Barry Wallace: A light in the field
Published 1:01 am, Wednesday, February 3, 2010
When I was 9 years old I believed that God appeared to me in a vision.
Being a good Catholic boy, I wouldn't have found such an occurrence unusual. The Baltimore Catechism instructed us that God was everywhere and we were never out of His sight. I knew from the Lourdes and Fatima stories that the Blessed Virgin had appeared to children and gave them secret messages to be delivered to the Pope.
If you were a good Catholic child in the 1950s, you were saturated with religion -- daily Mass, weekly confession, feast days, Holy Days of Obligation, nightly prayers, recitations of the rosary, benedictions, adorations -- with the full expectation that God, his mother or any of the angels or saints might visit at any time on your street. I did my best to keep watch from the front porch on Old Town Road and from my bedroom window, too.
I think some of this sensibility must have come from my Irish heritage. The Celtic faith wasn't just present in consecrated church buildings. The Celtic Christians had a lively sense of God in nature and everyday life. They didn't portion their faith out amongst other worldly notions. They invoked it while making meals, tending to sheep, building fires, telling stories. Like the nation of Israel, the Irish nation has always had a powerful sense of God. I got walloped with an enormous dose of that right through my DNA.
Catholics of my generation weren't in the habit of reading the Bible very much. Part of this was a response to the Protestant Reformation and the tragic wars and schisms that resulted from it. I was intrigued that my friend, Bill Sherwonit, went to Lutheran Bible School every Saturday morning instead of joining us at Little League. He didn't seem very happy to be dressed for school on those sunny Saturdays, but I did envy him the knowledge of the great Bible stories he told me. But the difference between our faiths wasn't just knowing about Jonah and the whale or the Loaves and Fishes or not. The Protestants seemed to look firmly to the Bible for their foundational beliefs and moral compass. In this sense their religion was learned. Ours was more spontaneous and alive through the rituals we practiced.
Catholicism was different in other ways, too. You were born into the community and you didn't have to be born again. All you really had to do was show up. Irish Catholics didn't rely on any of the books of the Bible for spiritual guidance. Their God was constantly revealed through the joys and trials of human existence. We had the Mass and the Mass made everything present on a daily basis.
There was no need to belabor the obvious -- God is everywhere and all in all. Why read the Bible when you could apprehend God in a sunset or a tree filled with spring blossoms? What need did we have for the past when everything all around us proclaimed what words could only weakly affirm? Besides that, we were taught we had the one true faith and the others were all just pretenders.
Of course, my own ideas about religion have changed with life experience. God doesn't sanction holy wars, and no one has a copyright on faith or complete ownership of it. People experience it in extraordinarily different ways and settings all over the world and they always have. If we are honest with ourselves, we can say that all religions can harness us with heavy burdens as well as providing great joy and comfort. We have seen renewed outbreaks of murderous violence and divisive hostilities over religion in our own lifetime. This great and complex gift needs to be managed carefully.
I had no such distinctions in my head as a boy. I lived in fear of God as well as with the certitude that the world was his and he could call in the note at any time. God could move mountains, part seas, or crush shopping malls with His bare hands. This God wasn't my friend. He was my judge and could quickly bring down His wrath upon the world. We were certainly wicked enough to deserve the worst. God loved us a lot like the way my father loved us. We got three square meals a day but we also watched our step around him lest we might lose his favor and bring on the thunderclaps.
Yet we were taught this was a loving God whose only son died for us. It was our goal in life to be good enough to deserve his love and then live together with him in eternity. Needless to say, I was pretty confused by the gap between the God of vengeance and the God of love. Why weren't such things simple and consistent? When I played in the woods with my friends, I sensed the workings of a creator God who made all good things on earth. The brilliant blue skies told me a lot about this God, as did the tall trees, the blue jays, running streams and even skunk cabbage. This God smiled upon us like warm sunshine on a spring meadow. I wanted to know more about him because the woods were the only place I felt peaceful and filled with joy.
And so I waited expectantly for a sign. Not from the vengeful God, but from the benevolent God who made the earth and gave it to us. I tried to hide from the avenger God, who could hurl down fiery thunderbolts upon the sinner. I preferred a gentle, playful relationship with the God who made bumble bees and white-tailed deer. The woods were filled with the presence of this God. I felt sure He peeked through the stained glass windows of church to wink encouragement at me on Sunday.
I was playing in a grassy meadow across the street from our house the day God appeared to me. We were playing war and performing spectacular gyrations when we were "hit."
How grand it was to pretend to die heroically in battle with my twin brother and our friends. It was just about supper time when I saw the flash of light at the edge of the darkening field. It wasn't like a headlight from a car or a porch light coming on. It was a glowing circular brightness, a presence that stopped me dead in my tracks. The radiance was encircled with a stronger light around it that seemed to have the shape of a man. I was lying immobile in the grass, but at the same time felt lifted in the air when my body was shot through with an electric current.
I could tell from my brother's face that he saw the vision, too. I got up from the ground shaking but unafraid. As we crossed the street and walked toward our house, we turned to each other and spoke of what we had just seen.
"It was God," Brian said. "God just appeared to us in the field!" We both felt a strange sense of lightness and wonder, and we agreed not to tell anyone until we knew what it meant.
"Brian! Barry! Time to come in for supper! We're having french fries and hamburgers. Make sure you wash up good."
I was relieved to hear Mother's voice calling us home, but I was never quite the same again after my vision. How could you be anything but dazzled in the presence of the almighty at the tender age of 9?