Confessions of an Altar Boy
Written by Rev. Dennis Shipman (c) 2010
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It began in the fourth grade, and continued until I graduated from Catholic elementary school. Oftentimes, I got bored at recess playing games with my peers in the school yard, and began to wander into the Catholic church next door to school. I felt uneasy, like I was searching for something, but didn’t know exactly what I was searching for.
As I sat in the church pew, looking at the figure hanging on the cross, I thought about the nature of God and my relationship to him. I was in awe of this person, had the greatest respect for him. After all, I was being taught he died for our sins. I wondered what it would be like to meet him. At nine years old, the upper most question on my mind was, “Why can I talk to Jesus, but he doesn’t talk to me?” It didn’t make sense that it was a one-way street, and God didn’t talk to me.
There were a lot of things I liked about the Catholic religion. I loved studying the life of Jesus and the lives of the saints. I loved being an altar boy because I felt really close to God. Assisting with the Stations of the Cross lasted too long for me. I always felt a bit crucified after the ceremony. High Mass on Sunday was the best because sometimes the priest used incense and the choir uplifted the whole congregation with their singing. It felt like we were all in heaven. I loved the smell of incense, and I still do. But, I didn’t like serving Mass at 6 a.m. on a wintry cold weekday when I rode my bicycle to church, and nobody showed up but the priest.
My best class, the one I excelled in above all the others - because it captured my interest and imagination - was religion. I was eager to know God. Yet, after all those years, nearly 3,000 hours in religion class plus seven more years as an altar boy, I felt all that learning and effort was wasted, and still felt I knew very little of the ways of the Creator.
The burning question in my mind by the time I reached graduation, was, "Why is the Holy Trinity still a mystery?" What is the secret? It was the twentieth-century, a modern world. We had fantastic scientific technology. Two-thousand years after Christ, the mystery still hasn't been explained?
The Catholic religion taught me that three persons existed in God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – known as the Holy Trinity. So, as a child, I accepted the idea and tried to work with it. As the years led me to a "career" in the Catholic school system, a gnawing question festered in my mind, "Where did I fit in the Holy Trinity? If I was made in the image and likeness of the Creator (Genesis 1:27), and God is the Holy Trinity, then where do I fit in? Who am I?"
The nuns and priests who taught me said just have faith. It was a mystery. We just had to accept it. My mind, however, wouldn't let go of the question. I couldn't understand why there wasn't a better answer. This desire to know grew very strong during my high school years and went unanswered. I felt if I knew the answer, I'd be that much closer to knowing God and the purpose of life.
Note: If you want to jump ahead, and discover the answer I found to the Trinity, then go to The Trinity Foundations of Belief and Knowing. There are three Bible passages that sum up the teachings of Jesus the Christ. The life of Jesus is all about inward healing and having your own experience of Oneness.
During the years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-64), as the Catholic hierarchy went through its renovation of the church, I began to question my religion. I learned all the dogmas and doctrines they taught me in school, and I couldn't bring myself to believe God was so difficult to know and love.
I became of age during the social upheaval of the radical Sixties, Vatican II Council, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, the hippie movement and the burgeoning surfing industry. All the chaos and resulting changes caused a lot of soul-searching in me.
As my release from high school drew near, I grew more and more distant from my religion, and closer to the ocean and surfing. In 1964, I graduated from a college prep Catholic high school in Southern California – consistently rated one of the best college-prep schools in America. With my diploma in hand, I waved good-bye to my alma mater and to the Catholic religion.
Church of the Perfect Wave
During my high school years, I surfed in the waters of Southern California, from Huntington Beach to San Clemente, as far north as Santa Barbara and as far south as San Diego. The ocean felt like God to me. It was immense, alive, gentle, intense at times, and the creator of abundant underwater life. There was no controlling the ocean or the waves. You could only live and surf in harmony with them.
Surfing in the curl of the perfect wave became the greatest thrill because it produced an altered state of consciousness for me. It put me in touch with a higher dimension of myself and all nature. At this time, I needed a god I could touch with my senses, feel with my emotions, and see with my eyes. That's what the ocean did for me.
In time, I began to see a relationship between the wave and the ocean that was symbolic of the relationship we all share with Oneness – the ocean of Oneness has become the human wave.
In high school, there were times I went surfing on Sunday with my non-religious friends. This posed a challenge to my “faith.” It was compulsory in the early sixties for every Catholic to attend Sunday Mass, and not doing so intentionally meant living in mortal sin, the worst kind. If a Catholic dies with a mortal sin on his soul, says church dogma, it's a one-way ticket to hell. No more surfing perfect waves!
On Sunday surfing trips, I usually attended Mass out of fear of being caught dead with mortal sin on my soul. Sometimes going to Sunday Mass posed a real inconvenience, but I still went. A few times I had to walk two or three miles in a single direction to get to a church. Those were the times when my faith was tested, and I really thought hard about what I was doing.
Then, there were times when I experimented with the power of the Creator's love (or was it His vengeance!?), and intentionally did not attend church on Sunday. The next week on Saturday when confessional services were held, I didn't confess it. Finally I accepted what my religion had taught me: the Creator was omnipresent, everywhere at once, so I reasoned, He must be in the ocean and waves. From then on, church became surfing the perfect wave, and going to church to visit God became fun again.
On Valentine's Day 1967, Uncle Sam interrupted the biggest wave of my life. Apparently he needed me more than the surfing industry, and no sooner did I begin a career as a shaper for a surfboard maker than I found myself in an olive-drab military uniform, going to bed with a semi-automatic M-16 rifle – very uncomfortable.
My days of surfing the curl in the gentle waves of Southern California were over. I now had to learn how to survive combat. On my I.D. “dog” tags, I listed “Catholic” as my religion, though by this time I did not consider myself a practicing Catholic, and I had long before stopped going to Sunday Mass. In basic training ''boot camp,'' the only reason I went to Sunday Mass was to get out of the barracks.
Then a miracle happened. After studying radio repair for nearly six months in Fort Gordon, Georgia, my graduating class received overseas assignments. Half of us were sent to Germany, and the other half were sent to South Korea. No one in my class went to Vietnam.
This was in October 1967, the height of the war build-up. About four classes before and after us all went to Vietnam. We couldn't believe our good fortune. Along with two friends from Chicago, we were assigned to a headquarters company, signal corps repair battalion in Seoul, South Korea. It was twenty-five miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and this was home for the next thirteen months. I've always been very thankful that I didn't have to use my combat training to kill another human being. I find killing even an ant or cockroach unnecessarily is very distasteful to me.
In South Korea, Buddhism was the traditional religion, but I was so conditioned by my Catholic upbringing that I missed the opportunity to learn and understand the message of the Buddha. As a Catholic, in the Sixties, studying other religions was not encouraged. Maybe, the church fathers thought it was too much a temptation – someone might think about switching religions, and leave Catholicism.
For five years, 1964-69, I didn't claim to be a member of the Catholic religion unless there was a materialistic advantage to it. During these years, I suffered a lot of shame and guilt about leaving the religion. Though I had left the religion and was a non-practicing Catholic, my mind was still very much conditioned by Catholic dogma.
I didn't want to disobey God's laws, or die with mortal sin on my soul and hell to pay. And, I didn't want a religion unwilling to change its view of our relationship to the Creator, even though I felt a deep spiritual void. And, through this whole tumultuous period, the mystery of the Holy Trinity still beckoned. I wondered if I would ever find the answer.
It was years later that I discovered this dark period was exactly what I needed. There was no one to tell me what I should believe, should do, or shouldn't do. I was away from the influence of my old religion, my home, my country, in a new environment, that allowed me to better know myself and God. I became comfortable with the feeling that the Creator wasn't going to punish me for missing Sunday Mass, or for leaving the Catholic religion. I had graduated from religion to a spiritual path, and wasn’t aware of it.
The source of religious authority shifted from the church to myself. I became my own guide to religious life and began to rely on my own authority to interpret the scriptures instead of relying on the dogmas and authoritative word of the church. I was in the process of taking back my own power.
Years later, I realized that both the path of religion and the spiritual path are learning lessons. Neither is good or bad. Each has different outcomes. It’s up to each of us to take responsibility for choosing our destiny.
In November 1968, I returned home to Southern California with my military obligation behind me. The Army experience and tour in South Korea left me weary and deeply bewildered. 1968 had been a year of violence. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. In South Korea, the USS Pueblo was captured, and an assassination attempt was made on the South Korean president. Several military conflicts along the Korean Demilitarized Zone left GI's and Korean soldiers dead, and the war in Vietnam was still raging. I wanted to forget about all the killing and suffering and take a long rest.
I forgot about the eternal questions of life. I was weary of searching for the answers. I forgot about the Vietnam War. I had a brother stationed in Pleiku, Vietnam, but didn't want to deal with the idea that he might be killed. I didn't want to think about anything. My future was bright, and I was looking forward to it. All I wanted to do was to have fun and enjoy life.
It was great to be home with my family. Eating my mother's home-cooked food, being in the warmth and love of my family, feeling secure in the comfort of the things I knew before. I went surfing again, and rekindled friendships. My former employer had setup a catamaran manufacturing business near his surfboard manufacturing business, and hired me. The nostalgia of the good old days came back. I felt alive in the remembrance of the past, but something didn't fit.
In the midst of my newly acquired freedom, I found myself disturbed by some haunting questions, and unresolved murmurings of my Soul that invaded my enjoyment. It seemed that no matter how much I tried to forget, the same questions pursued me: ''Who am I? Who is God? What is the purpose of life?'' Having no answers threw me into a lasting state of depression and intense emotional suffering. My unhappiness spurred me to contemplate the questions even more deeply. At times, I felt as if the answers were just beyond my grasp.
In Korea, seeing so much poverty and suffering, I reached a point where I believed life was not worth living. Life without knowing the existence of God was worthless, I believed. I actually contemplated suicide, because I could not see the Creator revealing His existence to me. I cursed God for putting me behind the eight ball, for putting me in the position of believing in His existence yet withholding His proof.
I firmly believed that each person was born for a reason, that each person has a purpose to fulfill in life. I didn't believe that a person was born out of pure chance or mere luck. I saw myself and humankind as part of life's great natural order. There was a great amount of empirical evidence to support an omnipresent order in the universe that human beings do not control: the movement of the solar system, the rotation of earth, gravity, the weather patterns, the waves of the sea, the lives of plants, animals, fish, insects, the process of birth, and the wonders of nature. The human being does not control its breathing or bodily life-support systems.
These things, I reasoned, we as humans do not control, yet all these things possess order and purpose. Was it folly for me to believe that humanity, known as the highest form of intelligence on earth, is not a part of this universal order? It was logical for me to assume that we are born to fulfill a noble purpose. Was a human's only purpose to be born, live and work a few short years, then die to be consigned forever either to heaven or hell? I didn't think so, yet I couldn't prove it otherwise.
In the early months of 1969, I worked and enjoyed life again in the ocean resort area of Dana Point. I thought once I was settled again the old nostalgia of living and working on the seacoast would return. It didn't. Although it was fun to be surfing again, it wasn't as important or meaningful. The magic was gone.
Building catamarans was fun, but was still only a job. I became disillusioned with my friends. Their idea of fun hadn't changed – beer drinking, nightly bars, smoking marijuana, LSD, and chasing women. It was old news to me. Nearly two years of military service in an unpopular war had changed me. Nothing seemed to satisfy me anymore. It felt as if a chapter in my life had closed, and I was looking for a new direction.
That morning in April '69 when I stopped at the pier to watch the sunrise before going to work, I never suspected how close at hand Oneness is. Yet, in less than an hour, I was standing in the middle of Paradise. At work, I woke up to the astonishing enlightenment of Oneness. I reached the pivotal point of my life: the radiant Light and boundless Love of Oneness.
"If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." (Matt. 6:22)