There is, at the surface, infinite variety of things; at the center there is simplicity of cause”. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I started this blog I thought I would not write about religion (or politics). But then I don’t always get to choose what appears in my head and if I can’t write about the big topics- the controversial ones, the volatile and meaningful and frustrating ones- then why bother writing, really. These are the topics that usually come through in raw truth and clumsy human experience.
My earliest memory of church is of standing next to my grandmother, reciting a prayer by rote memory: Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed. Why am I not worthy? I wondered. What have I done? Because I was pretty sure it was the grownups who could really screw up here, and not my five year old self. The prayer was coming through my lips from my head only. My heart was sort of disconnected from the whole experience. At the time I thought the whole world was Christian, or at least the good people. And not only that, they were all Catholics.
When my three children were of the age to attend church, I did what I thought was the right thing to do. And it may have been. I dressed them up a bit and gathered my husband, who somehow thought I was equipped to make this all-important choice. Despite the I am doing right by my family feeling, I felt like a bit of an imposter, because I just never really liked going to church. But I dutifully signed my oldest up for the First Communion classes, because in the moving sidewalk that is Catholicism, when it’s time, it’s time. This meant that she had to attend a class before the church service each Sunday, and attend mass after the class. By the time mass rolled around, she was hungry and bored and so done with church. Conformity not being her strong trait,this just wasn’t working out for her. At all.
On one such occasion, which is etched in my memory, my husband had to carry her out as she had grown increasingly agitated. By the time they were half way down the aisle, her complaints had turned to a full out wailing of “I HATE CHURCH!” Even as my heart sank- couldn’t they have made it outside before that unfiltered explosion? – I had the thought that matched hers. So do I. So. Do. I.
I’m pretty sure God spoke to me that day through a child, saying get the hell out of here! But the culture of religion is a strong pull and it took a little while longer before reluctantly abandoning ship. The thought of it made me feel happy and free, but also worried. There was that notion that what if I am damaging my children by not bringing them to church? What if I am damaging them if I do? Or what if it is the right choice for some of us but not for others? How do we reconcile that? Never have I been so conflicted. Maybe the better choice is to sloth through for several years and then let our children choose. At least that way they would become familiar with the option of prayer and God and a spiritual life without it having to come from their parents. I mean, I was all set, my beliefs firmly in place, mostly built from my inquisitive and reflective nature and raw experience. I didn’t require a mediator or a designated time of public worship, but what about the rest of the family?
The concept of the entire family’s spiritual life being squarely on my shoulders felt daunting. Surely any choice I made would be inadequate for someone. So we stayed a while longer, until one of our daughters asked why the priests were always men. The patriarchy and politics and rituals just felt so stifling. Many of the beliefs did not sit well with me (while others, the ones common to all religions, the really big ones, resonated. These just didn’t seem to require a Sunday meeting). Then when the news revealed all the charges of molestation at the hands of the Catholic priests, I just felt so justified in leaving. The fact that children could be forsaken and this was to be handled within the church itself, somehow above the law, was the last straw for me. I had a visual of the institution with all its pomp and circumstance, crumbling when the truth came to light. I was tired of trying to convince myself we needed this.
I think that all institutions have good and bad, dark and light, and this is no exception. So to leave it behind is to relinquish the good too and it would not be a complete expression if I did not acknowledge this. Because I also see the beauty- in fact the same daughter that rejected church as a young child, was admiring the stain glass windows and the sheer awesomeness of a church building one day when circumstance led her inside, and exclaimed how “beautiful it is when it is silent in here”. I personally think a church would be a beautiful place in which to meditate. For many it is the perfect place to gather and connect, to each other and to a divine presence. The routine and service and comfort that can sustain a church community are not lost to me. I know what I have given up. All of us have to choose for ourselves, and sometimes for our children as well.
My middle daughter elicited the most doubt in my decision. Shortly after leaving the church, she took out a series of books from the library, and read them over and over again. The characters were a Jewish family who adhered to many religious rituals. Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, this family observed them all; from what they ate to when they prayed and how they welcomed the seasons- with feasts and parades and festivals and prayers. Each time she checked out the books I would cringe. Damn, those books again, they kept appearing, making me doubt my choice. Had I denied her this? I don’t mean being Jewish, of course. We were Christians after all. I mean being religious. Maybe we should’ve split up the team. My husband may have been willing to go to church with her while I stayed at home with the other rebels. One day I just asked her. Do you think you’re missing out? Do you regret this? She told me no, absolutely not. But how can she ever know for sure? In any case, her sense of wonder has remained strong, her integrity unflinching. Sometimes I am amazed at her clarity of what is right and wrong. Doing the right thing goes a long way in connecting us to our divinity.
My youngest daughter is scientifically minded and plans to contribute to the field of medicine. Though not opposed to religion, she thinks energy should be focused on getting something done. She is empathetic and intuitive and does a damn good job of running her own life. She doesn’t think she missed out either.
And lest you conclude that because I fled the church, it means I am devoid of reverence for the mysteries of life, that could not be further from the truth. I think that Jesus was the coolest guy to walk the planet, and I have an absolute belief that we too are made from the same stuff and therefore capable of so much. We are worthy. We are all that. I don’t just believe in the power of prayer, I know of it. My own experiences are so powerful and clear to me that words would not do them justice.
We are all on our own journey and will be brought to our knees at one point or another. I like to go there willingly and often and preferably not in church, but that doesn’t make me better or worse off than someone else. It’s just my preference. Church, no church, Jesus or Buddha, Muhammad or Moses, one God or many gods or nature or nothing at all that you can name; we all have the gift of intuition and when we get rid of the extraneous, it becomes much clearer. We don’t have to place a name or even a religious attachment to this gift. My simplistic Spiritual Life for Dummies: If church makes you feel good, then go. If it doesn’t, then don’t. Brilliant, I know.
The late Ernest Holmes, when reflecting on the quest for authentic and direct religious experience, wrote, “It is only the unessential that is vanishing, that the abiding may be made more clearly manifest”. This remains relevant today, perhaps more than ever. And this is where simplifying comes in. We all get to choose what is essential for us. We all have perfection at our core and how we access that is up to us. Or sometimes something happens to move us along to that center. There lies the gold- the peace, the love, joy, and our gifts. All the rest is just extra stuff.