After years of searching, I’ve learned one thing about religion: it’s a journey, not a set of beliefs.
I was raised by atheists with an odd sense of fair play. My father found fault with nearly everyone, but he was fair about it: he felt it was OK to hate Blacks, Jews, Catholics, Gays and pretty much everyone else, as long as he didn’t do anything about it. This was a hard attitude to live with, especially in the ?60’s , when I was surrounded by lyrics like, "all you need is love."
I moved to New York City as a young woman. New York is basically a Jewish town, and I grew to like the Jewish culture tremendously for its irony, sense of fairness and humor. But I never really fit in there, because I am not Jewish, and ultimately there is an important matter of blood if you are really going to be part of the group.
I flirted with Eastern religions, but I’ve never been good at meditation. I’ve always been in love with the words of Jesus, perhaps because I read them for the first time as a teenager, so they seemed fresh and new. Because my introduction to Christianity came so late in life, I’ve always preferred modern translations of the New Testament, where the words shine forth on the paper in colloquial speech, the way they must have for the people who first read them, hidden away in secret churches.
I spent years reading voraciously about the history of early Christianity. I felt that if I could just find the right book, I could be convinced that Jesus was actually who everyone says he was. I never got the answers I was looking for, although I learned a lot. Whenever I hear people talking about the Biblical injunction to kill witches, I tell them that the original words referred to poisoners. When people use the Bible to justify persecuting gays, I remind them that if they’re going to follow Leviticus, they have to throw away all those cotton-poly clothes, since it also tells them not to wear mixed fabrics.
One story I’ve always liked is the one a friend tells about growing up with a single mother and a stern grandmother in a little town in Texas. While her mother waitressed at night, her grandmother, who was part Indian, would insist that she read nothing but the Bible. She had one of those old-style Bibles, with floppy covers and color illustrations, showing camels and tents in exotic locales, and pictures of Jesus with a complexion that made him look more Celtic than Semitic. In these Bibles, the actual words of Jesus were always printed in red, so these were the ones she paid attention to.
In later years, while attending a variety of Sunday School classes, she would hear preachers and teachers say that "Jesus said this" or "Jesus said that," and she would always stand up and say, "No, he didn’t! He never said that!" This made her very unpopular in a few churches and she even got kicked out of one of them.
I find myself feeling that way often today, when I hear people declare that what Jesus wants most is something like for them to pray in public at football games. Around here, these people always seem to live in grand houses while paying their maids slave-labor wages.
But I’ve also met people whose beliefs I disagree with, but whose deeds I respect. I’m thinking of an old teacher, recently retired, a very doctrinaire Catholic, who taught generations of Mexican-American boys at Whitley’s high school. Most of the men with Spanish surnames who have risen to power in this town were taught by him. And not only them. Whitley was one of his students, for example. Despite his rigid beliefs, he is an inspiration.
I have another friend, a fundamentalist Christian, who spends a few months every year working at an orphanage in Uganda that houses children with AIDS. We may not interpret the Bible the same way, but there’s no way I could disagree with the way she lives her faith.
Before we moved to Texas, we spent a sequence of magical summers at a wonderful place called the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. It was filled with narrow streets packed with tiny Victorian houses and there were arts to enjoy and classes to take. There was also a church service every morning in a large, open air auditorium, as well as religious lectures throughout the day. It was here that I first heard one of my great heroes, Bishop John Shelby Spong.
At Chautauqua, I learned the value of a spiritual setting. I didn?t have to totally agree with the speaker I was listening to in order to benefit from the experience of being there. My heart could be uplifted, my inner buttons pushed, by the atmosphere of spirituality.
I’m a Catholic, even though I really know nothing about Catholic dogma, far less than Whitley. I didn’t want to change my religion in order to get married, but I did become a Catholic a few years later, because I felt I needed an official religion, even if I ignored it most of the time.
In order to take Confirmation lessons, I rode the subway uptown to a church that was on the edge of Harlem. There I met with a Monsignor who was a lonely, brilliant man, starved for intellectual conversation. We talked about literature, architecture, politics, art, but we never got around to talking much about Catholicism.
Whitley and I have recently joined a church, even though we have long periods of time when we prefer to devote our Sundays to pancakes, football and the Sunday papers. But eventually we feel a spiritual calling, and drive out to Sunday services once again.
There are two Catholic churches we could have chosen, and I don’t know why we picked the one we did. This may be because it’s smaller and more intimate, and it’s been the church of Whitley’s family for three generations. At the other church we considered, when you come late, you sometimes have to watch the service from TV monitors in the hallway, an experience I’ve never found uplifting. The priest there can be bitter at times, but perhaps he’s entitled, since he’s worked with heroin addicts for years.
The other church, the one we joined, has a priest who used to be a cop in Ireland (many San Antonio priests speak with a brogue, and the San Antonio River is dyed green every year in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day). While the priest is sincere, his sermons aren’t always all that smooth. But they have heart. While I’m sure he’s helped many people, there are two particular instances that I remember.
Years ago, when Whitley’s mother was dying in the hospital, she asked for the Last Rites. A meddlesome relative, who didn’t want to face the fact that death was coming, tried to prevent this from happening. But this priest wouldn’t let her stop him. It was a small gesture in the larger scale of things, but I’ve always admired him for it.
Another incident occurred a few weeks ago. There is an popular evangelical church in town that seems to preach hate and discrimination more than love and acceptance. Recently, the pastor there invited the ex-Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, to speak at a pro-Israel, anti-Palestine, rally. There was a color photo of him in the local paper and excerpts from his sermon, which fanned the flames of dissention and division.
The priest at our little church–the same one who gave Whitley’s mother the last rites–was clearly upset by this. In a halting and clearly unrehearsed sermon, he spoke about how God’s people are a spiritual community, not a physical one. Again, it was a small act of courage, one that I don’t think many people in the congregation even noticed, but I was glad he did it all the same.
When I began my spiritual journey, I thought I would eventually find the answers. I’ve now traveled far enough to know I never will. I still think it’s a worthwhile road to go down, however, so I keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’m sure that each one of you does too, on your own, unique journey.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
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