It was shortly after my 16th birthday. I had some months before begun attending a Saturday morning Catechism class to compliment my public school education during the week.
Sister Mary Catherine had just whacked my outstretched palm severely. My hand immediately turned bright red and the pain was intense in that she really packed a wallop with her trusty and well-used ruler.
I had been so bold as to question her interpretation of one of the ‘mysteries’ as outlined in our small Baltimore Catechism text. She was really big on ‘mysteries’ and anything she didn’t want to, or couldn’t, explain was automatically labeled a ‘mystery’. It was not the first time that day I’d questioned her, and evidently her patience was on a very short fuse. A ‘mystery’, as she had informed us before, with her tightly-pursed lips, was to be accepted as an ‘article of our Catholic faith’. Obviously she felt my faith was lacking, and in addition I may have appeared to her to be a impertinent, provocative little shit with far too many questions, so . . . whack!
That night, as we sat outside in the warm California evening, I told my mother that I would not be returning to Catechism on the following Saturday, and then softly added, “or ever again”. I hadn’t yet gotten around to mentioning my run-in with Sister Mary Catherine earlier in the day.
After a few minutes of silence she quietly asked if I believed in God. I immediately imagined that this was to be the prelude to yet another of my mother’s long-winded, filled with “logic”, discourses. Then I nodded my head in the affirmative, and began to silently formulate an explanation as to my reasons for believing in a Creator. Should I parrot the rather simplistic examples in my Baltimore Catechism or attempt to explain how I personally encountered God on a daily basis within all of nature? She put a single finger to her closed lips indicating that I didn’t have to defend my position.
So, with no further fanfare, she smilingly concurred that my Catechism days were over.
And in that silent action, my mother had just presented me with the greatest gift a parent can bestow upon a child. The freedom to think — embodying the freedom to question, and the freedom to formulate personal decisions about life.
Have just finished reading “One Man’s Bible” by Gao Xingjian. A beautifully written book and I have it to thank for having triggered the remembrance of my mother’s gift.
From the Salon review:
“If Gao Xingjian, author of the fictionalized memoir One Man's Bible, worships at the altar of any god, that god is freedom: freedom to love, freedom to explore, freedom to express and freedom to live.
And also, the freedom to remember.
"It was not that he didn't remember he once had another sort of life," Gao begins. "But, like the old yellowing photograph at home, which he did not burn, it was sad to think about, and far away, like another world that had disappeared forever."
These remote, sepia-colored ghosts of another era — another self — grow increasingly vivid as Gao, now a successful writer and artist living in Paris, allows himself to surrender to the memories of his life in China just before and during the Cultural Revolution.
. . .
Yet fictionalized though this memoir may be, it rings true, pure and deep, revealing astounding insights about human nature under duress, the dueling urges to express oneself and preserve oneself, and the tremendous value of freedom, life, emotion and self-discovery. It is a frank, unstinting look at one man by that same man, many years and many experiences later.
It is as if the writing of the book itself is an act of defiance, an act of freedom. And it is this urge to examine and express to which Gao attributes his hard-won escape from oppression.
"It is this consciousness of your self, this awareness of your own existence, that is to be thanked, for it is through this that you were able to save yourself from your predicament and suffering," he writes. "A person cannot be crushed if he refuses to be crushed."
So perhaps, in the last analysis, the god of One Man's Bible is not freedom, but an awareness of self — and the urge to communicate it; this is what frees us. And if there was something liberating in the writing of this book, so too is there something exhilarating in the experience of reading it.”