to achieve is different now. It’s based on freedom and optimism. When I realized I was an atheist, I shed that last bit of that toxic yoke of Catholicism. I felt the deepest level of contentment and freedom that I’ve ever known. And in that freedom, I felt responsibility. Responsibility for my relationships, for my relationship with the planet.
Our religious beliefs are very different now, but that’s OK. I’m glad you have your faith to ground you, especially now. I’m glad it give you solace and hope and joy. I hope you can understand that it is my lack of faith that grounds me: This is the only life I believe any of us has, I want to do what I can to make it better for all people. I don’t believe in a devil that entices me to evil or in a god that shames me into doing good. My desire to achieve is based on the truth of who I am within the realm of my human limitations. I can’t change the world all at once or by myself. I can’t everything for everyone. And I try to keep discovering who I am, and part of that is by coming to know the people in my life more intimately. The more I discover the differences I have in my most intimate relationships, the more I try to understand how I am different from those outside of myself and my experience, the more I am able to learn about myself and my own limitations.
As Abdel says, “It’s the relationship that saves.”
It saves for many reasons and learning from our differences, our sometimes painful differences, is just one of them. And while I can’t erase the differences, they teach me that I can't fix or change the world on my own. I can align myself with and nurture my relationship to the larger movement for justice, equality, and care for all people, especially the historically oppressed, and for this endangered planet. So, that’s my purpose. Whether it’s perceived as high or low is always going to be for others to decide.
I’m glad that your faith in your God brings you peace and grounds you in love. I hope that you get the blissful relationship-rich afterlife that you desire. It’s so different for me. I don’t desire the afterlife that was taught to me as a child and in seminary. As someone who was created “intrinsically disordered” and condemned by the church, much of our family, and so many other Catholics, Christians and other people of faith, I have no desire to spend an eternity with those people. I have seen how they treat their relationships, especially their relationships with people like me. They kill us, shun us, shame us and abuse us in the name of their gods and churches. (This is one thing that I don’t think the theologically privileged people condemning the rest us, like your eldest, comprehend. Why would we want to live an eternity with them? Ugh.)
I’m content with the limited life I have here. It is such a gift and I will do my best to nurture and sew love and justice for as long as I can. That’s a love and purpose I share with you. To me that transcends any concept of any deity or religion. And whatever comes next, whether it’s like your vision of communion with your loved ones or whether it’s the blessed oblivion of nothingness that I expect will follow, all we know for sure that we have is now. And I am thankful to have this now with you for as long as we have it together. And, those of us who love you and are here with you are going to do whatever we can to make your death as optimistic, comfortable and loving as we can, because that’s what you’ve taught us since we were babies: to love.
And it’s that love that will live on me and the thousands of people you have had a positive and loving influence on in your lifetime. We will remember you. And in that sense, it truly is the relationship that saves.
I love you,