If Catholicism were only about getting into heaven, then it would be only about the future. I’m sure there are skeptics who look at our faith this way, as a means of racking up brownie points for the afterlife. In fact, however, I chose to become a Catholic mostly for what it does for my present. It changes my life, day by day. It makes me happier, here and now. What I didn’t know then, and what has taken two years to begin to understand is, being a Catholic also changes my past.
I am not talking about confession, though that is an obvious place to start this discussion. My first, general confession before I was received into the Church began a process of absolution and of letting go. A weight was lifted from my shoulders, mostly from stones that surprised me. The obviously bad stuff I had done had not been such a burden. What most buoyed my heart was absolution for things I had been less aware of, if also haunted by, like being a bad father or an ungrateful son. I have written elsewhere that it was the Fourth Commandment that stuck hardest in my craw—my failures to honor my parents, as well as personal failures that made me a parent not worth honoring.
But I do not mean confession when I say that Catholicism is changing my past, and I do not even mean forgiveness, although that is an important way of changing one’s past. What I mean is something like forgiveness, or perhaps it is a pathway to forgiveness.
My business is memoirs: I help people write their stories. Sometimes that story might involve a whole family or even an institution, which is why I now find myself deep into the final stages of writing the history of a large Boston institution, the Massachusetts General Hospital. (It’s also incidentally why readers of this blog are reading fewer posts by yours truly in recent weeks.)
Now, you would think that someone who effectively had ghost-written sixty books (I have, though none on the scale of the MGH project) would have no trouble writing his own memoir. But over the past couple of years, I have come to the shocking realization that there are things in my past life—major things—that I cannot write about, or at least should not. This is because to write about them truthfully would create a scandal. Although this may sound confusing and abstract, and I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, it is actually a very real quandary. Imagine a doctor who could not use his skills to save his own life. That is me and memoirs. I cannot tell my own story. Not all of it, anyway.
Let me be clear: I believe that there are some things that we should take to the grave with us. I do not side with the tell-all school of memoirs that has been such a rage in the past twenty years of mainstream publishing, from fine-lit efforts like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club to the latest, stupid tell-all destined for ten minutes on Oprah and then, once the publisher’s receipts are counted and the author’s vanity sated, Oblivion.
What do you do when there are things in your past that cannot or should not be told? My experience as a Catholic has taught me this: you redeem them. Redemption is one of those big, ponderous religious words that I’m not sure even most Catholics understand, though we use them freely enough. I want to propose a new reading of the word. To redeem is to reconsider, rethink, re-deem. As a Catholic, one redeems the past by viewing it through the lens of one’s faith. Here’s an example.
I once knew someone whose actions toward me had mixed motives, or so I’ve come to believe. This person did some very good things, and some pretty bad. But when I review (re-view) the trail of events that stretch from my first meeting with that person to this present day, I see many steps along the way that led me toward the Catholic Church, bread crumbs leading Hansel and Gretel out of danger and safely home.
I am happier today than I have ever been in my life. Some of this is seeing my children safely on their own roads home. A big part is being married to Katie, and happily, after 25 years. But the greatest ingredient in my happiness is my Catholic faith, without which everything else would reflect a paler light. And without that person’s mixed influence on my life, I might never have become a Catholic.
When I can look at my past—all of it, good, bad, indifferent—and not just imagine but begin to understand that every person, every incident led me here, I can only be grateful, and for all of it. I am, in some sense of a difficult word, redeemed.