Informed by Faith

I gave this sermon at UU Farmington on November 17, 2013. 

Reading:  Impassioned Clay, by Raph N Helverson (Singing the Living Tradition, #654)

Deep in ourselves reside the religious impulse

Out of the passions of our clay it rises.

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.

We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the heart.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the hears.

We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.

We have religions when we look upon people with all their failings and sill find them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur of nature and the purpose in our own heart.

My memory begins with church.  Specifically, it begins in 1970 in a Baptist church in Madison, Wisconsin.  It goes like this: From the center of a braided rug in what seemed to be an immense space, I see my parents in the doorway.  My father, in a dark coat and suit pants smiles while my mother, dressed for Sunday service, holds out her arms and beams.  Decades ago, my parents deciphered that memory for me.  In our Baptist church’s nursery, at ten months of age, I took my first steps across that rug towards my parents.

Millions of steps and countless of memories later, I have stepped into dozens of churches. I’ve called about ten of those my spiritual home, some for only months, most for at least a few years, and a few for over a decade.   From Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to Episcopal, I toured a slice of Christianity.  It was a generally liberal and entirely Midwest journey, and it ended in my late thirties when I left the theistic traditions.

I was born in the last months of the sixties  to pacifist parents in Madison, Wisconsin,.  The Baptist church of my birth, memorable to me only because of those first steps, did not baptize infants, so I began life unclaimed by any one denomination. I recall little more about my second spiritual home, the liberal  and Catholic St. Paul’s Church associated with the University of Wisconsin.  Aside from long legs, towering above me as I sat or sprawled on the pew, my main memory of this time is one exciting moment yelling, “But I want to go to church!” while being carried by my father into the vestibule. I doubt the veracity of that exclamation, and it says more about my tendency toward the dramatic than my spiritual yearnings.

More informative memories start later. When I was four, we moved to Michigan.  We settled in Warren, where liberal Christianity meant the local Methodist church. For seven years, I spent most Sunday morning in a classroom, learning about the Golden Rule, Jesus’ compassion, and the Bible, earning my own copy of the latter after memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. Services, seldom attended by children, were dull to me, with their the long prayers and a longer sermon, interrupted by hymns and choral pieces accompanied by the organ.

During those same years, noontime found us at the University of Detroit’s chapel,  liberally bent and Jesuit run. Yes. I went to church twice almost every Sunday. The chapel was in the university’s Commerce and Finance Building, a large classroom, really, with colored panes of glass where clear would have been. We sat in molded plastic chairs. There were no kneelers and no kneeling, and while I knew when to sit and stand, throughout the rest of my Catholicism, I couldn’t figure out when to kneel.  As in other Catholic churches, children attended services with the adults.  Sermons were shorter and more comprehensible than in the Methodist church, at least they were when I paid attention. Jesus’ love and messages of social justice and peace were perhaps just more accessible to my child-self than the more scripture-based preachings of my mornings.   Folk tunes accompanied by acoustic guitar punctuated the shorter, livelier services. The song’s lyrics and tunes echoed the music in my home, with many being the same folk tunes my father sang, guitar hand,  in the evenings at home with my mom and I. Themes of justice and love and peace filled this ordinary appearing space. This Land is Your Land. This Little Light of Mine. ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.

While aesthetically and experientially quite different, my Methodist and Catholic experiences professed similar messages about the love and compassion of Jesus and social justice while providing supportive community. Potlucks. Informal meetings in people’s homes. Accessible, human clergy whom my parents called by first name. Few rules and prohibitions. Plenty of community.

At home, Christianity whispered.  We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each December, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend.  I don’t recall bedtime prayers, petitions to God for wants or needs, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes (and I mourned the loss of the latter) and intentionally being raised within the city of Detroit . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals.  I saw women in the (Catholic) pulpit. I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of  God.  Without a sense that religion prohibited much of anything other than hate and discrimination.  With a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose.  Free thinking started early and was encouraged often. Like my father says of his youth, I have nothing to unlearn from that time.

Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith when ready.  I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life. Grape juice instead of wine for communion? Check for the Methodists. Shorter services with better music? Check for the Catholics. But junior high found me in a Catholic school, unable to participate in communion because of my non-Catholic status. The sense of being outside of fold was subtle but present. The mystery of ritual and faith of my Catholic school –and a desire to be like my friends –swayed me to, by twelve, become sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.

Or at least to become a liberal, 1980’s Catholic. That’s the only version of Catholic I knew until eleventh grade. Tumbling and reeling from my parents’ divorce and searching to define myself as myself, I  stumbled upon group of charismatic high school and college-aged Catholics. I was intrigued at this more tangible spirituality, far more alive and life-permeating than my previous church experience. For three years, as youth and then adult leader, I explored Catholicism from a more intimate, energetic, personal angle.  The mystical end of the faith spoke to me, bringing energy to my spiritual life and relief from my angst.  But by twenty, the mismatch between that conservative and close-minded bent of that arm of the church and my less emotive but more accepting and socially active upbringing led me to leave, returning my focus to the Jesuit Catholicism I’d been raised with.  Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in that church of my youth, albeit at the student version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass.  I  left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.

Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment.  My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years.  My boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church.  Shifting buildings failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with its patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet. Catholicism itself was.

What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years was informed by the fluidity of faith taught by the example of my parents. First, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home. ( I simply asked my Episcopal friend what the most liberal Episcopal church around here was. She pointed me in towards the one headed by an openly lesbian minister, which seemed like as good an indicator as any. ) That held us for a few years, but during that holding period, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought.  First, my mother converted from Catholicism to Reform Judaism.  This played no small influence on my decision to leave Christianity.  Her fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought.  Second, and definitely a story for another day, my belief in God was rapidly dropping away. I started to allow the questions that had, like a leaking faucet,  become the background of my thoughts. Prayer, God, rules, religion. With sadness and relief and absolutely no idea what would come next, I left church.

A few years later, my boys and I found a Unitarian Universalist community.  It asked for no commitment to God or creed;  it preached love and acceptance, spoke cautiously about Jesus, resonated with messages of justice and equality, and encouraged reason and pondering. It became home.

Soon after we found our Sunday morning spot, life heaved unexpectedly the way life does.  As my marriage exploded, my new-found community held me tight.  Pondering the divine, questioning the nature of love, and wandering into a new life with my two children and without my spouse, I had found a place to work out and through the difficulties of  life out in a religious community which embraced free thought, spiritual search, and human dignity.  I found a home.

Today, I identify as an agnostic Unitarian Universalist. I don’t believe in a god or divine force. I hold to laws of science and trust science to continue to unravel the mysteries of the universe but am comfortable with them unexplained.  I am content with an understanding of my existence as temporal, bound by my birth and death, and I don’t find myself worried about the purpose of our existence. Instead, I focus on the world in front of me, seeking unity, compassion, love, peace, and acceptance.

Agnostic as I am — unbeliever I am — I remain informed by the faith of my first thirty-some years of life. While God has dropped away, I still find the language of my religious upbringing useful for my agnostic living. Reverence. Ritual. Sacrament. Even Jesus. These religiously rooted concepts anchor my agnosticism and Unitarian Universalism..

Reverence.  Reverence, according to Paul Woodruff, a humanities professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, states that “reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations (and) from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside of our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” Reverence is one of those words that is hard to define but easy to identify. Reverence can generate respect, but it is not respect alone. Reverence certainly contains awe and wonder as well, although it is still something more.

The reverence of my youth was wrapped up with God’s role in the natural world. Every summer, I attended an Episcopal summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan. For a week or two,  this urban child  lived a bit closer to nature, with woods and water, fields and flowers surrounding me. The chapel we used for services, choir practice, and movies held a wall of windows behind the altar, granting a view of nature’s grandeur. At ten or so, I connected the two, awestruck by the nature outside the window framed by the building created for the worship of God. Reverence was born.

It is certainly within the purview of the rational person to be reverent. Reverence requires no god. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of oneself in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound  when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence. The accompanying catch in my throat is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless, certain we’ll figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my partner’s eyes and am reminded that love and joy are not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear,  but rather something fully available even when we hurt and fear the most.

It is reverence I feel when I sit here on Sunday morning in a room of people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather for something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not to believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same. Reverence remains.

Ritual. I was a child drawn to routine, the mundane cousin of ritual. I thrived on a regular bedtime, a predictable breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the rhythm of school. Routine comforted me. Ritual fed me, offering focus and meaning and a sense of purpose. The Catholic church provided plenty of ritual, what between the sign of the cross, the prayers and responses during Mass, and the sacraments.. These were soothing elements of my Catholicism, sometimes the nidus of my reflection of sense of purpose and meaning and sometimes simply mindful and mantra-like. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its most basic level, provided solace during those times where “going through the motions” was all I could manage. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its peak, allowed transcendence of self and ego, raising awareness of truth beyond my mind.

Leaving Catholicism meant leaving those rituals. The hole was vast, with no go-to prayers to quiet the chaos in my head and no communion to remind me that I belonged to a larger body of believers as well as to a god.  I tried prayer beads without the prayers, meditation with mantra, chant, and other rituals that shadowed those that had comforted me in my theistic days. Mindful meditation and mantra in time of stress provided the greatest comfort, allowing an anchor when I needed one most.

As a family, we’d long performed the ritual of grace before dinner, a practice carried from my family of origin to family of choice. While I was theistic, we’d used the same stock prayers of my youth:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blest.


God is great; God is good. Let us thank him for our food.

Seeking anchors for myself and my boys,  I worked to take a ritual that was quickly losing meaning (and seeing hypocritical, given all of our agnostic/atheist views) and form it into something meaningful. We cast aside the theistic prayers, made a chalice with a candle, and bought a book of prayers and words of wisdom from the world’s many traditions. And so we gathered, the three of us, all needing some tethering, each evening to light the chalice and find a reading. I know I found — and find — solace in the ritual, small as it is. Ritual remains.

Soul. Throughout my Christian upbringing, my ideas of what happened after death were fuzzy. When my grandfather died, I can’t recall anyone saying anything about where he went.  Heaven seemed vague and frankly boring. Eternity with God held no allure, and Hell was never a concept that made any sense in the context of a loving God. With no afterlife idea firmly in mind, the soul wasn’t ever about existence beyond the boundaries of my body. It was a piece of language without firm definition until I started thinking about just what I did and didn’t believe.

Soul, or the essence of one’s being as I call it now, informs my relationships with myself and others.  It’s the “me” under me, what’s left when I strip off my ego defenses, upbringing, wants, desires, and all that I’ve always identified as me.  My soul’s been with me since my start and will continue to accompany me on this journey of life.  It’s not the part of me that’s UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, homeschooling mom, divorced, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, or introverted-yet-sociable.  It is what is both before and beyond all that.  It’s the part of me capable of great compassion and love for those my egoic-self finds hard to love and feel compassion for, a list  of people who often includes myself. It’s the part that yearns for peace for all, not because I want it to be so but because it’s what humans should have.  It’s unselfish, kind, patient, undemanding, unassuming, endlessly loving, and deeply in touch with humanity.  It’s me with all the “me” left behind.

Soul, or essence, is not immortal or otherworldly. It can be buried under all the stuff that we identify as self — UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, divorced, homeschooling, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, and introverted-yet-social.   It’s a risky thing to expose. The more I work to let my soul lead, the more tender I become:  the more I risk in this world. It’s a vulnerable way to live, soul exposed, and I know I’m only living there a small fraction of my life, although I’m working on increasing that time.  It’s living with the soul that leaves me most fulfilled as human, most compassionate and loving of life around me.  And that’s worth some pain. Soul — or essence –gains definition.

Jesus. I was raised a Christian. My memories of kindergarten Sunday School include an episode of soggy tights due to hesitancy to use the church restroom and songs about Jesus:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, we are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

The song mystified me, much as heaven did. Jesus, a long-haired white guy, according to the picture on the classroom wall, was dead, but not. Human, but God. He loved me but had never met me. As years of Sunday School passed, I developed more sense of the man Jesus — the compassionate, generally patient, loving, and forgiving man said to be the son of God. And he seemed like a good guy. My Jesuit Catholic experience added a social justice component to the man — Jesus cared for the poor, the lost, the imprisoned, the hungry. He was unimpressed by money and power. He loved people. Yes, he seems like a good guy. And, at that point, filled with faith that this whole triune God thing worked somehow, he was real — human and divine.

When the divinity of Jesus fell away — when my faith left leaving reason as my main way of seeing the world — I started to like Jesus even more. How much of the life of Jesus portrayed in the Christian New Testament is real isn’t important to me. Whether the stories of Jesus’ compassion, acceptance, and activism are created to make a historical figure more appealing or to simply spread a way of thinking is immaterial to me. I like the guy. He’s a fine role model for how to move in the world and human enough to relate to (Recall the tantrum in the temple when he turned over the tables of the sellers and money changers? A man who struggles with anger and disappointment. I can relate to that.). He loved deeply. He acted boldly. Myth or man, the ideals professed in the Gospels carry with me today. If we lived in a world where those values were practiced, I can only imagine the difference in the lives of all of us.  Jesus man or myth, remains.

Jesus. Soul or essence. Ritual.  Reverence. I walk with these today. These are the remnants of the religions of my first (almost) four decades. I have followed in my parents’ footsteps, choosing a path that speaks to the truth to me at the time, changing paths when needed. I’ve come to forks in the path, wandered down one for a bit, then turned back.  I’ve stood at forks and looked backward and from side to side, awaiting the inspiration or courage to choose a way. As I’ve walked, I’ve picked up God and love and compassion. Justice and peace. Jesus and awe and reverence. Hope and humility. Divinity and everlasting life. Rules and prohibition. Joy and community. Requirements and reconciliation.

But at my last fork, I stared long and hard into the unknown. I set down prayer and God and promises of everlasting life. I set down rules more complicated than Jesus’ exhortation to love one another. I set down restrictions on gender in religion. And I took my first step on the wide path that is Unitarian Universalism, where I was free to carry what I chose to carry.  I remain informed by the religions of my youth as I  step forward with what remains: reverence, ritual, compassion, community, love, justice, equity, soul, Jesus (and a host of others), reason, and free thought. It is these I carry as I walk down this path and wander toward the next inevitable fork in the road.  When I get there, I’ll stop and again set down what no longer serves me, consider what still does, and take the next step.

Through a Glass Darkly

DSCN0268For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (Corinthians 13:13)

I once felt certain that God existed, understanding that God’s love for me and for all humanity. I knew God knew me, with no doubt and no questioning. At 22, during Holy Week, I visited my parents, fiance in tow. I was a practicing, believing Catholic preparing to marry a man baptized something but practicing nothing and questioning little. Before attending an Easter service at my parents’ church, he told me that he didn’t believe that Jesus really rose from the dead or that Jesus was God. I sat through that Easter service throat tight with anxiety. How could he not believe that somehow it all worked? I was shaken more by the latter thought than the former, having had enough Biblical studies in my Jesuit university education to appreciate the possibilities of what resurrection could mean. But I was shaken. I wondered how this could work, with my immersion into the truth I found in the story of Jesus and his, well, doubt. We married, acquiescing to the other’s beliefs while each rarely examining our own closely.

I was fairly Catholic (at least in the 1970s/80s Jesuit-educated, social action, liberation theology sense of the word) and most definitively Christian. God the Father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit, the holy trinity, made as much sense to me as evolution and English grammar did. Prayer was what one did when stressed, worried, thankful, concerned, or just aware of the presence of God. The Bible was story and history with relevant messages. The Eucharist was Jesus (flesh image suspended — transubstantiation was a reach even at my most Catholic points, which were several years earlier). Years later, I would baptize my children and watch my then-husband convert to Catholicism, in hopes of finding truth and meaning.

Perhaps one of the greatest pulls to God was God’s perfection.  God offered it all. Perfect love. Perfect patience. Perfect kindness, joy, compassion. Deeply aware of my imperfection and of the world’s perfection, God seemed to be the antidote to the pain of day-to-day life. Even if the closest I could get to perfection was spiritually hanging with the perfect, hoping for brief tastes of divine goodness, at least there was a paradigm of what could be. And when I failed, there was perfect forgiveness and understanding.

And then, in a paradoxical reversal the Corinthians verse, the glass gradually darkened. Life got hard. And what helped me through the hard was not prayer, faith, or divine grace, but rather logical thought, good friends, and hard work. Not that it was that simple. I’ve recounted my movement from Catholic to Episcopal to agnostic-leaning-atheist in previous posts (Notes from a Once Catholic and Prayer Problems), but in short, the possibility of perfection in the form of God dropped away, with the rest following. It was a painful, sad, and rather slow process, and thus far, only moving in one direction.

I doubt there is a way back. I’m not saying I want one, although sometimes I miss the simplicity and comfort of trusting in an omniscient, omnipotent God who loves me when I can’t stand myself. While I’ve lost the concept of a perfect God and instead rely on the immense workings of the universe and its physical laws revealed through observation, experimentation, and more observation, I’ve not lost a my yearning for losing myself in something other than today and all its drama and trauma. The soundtrack in my mind and on my iPod contains some frankly religious tunes which get significant play time when needed. Yes, I appreciate the irony of an agnostic finding comfort in songs about the divine at times of stress and sadness, but I’ve decided not to question the pattern. For some, I substitute words, using love for Lord. (I accidentally did this with one song a good month, until I noticed the name of the song on my car’s display panel. Now I just sing louder, substitution intact.) For others, I find myself moved despite lyrics that no longer resonate with my world view.

In ways I miss believing. I’ve mused in a rather academic way about whether I could go back, but that glass continues to darken. I can’t see the perfection I once saw, and frankly, I don’t want to. Life is complicated and imperfect. It’s messy and sometimes painful and unpleasant. It’s also sometimes joyful and simple and refreshing. And often it just is what it is. That’s all fine.

Overall, I prefer my way of being in life now. I look to my experience for solutions to problems, seeking out the wisdom of others as well, but searching my heart and ability to reason and learn first. I lean on people who lean back on me, experiencing the balance of humans in relationship, never perfect but certainly reciprocal, at least in the long view. I can’t make God work in my head or heart, or even what I still call my soul, and even my leanings toward considering a vague divine force larger than ourselves is challenging these days. I do believe in the tender strength of love, the power of humanity, the wisdom science, and the healing balm of time. And sometimes I still miss the easy God of my youth and young adulthood.

But the glass is dark, at least the one behind me. What is in front of me may be full of challenge and contradiction, but it is clear. And I am face to face with what reality means to me, knowing that without a belief in God, I am still whole and that somehow, the universe is perfect as it is.



Notes from a Once Catholic

I’ve written about having been Catholic. I’ve written a touch about being Methodist and Episcopal and much more about being UU. I’ve written about agnosticism and atheism as well, in both broad strokes and brief bites. What I’ve not said much about is the leaving of the faith that was with me in some form from ages 5 to 35. And I’ve said little with what I retain from that faith that filled almost three-quarters of my life.

It’s not an angry tale. It’s not filled with pain, shame, or fear. I was brought up in what I’d maintain is the best sort of Catholicism at one of the best possible times for a faith with a checkered history. From the mid-seventies through the mid-nineties, my Catholic base was at the University of Detroit. Until my undergraduate and graduate days, noon mass in the St. Ignatius Chapel — located in the Commerce and Finance building — provided my spiritual sustenance. Once ensconced as a student at U of D, I moved to the nighttime student mass. Aside from the latter having a bigger crowd with younger people, there was little different about the experiences. Both services were led by the same Jesuits, men of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola almost 500 years ago. Both boasted  guitar-based music that was singable and relatable.

And, notably, neither were representative of what Catholicism would look like in the suburban parishes my then-husband and I would sample.

We tried. We tried half a dozen parishes over the next ten years, looking for a place that resonated. Since I was the family Catholic, I suppose much of that resonance centered around me, but we left each place in agreement — it just wasn’t working. I don’t imagine it helped that during that same decade, the Catholic church was swinging towards conservatism, perhaps the inevitable backlash against the liberal shift a few decades before. But not having lived the history of a more conservative Catholicism, I’d naively assumed that the accepting, loving place of social justice and radical inclusivity was a mature church — one that would never, in my mind, move backwards.

We baptized two children in two different parishes that felt entirely alike. There was a homogeneity to the Catholic experience of these decades. Families — mostly Caucasian — filled the pews, those with children in any associated Catholic school seemed to belong a bit more than those of us that didn’t. Laity seemed to play little role in the everyday workings of the church and almost none in the Mass. Gone was a message of social justice and inclusivity. Gone were women in the pulpit. And gone was a sense of belonging.

And so it went. Gradually, attending Mass became more habit than heart. I was growing uncomfortable with the Catholic Church as a whole and with the response of our parish and the larger Church to the ever-increasing number of cases of sexual predation within the Church. While that was not why I eventually left, the lack of seriousness which that continuing scandal received left me wondering why I was there. We could have just stopped going, drifting away, and had not one sermon on one Sunday been given, that’s likely what would have happened.

The priest was not our usual priest but rather an occasional giver of sacraments and sermons. He began urging us to think of the wonderful people we knew. The people who gave willingly of their time and talents to friends, family and the world. The people who focused love on their families and lived with integrity and love. All that was fine. And then: “If only they were Catholic.”

That was the end. We never returned. None of our parents were Catholic, at least at that point. Certainly they were fine people, devoted to their families, some within other faith traditions and some without any at all. Our friends certainly weren’t all Catholic. And as far as I could see, it didn’t matter. And why should it? Why should having selected (or having been born into) a particular faith tradition make you better than those from another tradition? The sermon wasn’t why we left the institution, but it was the gust that took me out of an institution that, for a decade, had increasingly been a poor fit for me.

It was more than intolerance of difference that was nagging at me. It was more than the minimally acknowledged pedophilia. It was more than the disappointment that the rest of the Catholic church was not what I’d thought of as Catholic — liberal, loving, accepting, and working towards greater inclusivity of women. All that was bothering me, but I was also tugged by the nagging doubt that all the rules and rituals that had attracted me at thirteen were not going to bring me any closer to meaning and truth. Not that they’d been completely meaningless all those years. Comfort came from those, and the sameness of the rites was an anchor when everything else around me moved.

So I left.  I moved to a less-restrictive faith, where I spent a few years allowing myself to sort through questions about prayer and about the nature of God. And I came out quite whole and quite agnostic. But decades of Catholicism left their mark, with the liberal leanings of the Jesuit Catholicism of my youth leading me towards what is inclusive, loving, and open to growth. It is what was planted in my youth, starting at five or six, that led me to the Unitarian Universalist church I cherish today. It is what showed me a faith community could be, illustrating the support, compassion, and quest for meaning and knowledge a spiritual home could provide. Without that upbringing, I’m not sure I’d have bothered to search for church after leaving theist traditions. I’d likely have been happy to stay home in my jammies with a paper and coffee.

I know many previous Catholic who looks back with mostly anger at the church of their youth. Some have been hurt by the church they encountered; others, excluded; still others, just disenchanted. Many remain angry, even years later. While I don’t understand the Catholicism I saw as an adult nor the conservative, myopic, male-centered view from the Vatican that is seeming to wrap itself tightly around the Church of today, I don’t revile it either. Where we’ve been informs where we are, and the person I am today — some of the best parts of who I am today — was forged in the Catholic Church.

On Raising an Atheist (Part I)

My older son’s baptism into the Catholic church.

I’m raising an atheist. I’m also raising an agnostic, although that child has at times declared atheist status as well. I’m also raising two Unitarian Universalists, which as those familiar with that religious tradition is open to believers and non believers alike. That works, since my two kids fit into all three of those categories.

I didn’t intend to raise atheists, agnostics, or UUs. I was a practicing Catholic when my sons were born, meaning my then-husband and I attended Mass almost every week. So we baptized our children in that faith, twice promising to raise them Catholic.

By the time our younger was two, we’d left the church. After two years in an Episcopal church, we’d left that, too. The reasons deserve a post of their own, but for me, doubting played a leading role. A few years later, we’d settled into our current spiritual home, the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington, beliefs in place: two agnostics and one atheist.

My younger son’s declaration of atheism occurred in the car, before we found our UU home. We were listening to NPR, and the story on the news was about religion. Someone asked a question about something, and I launched into a long, discursive answer that must have led to an explanation about theism, atheism, and agnosticism. I pondered the unknowable, explaining my agnosticism. My older, then nine, thought that word described him as well. He’s a thoughtful child, prone to taking the middle road and preferring to withhold judgement until all the data is in. My younger, at five, claimed atheism.  He’s a bastion of certitude on most every issue, rejecting fully or accepting wholeheartedly whatever direction his mental compass indicates. The issue of the divine was no different.

I can’t say I was surprised at their pronouncements. Switching churches and faiths then leaving church entirely was only part of their religious milieu.  The boys grew up in a liberal religious panoply, moving through three faith traditions in their young lives with relatives ranging from non-churchgoers to Reform Judaism to a variety of liberal Christian traditions. Over the previous year, while teaching ancient history to them, I’d taught world religions, delving into the beginnings and beliefs of Hinduism, Christianity Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam . Without thinking about it, I’d emphasized none over any other. I’d illustrated connections and commonalities and pointed out each faith’s take on the Golden Rule.

Yes, we still celebrated Christmas and Easter, with the crèche out for the former and church attended for the latter (at least until we didn’t know where to go). Yes, I read them Bible stories (and then stories from other faiths as well). Yes, we said grace at dinner, although in a rather perfunctory way. But my religious language had shifted over the previous four or five years, subtly, quietly shifted. The internal turmoil I’d faced when leaving Christianity had reverberated throughout my mind and soul, yet the external demonstration of that shift was barely perceptible.

What I retained with that shift, what deepened when I opened myself to the tightrope of doubt, was a sense that compassion, love, and inclusivity were the important foundation of each religious movement. They were what was sacred, inviolate. These central tenets of the religious life were what I taught my young boys to cherish and protect, not the rules, regulations, and texts that accompany them in the world’s religious traditions.

And thus I unwittingly raised an atheist and an agnostic. I didn’t figure all that out on that drive so many years ago. At the time of our discussion, I only marveled that I wasn’t fazed by their choices. Raised theist by parents who remain theists, revoking my theism required some mental gymnastics, a moderate amount of guilt, and eventual acceptance of where I ended up. I think I reached that acceptance that very day in the car, the day my boys defined their stance on the divine. It took another year or so to find a place where our beliefs and unbeliefs were wholly accepted, a place where questioning was the norm and the answers provided were designed to lead to more questions. There we remain, one atheist, two agnostics, and three Unitarian Universalists, bound in community to live lives full of compassion, love, and inclusivity.

Read on! Part II: On Raising an Atheist.

A Fluid Search for Meaning: A Bit of History

Lately I’ve written quite a bit about my religious past and how it informs my spiritual life as a Unitarian Universalist. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of context and timeline of my religious past.

First Methodist Church of Warren

First Methodist Church of Warren

I was born to my pacifist parents during the last months of the 1960s in liberal Madison, Wisconsin.  At that point, my parents’ spiritual home was a Baptist church of which I have no recollection.  By the time I was two, my mother converted to Catholicism:  post-Vatican II, liberal University-associated, 1970s Catholicism.  I remember little about that either, other than being removed by my father while I screamed, “But I want to go to church!”

At age four, we moved to  Warren, MI, and, six months later, to Detroit.  We continued to attend a Methodist church in Warren, and this was where my formal religious education took place through grade six.  Only rarely were children in the sanctuary, and that was fine by me.  Pew time was dull, full of long readings and prayers and incomprehensible sermons.  Sunday School offered more chance to move and chat. Somewhere along the way, my mother found a spiritual home at the University of Detroit’s noontime faith community, where a smallish core of (liberal) Catholics who wanted a say and voice in their Sunday Mass experience gathered.  A few students joined, although most found the 10 pm student mass more to their likings.  The music recalled the folk songs of the prior decade and incorporated the newer, easier to sing music of that era of the Catholic Church.  Children were in the service, as typical of Catholic Masses.

At home, Christianity whispered.  We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each fall, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend.  I don’t recall bedtime prayers, discussion of praying for those in distress or need, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes and intentionally being raised in an integrated city neighborhood . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals, accessible, human clergy.  I saw women take roles in Catholic church that they hadn’t before, and I saw hope that this would spread.  I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of religion or God and with a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose.  Free thinking started early.

University of Wisconsin's St. Paul's Catholic Church

I was born into a church that didn’t baptize babies and grew up in two churches that usually sprinkled newborns.  Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith.  I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life.  They were simply the only points of comparison I had. It was hardly a deep study of theological similarities and differences but more of a question of likes and dislikes.  Catholic school in seventh grade likely swayed me toward that direction.  Ritual played a large role, but being surrounded by friends from Catholic families also likely encouraged me in that direction. Catholicism simply appeared to be the norm.

By thirteen, I was sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.  Aside from special occasions, my religious home was the University of Detroit’s Sunday morning congregation.  Catholic school provided my religious education.  I assiduously avoided classes in church history, sacrament, and Bible, preferring what I saw as the more practical, interesting side of religion:  prayer, morality, death and dying, and marriage classes.  This was the 80s.  Catholicism was, in many settings, a liberal religion.  That’s the only version of Catholic I knew.

Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in the church of my youth, albeit at the 10 pm version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass.  I passed in then out of more active religious phases, but ultimately left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.

Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment.  My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years.  The boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church.  Shifting building failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with it’s patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet.

Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington

What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years could fill a book.  (Being this a short history of my journey to UUism, I’ll reserve those parts for another day.)  Simply, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home.  That held us for a few years, but during that holding time, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought.  Those thoughts led me out of the Christian faith and, eventually, to the Unitarian Universalist church my boys and I attend now.  It’s a home where I can spiritually and intellectually wander while still being embraced by the same loving, accepting community.

My parents have made their own searches over the years.  My father attends the Presbyterian church in his small town because it is the best fit for him.  My mother converted to Reformed Judaism during the time I was in the Episcopal church. Their fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought.

My faith history brings rich writing fodder not because it was painful, punitive, or damaging.  Quite the opposite.  I’m unscathed by my Baptist/Methodist/Catholic/Episcopal background.  Better than that.  That history taught me that belief and faith and far from a static constant and that religious affiliation is not assigned at birth.  It’s a fluid search for meaning, my past informing my present, and my present increasing my appreciation of my past.

Spontaneous Sacrament

A recent post by UU blogger Nagoonberry about water communion led my thoughts down the sacrament path.  I spent over twenty-five years as a practicing Catholic, a member of a faith ritual and sacrament for every occasion.  While I have no desire to return to that faith, I still miss the rites and rituals of the church of most of my youth and young adulthood.

I chose Catholicism at age 12 after years of attending both a Methodist and a Catholic church for years and soon after starting Catholic school.  I can’t recall all the workings of my preadolescent mind that led me to choose that path, but Communion was a large part of the picture.

Communion differs in significance in the various Christian traditions.  For Protestants, it is a remembrance of the Last Supper, of Jesus sharing a meal with his apostles.  For Catholics, it is the partaking in the body and blood of Jesus, through a mysterious process called transubstantiation. It wasn’t that rather grisly theological difference that drew me toward Catholicism.  Instead, it was the ritual and the idea of partaking of the divine.

Catholics rock at ritual.  From baptism to the eucharist to the anointing of the sick, Catholic sacraments take the ordinary events of life and touch them with the sacred. I’ve partaken in five of the seven, four compressed into two years during junior high.  I celebrated baptism, reconciliation, and first communion at 12, with confirmation following the next year.  Marriage by the Jesuit who had administered the first three followed in my mid-twenties, leaving only holy orders and anointing of the sick, which I’ve only observed.

Beyond the seven sacraments, Catholic life is awash with ritual, from dozens of prayers and responses of the Mass to the extraordinary events that fill Holy Days.  While Holy Week, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, was a long haul in the pew, it was a week where life was infused with the sacred.  Every sense participated: from the taste of bread and wine, to the feel of the rough cross on Good Friday; from the scent of incense wafting up the aisle, to the sound of the choir and the sight of candles aglow, reverence and ritual reigned.

I miss it.  I left it for more reasons than fit here, but I miss the ritual.  I’ve heard many an ex-Catholic bemoan the repetition and response of the Catholic Mass, but that’s the part I cherished, the part that nourished my soul.

So here I am, still with my soul but without sacrament.   A brief stint in a small Episcopal church provided that while allowing me time to consider where my heart rested, religiously speaking.  It provided a source of ritual during this time of sorting my heart. Enter the Unitarian Universalist church I now call home.  I vetted three over a series of Easter and Christmas seasons (perhaps the points I most missed ritual), eventually settling on UUCF for an assortment of reasons.  Like most UU communities, it is short on sacrament.  I’ve caught a few quite moving child dedications, but otherwise there is no formal sacramental life of which to speak.  (Coffee hour is NOT a sacrament.)  Rituals are minimal, although services hold to a more Protestant format, with opening words, a chalice lighting, a responsorial opening, readings, and a sermon, interspersed with some hymns and medication time.  Format, however, is not ritual. And water communion (and  Nagoonberry’s description fits my experience of the event at my church) isn’t sacrament.

It’s understandable.  It’s a collection of spiritual seekers and thinkers coming together for as many reasons as there are participants.  With a large percentage of secular humanists, a pack of agnostics, and a minority of theists of sorts, we’d be hard-pressed to find a sacrament we could all agree upon.  And that’s okay.  Unitarian Universalism is religious tradition that welcomes all comers and focuses on how one lives in the world.  Sacrament and ritual work for some and not for others, and most services seem to avoid any that look, well, spiritual.  And that’s not where many UUs are.

Ganesha, the remover of obstacles

But sometimes, my congregation surprises me.  At a service a few years back, our minister, freshly back from a month in India, introduced us to Ganesha, the Hindu deity represented by an elephant riding a mouse, and put his picture on a small table. He explained that upon entering a temple, worshipers would stop at a statue of Ganesha and break a coconut on him, symbolizing the letting go of the mind to better reach the heart or spirit.  The mind is an obstacle to the soul, and Ganesha is seen as the remover of obstacles.  Our minister invited people to come up to whisper an obstacle in their own lives into Ganesha’s ear. To my surprise, dozens of people, adults and children, approached. It was reverent, quiet, and meaningful. It was sacrament, spontaneous sacrament.  I’m not at all certain it would be repeatable, at least in that form, but as sacrament, it spoke to me. Over the years, other spontaneous sacraments have graced Sunday morning, small blocks of time where together where we at least agree to revere the mystery the universe presents.  I’ve no doubt these moments are more sacramental for some than others and even tedious for some, but they feed me.

I guess what I’m seeking is communal quiet, reverential time with a bit of ritual to pause and consider something beyond our little lives.  Not to talk about the issues, debate the situation, or even think.  Just to sit in that great magnitude some call the universe, God, humanity, the sacred, the divine, or even nothing at all.  In my Catholic years, those opportunities clearly presented themselves.  In a crowd of Unitarian Universalists, they’re a bit harder to find.  I’m willing to look and wait, finding spontaneous sacrament where I can.