A question of substance

By BenitaZepeda

Fortunately, my mother loved me. She might have killed me if she didn’t. I was a curious little boy, and persistent, content to fire off a string of “why” questions—or “how” or “how come” at any unexplained quirk of the world I was exploring. Alas, my mother was not omniscient and never knew enough answers to satisfy me. Still, I delighted in asking a question and getting an answer, but each answer simply fueled me ahead in hopes of getting to a deeper and more meaningful explanation of the topic. The habit, to say the least, tested my mother’s patience.  My father was much less tolerant, ordering me to “go look it up” at the first sign of interrogation.  Defeated, I learned where to find the encyclopedia.

This behavior continued throughout Catholic elementary school. I would raise my hand and ask how I could really be sure heaven existed, or whether I could really be sure I had a soul.  I wanted to understand and I felt in my heart that the teachings were true, but the nuns’ responses were as tangible as a cloud. “You must have

faith,” they said.

Rather than a demonstration of piety, I took the words as a cop out. How could the nuns—dedicated students of the Church’s teachings—have no answers, yet insist I accept their proclamations on a whim?  The Bible, too confusing and mysterious for me to understand, was the only reference book offered by the church; besides, stories about heaven didn’t prove it existed.

I was not mad or simply annoyed at the nuns. I was disappointed that the scholars of the subject could not provide evidence of truth. The nuns would have hardly bristled at the notion of me being disappointed in them, but I developed a nagging mistrust for authority that spilled back on my poor mother. I defied her motherly standard, “Because I said so!” with a daring retort,  “That’s not a good enough answer! You must have a reason!” Aghast, she supplied none, and I was left to do whatever preposterous thing she wanted me to do, like go to bed.

I grappled with the flimsy explanations Catholicism offered. Assertions that life is unique to Earth and the notion that the entire cosmos existed solely to glorify God, I judged as insufficient. I felt that it was entirely possible that in the vastness of the universe, life could exist somewhere else.

A natural fascination with outer space brought me to a small public library near my home on many occasions to pore over books about stars, planets and galaxies.  Seated on the floor of shallow orange carpet beside a floor-to-ceiling window, I hunched behind a high bookshelf and selected a book on space. I thumbed through it eagerly and stopped at an illustration of my favorite mysterious cosmic object—a black hole. Relatively few books on outer space included information about black holes and I stirred with excitement as I flipped it open, captivated.

Time slowed as I examined the diagram of a black hole.  My mind boggled as I attempted to visualize light, unable to escape the gravity of the black hole, being sucked back into the singularity at its center. I could not understand how such a thing could exist, even though I found the idea absolutely compelling.  Then my eyes moved to the caption, which explained that scientists had not confirmed whether black holes existed because none had yet been observed.  Their theories, nevertheless, supported the possibility. I studied the graphic and then read the text again, perceiving that the caption most decidedly did not say that scientists had faith in black holes, and therefore, we must believe in them too. The scientists demanded nothing of me without offering proof. Sitting quietly on the orange carpet, with light from the window illuminating the open book, I appreciated their integrity.

Joseph Culotta grew up in the Chicagoland area and is currently a senior at Columbia, majoring in Professional Writing and Editing. After graduating in May 2010, he plans to pursue a career in technical writing.