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January 7, 2024

Blessed attention

It’s misery to think that there’s always something we’re missing; that we’re incomplete, unfinished and in need. I’m pained because I still believe that I have to earn my place in heaven through the sweat of my brow. I was brought up this way, so when something good comes to me easily, it scares me. I have a hard time forgetting the Catholic teachings of my childhood. Believe it or not, I still have a copy of the Catechism manual somewhere in my library in the section on God and the world’s religions. Three tall bookshelves are entirely filled with the great mystery surrounding our salvation.

I’m nearing the end of my life, and I still fear the devil, hell and all the sins I have unwittingly committed. I remember the priest who sat in the confessional during my third or fourth grade in elementary school. He’d opened a small window and interrogated me through the lattice. Was I guilty of telling lies, sinning, stealing candy or touching forbidden places, he asked.

I remember his relentlessness. He’d insist I confess to some offense. A caress between the legs? A hand on a breast? I answered no each time. I couldn’t think of anything to say. This man, dressed in a black cloak, often left me confused and trembling. Too shy to talk to my mother about it, I grew up carrying the memory of this strange and somber character. It was only in college that I learned that a woman’s erogenous zones attract men of all sorts. And I, all grown up, stayed clear of them because I was still afraid of sinning.

What age was I when I finally understood the difference between good and bad? I can’t bear to think about it. My parents never talked about those things. We learned much later in life, after my mom passed, that she had been in love with a Protestant, who the church had forbidden her to marry. She ended up tying the knot with a fellow her father approved of in spite of her feelings. Her daughters bore the consequences of growing up in a loveless home. My mother’s broken heart never healed; she was never able to shower us with affection, to show tenderness to her kids and husband.

We were dutifully baptized, and I remember finding a photo album when I was clearing out my mother’s things. Among the few pictures of us children, there I was, all dressed in grey, a black mantilla on my head. The words “Cora’s confirmation” were written on the back of the photograph.

I also had nuns for teachers in college. They taught me Latin, Ancient Greek, history, geography and arithmetic, a subject that put my stomach in knots. The only nun I still remember today is Sister Marie Maxime, who patiently explained to me how to count more than once. How did I ever manage to become a businesswoman? My love of the alphabet was only matched by my dislike of numbers.

In reality, I owe all my successes to help from divine Providence above. I realized with time that religion is human and fallible like each one of us here below, capable of making mistakes. How many times did I forget the lonely, the afflicted and the downhearted because I ignored the kindness in my heart? And I think myself blessed?

I still have to forgive the estranged husband. How can I dissolve my rage, forget him or forgive him? With so many flaws, how can I knock on heaven’s door? I want to better myself, improve my heart, make myself available to those around me, see opportunity in the accidental and learn the lessons that come from observing the world.

Jacques-Bénigne BOSSUET, the author of a colossal work on spirituality, encourages us to cultivate “attention, which is what saves us in every moment.” I will purposefully deepen my observations without setting a specific goal for myself. Why not contemplate my surroundings like an alien who has just landed on earth?

Avoiding hasty judgments and preconceived ideas, my gaze and my mind will be as fresh and as new as possible so that I sharpen and strengthen my capacity to marvel, to discern truth from falsehood and the extraordinary from the ordinary.