Friday, January 29, 2016

Spiritual Independent in the Catholic Tradition

Last night I conducted a sort of thought-experiment.  I imagined my daughter asking me what some aspect of Catholicism meant, how she was to understand it, what its relevance was to living a meaningful life.

First, I thought of the major figures and events of the Old Testament.  I imagined telling my daughter that each of these stories was meant to convey a certain moral.

The Creation story is meant to remind us that we are made in the image of God, that we have that of God in us (as Quakers would say).  Also, this story shows how it is human nature to always want more, since even living in paradise, Adam and Eve are shown to be dissatisfied.  The consequences, of course, were dire, and the point of the story is that we should cultivate contentment, that learning to be content with where we are in life without constantly wanting something different or something more, is the key to a return to paradise.

Noah was given instructions from God that made no sense.  He was ridiculed for building a giant arc no where near a water source.  And yet, his dedication to being in tune with God, willing to listen for God's inspiration regardless if it is what we expect to "hear", led to him being the only one prepared to endure the legendary flood.  The story also highlights the importance of the various members of the animal kingdom, as God desired for all of them to be saved along with the humans.

The tower of Babel shows that our different languages, cultures, religions serve to divide us, limiting our ability to work together towards a goal.  Of course, the goal of the people in the story was to worship an idol, hardly a task worthy of enlightened persons.  But the underlying point is that God originally wanted us to work together - it wasn't until the people in the story proved to try to use their community for bad that God put a stop to their nonsense.  So with the right joint goal, it can be said that God wants us to work together and transcend the superficial differences of our societies.

Sarah and Abraham didn't receive their mission in the story of the Hebrew (and later Jewish) people until an old age.  This goes to show that we are never too old to make a contribution, to do something worthwhile.  (I absolutely refuse to engage in the other part of the story, child sacrifice.)

Moses led his people wandering around for generations.  I think this is indicative of another aspect of the human condition.  We search, we seek, we want to find God, even if we seem to constantly mess up along the way.

The proverbs are mini morality lessons, Cliff notes without the whole myth or legend to dig through.  Just the bare pearls of wisdom.

Psalms and - one of my favorite books of the Bible - Isaiah are not so much stories with morals as they are expressions of praise and worship and adoration towards our wonderful creator.  When we cannot find the words ourselves, we can turn to these books and find a reminder about how awe-inspiring God is, how miraculous life is.

Even the utterly tear-inducing borefest of Leviticus can be valuable.  It shows in minute detail how one people - the ancient Hebrews - expressed their spirituality.  The detail with which they tried to please God is noteworthy, even if not relevant to modern times or gentile people.

Next, as far as the New Testament, I strongly believe that Christianity is a religion started by Paul, who took advantage of Jesus's teachings and popularity and twisted it according to his own spiritual understanding.  As such, I see little value in placing much of what's written there on the "truth spectrum".  Even so, there is certainly plenty to be gained from the stories found there.

One of the values of the gospels can be found in what they have in common.  That which is repeated, well, apparently bares repeating.  The teachings that are attributed to Jesus, regardless if he actually taught them, stand alone.  Each of Jesus's teachings can be taken to heart and applied to our modern lives.  If we struggle with guilt or grudges, Jesus insists on our repentance and assures us of our forgiveness.  If we struggle with keeping the various commandments, he breaks it down for us to the core, so we know what the motivation behind our thoughts, words, and actions ought to be.  If we are stuck in a constant competition, comparing ourselves to others, Jesus reminds us what's important instead.

I really like the way Quakers are stereotypically said to hone down their values: integrity, peace, simplicity, equality, community, stewardship.  Jesus not only teaches these things through his sermons, but he lives them and exemplifies them through the stories about him.

The incarnation story takes place in the womb of an unlikely candidate.  A woman, a young girl really, is elevated to the role of God-bearer and later (in Catholic and Orthodox theology anyway) Queen of Heaven.  Equality.  In the story of the nativity, Jesus is born in a barn among hay and animals.  Simplicity.  He travels around with his disciples, and he slowly expands the circle of his audience to include gentiles.  Community.  He dines with people no respectable person would dine with.  Equality and peace.  His passion, crucifixion, and death are an incredible testament to his integrity and commitment to peace.  He has opportunities to change what he preaches, to go back on what he's said, in order to save his life but he doesn't.  Even stewardship can be found in how he alludes to the lessons we should take from nature - the sparrow who doesn't collect into barns yet is fed, the wildflower that doesn't spin yet is marvelously clothed.  Nature, it would seem, is there to teach us, not to be trampled on.

I also like how the Rosary gives each of the main events of the story of Jesus a core value or spiritual gem to ponder.  These vary somewhat depending on the source, but include gratitude for the gift of faith, fidelity, desire for holiness, spiritual courage, and love for the Eucharistic Lord (Luminous Mysteries instituted by pope St John Paul the Great).  That last one is clearly Catholic-specific, but we can easily simplify it to "love of God". (The Joyful Mysteries encourage us to ponder: humility, love of neighbor, poverty of spirit, purity of mind and body, and obedience.  The Sorrowful Mysteries: acceptance of God's will, mortification of the senses, reign of Christ in our heart [Quakers would say "Christ within", or "God within"], patient bearing of trials, and pardoning of injuries.  The Glorious Mysteries: faith, hope, gifts of the Holy Spirit [ability to be inspired by God], "to Jesus through Mary" [value in intersession], and grace of final perseverance.)

Finally, I also considered the regular ritual practice of mass attendance in my thought experiment.  I continue to participate regularly with my husband and daughter in spite of having completely made peace with the fact that I am no longer Christian.  Nonetheless, I am staying put on Sundays because there is still much spiritual wealth in the practices, even if my understanding of them is different from the "official" beliefs.

We gather together regularly for the very basic human need to form community.  We sing, pray, and hopefully learn together, as well as contribute financially to the greater good.  These acts remind us of our social nature and that we have a place in the community.

The stories of the Old and New Testament are read and expounded upon, so even those who never crack open the Bible on their own have the benefit of being exposed to the moral lessons discussed above.

But as Catholics, the center of our worship is the Eucharist.  I have never stopped feeling something special about being in the presence of the Eucharist.  It has been ingrained in me, and I welcome having this opportunity to still link to my old Catholic faith.  Yes, God is everywhere, but when something is too wide-spread, it loses its appeal.  When something is overdone, it stops being special.  That's why we celebrate birthdays, holidays.  They are special days set aside to remember someone or something worth remembering.  That's not to say we shouldn't remember them any other day.  But without that special designation, everything becomes mundane.

And so, being able to step foot in a Catholic church, stand in front of the tabernacle, and become aware of the enveloping silence around me, I'm able to truly come to grips with the fact that I am standing on holy ground.  I am in the presence of God.  It's not that this place is more holy than any other place, or that God is more present here than anywhere else.  But the reminder makes it very real for me.

Then, we are invited not just to be in God's presence, but to actually come up and receive holy Communion.  We are being allowed to physically experience the spiritual reality of God being a part of us.  There is that of God in all of us.  Literally.  Not only that, but watching others receive Communion reminds me that each and every one of these people is made in the image of God, has that of God in them.  I don't have to know them, agree with them, or even like them.  God made them and lives in them all the same.  What a beautiful reminder!

And then, at the end of Mass, we are told to go forth and take what we've learned, what we've experienced, into the world.  So in a sense, we are told to include everyone we meet or come in contact with in this realization that God lives in them too.  And so we are encouraged not to limit our experience of God to this time and place, but to have our weekly church attendance nourish our souls for the week, so that we can stand in the presence of God on the street, in our living room, under a tree, stuck in traffic, in an elevator, in line at the store, in the waiting room at the doctor's, and remember how God is there with us, in the people around us.

The interesting thing about this thought experiment is that it occurred to me halfway through that by just framing the Catholic teachings as "stories" and the "sacraments" as "ritual reminders", all of a sudden I don't experience my defenses kicking in, resulting in a blockage to gaining any spiritual benefit from any of it.  Instead, I'm able to hear the deeper meaning and grow spiritually.  As a Spiritual Independent, in the Catholic tradition.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Owning My Own Spirituality

When I was religious, I took offense to my religious faith being compared to superstition.  But now that I'm not religious, I have to address this question head-on.  What is the difference between organized religion and superstition?  Superstition is a belief without basis in reality, no evidence, no proof.  At best, some anecdotal stories that encourage the perpetuation of the belief.  Many people follow superstitions "just in case" they're true.  That is the same as being superstitious.  People who are not superstitious do not believe in nonsense, period.  They don't let fear or hope in good luck charms affect their otherwise rational behavior.

And religious people?  Again, they either believe outright, because the elders, priests, imams, rabbis passed down the messages earlier prophets claimed they received directly from God, or they may not believe completely, but follow along "just in case".   

Our western concept of religious faith is based on revelation and trust in authority.  First, some person or group of people received a message directly from God. That message was understood to apply to an entire people, or even all people.  Then the prophets took it upon themselves to teach others what "God said".  They must have been charismatic to get people to believe all manner of nonsense... that and/or the people centuries and millenia ago were just that much more gullible.  

At any rate, after being repeated over and over again and having more and more people come to believe something, people grew up hearing their grandparents believing things, and it just doesn't enter many people's minds that so many people, over so many years, could actually believe utter nonsense.  It must be true, right?  So they believe and pass it on without question, perpetuating the now organized superstition for another generation.

Some religious people will tell you that you don't need to take it on other people's word alone.  That if you search the Scriptures, you'll be reassured of the revelation yourself.  The problem with this is that you often find what you are looking for.  If you want to believe something, you'll look for evidence to confirm it.  If you want to disbelieve it, you'll find evidence against it.  There's not an objective way around it.  People either want to believe or they don't.  Except when you have people who want to believe but just don't.  Surely, if life were easier as a believer, especially if someone had once believed with all of their heart, and now wants to return to that faith, what possible reason could there be to not be able to find evidence to confirm one's deepest desire?  The only explanation I can find is that what was once believed simply isn't true.

But if you're nonreligious, or post-religious, you already know all of this.  There isn't really a way to convince someone to give up their religious faith without replacing it with some other faith that is even more enticing. 

What I find funny is how anti-superstition some religious people can be.  Really?  You can't believe that nonsense!  It wasn't passed down directly from our approved leaders and authority figures!  How can you trust something not jotted down thousands of years ago and then translated into our language so that we can have holy writ?  That's just silly superstition.  No, what we believe is not only truth, but THE truth.  Just look at the millions and millions and millions of people around the world and through history who have believed just as we do!  That many people can't possibly be wrong!

No, if each individual went on their own spiritual quest and had the same revelation directly from God, without consulting scriptures or the traditions of their faith community, then we could claim they may all be on to something.  Near-death experiences come to mind.  But that so many people opted out of thinking for themselves and just accepted what was fed to them?  That's not proof of anything other than the human desire to have hope and have it easy.  

It's been difficult for me to try to wrap my head around being nonreligious, post-religious in a religious society.  Even when that society is only nominally religious, and multireligious at that. It seems that having a religious identity is simply expected, even if one doesn't really subscribe to it, even if others disagree with it.  

I imagine it may be like this (even worse) for people who identify as gender-fluid.  The expectation is that you're either female or male.  You're not given options; you have to forge them yourself and then just insist on them over and over again.  

Or I guess when an adoptee is made to feel like they must choose which family - birth or adoptive - is the "real" one for them.  People without this experience don't usually understand that you can consider both sides fully family.

I've fallen into this trap before.  During our years of infertility and pursuit of adoption, I picked up on societal hints that made me feel as though I had to have one of two life ambitions fulfilled in order to be considered a fully functioning member of society:  I either had to have a career, or I had to be a mother. (Men don't even have this option; fatherhood does not exempt men from pursuing a career.)

This is probably why the Universe has handed me the challenge of being post-religious.  I wasn't able to figure out how to live without the stress of the mother/career woman dichotomy.  I insisted on motherhood because I couldn't succeed to my liking in a career field.  I was supposed to opt out, not buy into the labels.  

I didn't.  And so I was handed another challenge, which has at least awakened me to the idea that I cannot live my life according to predetermined labels.  I cannot measure success using someone else's ruler.  Happiness is indeed the goal of life, but how I get there is entirely on my own shoulders to figure out.  I cannot just call on my religious label, career, motherhood, to give my life meaning.  

I cannot hope to transcend the world while still living by its rules.  And the world's rules say religions are there for me to choose one that I like best so that I can have a neat framework within which to find fulfillment and joy and peace.  But I already know this is not necessary, and for me now, impossible.  

Being completely honest now, why have I felt the need to have a religious identity?  Was it for me, so that I could point to it when someone questioned me about why I believed something or what my morals were based on?  If so, this was a cop-out.  Am I unable to claim ownership of my own life ethics and philosophy?  Does it matter that much to me if other people accept what I tell them or not? What does their acceptance, their opinion, have to do with the inner workings of my mind and soul?

Or was the need for a religious identity for the benefit of others?  To help ease their ability to classify me according to what they already know about different religious identities?  This of course is nonsense, as people are not fully knowledgeable about different religions, and many don't even know the various ways of being members of their own religion.  And besides, why do I care if others have an easy or difficult time placing me on the spectrum of religious beliefs and practices?

Perhaps it's for the benefit of both - being able to stay active to some degree within the religious community of my upbringing without adhering to its theology or morality?  But is this really possible?  To participate in a Catholic small group, let's say, where all participants are assumed to be Catholic, but to announce to the group that I'm actually Catholic-in-name-only?  What would be the point of that?  Am I there to learn or to teach?  If to learn, I already know what angle they're working, and I'm not interested.  If to teach, then I'd be quite arrogant to think I can teach anyone about the nature of God and humanity.  I'd only be taking on the role of their prophets and priests, which I reject.

Alex disagrees with me.  He calls himself Catholic because that's the label he picked and likes, and he uses the terminology that goes along with it, but he holds onto his own beliefs, only periodically adjusting them based on what he learns from Catholicism.  In essence, he's comfortable in this Catholic box; I am not.  I feel disingenuous.  If we were in an interreligious dialogue group, that'd be a different story.  But in our case, there are certain expectations.  If a participant isn't fully "in line with Rome", then at least the presupposition is that they want to be.  Or even if not, the other participants are fully allowed and encouraged to push that line of thinking.

I'm tired of trying to lift the layers of metaphor from Christian stories in order to find the unadulterated simple truths.  I want to go straight to the source, to look to nature, to not get wrapped up in symbolism.  Taoism, Zen, Deism is where I'm looking for my inspiration.  That would likely give me the label of Spiritual Independent.  I like aspects of various religious, philosophical, and secular traditions.  Different things resonate with me.  Together, they form the framework that gives my life meaning.

Perhaps next time I am asked about my religion or faith - if such an obvious encounter should actually take place - I just say "I'm independent" and let that stand for itself.  I have to own my beliefs, my ethics.  I have to explain why I still find meaning in attending Catholic worship services if I no longer view myself as a Christian.  I have to take that responsibility onto myself.  If someone questions me, I need to follow the advice of Paul: (1 Peter 3:15) "Always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you."

I cannot ride on the coattails of others any longer.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Spiritual Songs List (Ongoing)

The purpose of this post is to collect links to my all-time favorite pieces of music, which I can tap into for inspiration and to enhance private times of worship.  Some songs may seem a bit less ethereal, but speak directly to some experience of my life, and I want to be able to recall it fondly.

John Lennon's "Imagine"

Enya's "Pilgrim"

"Gentle Woman, Peaceful Dove"

"Czarna Madonna"


"Pan Jezus Juz Sie Zbliza"

"Panie Dobry Jak Chleb"

"Dzieki O Panie"

Carrie Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel"

Mercy Me's "I Can Only Imagine"

Downhere's "How Many Kings"

Tobymac's "Made To Love"

Schubert's "Ave Maria"

From the movie Sister Act, "Hail Holy Queen Enthroned Above"

From the movie Sister Act, "I Will Follow Him"

One Bread, One Body

Here I am, Lord

Mary Mary "Shackles Praise You"

You are the air I breathe

Mary, did you know

Alanis Morisset "What if God was one of us?"

REM's "Losing My Religion"


Oh jak bardzo cie kocham (comes to mind when cuddling my daughter)
Cruel Summer (from soundrack of Karate Kid, came to mind when my BFF passed on in June, just weeks before I was to visit her)
Savage Garden's "Truly, Madly, Deeply" (my ideal romantic song)
Ace of Base's "Angel Eyes" (Our song, I wrote out the lyrics in his first Valentine's Day card)
Eric Clapton's "Lady in Red" (I got married in red, always makes me think of it)

Lectio Divino Gospel of Matthew (Part 1)

I've taken a longish break from reading the Gospels because it wasn't rewarding to me.  Small groups at church, weekly mass attendance, nothing seemed to be nourishing me spiritually.  Father Kevin, the pastor of St. Francis where Maya was baptized, once said to "go where you are fed spiritually". Even if that means outside the Catholic church.  He probably didn't mean outside of organized religion or Christianity, but his words remain wise nonetheless.  I'm not being nourished spiritually within the Catholic tradition anymore, though I have been putting forth an effort since the women's retreat back in August.  Granted, I cannot seem to make a private spiritual practice stick, but I think that is in part because all of the other Christian things I'm doing are just not speaking to me, and I see no point in doing more of what's not working.

That said, I've decided to take another look at the Gospels.  Not quite Lectio Divino anymore.  I read the commentary in my bible, I read the chapter twice.  I pray before starting.  And I jot down whatever resonates with me, not limiting myself to a single verse per chapter.  To be honest, I'm not putting myself into the reading as is the recommendation.  I'm trying something different, something less dependent on this relationship with Jesus-as-God that I don't believe in, and more focused on the wisdom to be found in his words.  It's spiritually exciting for me to find parallels between what Jesus is purported to have said and what I'm reading from the Tao Te Ching.

Below is what I have so far.

Mt 1:20 "Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream"

Mt 2:11 "The prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts."

Mt 3:8 "Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance."  (lost me on the repentance again)

Mt 4:10 "The Lord, your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve."

Mt 5:3 "Blessed are he poor in spirit, for their is the kingdom of heaven."  (poor in spirit are those whose dependence is on God and not on wealth, social status, favors, etc.  These people don't fret; thus they are "in heaven")

Mt 5:34, 37  "Do not swear at all [...] Let your 'yes' mean 'yes', and your 'no' mean 'no'." (Why do only the Quakers ever talk about this?  This integrity basic really resonates with me.  No more swearing of oaths for me.)

Mt 5:44-45  "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of
your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall o the just and the unjust."

Mt 6:3  "When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret."

Mt 6:6  "When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret."

Mt 6:8  "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him."  (for this reason prayer should be about listening for God and not talking at God)

Mt 6:14  "If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you."  (a priest at a retreat once said that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is merely a celebration of the forgiveness that has already taken place!  The moment I recognize a wrong doing and truly repent in secret to God, I am assured of forgiveness... so long as I likewise forgive those who wrong me.  Seems logical to opt out of a celebration that doesn't add anything to my spiritual journey)

Mt 6:17-18  "When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting."

Mt 6:21  "Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be."  (what you focus on will increase.  This is why I do not want to focus on sinfulness and repentance, but rather on transcending limitations and striving to fulfill my potential)

Mt 6:26  "Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them."

Mt 6:28, 30  "Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.  They do not work or spin [...] If God so clothes the grass of the field [...] will he not much more provide for you?"

These last two, along with the highlighted part of Mt 5:44-45 is just so beautifully Dao.  This is what I want to keep searching the Christian (and Jewish) scriptures for.  To find the wisdom of the Dao in the familiar wording of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Nature has so much to teach us, yet outside of Franciscan spirituality, I rarely hear being reminded of this simple truth on the pulpit.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

To Stay or to Go, Spiritually Speaking

My problem is that I grew up having my intellect praised, and this has led me to believe that I can figure all things out myself.  I have applied this same fallacy to my spirituality.  I'm scared of embracing a religious identity unless and until I feel fully aligned with it, but in reality, this is an impossibility.  The point of a spiritual practice is not perfection so much as, well, practice.  Right?  It means that a certain approach is most conducive to myself growing spiritually.  And a religious label at its core provides a neat and clear framework from which to gather my spiritual practice.  If I were truly comfortable with a "spiritually independent" identity, I would actually have a spiritual practice that simply didn't fit exactly into any one religious framework.  But instead, I have inklings and desires, but no commitment for fear of appropriating a religious identity when I feel I haven't earned it.

I give myself permission to call myself a Catholic because it's what I grew up with and what's most familiar and where I'm officially affiliated.  Yet I find myself increasingly more uncomfortable in Catholic settings where the goal is to grow spiritually, and not just to come together in corporal worship.  At mass, I may stay silent on proclamations that don't ring true for me, and I may have personal interpretation of the various rites that I find meaningful.  But in a small group setting, something Alex and I have been embarking on lately, I am directly being asked to share my inner faith.

On one hand, I cannot lie and go with what everyone else is saying, as that would be disingenuous to the purpose of such a group. On the other hand, if I'm completely honest regarding where I am on my journey, I worry about scandalizing others or rocking their own faith, neither of which sounds like an appropriate use of a small group.

For years now I've returned over and over again to the Religious Society of Friends, and each time I say that this time I'm going to formally join a meeting.  Each time I question why I haven't already done so.  And each time I come across some criticism of Liberal Quakerism by more mainstream Christian Quakers, or the more Christian Quaker stance on homosexuality puts a stop to my considering any flavor other than Liberal Quakerism within the RSF.

I'm indecisive.  I'm anxious.  I'm a perfectionist.  I care about what other people think of me. But alas, haven't I learned by now that I will never please everyone?  If my goal is to please all Quakers, I cannot succeed.  Some will say I'm not Christian enough (which I'm not), others will say the social justice stance of the more mainstream Christian Quakers isn't aligned enough with the values taught by Jesus.  So no, I cannot please all Quakers.

Just like I cannot please all Catholics.  Some would tell me to stay at all costs, for it's only inside the church that I have access to the Sacraments, and therefore have any hope in growing in my faith. Others would tell me that I give Catholics a bad name, and that if I don't even ascribe to the Nicene creed, I have no business in the RCC.  I'm Ok with not pleasing all Catholics.  It took a long time, but I'm OK with that.  What I'm struggling with now is that I have a renewed interest in spiritual development, and the Christian Catholic language being used interferes with my spiritual growth.  Yet I know I cannot grow in isolation.

I'm off to email my one time Quaker spiritual adviser.  I cannot figure this out on my own.

Edited:  Alas, it seems that my one-time Quaker spiritual adviser is no longer actively offering this ministry.

My problem is that I want answers and I want them now.  I know what I have to do.  I must pose a specific question to the Lord, and then patiently bring it to prayer and await God's leading.  The problem is that I don't know what exactly my question is.

What should I call myself?  What religious identity does God want for me?  Should I focus on finding a way to be Catholic unorthodoxically?  Should I convert officially to Quakerism by requesting membership in a meeting?  Ok, so maybe I do know what my underlying question is.

Lord, should I focus on finding a way to be Catholic unorthodoxically, or should I request membership in a Quaker meeting?  I am not going to rush your answer.  I know it may take all year, even longer.  I know that the more time I spend listening to you, the quicker the answer will be given to me.  Thank you.

So for now, I guess I adopt the Quaker spiritual practice of expectant worship in my personal prayer life, while continuing to worship corporeally with Catholics.