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.  

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