Love Beats Fear

Originally published by The Guy Code on January 25, 2001.

The nuns at Catholic school were kind enough to teach us a number of things we could do, and a few things we had to do, to avoid going to Hell.

Receiving the sacraments – holy communion, confirmation and so on – helped. But it was mandatory to go to mass each Sunday and each Holy Day of Obligation – i.e., the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven on Aug. 15, Christmas and a few others. The sisters taught us that missing even one of these services without a really good excuse put a black mark on our souls that would outweigh any good deeds we might have done.

Unless we went to confession and received a priest’s absolution for missing a particular mass, the stain of that sin would pull us straight down to Hell when we died. There we would be tortured for all eternity, even as we retained the awareness that we would never see our saved loved ones, or our loving Creator, again.

Because touching a woman below the belt counts as a mortal sin unless she’s your wife, we had to confess each of those acts, too. I sometimes wonder if certain sins were declared “mortal” simply to make confession more interesting.

Reinforcing authority

In any event, it was certainly no coincidence that the moral teachings of the Church focused on activities that reinforced the Church’s authority. You had to go to mass, on average, more than once a week; had to confess mortal sins to an accredited priest; had to receive the sacraments, including that of marriage, within the Church’s walls; and so on – all to avoid burning eternally. In addition, you could earn a bonus by doing extra church-related activity – going to Mass on the first Friday of each month for nine consecutive months, for example, or attending special sessions of the rosary.

What strikes me about all this, now, is how little any of it has to do with love. Yet, according to Jesus, upon whose words and deeds the Church was purportedly built, the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. (He never listed a ‘third-most-important commandment.’)

Nowhere in Jesus’ words will you find a commandment to attend mass, or even to pray in public. Nowhere does Jesus command his followers to tell a priest each time they touch a woman, or themselves, below the belt. Nowhere does he list the sacraments that have come to seem so necessary – all requiring the assistance of a priest. Nowhere does he speak of the importance of the Pope, or of wearing elaborate vestments or of building elaborate churches or of making chalices of sculpted gold.

Moreover, while the nuns used a lot of words to tell us about the love our God felt for us, it was hard for some of us to feel the “love” of a God who was ready to roast us forever just because we didn’t feel like going to a particular mass. Rather than love, the God they described was worthy of our terror.

No nunsence

I don’t blame the nuns, by the way. One of my aunts was a nun, and many of the nuns I’ve known were and are kind individuals. They taught me a great deal that was valuable. I’m focusing on the harsher aspects of the system into which most of them had been born. It was all they knew, and they had sworn to uphold it. They cared enough about us to want to keep us out of Hell, and that’s a kindness. From their perspective, instilling a fear of Hell was even more important than teaching us to be wary of cars.

Eventually the fear and authority of the Church stopped making sense to me, and I began to move away from it all, looking over my shoulder every so often as I went. Since leaving the Church I’ve made some progress, I think, in learning to love my neighbor. I haven’t learned as much about how to love God, in part I think because the original model I received was so frightening that I often prefer not to think about Him at all. I just have to hope that the nuns don’t turn out to be right. Time will tell.

One thing I’ve learned outside the Church’s embrace is that the priorities Jesus actually listed – be kind to others, visit the sick, forgive those who have hurt you – is the wisdom that is central to most other religions, too.

In our era, empirical evidence has come along to support that wisdom. As it turns out, many of the people who have had near-death experiences come back in full agreement with those values. Over and over, they talk about the importance of love.

That’s nice, isn’t it?

I’ve spoken with five or six people who have had near-death experiences, and have read thousands of accounts. I have yet to find a single one that mentions the Pope. I’m still looking for a reference to missing mass, or sensual touching, or mortal sin of any form. If I find one, I’ll let you know.

God wants love, not fear

Meanwhile, I’m relieved to see the happy evidence pile up. One hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who had such an experience actually went back to the pulpit and apologized for misleading his flock. “God wants us to love,” he told them, “not to fear.”

Again and again, such people talk of the importance of not harming others or yourself – and, while avoiding such harm, learning to love.

These lessons first went public in Dr. Raymond Moody’s “Life After Life.” Subsequent research by psychology professor Kenneth Ring, Evelyn Elsaesser Valarino and others has reinforced Moody’s findings, as you can read in “Lessons From the Light: What We Can Learn From the Near-Death Experience,” among many other reputable sources.

The evidence indicates that when people die, the questions of how well they had loved, and how much they had learned, matter far more than the name of their religion.

So maybe we ought to work on those things, instead of scaring each other.

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