The world has fallen in love with Pope Francis, and I can’t say that I can blame it. He’s kind of a cool Pope. He doesn’t want the Church to focus too much on condemning abortion and gay marriage. He wants to talk about the poor and the oppressed. He believes in climate change. He sounds downright progressive.

But once in a while I hear something from him that reminds me why I have a problem with–not him, so much, but the Church that he represents. Such as when he says, in support of large families:

“Every family is a cell of society…but large families are richer and more vital cells.”

Are they? This is why I–and a lot of other people living in our times–feel such a disconnect with the traditional Catholic Church. When it comes to human lives, the Church still values quantity over quality. Does more automatically equal richer and more vital? What about a family which has fewer kids but puts more time and care into raising them? A family which gives them more–and I don’t mean strictly in the material sense, but also in the emotional and intellectual sense? I suspect the Pope sees large families as a bulwark against modern materialism and selfishness. And yet I’ve known childless people who lead very unselfish lives. On the other hand, I remember the abusive town drunk from my childhood days, with his miserable wife and his seven kids, most of them illiterate. That was a rich and vital cell of society? Give me a break.

For so many of us, the rules of “procreate!” and “more!” no longer satisfy. For the same reasons, we are less interested in following the rules of traditional marriage and more interested in the meaning of our relationship with our partner. The content matters more than the framework.

But hey, Francis is still quite the charming guy. And I love the way he confuses and irritates the laissez-faire capitalist Christian conservatives here in America. I will always give him brownie points for that.

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It looks like my native country of Poland is just as politically divided right now as my adopted home country of the United States.  In last week’s EU parliamentary elections, the two main rival parties received the exact same number of seats–19.

The party which is the “winner” of the election–with only 32.8% of the popular vote–is Platforma Obywatelska (PO) or Civic Platform, a center right party.  And this may be the one time that I will be excited about the right winning an election.  Because PO is–there is no other way to put it–the sane party.  They are right wing in a very moderate sense–perhaps this is what the Republicans in America used to be like, or wish they could be like again.  They are interested in free markets, open to Poland being a part of the European community and the economic benefits that can bring to the country.  They have previously come out in favor of privatization and deregulation, but have been in charge for the last few years and privatization has only happened on a small scale.  They don’t seem to be interested in dismantling society.

On the other hand, there is the opposition.  Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS)–the Law and Justice party.  It’s a bit unclear to me if they would be considered left or right by American standards.  What they are, more than anything else, is religious.  PiS followers are fervent Catholics.  They are nostalgic people of the sort which wants to wind the clock back to a better time in the past, in this case possibly back to the Middle Ages, when the Church was safely in charge and the priest was the ultimate authority figure.  Hence their opposition to Poland’s involvement in the EU–they don’t want Polish culture to be influenced by all that Western moral decadence, with its pesky feminism and pride parades.  This would also be why some Catholic right talking heads have actually expressed support for Putin’s expanding influence.  Sure, Russia may endanger Polish sovereignty, but at least it doesn’t have gay rights.  The spiritual scene in Poland has become a lot more diverse since the fall of the Iron Curtain, with Buddhists and pagans popping up, and PiS followers are not big fans of that.  While we’re at it, they would also prefer it if women would step back into the kitchen where they belong, thank you very much.  This would mean no rights to abortion or contraceptives, and a proposed tax rebate for each successive child, to encourage Poles to continue following the Catholic big family model.  There is definitely a populist streak to the PiS platform–they are in favor of welfare programs and at one point made promises of a large-scale guaranteed housing project for Polish families.  This is where your average American observer might get confused.  PiS essentially combines social conservative values with some progressive safety net ideas.

Funny thing is, the Civic Platform party isn’t that terribly liberal about social issues either.  But they are closer to the middle, which has caused them to be accused by Law and Justice of being depraved and sinful heathens, ready to take Poland over the brink into heresy, which is enough to recommend PO to me.  And I guess there’s the similarity–whether in Poland or America, elections aren’t about voting for the party you love, they’re about picking the less crazy option of the two.

At the same time that some American states such as Texas and North Dakota are taking gradual small steps to make abortion more restricted and difficult to get, the very Catholic country of Ireland is taking a tiny step in the direction of expanding abortion rights.  The Irish parliament has voted to allow abortions in certain “life-saving” situations, including when the woman is threatening to commit suicide because of her pregnancy, or if her life is endangered by continuing the pregnancy.

Here is what one of Ireland’s Catholic bishops has said about his opposition to the bill:

The Bill is not necessary to ensure that women receive the life-saving treatments they need during pregnancy.  The medical treatment of mothers whose lives are in danger is always morally permissible even if this results in the unintended death of a child in the womb.  The Catholic Church has never taught that the life in the womb should be preferred to that of the mother.”

Unfortunately, it hasn’t always worked out that way.  The abortion controversy in Ireland was stoked in 2012 by the case of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist who was admitted to an Irish hospital while miscarrying.  She requested an abortion for health reasons, was denied one, and died of septicemia a week later.

So either the Bishop doesn’t really mean what he’s saying—which wouldn’t be surprising for a representative of the Church, and I say that with sadness—or what he’s saying has not been communicated clearly to employees of Catholic hospitals in Ireland.

Even if you are looking at this from the pro-life perspective, I would think the bill is a good idea.  Wouldn’t you be happy not to lose two lives instead of one?

“He must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love:  the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”  —  Pope Francis

“The mystic parasites who have, throughout the ages, reviled the traders and held them in contempt, while honoring the beggars and the looters, have known the secret motive of their sneers: a trader is the entity they dread–a man of justice.”  —  Ayn Rand

All right, Paul Ryan.  Enlighten me.  How can you be a follower of both?  I’m having genuine trouble figuring this out.

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Some think lightning striking the Vatican was a sign of God’s wrath over Pope Benedict’s resignation.  I say the gods were throwing a party, celebrating that this conservative Pope is finally leaving.  Although my hopes for his replacement being any better are very slim!

My family recently received an e-mail from relatives in Poland telling us how the “true Polish national identity” is the Catholic one, and going so far as to say that anyone outside that Catholic identity is not only indifferent to the well-being of the country, but might in fact be an evil Commie.  (Sound familiar?)  Being that my parents have for most of their lives been practitioners of Buddhism and yoga, this rubbed them the wrong way.  When my mother tried to suggest that perhaps non-Catholics, atheists, gay and Jewish people should also have a place in Polish society, the relative came back with the pleasant response that he hoped those atheists, gays and Jews would be well served by the euthanasia and abortion they so strongly believed in.

This is a growing movement in Poland right now, and many of our old friends—people who used to be rebels and freethinkers—are more and more often making these kinds of shocking statements to us.  Of course, all I have to do is turn on the right radio station or website here in America and I can hear all about how this is a Christian country and only those who are Christian in the correct way are truly a part of it.  Except that over here this kind of talk will be prefaced by the disclaimer that the talker believes in everyone’s right to have a different opinion or belief…it’s just that those with the different opinion are a “darkness” or a “cancer”.  And a cancer needs to be removed from the body, right?

Is it just me, or does anybody else feel the gathering stormy weather?  That pounding drumbeat of “those who are not like us”?  I suppose that drumbeat is always there, but there are times when it seems to flare up, and right now the tension is building up so tight it feels like the planet needs to clear its sinuses.  Then again, since the sinus-clearing usually entails a world war of some sort, maybe it’s better if we remain clogged.

One thing we cannot do is allow ourselves to be fooled by the relative calm.  After all, Western Europe in the 20th century was a very polite, civilized society as well, wasn’t it?  For now we still smile at each other on the train and give each other the fake “I’m doing great!”  In a moment of real crisis, how quickly could that turn into “You are the problem and you need to go”?  It has happened over and over again.

Maybe those times of horror are part of a strange birthing process by which our species grows.  Hey, I have the right to delude myself as much as anyone else.  All I know is that no matter where you go, you will always meet that group of people which needs to hold on to some type of dogma to be secure.  And I have met those people both on the right and the left, by the way.  I’m from Poland, so I’ve dealt with real Commies, not the bugaboo ones that conservatives invent over here.  No matter which side the true believers are on, they are bound by one common quality:  they can’t handle it when someone else thinks differently from them.  It rocks their world too much.  They lash out against it.  Under certain circumstances, they even kill.

And no matter which time we live in, it is the duty of those of us who don’t have a closed mind to stop them from doing so.  It may be a struggle which never ends.  And probably one I’m not strong enough for.

I balanced on the sidewalk curb, closed my eyes and enjoyed the dark vibrations emanating from the church in front of me.  I ran my hand along the low stone wall surrounding it, centuries of cruelty seeping into me.

I remembered walking past this place before.  Julian and Nova had shied away from it, not because they could feel what it was about, but because they were philosophically opposed to the church.

After everything that had happened, I’d forgotten about the Bat, the dark thing that my Mother worshipped.  In our new society, the Bat wasn’t supposed to exist.  Yet here it was, hidden underneath a thin layer of tradition and virtue, the essence of the Bat, the blood and sin and pain.

It was exactly what I needed to get my power back.  I inhaled it greedily.  I wondered how I could get even more of it.  Would I have to go to Mass?

“You can’t be serious,”  Julian said.  “You’re going to church?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not religious or anything.  I just need some emotional support…”

“So why not go to therapy?”  Julian lifted his hands in amazement.  “Blue, we’re trying to put things back together here.  I don’t date people who go to church.”

“I’m only going there because I have to find something.”  I didn’t say anything else.  There was no good way to explain to him what I was looking for.

***

My family had never gone to church, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, but I found out that as long as I imitated the other parishioners in the pews, I was okay.

I knew right away I had come to the right place.  The crucified figure with the nails in its hands and feet, pictures arranged from colorful pieces of glass, saints kneeling in front of virgins and winged creatures.  This place was thick with black magic.

Some of the prayers and songs were boring, and I rocked back and forth through them.  But then my ears perked up.

“Take this bread, all of you, and eat it…”

This was it.  This was what I wanted.  My skin tingled.  I stood in line for the altar, impatient.  I could practically taste the body and blood.  I received the wafer from the priest and then, without waiting for it to be my turn, I ran to the man who held the wine, grabbed the cup from him and drained it completely in a couple of quick swallows.

Figuring that the only interesting part of Mass was over, I stumbled out the church doors, somewhat tipsy.  I imagined I would not be welcome back there again.

***

I was sitting on the edge of my bed, buoyed by a mixture of alcohol and Holy Spirit, when Nova crept into the bedroom.

“Hey,”  she said.

“What’s up?”

“I’m here to work on your soul with you,”  she explained.  “Julian said you may be having problems with a spiritual void.  I can help you find a spiritual path that’s not offensive.  Are you okay with doing some meditation?”

“Sure.”  I slid down onto the floor, and we settled into lotus positions across from each other.

“That’s good.  Now, focus….breathe in and out…”

I focused on my breathing, but I wasn’t peaceful.  I could swear I had wings growing out of my back…  sharp fangs in my mouth…

“Ow!”  Nova said, rubbing her head.  “What the fuck was that?”  she added in a very non-spiritual way.  “It’s like something smacked me.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that,”  I said, although I possibly did.

“You need to get your vibes under control.”  Nova got up and backed away from me.  “There’s this weird other being in you…  It’s almost like…a devil.”  She looked uncomfortable even saying that.

I didn’t care much for Nova’s opinion, but I was still disturbed.  Could it be that my energies were demonic?

I decided to go to the expert on dark vibes in the family.

“Why on Earth did you get in touch with the Bat?”  Mother chided me over the phone.  “How do you know It wanted to hear from you?  The Bat is easily angered, you know.”

“Oh, no,”  I moaned.  “Do you think It might be angry with me now?  I’ve kind of been using Its essence.  Mom…help.  Can you talk to the Bat for me?”

“That will not work.”

“So what can I do?”

“Well, stay away from churches, darling, they’re bad for you.”  She was silent for a moment.  “Also, you should come over tomorrow night.  You can contact the Bat in person.”

The following evening, I knelt in front of our homemade altar next to Mother.  Placed on the altar was the sacrifice:  microwaved meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

“The Bat loves stuff from Costco,”  Mom said.  “All right, do the wingflap, dear,”  she told me.  She flapped her arms gracefully.  My wingflap was a bit more ungainly.

“We plead with you, Our Predator, that you bestow upon us only your Lesser and not your Greater Irritation,”  Mother intoned.  “We ask this in the name of your Eternal Appetite.”  We both flapped our arms.

The room grew still.  The winged shadow I had seen once before flitted down onto the Costco TV dinner.  There were some loud crunches and then the sacrifice vanished, including the packaging.

Mother exhaled.  “You’re in luck.  It was in the mood for meatloaf tonight.”  She peered at me closely.  “So, are you feeling any different?  Sometimes, when the Bat particularly enjoys a meal, It dispenses a special grace upon the person who brought the food.  Anything?”

I waited for a beat before responding.  “No, nothing.”

***

The truth was, I had been blessed by the Bat, and I was horrified by the form this blessing took.  The Bat communicated Its message to me through Its emotional sonar, telling me that It knew how much my friends annoyed me, and that I was being granted the ability to bite their heads off.

Now I was in a deeper hole than before.  No matter how much the people around me got on my nerves, I realized, I did not want to kill them.  So I would have to reject the Bat’s gift.  This meant that I would most likely end up with my head bitten off.

“Okay, so I don’t believe in evil, but you seem to be serving the side that’s maybe not as close to the Light,”  one of those friends said.  “I’m going to have to pull out the big guns and lay my most serious relaxation technique on you.”

Nova and I stretched out on the floor.

“Close your eyes,”  she said in her most soothing radio host voice.  “You’re in a beautiful meadow…  a beautiful meadow with beautiful flowers…  and there’s a rainbow…”

Some part of my brain that I couldn’t control was chewing on human flesh and bone…  it was almost as if it wanted to bite somebody’s head off…

“And you see bunnies hopping around…  fluffy little bunnies….”

Chomp, chomp, said my brain.

“And there are kittens playing…  the kittens have little unicorn horns growing out of their heads…”

“Stop!”  I leaped up from the floor.  “Please stop!  For the love of all that is Holy, I can’t handle the fucking unicorn kittens!”

“This is far worse than I thought.”  Nova was close to tears.  “How can you not love unicorn kittens, unless you’ve been possessed by Satan or something?”

“Well, I don’t,”  I roared, tongues of fire shooting up out of my head and a pair of black wings flapping on my shoulders.  “Quit with the New Age bullshit or I’ll devour your entrails.”

She instantly shifted from sympathy to irritation.  “Fine, fine, I’ll leave you alone.  God, you’re being so unpleasant about it.”

Julian came in, carrying a tray with two cups of chai for us.  He noticed my hair going up in infernal flame.  “I still think you need counseling.”

“I don’t need your advice,”  I howled in the voice of a thousand devils.

“Geez, we try to tell you a couple helpful things and you turn into a demon from Hell,”  Nova said, making a hasty exit from the room.

***

True, I had to turn satanic and spit fire in order for it to happen, but at long last, my friends were treating me with respect.

That left only the matter of the Bat to be resolved.  I had frightened Julian and Nova, but I had not beheaded them, and I wasn’t going to.

I returned to my trusted old spot for inspiration—the church.  I stroked the stone wall again and gazed up at the cross, that beautiful instrument of torture, seeking an answer.  I said my prayers.

The priest poked his anxious face out of the window of his office, and then disappeared.  This was my cue to leave.

I had been given an answer, and it didn’t have to be murder—my deity would settle for vandalism.

Nova was so concerned with my well-being that she had moved in with us.  It may have also had something to do with the fact that she was jobless.  She went through phases.

She was the one who now slept on the sofa.  I rifled through her stuff in the living room until I found my offering.

Nova was an artist.  She had made a watercolor painting of two unicorn cats dancing underneath a rainbow.  It was a painting filled with love and positivity.

I tore it into tiny shreds first, then burned it.  As I watched the last remaining snippets of kittens and rainbows change to ashes, I had a strong sense that the Bat was pleased with this substitute sacrifice.

My spirit was at peace.  I dumped the ashes into the trashcan and went out to celebrate with a cup of divine blood.