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.


  1. Let me know how this works out. I am interested as I have journeyed in the opposite. Jewish to Catholic. Be assured I absolutely love Judaism and it is a precious treasure.

  2. Thanks for your comment! As it turns out, my pursuit of Judaism was short lived, but quite insightful.