When I later reported that Abuela had rallied, she said, "Yessss!" in that "I just stuck the landing" voice. "I knew it. I prayed to all the gods for her!"
"Well," I said, "that's very . . . All the gods?"
The Pantheon, it turns out. I am sensitive these days to commandment breakage in general, but when you do in the very first one, you are off to a bad start. I am also sensitive to the charge that I myself have had doubts about articles of faith and morals. "You are a cafeteria Catholic," a friend once told me accusingly.
She went on to explain what that means: I step up to the smorgasbord of our religion's teachings, pick the ones I want to believe, and leave behind the ones that don't appeal to me.
I do have trouble with some doctrines of my church, things I struggle to find a way to believe. In fact, that explains my very favorite prayer. It came from a panic-stricken father whose epileptic son was convulsing badly when the father, along with a curious crowd, approached Jesus and said, "If you can, help my boy."
Jesus looked out over the tumultuous tableau of a child in a grand mal seizure, a boisterous mob, puzzled disciples, and a weeping, pleading father. Incongruously, Jesus focuses on what seems the least-important aspect of the wild scene. "If I can?" Jesus says, offended. "You've got to believe better than that if you expect a cure here."
Even more desperate as the seizure threatens to suffocate his son, the dad, tears streaming, screams, "Lord, I do believe. Help my unbelief." That's the prayer. I pray it every day. Sometimes, I just say, "Lord, I'm not a cafeteria Catholic. Help me when I leave the three-bean salad behind."
I believe; help my unbelief. It's a contradiction, right? Maybe not. Maybe unbelief is supposed to be part of belief; perhaps doubt is essential to faith. Near her own end, my mother, definitely not a cafeteria Catholic, asked me, "Do you really think there is a life after this one?"
Wow. What a time to question that. "I'm not sure I believe it, exactly," I said to Mom. "I hope it."
That's why we have faith, hope, and love, I reasoned. Hope picks up when faith falters, and love always endures. When Mom left this world, I don't know if she was fully believing. I'm sure she was hoping, and I'm sure it was enough. I'm sure she believed and that her Lord helped her unbelief.
How do I know? Simple. Jesus cured the devastated father's little boy. Game, set, match.
The Sydney problem, however, still needed solving. I approached her the other day and said, "Syd, you go to church on Sunday, right?"
"Who do you pray to?"
"God," she said.
"One God, right? Then how can you say you believe in all those Greek gods?"
She replied with her patented eye roll: "You don't understand about God." And she gave me understanding.
"When I am at the beach near the water, I feel close to Poseidon. When I am in a thunderstorm, I feel close to Zeus. When I see a beautiful person, I feel close to Aphrodite, and when I hear someone really smart or good with weapons, I feel close to Athena. It's all God, just showing himself in all those ways."
I had to check out that weapons part - she was right, as always. Then I proceeded to marvel. The little 9-year-old finds God where God is: everywhere. She experiences a mystical closeness to the transcendent Oneness in the calm sea, the roaring thunder, the word of wisdom, the face of beauty. My religion has a name for it. Contemplation, the highest and most sublime form of prayer.
That's straight-up, orthodox Catholicism, which you could read in the New Catholic Catechism, if by some miracle the New Catholic Catechism became interesting. Sydney stands in a tradition staked by St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, and our beloved Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
No bishops could argue with that pedigree. They'd better not. After all, Jesus never said Sydney should have faith like a bishop's. He did, however, turn to his own bishops and say explicitly that their faith should be like Syd's.
So, I am no longer troubled about the orthodoxy of Sydney's faith. I do suspect, though, that she might be a cafeteria pagan.
E-mail Orlando R. Barone