Tuesday, December 7, 2010

in the land of nod

This blog post is one of a series of responses to writing prompts provided by the authors at Reverb 10, a daily writing project that asks writers to reflect on the year. Get on the bus! Just click here.

Prompt: Community. Where have you discovered community, online or otherwise, in 2010? What community would you like to join, create or more deeply connect with in 2011? (Writing prompt courtesy of Cali Harris.)

Since about the late 90’s, I have been prone to spiritual wanderlust. I was raised Catholic, and until about age fourteen or fifteen, Catholicism had a reasonably important place in my life: I said ten minutes of prayers before getting into bed every night, because I was afraid that, if I neglected to pay heed to God, Jesus, Mary, and even Joseph, my soul was fair game for Satan. This pretty much summarizes my pre-adolescent piety: I prayed, I went to confession, I made communion and confirmation, because I was terrified of the consequences of not fulfilling these sacraments. I could practically feel the flames at the foot of my bed, just waiting for me to give voice to my latent doubt.

A college obsession with existentialist philosophy cultivated the seeds of skepticism that had begun to sprout in my late teenage years. In retrospect, I probably found atheism intriguing because it absolved me of any kind of responsibility. I am a recovering commitment-phobe, and so a religion that required me to attend church every week OR ELSE was one that would surely lead to my spiritual demise.

From what I have been told, one’s experience with a religion like Catholicism depends so much on one’s particular church, and on the minister’s ability to deliver a homily that is engaging and relevant beyond the walls of the sanctuary. We had no such minister at St. Mary’s. The upshot was that, when I left home, I also left the church. After ten years of CCD, I knew little more about the disciples, the life of Jesus, or the Bible than my friends who had not attended Religious Education classes. It was only in graduate school, when I took a course on Milton’s Paradise Lost and was required to read three or four exciting theological texts, that I began to understand what I had missed, at least in terms of the stories behind the faith. Progressive Catholics like my friend Lori have introduced me to a vibrant, intelligent, and rich Catholicism I never knew existed (I can’t help but think how much more I could have taken from The Red Tent had I been exposed to the verses behind the fiction). And though Catholicism is not likely to ever become my (re)chosen faith, I have a much deeper understanding of why it continues to appeal to so many.

For most of my adult life, I have been without a religion. I have found holiness and metaphysical beauty in nature, in certain people, in special moments. And for a long time, I believed that this was enough. But when Dad died two and a half years ago, and I tried to explain death to Dylan, I found that I could not do this without referring to God, or heaven. And Dylan was understandably perplexed. Later, he asked Bryan, “Is Nod going to take you and Daddy, too?”

“Nod?” Bryan asked.

“Yeah, Nod. He took Grampy. Is he going to take you?”

It struck me that I could not expect Dylan to grasp this concept, inasmuch as any of us can grasp it, when he (God) only appeared in our lives as some ominous force who randomly plucks people from our lives. Those prayers I said as a child—those rote recitations—did provide comfort, even as they nurtured my fear of eternal damnation. I needed something for my children that was devoid of dogma, but that would provide them with a sense of spirituality—and preferably a spiritual community. And this was something I also needed for myself. I have been, for a long time, a solo practitioner of a quasi-faith that blends Buddhism, Protestantism, and some loose translation of Native American spirituality. And Catholic guilt. I haven’t lost my fear of Satan, though I might call him by a different name (or names).

The autumn after Dad died, I did some “church research,” and I found a spiritual house that looked promising: the Unitarian Universalist Society of New Haven. I had been interested in Unitarianism for years—since the time of that Milton class I mentioned. My professor—an extraordinarily spiritual and engaging man by the name of Andrew Barnaby—was a Unitarian, and had found, it seemed to me, a sensible way to reconcile the differences (and similarities) between major world religions. He told me not to “shun Catholicism,” but to think of it as a “fulfilling mythology.”

I don’t mean to make heretical waves (I’m aware of the seeming heresy in that last statement about mythology!) ,or to dismiss anyone’s faith. And this is what I have come to love about USNH: more than any other faith I have tried to embrace, it has taught me tolerance and humility. It has taught me that spirituality, for me, lies not in the primary text, or even in the sermons (though the sermons at USNH are quite amazing), but in action—in social responsibility and awareness. In the lived version of whatever our faith may be. Though the Catholic part of me (I think there is a part of me, however small, that will always be Catholic) struggles with the somewhat abstract nature of the faith itself (try explaining this to a kid: well, Jewish people believe x, and Catholics believe y, and Muslims believe z, and so forth—and we just borrow from all of them, and maybe throw in a little Bruce Springsteen, too), I feel blessed to have found a place of worship that is in near-perfect harmony with my spiritual needs. I don’t know that I will ever label myself a Unitarian—or put myself squarely in any religious category—but I will call USNH my spiritual home.

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