Spirituality is a passion of mine, the seeds of which were planted early.
Catholicism was a thread in the tapestry of my life as much as anything Italian (gathering to make pasta, biscotti dipped in morning coffee, homemade wine from Uncle Tulio).
Our traditions included prayer before every meal, icons of Jesus and Mary in backyard grottos and rosaries under everyone’s pillows. In our small town there was only one Catholic elementary school, and I walked the four blocks to it daily.
During winter, the longest season in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, one learns early in life to layer. One day I actually passed my school without realizing it until I finally peeked out of the scarf wrapped around my face, white blowing all around me like a snow globe on steroids. I had forgotten to stop and look and ended up a block and a half past the entrance. Lesson learned.
Those walks to school in any season were my time to contemplate the meaning of life (as much as a young mind might) and the true nature of God.
Among other subjects, I had religion class. The teacher, Sister Leonice, was a colorful storyteller. Between reading stories about the fires of hell in class and hearing about our sins during daily mass, it wasn’t long before the teachings we received began to trouble me.
It seemed near impossible to make it to the pearly gates.
We were told that God loved us so much that he would sacrifice his son for our sins—that every hair on our head was cared for. Then, sometimes in the same sermon or religion class, we were told that we had to fear God. There were the fires of hell, and if we were “bad,” this hell would break loose.
For my seven-year-old mind, this did not compute. During those daily morning and afternoon walks, I played out all the possible scenarios.
Sister Leonice also reminded us of God’s omnipresence and ability to see and know all of our sins. Again, the vigilance thing. She doubled as assistant principal and could be seen walking briskly down the hallways, leaning slightly forward with her nun’s habit tight around her body, like a general on her way to her own private student court martial. With a look that stirred fear in the most lion-hearted of us all (including parents), she put us on guard.
Was I going to burn in hell if I displeased God? If God loved me so much, why was I supposed to be so afraid all the time?
Conflicting views on the walks to and from school fueled my need for meaning and understanding—until one day it came to me. I knew what I had to do. I would find out, once and for all, the true nature of God.
It took a few more walks to and from school to muster the courage, but then, one day, I knew it would happen that afternoon.
It was springtime. The fragrance of lilacs drifted around me just a block from my house. Appreciating their sweet scent, I also wondered if it would be my last opportunity to enjoy the blooms. As I rounded the corner of our block, I went straight to our two-car garage where a four-by-six-foot mirror hung on the wall.
As I stood in front of the mirror, I paused to look around. I peeked out the window at my neighbor’s home for, perhaps, the last time. I took a couple deep breaths, closed my eyes, and tightened my fists close to my body to prepare for what might be a final blow.
I took one last inhale and yelled, “I hate you, God!”
The next moment or two seemed like an eternity. I stood with my eyes shut and my body stiff with tension. After about 30 seconds, I slowly exhaled and relaxed the tightness in my shoulders and fists. I cautiously opened my eyes and looked around in anticipation of what destruction might await.
To my relief, nothing had changed. I peeked out the window to see my neighbor’s home still standing. I quickly ran in the house to be sure my Aunty Ann was there waiting, as she always was.
I walked back to the garage and stood for another moment in front of the mirror. I was not struck down by lightning and no one I loved had been hurt.
It was an important day.
At that moment, I decided that God was indeed a loving God. Even when I disobeyed and blasphemed, I would not be struck down, nor would I, or could I, evoke the fires of hell.
I still wasn’t sure why I was told to fear God, but it didn’t matter anymore. I knew God’s love was stronger than God’s vengeance, and his kindness would always win over his anger. Yes, it was a good day for me, a day I would anchor with the belief that God was kind, understanding and somehow impervious to my childish whims.
When all else fails, I relax into the knowing that my Spiritual Source, whatever language used to describe her/him, is loving and invites free expression. This comfort wraps itself around me on a daily basis.
Author: Sally Bartolameolli
Image: Milada Vigerova/Unsplash
Editor: Toby Israel