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How a Catholic Priest Changed my Outlook on Life

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We can’t choose our families. I was born into a rough family by any measure and this was the basis for my personality, slightly rough and abrupt. I had a drunken father who couldn’t keep a job and who was violent after drinking Lucky Lager beer. (I loved the puzzles in the twist off caps of Lucky Lager.) He also drank generic brand vodka that smelled like rubbing alcohol as did my mother who cried and looked out the window while drinking. My brother was going back to prison again and again being very violent and hateful and I had a sister that ignored it all and ran away as soon as she could. I tried to fit in a world I didn’t understand. As a young child I didn’t know that I was the loser of my grade school class. I didn’t have any real friends, hung out alone, ate candy, read, played with my dogs and horses.

My first serious memory of other human beings being cruel is lunchtime in 5th grade. That Wednesday in November at 11:50 am the week before Thanksgiving changed my life. As I opened my lunch bag and pulled out my frozen generic cola that my mother packed for me everyday, Girl #1 says, “Vanessa, you can eat with us, but you can’t play with us.” Those exact words. I will never forget those words and remember them everyday, repeating them every day for the rest of my life. I looked up from unwrapping the aluminum foil on my cola and memorized her face. Memorized the over plucked eyebrows and slight sneer, the long straight black hair with the red barrettes holding the hair off of her face. I heard the laughter from the other five ‘cool’ girls sitting there. I got up from the bench, threw my lunch away, and walked as far away as I could get from these girls. I could feel their hot stares on my back as I walked away. There were no tears in my eyes and not one of the girls sitting there stopped me. The teacher who was the playground monitor also just looked the other way ignoring the situation. I just got quiet, there is no other way to describe my emotions, quiet.

My mother tried, I will give her that. We didn’t have any money to buy nicer clothes and on Fridays when we could wear regular clothes for free dress days, ( I went to a Catholic school so wore plaid uniforms most of the time) I wore a shirt my mother had made for me. The shirt was jean material and she had sown patches on it of flowers and animals. I loved that shirt. My mom made it for me. I wore it over a black t-shirt, thought I looked cute. One of the party of six, the way I now thought of those girls, says to me, “Wow, are you trying to look cute with a shirt over a shirt you made yourself? how cute!” as she laughed. I didn’t laugh. I stared and didn’t answer her. I stared at a meanness that didn’t make sense to me, at a girl that was considered the cute one in school and I didn’t understand why ‘god’ had done this to me. Why was I the one no one liked; Why was the mean girl the popular girl?

I had a horse, a cheap, 1/2 crazy horse that tried to kill me on a daily basis. I got her for cleaning horse stall for money. I had gone to work at the age of 10 cleaning horse stalls and feeding horses for people before and after school. I had started working cleaning horse stalls because I loved animals and we had no money for horseback riding lessons for me and this way I could be around animals all the time avoiding humans. My father and brother stole my money on a regular basis. Saturdays were horse shows. As usual, I did horribly with my horse running around like a bucking bull so I was crying at the end of the day. My drunken father said it was my fault my horse misbehaved, I didn’t pray enough. PRAY.

“Vanessa you should do a Novena at the church everyday after school for 30 days,” he said. ” Then you would win with your horse like the other little girls d0.”

Novenas are prayers at the Stations of the Cross in the Catholic Church. When I was a kid there was always these old women in black dresses with their boobs hanging to their waists and black pieces of lace over their heads praying and trying to kneel down at the pictures of Jesus in agony and their knees and backs were so blown out they usually couldn’t get up. They wore ugly worn out painful looking shoes. The Monday after Thanksgiving, at the end of school, the bell went off at 3:20pm and I marched over to the church and had all intentions of doing my Novena, praying to the stations of the cross just so I could do better in my next horse show.

My brother had shown up on Thanksgiving with two prostitutes high on heroin and so there had been no rest or happiness for the holiday in my single wide mobile home. All the pent up emotions boiled over. I sat down in a pew, stared up at the golden crucifix, looked at the old ladies wasting their lives praying to a god that I didn’t believe existed, and if he did exist he obviously didn’t give a shit about them because they were in physical pain praying, and I started crying. Not just crying, but hiccuping heaving crying with red eyes that I couldn’t see through. My face was red hot. The old ladies turned around and stared at me but not one them came over to me. The hymnal books were in the little shelf in front of me and I started throwing them at the altar. Getting up and walking around the church throwing books. Finally a woman came over to me and said that church was for praying and worshipping God and I was causing a disturbance and had to leave the church.

“God you believe in God? A God that hurts children for no reason, rewards bad mean behavior and makes you waste your time in a church praying and giving your money so they can have an altar made with marble and gold that cost more then you will make in a lifetime? What has this God done for you? I can smell your breath you know, you are a drunk just like my father not willing to work for anything in life, just hoping someone gives it to you,” I responded.

And she slapped me again and again and I took it. I just stood there. I looked right into her eyes as she hit over and over again with an open hand. I was a poor 10 year old fat girl and this woman wanted to hurt me. She wanted to take that hurt she was feeling and put it on someone else. I was numb. I have no idea how many times she hit me. I had been physically hit so many times by my family members that I knew just standing there and not responding upset the violent more so I didn’t respond to her violence. I just stared at her. Remembering her anger.

My next memory was Father Colberg pulling out a handkerchief from his hidden pocket under his black cassock. Blood was dripping down my nose onto my white uniform shirt, bright red, wet, shinny blood. Father tried to clean me up. All the women had left the church, we were alone. I cried quietly. He didn’t talk for awhile, we just sat there. The custodian walked in, saw me, and walked out immediately.

“Vanessa, why are you here in this church after school upsetting the praying women?” Father Colberg eventually asked me.

“I upset everyone Father. The girls in school don’t like me, the teachers think I waste their time because I am not a good student, my parents, well they would rather just drink and scream and yell, my brother is in jail most of the time, and my sister is gone and doesn’t ever come home anymore. I came here to do a Novena hoping to do better at my next horse show if I prayed about it, but honestly Father, I came here to die. I realized that staring at the Crucifix, I want to die. I refuse to spend a life praying to a god that doesn’t care or doesn’t exist hoping to achieve things in life and be around mean awful people. There is no purpose. It’s all a waste of time.”

There I had said it, I had been considering suicide as a 10 year old fat girl. I had a fascination with knives and cliffs. And Father Colberg did the best thing ever. He laughed. Laughed out loud in the church and hugged me. Really hugged me, his arms cradled me as I cried and bled against his black garments.

“Oh Vanessa, I have to tell you the truth too. I don’t know if a God actually exists and all this praying, hurting your knees in front of paintings, oh give me a break, what purpose does that serve? But you were given the gift of Life Vanessa, Life. I don’t ever want to see you wasting your young life in this church ‘praying’. Instead, do the things that are put in front of you in life to the best of your ability. You need to really TRY Vanessa. Not just give up because things get hard. I always think you give up at everything you do. Instead of giving up you run hard in PE, you study hard in classes even on subjects you don’t like, you don’t come to church after school to pray in front of paintings, you work that horse as hard as you can everyday after school to make her and you the best you can be. Then when you succeed or fail, you will know you and you alone did it and tried as hard as you could.
That is the best prayer to God you could ever do, work hard with the Life He gave you.
You don’t need to believe in a God. Work hard at life for your own satisfaction, not to impress others or make others like you, but so you will like and respect yourself. “

“Father what if I work really hard, and still fail? then what? ” I asked.

“Vanessa, you won’t fail, and the rewards you receive won’t be anything you expect.”

“Father, why did you become a priest if you don’t even know if a God exists?”

“Vanessa, at this moment, I think I was put on this earth to make you realize killing yourself is a bad idea, and if God exists or doesn’t, well that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you live and like yourself.” He had tears in his eyes. For the first time in my life, I felt the love and caring of another human being. It warmed me in a way I can never fully explain. Father Colberg became my sounding board for many years. He had these two great Doberman Pincer dogs that would run around the play ground when we were in class. He would send for me, get me out of class to hang
with him and see how I was doing. We never talked about God or Jesus or anything like that or my rough family. He asked what I was working on and how I was trying to be a better person, a person that I would like. He became the mentor in life I so needed. I understand suicide and alcoholism. I have experienced both and at times of despair and desperation, I always remember Father Colberg saying, “Vanessa, do you like yourself? if not what are you going to change?”

I work on changing and being a better person every day. God may or may not exist, but I do know that the human spirit has saved me time and time again. I try to be there for others, that is the gift of life for me.