A couple of months ago, I went a storytelling open mike and, after the host told a story about his Catholic friend, I decided to just talk about growing up Catholic. I hadn’t planned anything. I just started talking and remembered a few significant details from my Catholic upbringing.
My mother and I were five minutes late to church every week. We snuck in the back. It was just she and I because my father went to the Methodist service, which may qualify us for having the mildest interfaith family conflict in history.
I remembered when I was getting first communion and, while we were practicing walking down the aisle, I looked over at my mother, with all the other mothers and made the screw loose gesture, where you twirl your finger around your ear, and they all busted out laughing.
When I was in high school, I was supposed to get confirmed. I asked the youth minister why. He said it was to confirm my faith. Yeah, I said, but why? His pause after the second “why?” seemed to indicate that no one else had asked this question. I was genuinely curious. Why would I do that? What’s the purpose of it?
He said let’s wait on it. I said sure, still not knowing what confirmation even was.
Despite this, I was pretty religious. I believed in God and Jesus and The Holy Spirit. I prayed. The idea of a universe without God seemed so bleak and it made me feel lonely.
And then I remembered when I stopped going to church. It was second semester of freshman year of college when I was taking an evolution course. The professor was a man named William Provine. He was a slim, bespectacled man who wore button down shirts tucked into jeans.
I don’t remember when in the course of the lectures I heard that he had a brain tumor and was given only months to live. He showed us a video of himself talking about evolution and the non existence of an afterlife and he backed it up with his own experience. He said he had very little time to live and he said that after he died, that there would be nothing. And with that statement he smiled a big genuine smile. The lecture hall fell silent.
Soon after, I stopped making the Sunday morning walk up the hill to church.
Now, to be fair, I was also pledging a fraternity that semester but Catholic guilt could have gotten me out of bed on a Sunday with a hangover. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the first Catholic to attend mass hungover (celebrants included). But seeing someone accept his death and the resultant oblivion that follows with a smile was profound. I felt lonely without God. This man was fine.
Years after graduating, I heard that he was still alive and teaching. I even heard that he was the thesis advisor to the lead singer of Bad Religion. His tumor hadn’t killed him. I can’t tell if it’s ironic or telling that the man who faced death with a grin could continue to live through an apparent death sentence.
In my adult life, Catholicism has played the same role it plays in the lives of many recovering Catholics. It is both a last resort during times of trouble and a shorthand for explaining neuroses: “Dear God, please let the test come back negative,” and “Catholic guilt won’t allow me to enjoy this,” respectively. I attended a few midnight masses during Christmas and, as I get older, I find comfort in saying an Our Father every now and then.
Ultimately, though, I never got much from going to mass. I never took anything away from the homily. Perhaps it’s my attention span, perhaps my soul is beyond redemption, I don’t know. Simply put, whenever I asked “why?” no one had an adequate answer.
But it was Professor Provine who provided that first point of departure. It wasn’t until I got up and spoke about it at that open mike that I realized that.
I recorded my story on my voice memo app on my phone like I do at all of my mikes. So, recently, I listened to that story again and, since it’s the 21st century, I googled Professor Provine only to find out that he passed away from complications due to his brain tumor on September 1st. The date on the voice memo was August 26th.
It was such a strange coincidence, how I hadn’t heard about this man or thought about him for almost twenty years and five days after I talk about him, he passes away.
My Catholic brain tells me that God sees everything and perhaps this coincidence happened for a reason. Perhaps He, in his infinite wisdom, wanted me to look again at my faith and what it means.
But Professor Provine believed in biological determinism and rejected the idea of free will or any purpose to life (according to his wikipedia page, anyway). He would have dismissed that thought as nonsense. I remember his smile into the camera and I’ll stop myself from saying he’s at peace. He’s not. He’s just gone.
I never had a one on one conversation with the man. I only took his class to fulfill a requirement. My Catholicism would have me praying for his soul. His biological determinism would conclude that his death and my feelings regarding it are of no consequence and merely predetermined events playing themselves out. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, though I’m not sure where. But it does confirm my faith in one idea: that there are so many things that are beyond my comprehension.