Two weeks ago, my cat Phoebe died.
I can’t totally shake the feeling that it was my fault.
Not because I made the choice to euthanize her, and not because I didn’t realize she was sick until it was too late, although both are true. But because of the thoughts in my head.
The day I realized she was sick came at the end of a week of trying to convince someone I love to get a restraining order because I feared for her safety and even her life. For several months, I’ve lived in fear that I will lose this person to violence and my life will be shattered. So when I left my cat at the vet overnight for further observation, I already had this niggling dread that this was the beginning of the end of our 10+ years together. And as I lay in bed with a migraine that night, I thought, “I would rather lose Phoebe than the person in my life I’m worried about.”
As soon as I had the thought, I wished I hadn’t. Although it was, and still is, true, somehow it felt like I was making an offering, a bargain. Hey, God, if you protect this human that I love, I’ll sacrifice this animal that I love.
When my cat showed a single day of improvement in the middle of her final week, I euphorically hoped I had been wrong. I knew that, deep down, I don’t really believe in a God that forces us to give up one thing that we love to keep another. But her improvement brought with it fear: did this mean the person I loved was still in danger? What if I couldn’t have both?
In a short week, I watched my cat die slowly before my eyes, and it was so painful, and the chances of recovery so slim, that I did what I thought was kindest for her. I let her die peacefully.
But I’m still haunted by the idea that perhaps she would have lived if I’d never had that thought about whose life I valued more. There’s a part of me that knows knows knows this kind of “magical thinking” is developmentally appropriate to someone who is four, not someone who is thirty-three. But perhaps resorting to a time when someone bigger and stronger protected us is natural in times of stress or grief.
I also find myself wondering how much my Catholic upbringing figures into this.
I’ve written before about how much of my formative experiences with Catholicism had to do with superstitious bargains I made with God. I no longer believe, on an intellectual level, that God operates this way. Still, these superstitions smack of an Old Testament God, one who demanded blood before He would extend his blessing. One with whom the Israelites attempted to make bargains again and again and again to deflect His wrath, which had its climax in the figure of Jesus Christ, the “final blood sacrifice.”
Except, I realized over ten years ago that I don’t “buy into” atonement theology. Any theology that prizes Jesus’ death over His life makes me squeamish. And yet, my Catholic education echoed these barters of the Old Testament and the Final Barter Jesus made in the end. My CCD teacher said that if we were wearing our scapulars when we died, we would go to heaven. I learned that if I went to confession and then carried out the prescribed penance, my sins would be forgiven. I extrapolated from these teachings — if I offer X to God, He will prevent Y from happening to me. My life has been relatively free of tragedy, which reinforces the idea that all those rosaries I said must have paid off.
Deep down, I long to believe in a God who wants to give us good things but will remain there to shepherd us through the bad. This God would not demand that His own son die a violent death, or that I choose which love was more important to me and forfeit the other.
I sometimes have trouble finding this God who wants good things for us in Catholicism, which is so strictly regulated that it always feels like a big game of “if” — IF you follow these precepts God will bless you, IF you live in this particular way you will be happy — and any misery that comes from straying beyond those boundaries is just what you deserve. But what about the misery that happens from staying within those confines? There is no prescription for that, except pressure to admit that we are wrong and broken.
It’s this deep-down belief of being wrong and broken, and powerless, that makes me continue to see the world through the eyes of a four-year-old in times of tragedy. I truly thought I had shaken this belief system off, but Phoebe’s death showed me that I haven’t. Because as much as I try to shake off this idea that God makes “bargains,” sometimes cruelly, the alternative is scarier.
The alternative is that most of what happens in our lives is totally out of our control. And this, I believe, is why Jesus died on the cross — because it was the unfortunate culmination of the work he had done, not because it was the Ultimate Bargain. My cat died because it was the culmination of the cancer secretly building up in her organs, not because I loved someone else more than her. I think about the way Jesus taught us to pray the Lord’s Prayer, which includes supplication without promises of how we will behave to ensure we “deserve” our daily bread and our forgiveness. I think about Jesus’ final prayer in Gethsemane that God take “this cup” away from him — but Jesus did not bargain. Jesus did not say, “God, if I can avoid this death, I will amp up my ministry like you wouldn’t believe.” He simply asked for a reprieve, and then accepted it when it did not come.
What God ultimately offers us in these moments is not a sweet deal, as if he were reduced to a slick car salesman. We must learn not to see him in a broken or accepted “bargain” but in the kind words of friends when we are the ones who are broken. Faith, at its best, can help us make meaning of life’s inevitable losses instead of making unkeepable promises about the rewards we’ll receive if we just play our holy cards right. The rules and rituals and boundaries of Catholicism have often been a great comfort to me; they seemed to keep a scary world at bay. But what we need is a religion that can also help us bale out the water after that scary world has flooded in — because it will find a way to touch all of us. We need a spirituality that is not afraid to break its own boundaries, so that we can find the strength to do the same.