I HAVE TO BE CAREFUL what I write this time because God is watching. He sees all and is taking everything into account. I am deeply convinced of this, no matter what you might say to me about logic. I was born into a Catholic family, and so things like logic are irrelevant to me. What matters is that when the mathematics are done at the end, I will come out mostly good, not bad.
This is what weighs heavy on my soul.
“What did I do to deserve this?” A common Catholic exclamation. My mother says it. I don’t say it, but I think it. If I trip on the steps, I am merely being repaid. Any negative mishap is not a twist of fate, bad luck, or chance. It is divine retribution for some sinful deed or transgression. This balance of good and evil wreaks havoc on the Catholic soul.
We do lose sleep at night.
I remind myself that Jack Kerouac, who I think of as a true soul brother, and who remains one of the better known American writers to Estonians, was educated by French Canadian nuns, and that he prayed for forgiveness each night after romping with Mexico City prostitutes and sketched a tiny cross in the corners of his diaries. I know that when I divorced, I put a cross over my signature as well. I felt somehow that by putting my little name on that paper I was doing something unholy. In this mindset, there is no happy or unhappy, there is merely right and wrong, black and white. This was no doubt wrong, so the thinking went, even if it might have been necessary or inevitable.
These are things that I feel are almost impossible to explain to Estonians, who tend to shrug off the intricacies of relationships. They are focused on the visceral, the here and now, the physical experience of love. If it’s there, it is, and if it disappears, it isn’t. The forces of good and evil are less at play. Many of them, grounded as they are in the forests, have a very different understanding of wickedness and virtue. In the pagan world, the concept of evil takes on a naughtier, childlike quality. It’s part of the balance of life. It’s just as much a part of us as any other quality. Something to be accepted as part of a whole, rather than denied, or kept at bay, or beaten into submission like nature itself.
For those of us who have grown up in a Latin civilization, though, these concepts are in greater contrast. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to navigate my own way through it. And I have learned that I am of it, whether I like it or not. My grandparents met outside a confession booth in New York in the 1940s. My great uncle was a Catholic priest. When I was an adolescent, we left the Catholic faith though and became Protestants, and then much later, I joined the Orthodox faith, seeing it as somehow more representative of early Christianity, and more aligned with my deep Mediterranean past. What I have understood though during this journey is that you can never really leave the faith. You remain what you are born into, and so inside I remain just a Catholic boy.
How good a Catholic, though, I hesitate to calculate. Whenever the Ten Commandments are set before me, my heart sinks, just to see how many of them I have broken. It was always the material covering human sexuality that was my undoing. There you would be, sitting in church, the most pure and divine of places, and find your gaze wandering over to your neighbor’s wife. The very woman you were not supposed to be coveting!
Then you would realize: it’s just not working. All of the praying and crossing and kneeling, all of the bread and wine, and you still couldn’t escape the unholiness of the self. Later, though, a Catholic girlfriend comforted me when I confessed these sins to her.
“Don’t worry, Justin,” she said. “We all go to church to check people out. I always do it. That’s actually what church is for.”