Now, over the years, as I have matured and my faith has developed, I have come to understand the foolishness of what I did. One does not bargain with God. One prays to God, but one doesn’t hedge bets with God. It is sinful to say to God, “If x, then y,” because the implication is that, “if not x, then not y” – what I, in effect, was saying to God was that my love for him was conditional. I never thought of it that way at the time, for if I had I never would have made that promise. Furthermore, what God wills, is. How arrogant am I to suppose that my will is greater than His, in His infinite wisdom, or that any promise I make will persuade Him to change His will? So any bargain with God is a sin of pride and potentially creates a situation, if your conditions aren’t met, that places you in opposition to God’s will.
Still, in a moment of youthful panic and indiscretion, I made the promise, and the conditional was met. In the ten years since I made that promise, I have missed church two, maybe three, times. Once was as I ran out of gas on the way to the last Mass of the day, a 10 p.m. Mass, and could not find any other means of getting there before the service was over. Another time was when I arrived for the last service of the day and the doors to the church were locked, Mass schedule having been changed that week. I don’t remember if there was a third time. The point is that, even though making the act of making the promise was wrong, I am still bound to that promise. I take that very seriously.
Three years ago I discovered paradise on earth, an island called Coiba about 30 or so miles off the Pacific coast of Panamá, to the west of the Azuero Peninsula. This is an area that is almost virgin marine wilderness. It is far enough off away from urban areas that one sees no trash or other evidence of civilization. Few people, even here in Panamá, know of this paradise much less have been there. The area is teeming with an abundance of marine life: gazillions of varieties of fish (parrot fish, mackerel, tuna, swordfish, angel fish, sharks, flying fish, you name it), sea turtles, dolphins, coral, sea fans, anemones – largely unbothered by humans. The islands in the area are pearls, and the water is crystalline.
I was only there for a day, and I have longed to get back ever since. We weren’t able to get back there two years ago, so I discovered San Blas instead. Last year we had arranged to go but were foiled due to circumstances beyond our control. So, finally, this year my aunt is able to make arrangements to go.
But there’s a problem. If I want to go, I have to go out on Saturday morning and not return until Monday morning.
There are no churches out there because, well, there are no people out there.
I told my aunt to cancel the trip. I am angry and sad. Not at her, since she did everything she could to make the trip happen, but that I have to make that kind of a choice. And because circumstances once again seemed to prevent my return to Coiba. One could argue that I would be excused, because the absence of churches on Coiba is beyond my control; but that is a specious argument, since I would knowingly be putting myself in a situation where I could not attend church.
Still, I’ve done some hard thinking. I’ve done some praying and soul-searching, trying to find a clear answer. I yearn to get back to Coiba. Every coastal/island place I visit in Panamá now gets measured against Coiba, and none lives up to it. I want to spend a little time basking in my tropical heaven before I have to fly back to a wintry hell. But there’s that promise, and as ill-considered as it was, I am bound to it. And this dilemma has been tearing me up inside.
As I sat silently praying, a thought entered my mind, a vague recollection. There is a Bible passage – I don’t remember book, chapter, or verse – that essentially says that where two or more gathered in His name, He is there; i.e., it just takes two to have church services. Church need not be the tradition developed over two millennia.
So I have decided the following: I will go to Coiba. I will attend Mass tonight and on Monday to make up for missing on Sunday. I will take a Missal with me to Coiba. On Sunday I will read, with my aunt, the various parts of the Mass (the introductory stuff, the Scripture readings, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer) from the Missal. In that sense, I will satisfy the Bible’s proscription for Mass.
Yet, it feels like too huge a compromise, as if I’m taking advantage of a loophole in order to placate my earthly desires.
And, after all that, it seems the trip is not happening, due to circumstances beyond my control.