Last night, I dreamed of writing this article. Often times I wake up with a complete thought for an article or during the day something will come to me and I feel like a secretary--scrambling to take notes as I’m dictated the thoughts. But last night, I watched as I wrote this article in which I share thoughts and past experiences on the development of my conscience.
We must be careful when sharing the “past” lest it be worn as a badge of “wasn’t-I-something back then?” Rather it should be shared as a realization that the further from the light we are, the less we can see clearly in the darkness. Even back in the day, I loved God and wanted to serve him. I just did not know Him well and was foggy on the details. But God brought me out of the fog, bit by bit. So, when I see people living contrary to my Catholic beliefs and morals, I pray for them and think to myself: They just don’t understand.
My own past is part apathy and part ignorance. After twelve years of a Catholic School education, I emerged like many of my contemporaries from the Seventies--mostly without a clue. Were the essentials being taught or was I just not paying attention? I’m not sure; maybe some of both. God was often pushed aside but my heart was with him although not always my head. That is where I went wrong for it is the head where our consciences are formed; not by emotion but by forming decisions based on knowledge of the truth.
In college at Michigan State University, I did occasionally say a prayer. Attending Mass was hit and miss; mostly miss. I look back at my views and behavior and wonder how I had lost my mind so completely. I believed in God and very little else. But I will share instances where my conscience showed signs of life to prove that a deadened conscious can still have a pulse, be it ever so weak.
Feeling the Darkness
East Lansing has a large gay community. At one restaurant where I waitressed, I was buddies with a homosexual male co-worker. One evening, he invited me and some of my friends to join him and his friends to hang out at a gay bar. Since I was always up for a new adventure, it sounded like fun. So, off we went to the usual Seventies bar scene; drinking, flashing lights, crowded dance floor and loud music, with the noticeable difference that is was male dominated and the men were openly affectionate with each other. Also, there was a rave-type drug being passed around on the dance floor, but I stayed away from that. What strikes me about that night out was that I had a dark feeling overcome me that left a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. In my head, I had an anything goes mentality. I did not care if my friend was gay. But for some reason I did not understand, I felt a heavy darkness and wanted to leave, which I soon did with my friends. At the time, I did not give it much thought. But when I look back, I believe that my prayers, as little as they were, kept me connected to God and he allowed me to feel the atmosphere of evil I was in.
The next instance I felt a dark feeling of wrongness that I had not expected, was a couple years later on a night out with two female co-workers from another bar/restaurant where I worked. It had a neighborly atmosphere of regulars that frequented the bar. Somehow, my co-workers and I were met with a challenge by some of the regulars--to dare to go into Cinema X. This was a business that had all sorts of X-rated entertainment. One guy offered to give us free passes if we would dare to go into the place. It was the site of many bachelor parties and groups of college students would go en-masse for supposed laughs. Myself and my two, very pretty blonde co-workers took them up on the challenge. We had heard so much about the place; we figured as long as we stuck together, it would be interesting to see what it was all about. Since I had been to Holland a couple years earlier and laughed with friends and other tourists as we walked through the red-light district complete with girls in windows (or some not in the windows) I looked at it as just another way to have a laugh.
We drove out together on a Tuesday night, which was amateur talent night where dancers (girls) could win prizes. (Don’t worry, we were not that bad.) As soon as we entered the darkly lit building, the three of us felt uncomfortable. We quickly walked into the theater section and slid into seats, where no one else sat near us. On this night, two girls would be dancing naked. Audience applause would determine the winner. The first girl was thin and pretty. She pranced across the stage without clothes before an audience of a couple groups of male college students, a few male/female couples, and an awful lot of single males spaced sparsely throughout the theater. It was the second contestant that broke my heart. This young lady was overweight and did awful humiliating things to herself in an effort to please the crowd. In the end, audience applause awarded the first dancer a prize of $100. The second girl was laughed at as she grabbed her clothes and hurried off stage.
I wanted to cry for her. My friends and I just sat there, not speaking to one another. Then the emcee announced: “Before the movie starts, I want to welcome the three lovely ladies visiting with us tonight.” Anywhere else, we might have smiled and enjoyed the attention. However, as if on cue, we simultaneously recoiled and sank down into our seats. It was a mutual feeling of loathing. The lights went out, the movie started and we whispered to one another, “Let’s get out of here.” We slipped out as fast as we could without making eye contact with anyone. Safe back in our car, we realized that there was nothing funny about Cinema X. It was a place of darkness and disrespect for the human body. Even though I had been living my life thinking that what people did was their own business, I knew my soul had felt the ugly presence of evil.
In the Head, not the Heart
Today, over thirty years later, for me I don’t have to wait for a bad feeling to show me something is wrong. Catholic teaching is truth itself and trumps any feelings or modern-day justification. Yet, without knowledge of Catholic teaching, it would be many more years before I understood that a well-formed conscience depends on the knowledge of truth.
After giving birth to four children, I believed that permanent birth control was not just my right, but also a logical and responsible choice. Ironically, my husband Mark and I were at the stage in our faith journey of not skipping Sunday Mass and we had begun to pray the rosary. But without full knowledge of Catholic teaching, the world is full of pitfalls; some coming in the most unlikely of places. Family and friends were not shy about telling us they were “fixed.” One of our parish priests that was also a doctor told me it was not reasonable to follow the Pope’s teaching on contraception. Thus, in spite of our efforts to be good Catholics, it took us a while to understand what that really meant.
I believe it was through my new habit of spending time in adoration that I began to clearly feel God’s direction in my life. Mark and I also began reading Catholic books and gradually came to understand that Catholic teaching is truth and it is the truth upon which we must form our consciences and make decisions.
Once we finally “got it”--a well-formed conscience, that is-- Mark had a reversal of his sterilization surgery. We had four more children and adopted two others from Kenya, and today we adhere to Catholic teaching in all aspects of our lives. It is compass. I wince whenever I hear Catholics defend the reason they are following their consciences rather than Catholic teaching. The two should coincide and not conflict. It simply is not logical to believe that their changeable, experience-driven personal feelings could be superior to over 2,000 years of unchanging teaching that began with Jesus Christ.
It's a Journey
My first book, Catholic Truths for Our Children, was the by-product of my own learning. It was written after much research of the best, most convincing explanations of Catholic teachings and includes Scripture passages. I wrote it with an understanding that some of the readers would be like I was, wanting to do the right thing, but not clear on the details. It hit the mark for many who have converted as a result of opening their minds up to the truth that is imparted in the book.
I wish it had not taken me so long to wake up to the truth but as always, God can use all things for good for those that love him. He did not just take me off the path of ignorance but now he allows me to use my former ignorance for good. Sometimes it is in a conversation with someone with my past mentality, sometimes it is through my writing that people can relate to, and other times, my past is what helps me to have compassion and understanding for those smug ones who think they have figured everything out without religion.
No doubt everyone reading this has had those moments of lacking a strong conscience. So, I know we stand in union along with all those in gay bars, people in the porn industry and all those immersed in a life of darkness. Together, we stand under the cross at Calvary as Jesus looked up to heaven and said: "Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus, in his eternal vision, was praying for all of us.
Copyright 2010 Patti Maguire Armstrong
About the Author
Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of 10, and has a B.A. in social work and M.A. in public administration. Her newest book is Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven. Others include Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and the Amazing Grace Series. Follow her at @PattiArmstrong and read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.