Cosmos, Christmas, and Confirmation


Part 2-B in a multi installment series for Lent.

2. Down the Road of Doubt – When did a crack in your faith first appear? Was it a moment of intellectual questioning or emotional disappointment?

an image of a star of Bethlehem over an outline of a small church
A Christmas star over a small town. Not my hometown, but it’s how I remember it just the same.

That One Christmas Eve – I don’t remember how old I was, but I couldn’t have been more than twelve or so. I had just finished delivering papers on my paper route. Yes, Gen X, the last generation to have experienced the door to door delivery paper route. My route ended at the top of a small hill, just up the street from my house. It had snowed earlier in the day and everything was covered with the type of snow that only seems to exist in Christmas movies and romantic winter scenes. Silver, sparkling, the newly risen moon’s light and streetlights bouncing rays off the crystals. It felt incredibly appropriate as it was Christmas Eve. The air was cold and crisp and your breath made smoke like incense that rose to Heaven. I followed one big exhale up as it dispersed toward the sky above my head. It was then I noticed the stars. The sky was black and clear, not a cloud leftover anywhere from the earlier snow storm. The stars sparkled like the snow crystals in the moonlight. And there was one star, brighter than all the rest. Whether it was or not or whether I needed it to be or whether it was probably a planet and not a star didn’t matter, then or now. That star was shining down on me, just like the star of Bethlehem. I was beginning to question the mysteries of faith of my Catholic upbringing and I remember wondering if stories about kings following stars to babies could be real. Yet, there I was caught in the mystery and the wonder of a star on Christmas Eve, and I remember being filled with a strange calm and felt more than heard something divine saying, “Yes.” Yes to what? Yes, to love and peace and belonging and feeling okay with everything. And that’s how I felt in that moment. That was, I reflect each Christmas, the first time I felt touched by the profound mystery that is the divine and filled with an incredible awe and wonder. In my darkest times, the memory of that mysterious “yes” carries me through.

Cosmos – Carl Sagan’s original “Cosmos” series aired on PBS for the first time in September, 1980. I was fourteen. I caught the opening episode by accident. I was hooked. It was like walking into a church service you didn’t know you needed. I was saved. I climbed directly aboard Carl Sagan’s ship of the imagination and did not miss an episode for the next 12 weeks. Not only was I hooked on science and critical thinking in a way that chemistry and biology classes had never been able to inspire in me, but I rediscovered and fell in love with Public Television in a way I hadn’t known since Sesame Street. I was fourteen. I was caught up in what Sagan would call one of the varieties of scientific experience. It was also a religious experience. My heart quickened, I got chills up my spine, I had noumena experiences of knowing, of connection to this, this science, this wonder, this discovering was real and true and valuable and my spirit lifted and soared. I tried to explain it to people, but it seemed that no one else I knew was watching, none of my friends were interested. How could this be?
Carl Sagan, skeptic, agnostic, and scientist had done something truly spiritual for me – he had given me, a fourteen year old boy being raised Catholic in a working class town in Massachusetts, and who had recently abandoned his Catholic confirmation religious education class, a great gift. He had given me the gift of God and the gift of not God, the gift of the quest of the seeker, the gift of the inquiring heart and mind and soul and I knew it was okay and beautiful and wondrous. As Sagan wove in quotes from Shakespeare, and Greek philosophers, and various world scripture with his discussions of the big bang and special relativity and planetary exploration, and the great library of Alexandria and the lives of Johannes Kepler and Galileo, I sat rapt in the wonder of it all. I needed no altar, no choir, no priest, and no creed or dogma to be in church, for there I sat in the temple of the Great Mystery and Wonder of the Cosmos.

The Hypocrisy of Confirmation – The same fall “Cosmos” was on television I quit my Catholic religious education classes. I had just begun the confirmation program. All my friends and I talked about how ridiculous it was, how much we hated it, and how our parents (well, not my mom) said we could stop going to church after we finished it (i.e. made our confirmation). This wasn’t right. Wasn’t the whole point to confirm your faith? If you confirmed your faith, shouldn’t you practice it and go to church? I wasn’t sure I believed most of it any more. I knew many of my friends didn’t, but they were doing it to get their parents off their back and for all the loot and presents they’d get from family as confirmation gifts. I was fourteen and I was not going to be in this just for the money. So I quit. I was not going to do something I didn’t believe in just for money. I consider this my first true act of integrity.  There would be adolescent (and adult) instances of iniquity still to come of course, but overall, I’d say I have continued to stand on principle for most of my journey.  I’ve lost friends and jobs for sticking to what I knew to be right. I’ve made mistakes I regret, but this was the first thing I consciously remember choosing that I felt was right that bucked the popular easy way out.  My mom, to her credit, was disappointed, but didn’t fight me on it.  I would go on to be confirmed later in my life and then still later to leave the Catholic Church for good. But more on that in upcoming posts.