Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Problem with Labels

Looking over my first full year as a mother, I noticed something about myself.  I'm not as superstitious as I used to be.  Tonight is New Year's Eve, and normally I run around making sure the house is clean, there are no outstanding balances anywhere, no grudges held, everything ready to ring in the new year with no old baggage.  But tonight, I'm not stressing about any of that.  There is nothing magical about tonight's midnight.  It's an arbitrary social convention established to help us divide events in time.  I will not jinx my 2015 if I'm still line drying clothes washed in 2014 (the day before).

Similarly, I've noticed that I'm not as religious as I was when starting the year. I hate to say it (Ok, the old me would hate to say it), but there's a  lot of overlap between what's deemed superstitious and what's considered religious.  Mainly it's a matter of perspective.  And this year, try as I did, I just can't recapture my old sense of religiosity.  My last ditch effort was to convert to Judaism, but then I realized it made no sense to do so if it wasn't because I thought there was more truth in Judaism than there is in Catholicism, where I'm already comfortable at least.  And while the unofficial Quaker in me still hopes to one day find a meeting where I will feel at home, as it stands, all religion seems to be an elaborate system of myth, legend, superstition, brainwashing, and power trips.  On one hand, these are meant to encourage the masses to follow some level of ethical living.  On the other hand, they mask the truth and beauty and genius of God that is buried deep underneath all the excess baggage.

As I've considered my spiritual journey thus far, I've noticed that I give way too much thought to external validation.  I've always been an outsider, so I don't know why I ever thought that I could actually find a religious community where I fit right in, both in terms of practice and belief.  And yet I've tried, and taken way too personally when others take it upon themselves to tell me I'm not "..." enough to really call myself X. 

Well, I've just about had it with trying to please fellow human beings.  Perhaps they actually believe everything the Catholic Church (for instance) teaches, and that's great for them.  But for them to try to tell me that unless I am at least trying to accept the official dogma I'm not "really Catholic", that's just absurd, ignorant, and their problem - not mine!  Being Catholic, heck, being any religion, is merely one aspect of one's culture.  I grew up with Catholic tradition, I went through the external Catholic sacraments of initiation, I choose to worship at a Catholic church (for now), and that's as Catholic as I'm going to be.  So what if the more observant Catholics bemoan my presence?  So what if they try to tell me to "go where I do believe what is being taught"?  Why should I have to leave?  That is only applicable if I'm working within their framework of what is True and holy and valuable. 

I'm not purposefully going to go out of my way to disrespect any religious sentiment (so long as it doesn't fly directly in the face of my values, which sadly some religious teachings do).  But I'm not going to be pushed out and treated like a pariah for being a free thinker. 

My problem all along, of course, has been that I wanted to belong.  And when I couldn't conform my own mind in order to belong, I set out to try to find those who already agreed with me so we could belong together.  Now that I'm finding that hard to find, I may need to reassess this need altogether.  Why do I need to belong to an official religious community?  Why must there be a commonly understood label for my spiritual experience?  Why must I be like everybody else?

Politically speaking, I'm an Independent.  I do not vote based on a candidate's party affiliation because individuals vary too much.  What a party may typically stand for doesn't necessarily mean each individual candidate will uphold that ideal.  And what if - hold onto your hats - there are things that each party stands for that I value?  In other words, I may not be a fan of big government, but I believe in helping the poor even at the expense of the filthy rich.  Or I may not agree with abortion on demand, but I do think gay couples have a right to marry.  If I officially say "I am a Republican" or "I am a Democrat", this automatically conjures up all the affiliated stances on various issues, regardless of my actual opinion on each.

Similarly, I've found the trouble with religion.  If I officially say "I am Catholic", the assumption (perhaps even rightly so) would be that I don't believe in using birth control, IVF, gay marriage, and that I pray to different saints based on my needs at the moment.  The holier-than-thou would say that if I disagree with them, then I have no right to call myself Catholic.  But the better question is - why do I want to?  Just to have a label to fall back on?  If the Catholics don't want me, why do I keep trying to justify why I should be allowed to keep calling myself Catholic even though I disagree with several key Catholic social teachings and, what's even more troubling, the major basic tenets of Christian faith.  They are right.  Religiously speaking, I'm no more Catholic than a Quaker or Buddhist is Catholic.

In a way, my Catholicism perhaps is similar to my Polishness.  I still have fond memories of living in Poland.  I still hold to some Polish traditions that are dear to me.  I still speak the language.  But just how Polish am I, really?  I'm not up to par on the latest Polish news, nor do I even espouse to some popular Polish outlooks on life anymore.  I haven't exactly stopped being Polish.  It's just that my Polish identity has faded over the years.  It won't ever totally disappear, and I'm glad for that, but I'll never resettle in Poland again and feel at ease living and working there.  I guess that's the same with my Catholicism, too.

And even my Americanness hasn't exactly simply taken the place of what my Polishness used to be.  I'm glad to be an American because of various reasons, but not because I fully agree with everything "America stands for".  Materialism, keeping up with the Joneses, the whole Savior-complex when it comes to interfering in world events.... I could do without those.  And perhaps my pro-immigration and universal healthcare attitude is enough to make certain Americans tell me to "go back to where I came from", or otherwise that I'm not "American enough".  If I disagree with every private citizen being allowed to carry a weapon, I must not be American.  It doesn't matter that I served in the US Army while some of these gun-happy "patriots" didn't.

If I keep letting people tell me what I can and cannot call myself, I'll no longer be Catholic, American, or a slew of other labels that perhaps don't fit me to a T.  (Feminist?  Not if I'm pro-life.  Mother?  Only if genetically related to my offspring.)

So I'm going to try something new in the New Year.  I'm going to use labels if doing so helps me, and I'm not going to worry if anyone disagrees with my use of the label.  Ideally, I'm going to try try TRY to live label-free.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Swapping Religions

As I was afraid, I may have jumped the gun on the whole potential-Jewish-convert idea.  But it's a thought process, and as long as I'm headed in the right direction, it doesn't matter where I thought I was going.

On a daily basis, for several weeks, Judaism and a Jewish life were at the forefront of my mind.  I discussed the possibility of a family conversion with Alex, who said both, that he was uncomfortable with the idea of converting but was open to learning, and that he is who he is today because he seeks to please me.... He probably knows by now that usually I just need to be able to hear my thoughts out loud, try ideas on as if they were decisions, and then sleep on the result.

Over the past few weeks of discernment, I've realized several things.  I need a label to give myself a spiritual/religious identity.  I thrive on compartmentalizing things; that's how I make sense of the world.  All the more when it comes to answering a question like "who am I".  Up until now, I've struggled with my lifelong identity as a Catholic.  I've given it adjectives (cultural? Christian?).  I've considered alternatives that don't stray too far from the Catholic home-base (Orthodox? Protestant?). No matter what I've tried, I've felt that I'm trying too hard and my religious identity should not be this difficult. That's why I thought a conversion to Reform Judaism would provide me with an official label/category that accurately reflected my spiritually liberal views.

Also, I've realized that I want a spiritual community of like-minded individuals to validate my own spiritual beliefs and values.  I wish this weren't the case.  I feel downright moronic to have admitted this, but if I'm going to move forward on this journey, I need to know exactly where I am, not where I think I should be or where I hope to be.  So, the community at our Catholic church doesn't quite fit the bill.  I recently went through a small-group series at the church where I so wanted to fit in.  I wanted to recapture my faith.  Yet by the end of the series, I knew I was a Catholic in name only, by virtue of my upbringing, nationality, habit, comfort level, but not faith.  I couldn't openly share my views on things that the Magisterium officially teaches against.  I mean, I COULD, but this would create an uncomfortable situation of others seeking to revert me back to the fold, convince me I'm wrong, pray for my salvation even (not so much in the Catholic tradition, which I think is why I've stuck around for so long.)  Again, belonging to a synagogue where the focus is not on belief, but where I know everyone most likely at least believes in a personal God, would allow me the freedom to express my thoughts and opinions without risking shunning.

Finally, I wanted a set of practices that would weave my faith into my daily life.  I used to enjoy the rituals of Catholicism when I was oblivious to what they stood for, even more when I believed what they stood for.  But once I began to be uncomfortable with worshiping the alleged incarnation of the Almighty instead of worshiping God directly through no intermediary, I could no longer in good conscience perform rituals meant to align me with a specific member of the Trinity, which 99% of the time was NOT the Father (the Creator, Source, Spirit).  I felt empty when considering non-ritualistic denominations, like Unitarian Universalism.  But if I'm being honest, the specific details that enriched my spiritual and religious life in the past - stained glass windows, beautiful artwork and statues, candles, silence in the sanctuary, timeless and uplifting music - have long left most Catholic churches anyway.  These are not what makes a Catholic church.  These are details, and many would argue insignificant at that.  Yet to me, they are not insignificant.  They are the stepping stones my soul would use to reach up to God.

As it turns out, I've been looking for something that doesn't exist.  I've been looking for what is perfection to my particular sentiments and needs, and organized religion can't possibly please everyone.  (Of course, that's not its point, either.)  But there was one more consideration that was giving me a sense of urgency about figuring out who I am spiritually once and for all:  my daughter Maya.  I don't want to pass on to her this spiritual uncertainty.  I want to raise her with a clear notion of God's presence in her life.

I don't know how exactly it happened, but yesterday it just dawned on me to reword my hopes for Maya's (and my) spirituality.  I had to peel back the last layer to get to the root of what I believe and start from that central point, not by negating where I happen to be right now.

I believe there is a God, a God who cares about me and whom I will join for all eternity after this life. I believe that the details cannot be known this side of heaven, yet it is precisely the details that every organized religion seems to try to nail down and pass on to its adherents as truth.  The truth is that God cannot be limited by any one religion.  The truth is that God cannot be limited by words, descriptions, explanations.  The truth is that God can only truly be known through direct experience.

So, if that's my understanding of God, and this is what I hope to teach Maya, does it really make sense for me to try to convert the family from any one particular religion to another? I've been looking for a one-size-fits-all religion that will fulfill all three of my needs - an officially recognized religious label in a community setting where my beliefs and values are reinforced and expressed in rituals and practices that can be incorporated into daily life, and this package deal is what I've wanted to pass on to my daughter.  Realizing that I don't believe any one religion is "true", it became pointless to convert from one to the other.  If we think of a pyramid divided into several levels, with the bottom level representing official organized religions, the middle level representing more general dogmas and creeds not necessarily tied to a single religion, and the very tip representing the actual truth and union with God, then I've been headed in the wrong direction - horizontally instead of vertically.

By the grace of God, it was this realization that made me realize that the best way to teach Maya what I believe about God - that He is not limited to a single religion - is actually to expose her to many different religions and NOT to merely pretend we "belong" to one interpretation but not another one. Granted, this immediately presents an obstacle to the first need I have - a label for that part of me that is religious.  There actually are a few labels I've considered before that came up, and some new ones I recently read about.  The idea is, if someone asks "what religion are you?" they're just looking for a label.  I can say "Spiritually Independent" (because indeed, my beliefs are independent from any organized religion), or "Seeker" (because indeed, I'm seeking God, and as I just realized, not religion), or "Ethical Monotheist" (something Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all purport to be at their core but sadly often fall very short in practice).  But considering actually identifying with any of these labels to the exclusion of a better recognized religious category seems cumbersome.  In a real life conversation, my interlocutor would either have no idea what I'm talking about and I'd have to explain, or, as with "Seeker", the assumption may be made that I'm sort of "in between religions" and open to considering theirs.  Sometimes, in life, a quick label that doesn't beg any further questions is needed.

And lo and behold, that's when it occurred to me that God has been drawing me to Himself all along (as if there was ever any doubt) by bringing me back around for the third (?!) time to Quakerism.

I've long held that I am a Quaker at heart.  My attendance at Quaker meeting-houses has been sporadic at best, so I've never even attained the status of ongoing attender, much less come to a place where I might request that a clearance committee consider making me "official".  The freedom of belief that nonetheless remains based on the teachings of Jesus - something I'm familiar and comfortable with - does beat out the freedom of belief available in Reform Judaism, since Jesus would pretty much have to become irrelevant all together.  I've heard it said that Jesus is to Judaism what Mohammad is to Christianity.  Perhaps he's fine as a teacher for those who follow him, but he's outside the scope of our world view.

For a long time, whenever I looked outside of Christianity for a potential spiritual home, I didn't feel right leaving Jesus behind.  Not because I believe that he is God, but because I'm familiar with the wording of his teachings.  I know that many of his lessons can be found in the teachings of other sages, those that came before him and those that followed him.  But I cannot pretend that my culture doesn't in part make me who I am, and my culture happened to include the particular teachings of Jesus.  So I never really liked the idea of leaving Jesus behind, but I felt I was between a rock and a hard place.  It seemed that I could either have Jesus as God or not at all.  Most recently, it became apparent to me that if indeed I had to choose, I couldn't continue to worship anyone but HaShem the Almighty.  Every time I thought of praising Jesus, I thought of the Jewish and Muslim accusation of idolatry.  I couldn't, in good conscience, continue to divert my worship from Allah the Creator.

But going back to Quakerism, I was reminded that I actually did have another option.  I could join a group of people who speak of listening to the Christ Within, a group of people who believe as I do that Jesus can teach us how to live right by God, without any particular creed or dogma about the theological details.

In Quakerism, I can have the label I desire, the community of like-minded people, and some tradition (mainly in the way things are worded, which is cool because as a linguist, I like words!).  But what about my stained glass and candles?  And what about not being able to have Alex worship with me because the silent worship leads to his snoring (ahem)?

Well, having come to the realization that what I actually believe and what I actually want to teach Maya is that it doesn't matter to God where or how we worship Him, so long as we serve Him by doing His will, it no longer became necessary to have a "family religion".  I could fulfill all of my spiritual needs so long as I quit fixating on trying to stuff them all into a single religious prepackaged box.

So how do I envision our family spiritual life now?

For starters, I'm going to have to make a better effort at finding a meeting house where I can feel at home.  I may have to drive a bit farther than I'd like to do that, but something's got to give.  Since Alex and I have not both been able to be attentive at Mass since Maya started walking, we've toyed with the idea of Alex going to a different Mass, my himself, and then watching Maya while I attend another Mass.  Well, this phase will end once Maya is old enough to sit somewhat still and pay attention to what's going on.  At that point, we can go back to attending Mass together as a family. Hopefully by then we'll find a church whose beauty is inspiring enough, whose music is uplifting enough, whose homilies are engaging enough, where I can still get some of my spiritual needs met there (while of course simply ignoring those aspects that I find questionable, objectionable, or unnecessary). In the meantime, I'll watch Maya while Alex attends Mass, and he'll watch her while I attend worship at a meeting house (there are two about 12 miles away that I want to check out).

That takes care of the weekly corporal worship aspect of our family's spiritual life.  But there's more.  Once I'm a full-fledged member of a meeting house, I'll feel a lot more comfortable participating with the Catholic community, since I'll be able to voice disagreement on theological issues without causing concern as a "lapsed Catholic".  Instead, I'll simply be a Quaker whose views differ from those of Catholics  In the meantime.  I'll need to become an integral part of my meeting-house and make friends there.  Not only will we be able to participate in each other's primary places of worship's activities, but Maya will also be able to benefit from the children's programs at both.

Furthermore, we'll periodically visit other places of worship and incorporate learning about other faiths into our homeschool curriculum.  As for Maya's religious identity, she can either be both Catholic and Quaker (at least the Quakers won't mind), or we can say that she is too young to have a religious identity of her own, and that she will decide when she's old enough.

With this arrangement, we can continue to celebrate Christmas and Easter and focus on our understanding of these holidays.  The same goes for religious art around the house, and the wording of our prayers.

Thank you, Lord, for opening my eyes to the possibility of serving You if only I think outside the box of a single family religion.  Amen.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Seriously. Jewish?

I hesitate to write this post, because I do not know where the future may lead, and for some reason I worry that I may be made to feel silly for every feeling the way I do currently.  Yet that's the worst that may happen.  On the flip side, if the future indeed leads to where I'm headed right now, it may prove useful to look back and see how it all began.

There really are many starting points on my spiritual journey.  I've discussed this elsewhere as well. I grew up in a culturally Catholic household with an equal dose of pagan influences and Church attendance/various Christianity-related traditions, something I actually was not aware of until I became more and more spiritual and religious and found resistance from my family.  The horoscope and astrology in general were discussed as fact for as long as I can remember. It coexisted with regular Mass attendance, catechism classes, and home celebrations of holidays found on the liturgical calendar.  What was not present, which finally tipped me off as to the lack of actual religious Catholic influence in my family, was that there was no discussion of Christian beliefs aside from the very vague existence of God and going to heaven after we die.  There was likewise no family prayer, not even at mealtimes.  Being Catholic was a fraction of our cultural identity, something we fit in between Polish sentiments, like the importance of the Polish language, agreement about the deliciousness of Polish foods, and a common history of persecution from all sides over the years.

It wasn't until many years after immigrating to the United States that my idea of what it meant to be Catholic was contradicted by what my family considered "Catholic enough".  My senior year of high school, I felt a desire to draw closer to God.  The only way I knew how to do so was to consider a religious vocation.  I wanted to become a nun, and spend my days in prayer, study, and simple jobs around the convent.  I never had the chance to actually discern this vocation, because I was promptly discouraged by my family.  The idea of taking on such a lifestyle was akin to sadness in their eyes.  They couldn't imagine that I might actually be fulfilled by a life of simplicity. Lacking any seriously religious adult role models in my life, I followed the advice of my family and gave up the idea of a religious life before it ever had a chance to germinate in my mind any further.

Some years later, after my journey took me out of the Church and to various denominations and non-Christian world views, I came across another road block from my family.  I had come to feel God's presence envelope me and invite me into a personal relationship with Him.  Since previously I thought the only way to have a relationship with God was through the consecrated life, and since that idea was quickly squashed, I hadn't pursued that relationship in any other way because I didn't know another way existed.  And then, through years of exposure to Protestant Christians, I finally started to consider a life lived for God without the Catholic church.  For a brief while, I was excited about my born-again faith and tried to share my excitement with my mom.  In spite of what I thought were compelling arguments, she responded with "that's nice, but I'm still Catholic".

Then I tried to bring that fire I had for living for God into the Catholic sphere. I delved into Catholic history and theology and realized for the first time that what I was taught as a child was not the official, religious, Catholicism meant to bring me closer to God, but rather a mere cultural Catholicism.  As it would turn out, in spite of both of us "being Catholic", my religious reasons and my family's cultural reasons put us at odds with each other; we might as well have been of different religions.  My attempts at modest dress were ridiculed.  My frequent activity at church functions was tolerated at best.  I was keenly aware of my inability to say grace before meals in the presence of my family without it eliciting some sort of reaction - a raised eyebrow, a tongue-in-cheek joke, a sigh, or a discussion afterwards pointing out my lack of holiness in some area of my life.  Any public display of my religious sentiments was a threat - presumably - to my less religious relatives.  I was seen as acting holier-than-thou.  My religious behavior was seen as unnecessary.  Again, none of my relatives considered that perhaps this is just something that helps me live a more fulfilling life.

And so, with no support from my family to be religious, I found myself on my own as I searched for religious truth.  Thankfully, God sent my husband Alex into my life early on in my adult life.  He has always been open minded, and with time became religious as well.  Let me clarify that he is religious in an open-minded sort of way.  He is open about his belief in God, yet he does not presume to be certain that there is one religion that holds all truth about God.  That is precisely where I find myself as well.

Yet in spite of my conclusion that no religion can possibly contain everything there is to know about God, I still long to belong to a religion I can live out with integrity and joy.  It is not enough for me to simply be aware of my convictions without a larger body of believers reaffirming those convictions for me.  It is no longer appropriate for me to worship at a Catholic church and simply tune out the parts of the liturgy that do not resonate with me.  In fact, I can no longer, in good conscience, continue to associate myself with a Christian identity of any sort.

I love the teachings of Jesus, and for a long time I couldn't imagine abandoning his influence in my spiritual life.  Yet I see my relationship with Jesus akin to my relationship to the late Polish Pope.  I remember vividly keeping vigil when St. John Paul II's last days were being televised.  I mourned my fellow countryman and namesake as if I knew him personally.  Yet shortly after he died, I realized that since a Pole was no longer at the head of "my" church, I was relieved of my obligation to remain Catholic.  Similarly, the more I've studied about religion, the Bible, and Jesus, the more I've felt that I've been fed an image of Jesus that does not belong to the actual Yeshua who walked this earth 2,000 years ago.  I've been guilt tripped into believing without question.  I was taught that my shortcomings in this life (my "sins") literally have a supra-temporal affect on Jesus; every time I "sin" (as defined by Christian authorities), I crucify Jesus!  Can you imagine?!  How does one get away from that level of brain-washing intact?

At any rate, with my daughter Maya having recently turned one year old (!), the dry spell of my spiritually journey has also turned from a very short lived but intense deepening of Christian Catholic faith to a months-long dark night of the soul, followed in recent months by a reemergence of a desire to reconnect to a spiritual community.  Except that I've come out the other end of this past year with an itch that cannot be left unscratched; I simply do not believe that God is trinitarian.  I do not believe that Jesus meant to start a new religion.  I do not believe that the holy spirit of God is its own person.  I have tried to believe what would make my life the easiest.  Staying Catholic would be the easiest.  But how can a religion be based on a mandate of belief?!  We either believe something is true or we don't.  We cannot help what we believe.  That's like saying we must find someone attractive.  Ludicrous! We are either attracted to someone or we aren't.  There's no logical explanation for it.  Same with religion. So I have to opt out.

I have tried to continue with my Catholic religion on the surface - attendance at mass, Catholic prayers and practice... but I am not Catholic at heart any longer.  My heart is bursting with a desire to know God on a level that is not hindered by a sense of loyalty, or guilt, or mere convenience.  The Christian programming I have received over the years - while perhaps well-meaning - has left me with a conundrum similar to the one I faced when my early desire to take vows of religious life were halted.  I have been unable to get past those aspects of the Catholic Christian faith that I simple cannot accept.  The result has been a stagnant personal life of the spirit.  If I can't, in good conscience, tap into Christian prayers and practices in order to build my relationship with God, that leaves me high and dry.  I have no framework to work with.

I was so excited about the whole Spiritually Independent notion that I wrote about previously.  But once I wrote about it, I realized that it didn't resonate with me.  It felt fake.  Not having a community to share a spirituality with felt as though it wasn't real.  Not having a history or tradition to link my spiritual practice with previous generations felt forced.  These are the sort of things that the Catholic church provided that kept me around for so long.... until finally my conscience could no longer play along.

I believe in one God, indivisible, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient.  I believe God created me - and all of creation - in love.  I believe that God desires for me to draw closer to Him, to know Him, and to seek to please Him.  I believe that He realized my limited ability to do so perfectly, and therefore will accept my good intentions and fill in my shortcomings with His grace.  I believe that the only way I can have meaning in my life is if I am rooted in a religion that has a strong history and tradition, a religion that incorporates ritual to help the entire person become in tune with praying to God, a religion that focuses more on what we do know and can do, without getting tripped up about the details of God's nature or how we can never be good enough for God on our own.

If God is my father, how can my good intentions not be good enough for Him?  If my daughter misses the mark and upsets me, but I know she meant well, how can I not instantly forgive her and give her another chance, again and again if need be?  I don't need the blood of a substitute sacrifice to forgive my own child!

And so it is with this understanding that I slowly turn towards Reform Judaism.  I have high hopes for this new leg of my journey.  In practice, I believe it has many of the aspects of Catholicism that I appreciate - the history, tradition, ritual.  In theology and lived spirituality, I see it close to Quakerism - free to discern where God is leading me and open to His spirit to have a unique road for me to travel. (I want to quickly note that while I felt drawn to Quakerism for a long time, a Quaker once made a negative comment about Catholics that actually explains precisely why I couldn't officially take on the full Quaker identity.  He said that "some people [referring to Catholics] feel the need to light candles".  Indeed - I need that ritual, which Quakerism lacks.)

So, practically speaking, what is my next step?  Well, I have been open and honest with Alex about how I am feeling, because I know that my decisions will involve the entire family.  We want to raise Maya with a strong faith in God, and we need to be on the same page regarding what context that will take place in.  Alex seems open to learning about Judaism with no strings attached, and I couldn't ask for any more from him at this point.  We will be attending our first Shabbat service in a couple of weeks at a Reform Temple.  I imagine that actually coming in contact with other Jews on their own turf and seeing first hand how they worship will either entice me to continue, or stop me dead in my tracks.  I pray to God that this will not turn into another dead end.  I need to be settled spiritually by the time Maya is ready to start asking questions about God.

(I should note that as I read about Jewish practice, I am slooooooowly hoping to start incorporating some of these into our life.  For several days now I've recited the Shema prayer in Hebrew twice daily.  I've been trying to wrap my head around the wealth of grace prayers and at least say the Baruch "call to prayer" before eating.  I'm learning to resist the automatic habit of crossing myself at the start and end of prayers.  And while my participation at Mass has been distracted anyway since Alex and I take turns watching Maya and not really being able to pay full attention, there are two aspects of Mass that I need to eliminate right away if I am to truly discern Judaism: reception of Communion and recitation of the Nicene Creed.  [Since weekly attendance at some sort of place of worship is important to me, until we establish a presence at a shul (syagogue), we need to stick with Mass attendance.] I've toyed with both of these ideas before, and ended up continuing with my own understanding.  But now that I want to give Judaism a try, I need to focus my attention on what the Torah teaches, and not what the Church of Karolina teaches.)

Have I mentioned that I long to celebrate a true Shabbat?  With the candle lighting, blessing of Maya, grace before and after meal, conscious attention paid to what we do and don't do from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and gathering for corporal worship at shul.  Have I mentioned also that I long to study the Torah?  Something deep inside tells me that there is a hidden jewel inside the Torah, and that I will not be disappointed if I undertake serious study of it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What About Judaism?

I reverted to draft several of my posts from this year that dealt with my spiritual journey.  I felt a bit uneasy about having these personal thoughts in the virtual world.  I felt... embarrassed (?) for not having a firm grasp on my religious or spiritual life as a thirty-something adult.  But upon further reflection, I decided to repblish them.  They are reflections of where I've been on the journey, not a declaration of my final arrival.  Rather, I'm finding that my spiritual journey continues....

It's interesting.  At the completion of the Called and Gifted small groups program I blogged about earlier, I started reading a book on deliverance and was signed up to receive intercessory prayer... a talk during the meetings made Satan a possibility to me.  But I couldn't finish the book.  I found that blaming Satan for my own weakness of character, my own having missed the mark, is a copout, much like turning over my salvation to the sacrificial gift of Jesus on the cross.  Rather than being personally responsible for my own actions, I merely aligned myself with the good or bad powers that be and let them duke it out.  Also, a list of potential activities/experiences in the book that claim to have possibly let the influence of evil into my life included visiting non-Christian sanctuaries and practicing yoga.  Um, ok.  So our very own popes have been guilty of the first infraction due to their attempts at interreligious dialogue, eh?  And I only hear this nonsense about yoga from people who have never tried it for the physical benefits.  Just because it happens to come from a Hindu tradition doesn't mean it's impossible to do certain poses or breathe in a way that is non-Christian!  This sort of narrow-mindedness brought me back to a level of even-headedness.

I swapped the book for another, on forming intentional disciples of Christ.  The first chapter read like a textbook - something I actually found enticing, given my extended academic history.  What I read was the percentages of people converting into and out of Catholicism, and their reasons.  And what resonated with me was that it made no difference in the bigger scheme of things.  I am coming to the end of reading a series of books on mystical experiences in the world's religions.  I read the Bagavad Gita with interest, though it was certainly a foreign concept to understand the different manifestations of "God" in non-Christian language.  I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead.... correction, I read half of it.  The introductory chapters were very insightful.  The actual meat and potatoes were a series of instuctions and descriptions of realities for those transitioning from this life to the next.  It was so cumbersome that I felt I was reading the same thing over and over again.  I read the Tao Te Ching with a lot more excitement, and everything in it resonated with me... everything except the lack of a personal God.  I read half of the Essential Rumi, and even though I enjoyed the imagery in his poetry, to be honest, I got bored.  I stopped without finishing the entire book.  Then I read the Essential Kabbalah, and again, I was fascinated like with the Tao Te Ching.  Only this time, God was there!  I finished the whole book with delight.  I am now on to rereading The Way of a Pilgrim, a book I ready many years ago, for the Christian rendition of mysticism.

But the reason I bring this up is that the timing of these various books, along with the books and talks stemming from the Called and Gifted workshop, slowly etched a solid realization in my heart. Religion does not hold Truth.  Truth cannot be contained in any one religion.  It cannot be contained period.  It can merely be alluded to, but as soon as we begin to describe God and ultimate reality with words, we do God a disservice.  The Essential Kabbalah said as much, too.

On a whim, as I do every now and again, I viewed a few YouTube videos about conversion to Judaism.  I like to hear other people's stories about their spiritual journeys, and I hadn't spent much time with Judaism before.  I became intrigued.  Later that night, I looked up some basic information on Reform Judaism on my smart phone, as I was waiting for Maya to drift off to sleep.  I don't know why I hadn't given Judaism more thought in the past.  I know that I was always attracted to the simplicity of the theology - that the Jewish God was not Trinitarian.  But being opposed to circumcision on ethical grounds (and from an attachment parenting perspective) I have long assumed that Judaism just wasn't going to work for me.  For one, I wanted any potential conversion to be something we could do as a family, and I knew expecting Alex to get cut was not going to fly, not that I even wanted him to.  Plus, if we ever had a son, I wouldn't cut him, so I just couldn't belong to a religion that expected something I considered cruel.

And then I read that Reform Judaism does not require circumcision of its converts.  It's as if the one stumbling block to even looking into the faith has finally been removed for me.  Once I didn't have that consideration blocking me, I was able to read about the other aspects of Reform Judaism that I am finding very enthralling.

Aspects of Judaism in general that I find interesting (even if some are very small):

1. Mezuzah (a tiny scroll found at the front door of a Jewish home).  In movies I've seen Jews touching it as they entered or left and then putting their fingers to their lips.  This always reminded me of the holy water font in Catholic churches, and I long wanted something like this at my front door, some symbol, some way of reminding myself of God's centrality in my life in this way.

2. Shabbat (the Sabbath).  I respect the way Jews truly honor the Lord's Day, while only few Christians do.  I like the idea of setting aside this time for God and family and nothing else.

3. The importance of study.  Studying the Torah is central to Jewish life, at least to Jews who are not mothers to young children!  Given my extended history of study, the idea that this can be a part of my religion is exciting.

4. The centrality of the family.  As much as I respect the Catholic notion of having various vocations, including the religious celibate life and the single lay celibate life, in addition to marriage, family is where the heart is, after all.

5. The undeniable oneness of God.  I simply cannot get this in a Christian denomination.  No matter how the Trinity is explained, it muddles the oneness of G-d for me. Essentially, G-d cannot be explained, and the Trinity is a human attempt at explaining G-d.

Now, specifically within Reform Judaism, I find the following to be further aspects of interest for me:

1. Circumcision for converts is not required.

2. There is no creed that all Jews must adhere to!  There are broad guidelines, but outside of the basic belief in a single God and the Torah being instructive for our moral life, each individual is to discern faith. Judaism is about practice, not belief.  I love this, because one cannot help what one believes.  However, one does have control over what one does!

3. Torah interpretation is left to individual discernment. Which mitzvohs one follows are likewise left up to one's own discernment.  This includes to what degree one keeps kashrut (kosher).

4. Women and men are more equal - both can be rabbis, for instance.

These aren't all inclusive considerations by any means, just based on my introductory understanding of Judaism and Reform Judaism in particular.  Essentially, I wanted the freedom that comes with Protestantism in terms of discernment of how God wants each individual to live their life, expressed most liberally within Quakerism.  Yet I also love the ritual and mystery I grew up with in Catholicism.  At first glance, it seems that Reform Judaism may be able to provide a bit of both.

I found a synagogue nearby and hope to make it to service this Shabbat.  Alex is down with it, so we'll see.  I've been disillusioned with a faith in the past after visiting their communal worship space. But maybe I've grown in my expectations.  Shalom :)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Understanding Each Other

Over the years, Alex and I have greatly benefited from learning about our own and each other's temperaments, love languages, personality styles, etc.  It has helped us to remember that just because I am a certain way, just because I see the world in a particular light, just because I have this or that preference, doesn't mean that everyone does.  With that understanding comes an ongoing attempt to try to cater to the other person, so that our relationship is a give-and-take.  These insights have been so enlightening for us, that we try to share what we have learned with anyone and everyone who will listen.

We've taken personality-type quizzes while in the Army, on spiritual retreats, and through job enrichment workshops. But our passion for understanding each other started when we attended a marriage enrichment retreat.  (However, this does not mean that these insights are somehow limited to only romantic relationships!)

While on our WorldWide Marriage Encounter weekend, we learned that I am a Thinker and Alex is a Catalyst.  (The other two personality styles described were that of Helper and Organizer.) It was eye-opening for me to understand that there is a reason why Alex tends to do or say things to annoy me - this only happens when he's bored and trying to get a reaction just to have some fun with it.  He doesn't mean for it to be disrespectful.  This is actually a useful skill when it comes to getting out of a rut of some kind, be that social or work-related.  Catalysts make things happen.  If nothing is going on, invite a Catalyst, and things will start to happen!  Ever since making this discovery, I no longer let it get to me when he tries to get on my nerves, because now I know that that isn't his intention at all.  In fact, whenever he starts to do something that causes an annoyed reaction in me, I'm now able to step back and call him on it: "you're being a Catalyst".  We have a good laugh about it and a potential argument is dissolved before it begins.  Alex, on the other hand, is able to understand that whatever he asks me, I need to think about it first.  Whatever he wants me to try to do, I'll need to think about it first.  He understands why I am not spontaneous - that would take all the fun out of thinking about it first!

Another thing we learned on our weekend that we had previously read about in a book: There are five love languages that we utilize when considering how we express our love for others, and how we interpret others' love for us.  Gifts, acts of service, quality time, words of affirmation, and physical touch are different ways we can show someone that we care about them.  If two people speak the same love language (so to speak), then their mutual expressions of love are pretty effortless.  Each knows what the other wants because it's what they want, too.  But when they speak different love languages, most people do not consider the fact that just because I like something, someone else may not.  My primary love language is words of affirmation.  I need to hear praise, compliments, encouragement.  I actually need to hear or read these sentiments in words. It is not enough to imply it for me.  I do not feel accepted, appreciated, or loved if these words don't come sincerely and frequently.

Alex, on the other hand, speaks Acts of Service.  He knows he is loved when someone does something for him.  And serving others is how he expresses his care as well.  He will go out of his way if need be to run an errand, do a chore, help in whatever way he can.  This action is how he shows he cares.  The words to him are unnecessary.  Whereas I like to voice my love for him, but never connected mundane tasks like doing the dishes with an expression of my love.  Thanks to this realization about the different love languages, I have started to make a point of doing things I don't like to do but need to be done, because they now carry a special meaning.  They're not just chores anymore, but expressions of my care for Alex.  This knowledge makes the task much more pleasant for me, and Alex gets a steady dose of affirmation that I care about him.  To a lesser degree, we enjoy quality time and physical touch as well, but luckily neither of us is big on gifts as an expression of love. (I say luckily because when one person speaks Gifts and the other does not, a lot of arguments about "wasted" money can ensue. When both or neither speaks Gifts, there isn't this problem.)

Our temperaments are another key to understanding each other.  We read about the four temperaments - Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, and Melancholic - in a book. It was after reading about these four temperaments that I realized I could apply this information to any relationship, not just my marriage.  It was no surprise to me that I am Melancholic - this would follow if I'm a Thinker according to the previous assessment.  Alex is a Sanguine - a friendly, happy-go-lucky life of the party.  Again, makes sense for a Catalyst to always be looking for a good time!  And then I read the section about Cholerics and saw my mother.  Suddenly, I began to understand why we often butted heads.  Apparently, the most difficult temperament for a Melancholic child to have in a parent is Choleric!  I'm overly sensitive - Cholerics are the least sensitive of the bunch.  Therefore, I take every little thing personally and dwell on it (remember, I'm a Thinker! That's what I do - I think, overthink, psychoanalyze every comment, gesture, action.)

One of the latest contributors to our wealth of knowledge about how different personalities can better get along comes from a parenting book: Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka.  I ordered the book when Maya was about 4 months old, suspecting that she may be "spirited", a euphemism that basically means having more challenging behavior.  To my surprise, as I started reading the fascinating descriptions of what a spirited child is like, why, and what strategies can be helpful in working with - rather than against - a spirited child, I started to see myself in the role of spirited child!  No one ever talks about spirited adults, but it makes sense that spirited children grow up to be spirited adults!  So what can be expected of a spirited person? The aspects that apply to me include: a negative first reaction, slow to transition, intense reactions, sensitive, persistent, perceptive, serious and analytical mood.  Two other criteria are common among spirited folks: high energy and irregularity in bodily functions (sleep, hunger, bathroom breaks). Maya seems to fit the description of a spirited child after all.  For instance, we cannot get her on any sort of sleeping schedule. Her bedtime can vary by two or more hours, regardless how we try to finagle her naps. But she warrants her own post!

Let me flesh out how these attributes look in me.  A negative first reaction is pretty self-explanatory. Whenever I am asked to try something new, for instance, my immediate reaction is no.  I often come around to a yes, but for someone who doesn't know this about me they may give up after the first try. Similarly, I'm slow to transition to anything new.  It takes me longer than most people to feel comfortable in any new endeavor. I have strong (intense) reactions to my emotions, both positive and negative.  Some may say that I "overreact" because of this.  (Just ask Alex how I react to something I find very funny!) I'm also sensitive, so I experience my emotions more deeply than many others.  If I'm sad, I'm automatically very sad.  If I'm upset, I'm quite angry. I am persistent when I get fixated on wanting to do something.  This can be good in that it keeps me from quitting too easily.  Then again, it can be bad in that I may come across as stubborn and unyielding. I'm more perceptive than others, too.  I notice things others don't give a second thought to.  I have an eye for grammatical errors (don't call me on any typos here!), I notice sexist language.  I observe subtle facial expressions and intonation in people.  As a whole, I tend to stay serious and analytical, which makes sense if I'm always thinking about what I notice!

Another somewhat less recent addition to our repertoire has been the Called and Gifted workshop and small group discussions that followed.  Alex and I both went through the workshop at our previous church last year, before I was pregnant with Maya.  Then I went through it again this year, and followed up with 7 weeks of small group discussions.  The idea behind the Called and Gifted workshop is that God gives different people different gifts that He intends for us to use in order to share His grace with other.  These are different from talents, which are merely things we are good at. Charisms are skills we are meant to use for the benefit of others.  We can't help but share them, and they're bound to have positive results when used in the correct spirit.  There are many possibilities, some not even included in the inventory of the workshop.  My most likely charisms are writing, teaching, knowledge - all in line with the other assessments that indicate that I'm a melancholic thinker who is perceptive, intense, and sensitive.  Alex, on the other hand, suspects his charisms include service (which makes total sense since his love language is acts of service).

With this background information, in a future post, I will try to delve into some of my other relationships in light of the differences between us.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Worship for Nonreligious Theists

In my last post, I only briefly mentioned the need to worship God.  It may seem obvious to many religious folks that a belief in God necessitates His (Her) worship, but this is not always the case.  Satanists "believe" in God, but they certainly do not worship Him.
Deists believe in a creator God who, after creating the universe, has sat back and let everything run its course without any further involvement from Him.  Deists tend not to speculate on an afterlife, and their moral code is not dictated from the top down, so there is no dogma that ushers them towards any particular form of worship, or any worship at all.

Buddhism, as it turns out, is not exactly atheistic.  The Buddha actually didn't teach anything about God's existence one way or the other.  Rather, he was concerned with the issue of suffering and how we as individuals, through our own agency, can eliminate suffering in our lives.  With the focus being on the nature of self, there wasn't much room left for worship.  That's not to say that there aren't folk understandings of Buddhism where indeed followers worship a god or gods, but this generally seems to be a merging of Buddhism with other faiths.

Which brings me to why I believe that worship ought to have a prominent place in my spiritual life as a Theist.  Perhaps I'm carrying over a bit from Christianity, but I do see God as a parental figure.  Just as we normally assume that our human parents deserve honor (be that because of the Catholic 4th/Protestant 5th Commandment taken from the book of Exodus, or a more secular sense of respect for one's elders), so too does our Heavenly Parent deserve honor for having brought us into being.

So what exactly is worship?  I like this definition: "extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem".   Let's examine this further.  

Respect is "a feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, serious, etc, and should be treated in an appropriate way".  It's the opposite of the common adolescent attitude of "I don't care".  In essence, respect is caring for and about something/someone that one has deemed important enough to be cared for/about. Admiration is synonymous to respect.

Extravagant generally means "more than is usual, necessary, or proper".  Certainly, this is a subjective judgment call. Towards the end of my ESL teaching career, I was also working as an ESL coordinator assistant of sorts.  We frequently had last minute class cancellations, causing undue stress and financial worries to the instructors, who never knew just how much income they could count on.  My last semester working was no exception.  When one of my colleagues lost several of her classes, I immediately offered for her to teach one of the classes that had been assigned to me.  I saw nothing out of the ordinary about it, especially since I had the administrative work to fall back on. Yet my supervisor made a point to praise my decision as "very collegial".  The instructor likewise was quite grateful.  It would seem that my simple act of sharing (think back to Kindergarten!) was seen as extravagant - more than usual or necessary.

Having said that, can one really have "too much" respect for God Almighty?!  I think not, so I'll take it to mean indeed "more than is usual", but certainly not "more than is necessary or proper".

Devotion means a strong love and loyalty and the use on one's time, money, energy, and skills for a particular purpose.  Within the realm of religion, it refers to private acts of worship, those done aside from the "regular corporate worship of a congregation".  So it is the things we do out of our own inclination, regardless if others join us in doing them, that we hope show our respect and admiration for the object of our devotion.

And finally, esteem - respect, affection, high regard.  And so, the object of esteem is simply that to which we direct our devotion, respect, and admiration.

Let us recap.  We have an object of esteem - God.  We hold God in high regard, seriously considering Him important, valuable, good. We dedicate whatever we have - time, effort, money, skill - to express our respect for Him.  And we do so more than we show respect for anything else that we find worthy of our attention.

Now that we have a working definition of what worship ought to look like, the next step will be to itemize possible expressions of worshiping God outside of the traditions of any single religion.  One possibility would be to simply mix and match - utilize the devotions found in various world religions to make up our private spiritual practice.  This in fact is what many Spiritual Independents do. (I should note that my taking on the label of "Theist", or more specifically "nonreligious Catholic Theist" is merely a more specific understanding of the bigger label I had previously taken on, namely that of a Spiritual Independent.)

Another possibility is to look outside of religious traditions all together, into the wider, secular world, and see how else I might worship God.  How do I show respect or admiration for my parents?  For my spouse?  For my daughter?  For my elders?  For morally sound authority figures?  For the planet, even?  What do I do so that not only they know that I admire and respect them, but that others also see this?  How do I spend my time, money, effort, skill?  Again, this is something many Spiritual Independents incorporate into their private spiritual practice.

What comes to mind for me includes attachment parenting, minimalism, environmental stewardship, and inter-cultural open-mindedness. How do I live these expressions such that they are clearly directed towards an appreciation and uplifting of God in my life?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Nonreligious Catholic Theist

A nonreligious Catholic theist?  Accepting that I may be on a lifelong journey of self-discovery when it comes to spiritual identity, perhaps this is the next level of understanding my faith.

What does it mean to be "religious"? One of the definitions given for this term is: "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs." Also, the etymology of the term itself comes from the Latin religare, to bind.

So, to be religious involves an element of binding oneself to the moral code, set of beliefs, and ritual observances of an organized religion and being devoted to God as interpreted by said religion. In other words, groupthink. Therefore, there is a system in place where the religious believer meets God via an agreed upon set of practices, rituals, creeds, and the like.  The religious believer doesn't meet God directly, at least not as a primary expression of her faith.

In contrast, a nonreligious believer does not utilize organized religion's crutches (if you will) in order to reach God.  The nonreligious believer simply allows God's ever-presence to envelope her right where she is, without the need to say or do anything in particular.  The nonreligious believer essentially focuses her attention and awareness on what never changes - God's presence in her everyday life.

Perhaps religion's initial purpose was meant to assist the believer in better reaching God, better experiencing God's presence.  But somewhere down the road, the religion became an idol in itself, rather than a mere finger pointing at the moon (to use a Buddhist reference). Religion, as I have experienced it, has become a hindrance rather than a help to my drawing nearer to God.  

The more I focused on the external practices and articulated creeds of my religion, the farther I felt myself slipping away from God.  I had to decide if my loyalty lies with the human organization of religious practice and dogma, or with the everlasting almighty God.  This is what I mean when I say that I am "nonreligious".

I also say that I am Catholic.  I describe my thoughts on what I mean here. In a nutshell, I view Catholicism as my heritage, and I consider myself Catholic in a similar way as a secular Jew may consider himself a Jew in spite of not practicing or believing. So I am Catholic in the way I am Polish - it's an integral part of my upbringing, and it has shaped the way I see the world.

Finally: theist.  Basically, my study and experience consistently point me in the direction of the irrefutable truth of the existence of a creator-God.  Nature itself is proof of God's intelligence and creativity.  I cannot rationalize the existence of the universe or anything within it without resorting to a primal cause, and that cause I choose to name God. This makes me a Deist/Theist.  

The distinction between the two lies in the nature of God.  If I believed that God simply set the universe in motion and then distanced Himself from it, without any further interest in our lives, that would make me a Deist.  However, my experience points to an involved God, which makes me a Theist. (I should note here that religious folks who believe in one or more gods are likewise Theists.  Christians are theists, as are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others.  They are theists who, in addition to this core belief in the existence of God, also adhere to a religious practice and creed.)

Technically, it should suffice to call myself a Theist.  However, since this term includes organized religious expression, I feel the need to distinguish my beliefs from those of religious theists.  Also, I say "nonreligious Catholic" to distinguish from practicing, believing Catholics who follow the official teachings of the Church.  These Catholics, I am well aware, would question my claim to Catholic identity in the first place.  But I know I have many heritage/cultural Catholics on my side who know exactly what I mean when I say that there is more to Catholic identity than dogma and ritual.  I keep the descriptor Catholic because while I don't believe in the necessity of Catholic ritual, it is often comforting to me, and I do take part regularly in Catholic communal worship.

I have to add here too that I think I see why many Protestants don't consider Catholics Christians.  When I was Christian, I actually tried to convince my Catholic relatives that we are "supposed to be Christians"! I couldn't understand why they claimed the Catholic part of the label without paying any mind to the Christian foundation.  Suffice it to say that I get it now, and I join them in maintaining the Catholic identity in spite of no longer believing in Christianity. (And, to be fair, to the Protestants who would generalize all Catholics based on nonreligious Catholics like me, please don't!  There are many, many Christian Catholics/Catholic Christians who DO believe the Nicene Creed like you do.  Perhaps instead of assuming a Catholic is or isn't Christian, ask?  In my experience, these are two separate markers. They are not mutually exclusive, nor does one necessitate the other.)

One final note on worship.  I mention above that I participate in communal Catholic worship.  I once asked some friends what they considered worship.  My best friend, Rachel (RIP) gave me an answer I didn't understand until now.  She said that to her, worship is the way she lives her life.  Indeed, to me as a Theist, the way I live my life seems to be the best way I can show reverence to the God I claim to believe.  Setting a bit of time away here and there for prayer, singing, scripture reading - these are all good for spiritual development, conscience formation, fellowship, and the like.  But if that is the extent of what I consider "worship", then I am not worshiping God at all.  

Likewise, I think that even if I were to live a moral life but never take the time to acknowledge God in the events of my life, then am I really a Theist?  How would I be any different from an atheist or agnostic, a secularist who leads a perfectly moral life but doesn't believe or dwell in the existence of God?  Therefore, I think worship is a life lived intentionally, focused on the spiritual, in gratitude to God, with our neighbors' well-being in mind. 

Having written this, I now have to embark on living up to the ideals I have set before me.  Living life worshiping God as a Theist, outside of the confines of religion.  Amen.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Once a Catholic... Always a Catholic?

According to the following webpage I found while looking for former Catholics online, I'm still Catholic. Here (, the following precepts state that I am still Catholic:
  1. Attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation
  2. Confession at least once a year
  3. Receive Holy Communion during the Easter Season
  4. Observe the days of fasting and abstinence
  5. Provide for the needs of the Church
  6. Marry according to Church regulations
One thing left unsaid in the above is that the assumption is also that one is baptized and possibly also received into the Church via the sacrament of confirmation.  Both of these also apply to me.

The funny thing is that when I searched for "former Catholics", I found plenty of "former Catholics for Christ", but not so much former Catholic-Christians.  I had expected to find some online gathering of former Catholics who focused not so much on a newly embraced faith or secularism, but rather on how their Catholic heritage continues to shape their lives even after they have left the church.  Something like this exists for former Mormons, which is where I got the idea to do this search.

So it would seem (and I've read this elsewhere as well), once a Catholic, always a Catholic.  Especially for a cradle-Catholic like myself.

Ok, you may ask, but why am I back to writing about am-I-or-am-I-not-Catholic when my last post supposedly announced that I have embraced the label of Spiritual Independent?  Fair question.

This past weekend, I attended a Called and Gifted Workshop at our local Catholic church, something Alex and I went through together last year.  I wanted to get a better understanding of where God wants me, and I was already familiar with this approach and thought it would be fruitful.  Well, other than the part about it being geared towards Catholics, it was.  And in fact I signed up to attend weekly discernment meetings for the next two months.

While at the workshop, I remembered what it was like at our last parish that we had to leave when we moved.  On one hand, I really do think that I am a lone wolf in a lot of areas of my life.  I simply march to the beat of my own drummer.  I'm a nonconformist.  I root for the underdog.  If there's a way for me to do something UNLIKE what everyone else is doing, I'll probably at least consider it.  Yet church membership was something Alex and I shared, and I thought that it kept us close while we were struggling through the worst of our infertility and related problems.

At the same time, we recently decided to stay put in our apartment and focus some more on our finances and getting Alex back to school before we purchased a home, something we assumed would be our next step rather soon.  Therefore, no longer "in transition" as far as our living situation is concerned, I thought we ought to register as parishioners at the church we've been attending and where Alex and now I have some smaller group activity linked to the church.

Interestingly, I thought about how freeing it was to see myself not as a Catholic who didn't believe what I was "supposed to", but as a Spiritual Independent who happened to worship at a Catholic church.  I get the feeling that other Catholics would respect me and my beliefs more if I didn't try to identify myself as Catholic.  Catholics as a whole are known for their religious tolerance, at least as compared to some of the hell-fire Bible-thumping Evangelicals I've encountered.  Catholics don't try to convert people to their brand of Christianity, or Christianity as a whole.  Rather, as the Called and Gifted workshop reiterated for me, we are to be available for the Holy Spirit to work through us.  We are to show God's love to those He puts in our path.  We are to be Christ's hands and feet in the world.  Our job is not to convert.  Conversion is an act of the heart, and only the Holy Spirit can truly convert someone's heart.

But if I claim to be Catholic and then proceed to list all the things I don't believe but "should", I'm looked at as a "bad Catholic".  If I hold those exact same beliefs without calling myself a Catholic, then I'm a "good person" who may not have "the fullness of truth", but is nonetheless loved by God.  Go figure.

So I am hoping to find others who have a Catholic heritage but who have not simply embraced another religion in place of Catholicism.  I guess I hope to find other former Catholics who are now Spiritual Independents. In the meantime, my biggest dilemma with continuing to worship at a Catholic church is the reception of the Eucharist.

On one hand, I don't believe that the wafer and wine magically take on the literal substance of the historic Jesus's flesh and blood.  (I used to believe this.  See here.) On the other hand, I do believe that God is present in Communion .... but I also believe God is present in every other mundane area of life.  I don't think there's something uniquely different about the Eucharist.  I hold no animosity towards those who do, and I certainly intend to continue to be reverent around the tabernacle, altar, monstrance, communion.... after all, they all point to a reality that is absolutely most sacred.

God is present in each of us, and I am mindful of that as I receive Communion.  I'm no better than anyone else in the pews.  What's more, I'm to be strengthened by God's presence in me to do His will in the world.  It's a beautiful metaphor, and I wish that were highlighted as I think it has more power to transform lives than merely saying, abracadabra, Jesus is delicious.

Yes, I know there's the Scripture in John 6 (and elsewhere too) about Jesus commanding us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and how he meant what he said because so few reacted positively to it.  But there's just too much back and forth among various Christian communities about which parts of the Bible (or even just the New Testament) are literal, which are figurative, which are meant to be used as metaphorical parables, which are historical accounts, etc.  It's easy to get lost in the letter of the law according to Jesus, instead of embracing the overall spirit of the law, which Jesus clearly demonstrated by the way he lived his life.  Does it really matter what he did or didn't say?  If we're not following his example, what good is believing his alleged words?

And then there's the question of why I should care what other Catholics, other Christians, or anyone for that matter, thinks about my interior spiritual life.  What I need to focus on is cultivating that inner life so that the fruits can speak for themselves.  That way, my thoughts will no longer matter, because my actions will speak louder than the words of any professed creed.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

How I Came to be Spiritually Independent

I've long appreciated various aspects of different religious traditions.  I guess what I wasn't able to articulate during my early years of intrigue was that I sensed something of the Divine, some spark of Truth, wherever I found people genuinely seeking God.

I grew up Polish Catholic.  We didn't discuss religion in my household, nor did we pray together as a family.  My parents did their religious "duty" by attending weekly Mass and sending me to Catechism class so that I received my Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, First Communion, First Penance, Confirmation). We abstained from meat on the appropriate days, celebrated the various religious season, and... well, that was pretty much it as far as authentic Catholic experience.

My childhood faith was, however, peppered with various other spiritual tinkerings.  We all knew our astrological signs and attributed various character assets and flaws to our signs.  (I took pride in being a Scorpio, so much so that when choosing what to get a tattoo of, I chose a scorpion because "this will never change about me".) Likewise, we followed our horoscope regularly.  There were various folk superstitions that I suppose certain of my relatives didn't know weren't actually part of our Catholic faith.  For instance, to wear or display a cross or crucifix was considered bad luck.  We already each have our own cross to bear, the saying would go, so why voluntarily take on additional crosses?  Eventually, more occult practices such as the reading of palms and tarot cards trickled in.  Some more benign practices, such as reiki, feng shui, and yoga, were also all introduced to me at a relatively young age.

Although we never discussed God's plan for our lives, or other religious subjects, there was a strong certainty of eternal life, and the ability to communicate with loved ones who had gone before us.  Dream interpretation was a common topic of discussion when I was growing up.  It still is, actually.

As I entered pre-adolescence, we immigrated to the United States, and slowly my peers and more trivial concerns (ie. popularity) became more important to me.  However, towards the second half of my high school career, I again became interested in spiritual matters.  Since there was no one in my life who would insist on a specifically Catholic world-view, I was free to look to whatever tradition peaked my interest.

I remember reading a little book about Zen Buddhism, and upon finishing it, literally flinging it across the room.  I was so frustrated that I didn't understand what on earth they were talking about!  I once had a friend over and for some reason felt the need to "enlighten" her with my spiritual eureka:  I placed a doll on the table in front of us, and as we sat opposite each other, I asked her to describe what she saw.  When I described some different features of the doll, I then said the analogy represents the different religious views of God; each sees some aspect of God, but none see the whole.  I borrowed this concept from my readings on Buddhism. (The story of the blind men describing an elephant, to be precise.)  It was the first non-Christian religion I was very intrigued with.

Yet what bothered me about Buddhism was the lack of a personal God.  Recently I read that Gautama Sidhartha (the Buddha) didn't so much deny the existence of God as he diminished God's importance in one's spiritual life.  Rather than spending time on theological debates and worship, the Buddha encouraged his disciples to live a life of discipline in pursuit of enlightenment.  In other words, he wanted us to do the hard work ourselves, rather than depending on a priest to give us a pre-fabricated answer to life's greatest questions.  Now that I'm an adult, this aspect of Buddhism appeals to me.  However, as a primary goal of my spiritual life, I wish to experience the presence of God in my midst. I believe that God is worthy of worship, even if at the same time I know I must put in the time and effort myself to experience His presence.

Of course, this is not an idea unique to Buddhism.  Psalm 46:10 says, "Be still and know that I am God."  1 Kings 19:11-13 describes this very experience that Elijah had on Mount Horeb: "So He said, 'Go forth and stand on the mountain before the Lord.' And behold, the Lord was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him."

There are entire contemplative religious orders devoted to a lifetime of being still in the presence of God, living away from the world even.  Countless saints have described this very experience. St. Therese the Little Flower comes to mind right off the bat.

Still, since it was through Buddhism that I was first exposed to the idea of simply being with God, it is in that light that I envision how I might go about doing that.  The silent waiting worship found among the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) appeals to me for this reason.  So does meditation and yoga.

But I digress.  Returning to my spiritual journey... Also in high school, I felt a very strong desire to dedicate my life to spiritual pursuits, and the only way I knew how was through a vowed religious life.  Yet when I brought this up to my family, they were less than enthused.  To be fair, it must not have been a calling from God if I gave up that easily, but the fact that I even considered becoming a nun is relevant to my ongoing spiritual journey.  I should also point out that the fact that my Catholic relatives discouraged me from deepening my spirituality via consecrated  life ought to illustrate that my upbringing was merely culturally Catholic.

When serving in the Army, I came across a little book that my roommate had about Wicca.  Since I had already been exposed to horoscopes and the occult from my own family, I saw no reason not to inquire further about Neo-Pagan beliefs.  In the spring of 2005, Pope John Paul II passed away, and with him, my sense of loyalty to my heritage faith of Catholicism. And so, in time, I pursued a two-year Pagan solitary practice, complete with a home-made Book of Shadows, where I kept instructions for my Circles (occasions to commune with the Divine during Sabbats [two solstices and two equinoxes] and Esbats [monthly full moons]), a list of prayers I would write, and intentions I'd bring into the sacred space.  I also convened on a few occasions with fellow Pagans, celebrating seasonal festivals.  

What attracted me most to this spiritual path was the Divine Feminine and the integral part the environment played.  Again, we find both of these concepts in my heritage faith as well.  Sophia is the feminine embodiment of God's wisdom, alluded to in various places of the Old and New Testament.  The Madonna, of course, is another powerful female figure in Catholicism.  And St. Francis of Assisi in particular is known for his care and love of all of God's creatures.  Yet, I had to go through Paganism to find a place for both of these expressions in my spirituality.

When Alex and I started our struggle with infertility, I began to distance myself from my Pagan practice.  As much as various religions focus on the importance of family life, it was simply unbearable for me to continue to recharge spiritually in the context of a faith focused on fertility (since female fertility was seen as empowerment rather than a curse or duty, as some other religions view it).  

The next few years are a bit of a haze.  I remember a time, midnight in my kitchen, when I felt enveloped by God's presence, taking me to my knees in tears.  For a time, I thought this was my "born again" experience. Alex and I spent about a year or so church-hopping, spending five months at an Anglican church.  We were foster parents during this time, and I found the Anglican church to be most welcoming, bursting with fellowship and religious education opportunities, not to mention an incredible music ministry.  Worship was very enjoyable for me, yet after some time, I found that I missed the silence I had associated with Eucharistic adoration that Catholics would honor by being reverently quiet before and after Mass.  (To my disappointment, I found that to no longer be the case in Catholic churches in the US.)

Then Alex and I visited several Quaker meetinghouses where I found the silent waiting worship very refreshing.  Unfortunately, it was a bit too relaxing for Alex, who dozed and snored whenever we settled into the silence.  I wanted us to worship as a family, and since in spite of the way that Quaker testimonies of peace, simplicity, equality, integrity, and stewardship resonated with me, I missed hearing Jesus's teachings proclaimed, so I decided to return to the Catholic church.

However, this was not before a particularly sharp though short-lived curiosity into Islam.  Our foster daughter was removed from our home under less than ideal circumstances, which came as a huge shock to me.  By the grace of God, Alex had an opportunity to work abroad for several months, and I decided to take a sabbatical from teaching and join him.  The change in scenery was just what I needed to accept life without a child in my home, after 10 months of hoping we'd be able to adopt our foster daughter.

Initially, I had intended to work on my doctoral dissertation, and I did, but I quickly became disillusioned with what that would entail.  With a heavy heart, after five years of pursuing a PhD, I withdrew from the program.  This inevitably freed up the rest of my time, which I spent researching religion.  I was intrigued by Islam's critiques of Christianity, particularly the Trinity, which I had long struggled to comprehend.  I considered what life as a Muslim would entail.  To be honest, only one thing gave me pause at the time: circumcision.  (This was an immediate turn-off to Judaism as well.) Even though it didn't affect me personally, I was opposed to the practice on principle, and I knew I would never circumcise any sons entrusted to my care.  What helped me further keep from going down that road was Alex, who in no uncertain terms said he would not convert, even though he was likewise attracted to various aspects of the faith.

And so I tried to be a gung-ho Christian for a while longer, but eventually found every church and religion wanting in some way.  I missed the familiarity of Catholic ritual, prayers, and even though I disagreed with many things, at least I knew what the Church taught and why.  I became a revert.  I whole-heartedly embraced the faith of my upbringing with gusto, opening myself up to even the teachings that were long difficult for me to accept.  After reading several books, most notably Scott and Kimberly Hahn's "Rome Sweet Home", which outlined a defense of the typical opposition Protestants have with Catholicism, I was set.  I accepted that it may be difficult to stand up for my faith, even within my own family, but that I was tired of being on the fence, tired of searching.  Essentially, I gave up.  I settled for the religion of familiarity and hoped that belonging to religion, any religion, would feed my soul.

We spent two wonderful years at a Franciscan parish where God's Spirit was clearly moving people both to adult faith formation and social justice action and charity work.  Celebrating Mass became something we authentically looked forward to every week, and we spend most weeks visiting the church multiple times for various activities.  We became involved in numerous pursuits: Green Faith's Environmental Justice Committee, Respect Life Committee, VOICE, the Called and Gifted Workshop... we began to meet the same group of people who, like us, were getting involved outside of the typical "Sunday obligation".  We felt we were living our faith.  We tried multiple times to also provide a support group for fellow infertile/childless Catholics, but surprisingly, not a soul responded to our offers.  

Over the years, I also attended several silent Ignatian retreats through my alma mater, Georgetown University.  When on retreat, I never wanted to come home.  I was reminded of my early years of thinking about the consecrated life.  I felt God's presence everywhere I walked.  It was on these retreats that I delved deep into our childlessness and sought God's will for our lives.  And it was thanks to these retreats that I discerned that indeed, God was leading us to pursue embryo adoption.  Sadly, some of my online Catholic contacts did not sympathize with this leading in my heart.  While the issue remains controversial, opponents adamantly claim that the Church has indeed spoken about the subject and has condemned it.  Yet I couldn't accept that on one hand, we are to believe that human life begins at the moment of conception, yet on the other hand, these particular human pre-embryos are out of luck because of the way they were conceived.  

Thankfully, I found support on my retreats from the Jesuit priests and sister coordinator, which gave me the courage to pursue this leading and eventually welcome our daughter Maya into our family.  Yet what remained a stain on the impression the Church made on me was that there was no way I could please everyone, and that there are Catholics who condemn our decision, who judge us, and who may in turn not embrace our daughter fully.  

Immediately after Maya's birth, I went through a temporary intensification of my faith.  The pain of childbirth brought me closer to Christ's passion.  I felt united to him in meaningful suffering.  I had to face judgment and hurt feelings on the part of my own mother when choosing godparents for Maya, yet I had to stay true to my renewed faith.  I wanted to truly be Catholic, not in name only.  My family were perfectly satisfied calling themselves Catholic without actually taking all of the Church's teachings to heart, replacing them instead with peppering of the occult and personal interpretations.  It was very hard to go against that, but I felt justified in choosing Christ and his church, if that was indeed a choice I was being forced into.

However, our life circumstances changed soon after Maya's baptism at 2 months old.  We sold our house and moved closer to Alex's job, which was across state lines.  I was isolated from family and friends, in an unfamiliar area, with no Catholic church that so much as held a candle to our beloved St. Francis of Assisi parish, and I was going through postpartum anxiety and recovering from an ugly breast infection with complications.  Needless to say, I felt spiritually all alone.  

After several months of a spiritual dry spell, I began to emerge once again.  I realized that my previously held Catholic Christian faith was not really authentic.  It was being sustained by a loving church family, but once we were cut off from that lifeline, I had nothing to keep feeding my desire to believe that the Catholic church indeed held the fullness of truth, as it likes to say about itself.

I desperately tried to find a way I could still refer to myself as Catholic and keep my integrity intact, because truth be told, I disbelieved the very basis of Christian dogma.  I could no longer pretend that I could fake it till I make it, as we used to say in the Army.  When we stood up during Mass to profess our faith by reciting the Nicene Creed, I found myself stopping after asserting the belief in God the Father.  I didn't believe all the details of Jesus's life that purportedly made him God Incarnate. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with the critics of Christianity who point to the Roman Empire and how there were politically powerful influences at play that turned Christianity from a persecuted minority sect into a world religion.  

And when is the last time we focused on the teachings of Jesus?  It seemed to me that mere lipservice was payed to Jesus's teachings, but there was always an excuse for why we couldn't be expected to truly live his way, his truth, his life.  Instead, we were to ride straight into heaven on the coattails of his sacrifice on the cross.  Ok, that was more the Protestant view.  The Catholic view focused on the sacraments as the mile markers of our progress to heaven.  The more I thought about it, the less of Jesus's teachings I saw in either approach.

I briefly thought I found just the label for me when I came across Deism.  Here are people who do not attend church, who don't have a creed, who don't follow rituals, yet who are fascinated by the beauty and order of nature, and see it as proof of the existence of God.  The reasonable religion, I thought.  Natural religion, they call it.  But as I learned more about Deism, I found that their idea of God doesn't align with my experience of God.  To them, God is distant.  He created the universe, and after that, vaya con Dios (if you will).  Interestingly, I believe my mother is a Deist who religiously attends a Catholic church. But that may be beside the point. The God I believe in speaks to me.  In dreams, in personal revelations, in the serendipitous circumstances of my life.  God interacts with us.  But even though I had to pull away from labeling myself a Deist, I couldn't just keep calling myself a Catholic.

Instead, I found myself returning to the simplicity of Zen Buddhism, which frustrated me so many years ago.  I just want to sit in silence and look out at nature and be surrounded by God's grandeur.  It has always been in silence that I have found inspiration, discernment, peace. The everyday mundane tasks can and ought to be sacred, as God can be found in each of them.  God doesn't live in a church, in a tabernacle, at the altar.  God lives in the human heart!

Likewise, I found myself remembering the Quaker testimonies: Of integrity (I can't keep pretending I believe something I don't), of simplicity (I need a lifestyle that will not distract me from the things of God, not yet another religious icon or devotion to occupy my time), of equality (What ever happened to the priesthood of all believers? What about so-called non-believers being children of God?), of peace (Why are Christians OK with going to war?  Opposed to sensible gun control laws? Unashamedly torturing, killing, and eating animals?), of stewardship (Did Jesus really say, "Forget this Earth, it's doomed anyway"? Then why do most Christians act like he did?), of community (I mean true community, the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, not the us-versus-them sectarianism between denominations and religions, believers and non-believers.)

At first, the idea of simply becoming a convinced Quaker appealed to me.  (I had to abandon the idea of formal Buddhist conversion because I in no way doubt the existence of an intelligent, loving creator God.) Liberal Quakers are not necessarily Christian-focused, and so I could bring my Buddhist leanings with me.  But as I discovered that the Religious Society of Friends has its own history and tradition and short-comings, would a formal conversion really accomplish what I am seeking?  Wouldn't it simply move my allegiance from one organized religion to another?  Wouldn't it merely substitute one set of challenges for another?  

Every one of the four Quaker meetinghouses I had attended (each multiple times) made me painfully aware of the lack of ethnic diversity there.  Perhaps this is a common problem in many churches/religious organizations.  But if I'm going to go through the whole process of conversion, shouldn't the destination be better all around instead of just in some areas? 

Finally, it occurred to me that I will never find a religion that fully resonates with me because religion should never be a matter of group-think.  Religion should always be about our relationship with our Creator, nothing less and nothing more.  If we are fulfilled with ritual, so be it.  If certain dogma resonates with our understanding of the Divine, wonderful.  But why would I surrender my God-given reason, my God-given intellect, my God-given set of emotional responses to someone else?  All organized religions are merely the manifestation of some human or another trying to articulate that which cannot be articulated.  Religion is indeed a personal experience.  On this front, my mother was right.  (She once gave this as the reason why she didn't like talking about religion.)  

So what was left for me to do?  What were my options?  I could remain where I am, self-identifying as a Catholic and citing the fact that most Catholics don't actually believe everything the Church teaches anyway.  But without any kind of qualifier (lapsed? Cafeteria? secular?), this would be disingenuous. So Ok, I'm a heritage Catholic in that my religious heritage does indeed come from Catholicism.  I am familiar with the teachings and practices, and I am comfortable attending a Catholic church.  But I am more Quaker at heart.  The way I describe my spiritual experiences is more in line with Quaker terminology.  If there weren't a Catholic church I could attend nearby, but there would be a Quaker meetinghouse, I'd attend there.  But dual-religious identity, rather than being freeing, is actually twice the burden that a single organized religious identity.  

Therefore, I am happy to report that I am Spiritually Independent.  If someone asks for my religious affiliation, I shall start with that.  If the circumstances call for an explanation, I am happy to elaborate: heritage Catholic, Quaker at heart, with some Buddhist tendencies.  But as it stands, the one label that is a true reflection of my spiritual life is neither Buddhist nor Catholic nor Quaker, but Spiritually Independent.  I answer to God alone.  

Critics will of course ask me how I can possibly know what God wants without a sacred text, ordained minister, or tradition and ritual telling me what God wants.  My response to them?  Where did the sacred text, ordained minister, or tradition/ritual become certain of the will of God?  God does not work merely by majority rule.  Just because a critical mass of people agree on something doesn't actually make it true or right or good.  A lot of people agreed to own slaves.  A  lot of people agreed to fight for Hitler's cause. A lot of people agree to waste natural resources.  A lot of people agree that indiscriminate extra-marital sex is normative.  A lot of people agree on a lot of things.  Putting God's name to a group's beliefs doesn't mean God agrees.

The only thing that we can be sure of is what we experience first hand.  I cannot take someone's word that my husband loves me.  I have to experience it firsthand.  I cannot believe others when they say motherhood is truly fulfilling.  I have to experience it for myself.  First-hand experience: It's the only way to know anything, and it's the only way to know God.