Saints and Suffering

Sometimes when I’m really really happy and life seems to be going well, I don’t quite trust it. A lifelong habit of anticipating disaster – with an eye toward averting the worst – interferes with my enjoyment of the present.
There’s more than a bit of leftover Catholic flavored guilt. Suffering was heavily promoted in the Catholic school I went to and joy was expected to be tempered by the idea that someone had to be cruelly and brutally tortured so you could have salvation.
That’s a whole lot to lay on a kid but they slathered it on pretty thick.
By third grade I was a more than avid reader. Obsessed. Whole world out there beyond the one I was born to and it was right there. Portable – between the covers of a book. I couldn’t get enough.
And then came the day our principal Sister Barbara showed up in our small library and directed me to a different shelf. Away from Nancy Drew, Ramona Beasley and Island of the Blue Dolphins, and ADVENTURE and over to another wall. “The Lives of the Saints”.
“You need to start reading these” she says. I remember the sound of her heavy rosary swishing against the fabric of her habit, her face red squished into her wimple and her pale eyes peering out from rimless spectacles. I was panicking. What had I done to be assigned “The Lives of the Saints”?
I checked them out and dutifully filled out my library card. – the max allowed. I always checked out the library’s maximum allowed per week. God forbid I should run out of these windows into other worlds before the next Library Day. In this case I wanted to get through these assigned books as quickly as possible so I could read about Amelia Earhart.
But these saints stories were awful. Torture porn dressed up like biographies. Suffering as faith, embracing torture as proof. Pictures of bloodied bodies. Bodies pierced by arrows, stoned, roasted over fires, crucified. All in the name of faith. Suffering: offer it up for the souls in purgatory. Don’t trust your wants or your needs. Don’t seek out what you long for. These were the lessons. A church that inserted its perverse teachings between us and the God that would love us.
How could she? Why would you tell a child these stories? I know now that this was something she merely passed along. Some cruelty she learned and perpetuated.
I’m only eight years old and I’m reading about St. Theresa who accepted death over the loss of “her virtue”. And I’m wondering “what is this virtue thing”? Because I think it could be something I would live without. To live.
(As it turns out I found it was entirely possible and highly desirable to live without the Catholic Church’s perverse notions of virtue for women.)
To inflict these stories on a child is wrong. They induce a terrible sense of fear and horror. A kind of “how can I be happy when others are suffering?” Burdensome and useless form of attachment to misery.
As an adult I am responsible for how I live now. For my joy and satisfaction that comes daily from the thrills and pleasures of using my gifts. From breathing and being alive. And enjoying all that is wonderful and magical and mysterious about life.
Suffering is a given. This is earth, not heaven. But I don’t think we are meant to dwell in suffering as proof of belief. I cannot believe in a divine power that requires us to live in some permanent state of atonement.
So today I breathe into the joy of living, the pleasures of learning, the thrill of connecting and loving.
I wrote this for me and for everyone still wondering if it is safe and okay to be happy.
Love,
Angela