Friday, August 7, 2009

My Religious Life, Condensed

Annika e-mailed and asked me if I've always been interested in religion.
Yes, I have always been interested in religion. Or, rather, metaphysics first, organized religion later.

I spent this morning writing this Reader's Digest version of my religious life in reply. Maybe it's too condensed to be of interest? I don't know, but I spent hours writing it out, so gosh darn it, I'm posting it (cf. The Creed of the Blogger).
Right: Jospeh Cornell, Observatory-Window on Skies, Empty White Room (1957)

I. The Weight of the Cosmos

When I was about four years old, I dreamed several times that I was a tiny speck in the grass, looking up at immensity. Hugeness--the sky, the cosmos--was pressing down and in on me from all around. It was scary.

I read a description of that experience of awareness a few years ago, but I can't remember what it was called. I think it's a stage of a child's awareness of having a body separate from the world?
Anyway, I see it now as a core experience--an awareness of the infinity of the universe and myself as a speck, separate from but part of that universe. My interest in religion was at first an interest in coming to terms with cosmic matters more than an interest in living in human society.

When I went to first grade, I realized other kids took part in this thing called church, and that intrigued me. I knew incoherently that it had something to do with our place in the universe, beyond material things like Pink Pearl erasers and library paste.

My family never, ever went to church, though my parents never spoke badly of it. We read books and went to art museums and things like that in a similar way. It was good stuff: Thomas Jefferson and dried figs on the coffee table, and going to see innovative stagings of Midsummer Night's Dream.

Still, alone among my family, I was really, really curious this Christian/Jewish concept of "God", which seemed to be beyond the limits of self, not created by humans like art and government are.
My Sicilian grandmother used to say, "God is love." I didn't know she was quoting the Bible, but that formula intrigued me. It seemed to acknowledge that some invisible force, like gravity, was operating behind/alongside solid, visible reality.

II. Sweep Me Away on a Cloud of God

When I was thirteen, that solid reality came unglued. My mother left the family, and I started going to a high school where I didn't know anybody.
As a teenager, I was so miserable, I just wanted escape. Something like what you write, Annika: "I was after psychedelic experiences of being swept away to another plane of existence".

I got some of that from Star Trek! A doorway into another world that is this one, but better, different. And Bruce Springsteen. Mostly, though, I sat in my room and read and read and read, and ate Sugar Pops cereal.

When I was fifteen, I saw the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972, left), which is a 1960s operatic version of Saint Francis's life. I LOVED it.
When I watched it again a few years ago, I couldn't stand to watch the whole thing, it was so over-the-top soupy. You know, God as a filmy linen curtain blowing in the breeze, with soaring music... Still, the movie preached kindness and social justice and the spiritual transcendence of the material world, and those are all good things.

(I also listened over and over again to the album of "Jesus Christ, Superstar", which is where I first got the whole gospel story.)

So, when I was sixteen, I looked into joining the Catholic Church, thinking it would be like Franco Zeffirelli meets Rice & Webber. There actually were elements of that--this was a campus church in the 1970s--but I quickly realized politics matter more than stage settings. I didn't join.

Around then, my father and I had a sort of fight that perfectly describes who we both are:
I asked him if he thought rocks have souls.
He said it was a stupid question; but I wouldn't drop it and kept pushing (too much) trying to explain to him what I meant.
Finally he got really annoyed at me and said that we could never know if rocks have souls, so it was pointless to even ask the question.
I felt ridiculed and stymied. (I'm so attracted as an adult to the Buddhist teaching, "Don't use your words as weapons" partly because I had so much experience as a child with how very effective they are.)

I graduated from high school early, at sixteen, and moved out.

III. Anti-Nuclear Vegetarian Radical Lesbian-Feminist Utopianism

By twenty, I'd moved around a bit and dropped in and out of college. I dabbled briefly in a bunch of different spiritual and socio-political philosophies and practices: Wicca, tarot, New Age, astrology, and anti-nuclear vegetarian radical lesbian-feminist utopianism (the idea that women without men could create a perfect world---ha!).
But I've never fit very well in groups, and I never got seriously involved in any spiritual or political community.

Still, I read a lot and I learned a lot from each of these philosophies. I'm grateful to each one. Reading tarot, for instance, is good practice learning to see and think symbolically. Astrology provides practice in looking out for different personalities.
And Wicca, as I met it through lovely people like Starhawk, was a good counterbalance to male-dominated, power mongering world views. (This was the Reagan era.)

I also made art throughout my twenties--mostly found-object and book arts: papermaking, book binding, calligraphy, drawing, and cutting and pasting. I looked over the shoulder of my lover, Lucinda, too, as she went back to college for her MFA in painting. Making art was like the physical side of religion, I now know--seeing and uncovering and co-creating with the expressive, plastic qualities of matter. It's a sacramental view of the world.

At twenty-eight, I got a job working the evening shift at an art college library, where I would spend the next twelve years looking at pictures and being around people who thought it was normal and good to make stuff that isn't necessarily useful. In religious terms, it was sort of like attending seminary. (I think it's the Jesuits who prepare for ordination to the priesthood for something like that long.)

IV. More Fathers

Visual art was great, but when I was 31, my brain suffered severe cramps from lack of verbal exercise, and I went back to college. At the university here, though it's a huge school (40,000-some students), there was no formal way to study religion at that time. (There is now, in this post-Sept. 11 world) I ended up in the Classics department studying Late Antiquity, the fall of Rome and the rise of Christian state power, and the heavy hitting "fathers of the church": Augustine, Basil, Jerome, and other theologians/philosophers/statesmen of the time.

Left: Working on my senior paper, "Ambrose and the Theology of Death" (1995-96, on paper!)

I was still most interested in the romantic stuff, like Augustine at his sweetest, most mystical self (especially in his "Confessions," where I recognized myself); but I ended up doing my senior paper on the most political of men: Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. He wrote some lovely hymns still sung today, but really, he was more like the Godfather--the Church being an offer you couldn't refuse.

Aside from reading the "Confessions" in a history class, the class that most related to my childhood dream of tininess and infinity was the Physics for non-science majors. But I couldn't do the math to go any further into that.

Right:Particle Physics, "First Gold Beam Beam Collision Event", from Science Daily

When I graduated at 35, I went looking for a place to practice what I had been studying. On "What Religion Suits You?" internet tests, people like me always score as Unitarians or Episcopalians. I looked into those religions, but they didn't have the oomph I needed.
The Episcopalians gave me an official pamphlet that said they seek moderation in all things. I'm not looking for moderation. And the Unitarians were just like the folks I grew up with---nice secular humanists. I can do that on my own. I wasn't looking for a social group, anyway, I was looking for the supra-personal.

No, I needed to jump in the deep, immoderate end. I got baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, the church of blood and guts.

V. In the Church

My local church was a cathedral, a wonderful, magical place. Dark wood and cool marble. Beeswax candlelight reflected in gold chalices. Wine as blood, bread as flesh, and water as spirit. Prayers rising up on silent incense. Vestments of silk, books bound in leather, holy incantations, and triangles and crosses...
(Hmmm, I just realized, it was a bit like Hogwarts.)

For about four years I steeped myself in church, and I loved it. The stories were not altogether new to me, but I hadn't grown up with them, and I found useful and entertaining wisdom in them.

I'd joined the Catholic Church expecting to find supple-minded young Augustine, longing for union with God as a lover, and he was there, on the edges. Gradually, however, I realized I was inside an institution governed by the old Augustine, the cranky, overburdened bishop all wrapped up in political concerns and encrusted with certainty. Having studied the Fathers of the Church, I shouldn't have been surprised when I ran into the Powers That Be. But I was.

Right: Incense boat and pots in the sacristy where I worked

Maybe that wouldn't have mattered much, if I'd stayed on the edges. The spring I turned forty-two, though, I started to work at my church part-time as a sacristan, setting up and taking down for the weekend Masses, and for baptism, weddings, and funerals. (I avoided working confirmations, if I could, which one priest described well as cattle calls.) It was wonderful--sort of like working backstage in the theater.

When my mother killed herself at winter Solstice, six month later, I was in the right place. No one in my family was part of any religious or spiritual community. I arranged a memorial Mass for my mother at my church, and for me, that was hugely important-- if nothing else, simply to gather people in a sacred place and mark the death.

I chose the reading about the woman caught in adultery for that Mass, because Jesus' teaching, "let whoever is without sin cast the first stone" is such a wonderful central teaching, and one that is so hard to practice we often just ignore it. I knew my mother had always longed for the sort of understanding and acceptance that Jesus offers in this story.

I always say that working in the church was like working in your favorite restaurant: you get to see how how the sausages are made and the bills are paid, and that's the end of innocence.

Up close, in the rectory, it was Ambrose all over again: men without women administering an empire with a lot of money, a lot of land, a lot of power, and very, very few checks and balances.
This creates a playground for the ego to run amok in, of course, and it does.

It took me a while to see how this worked. In the end, I learned more about politics--how it really works--while I was working in the Church than in any other way.

VI. Doubtful Fathers

I could illustrate this with personal stories, but you can see it for yourself in the movie (originally a play) Doubt, which recently came out on DVD.
In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a parish priest during the heady times of Vatican II, who is all for opening the windows of the Church to let the Spirit in. Meryl Streep plays an old-school, knuckle-rapping nun, the principal of the parish school, who mistrusts the priest's affectionate ways with the boys. It's never revealed whether or not the priest is "inappropriate" with the boys.
To me, that isn't the point.
I was most interested in the way the movie really gets, and shows, how power works in the Church. It's nothing unusual, it's not a secret--it's simply how systems that rely on domination work.
Like families.
If the person in power (Father, generally, but it could be Maggie Thatcher) is benign, that's nice. It's not so bad to follow rules that are fair, even if you didn't set them.
If the rules aren't fair, you can exercise the power of the powerless to resist them, which include emotional blackmail, don't-ask-don't-tell, passive resistance, and a whole bunch of sneaky but powerful tricks.
(My grandmother once "accidentally" put salt in the sugar bowl when she served coffee to her abusive husband and his cronies.)

This is just what the nun does. She harasses the priest in a bunch of ankle-biting little ways. In the film, he represents an open, forward-looking Church and she, the closed old ways.
But there comes a point where he shows the limits of his desire to change. The nun tells him she's called his old parish and talked to a nun about him. The priest, alarmed, objects that she didn't follow the chain of command, she should have talked to the parish priest.
She repeats that she talked to a nun.

Left: Doubt on stage (actors' names not given)

And he loses it.
Mr. Let's-Be-a-New-Friendly-Church, under the pressure of fear for himself, accuses her of disobeying her vows, which includes, he says, almost apoplectically, the Vow of Obedience.

Oh, this is a beautiful scene. (I couldn't find a picture of the perfect Mr. Hoffman playing it.) Whether or not this priest is guilty of anything, when push comes to shove, he is just as old-school as her, where it concerns maintaining his power.
Not really surprising--the powerful don't gratuitously give up power.

In the end, the nun uses her tricks to get the priest out of her school [the power of the powerless is not small...]; but the bishop makes him a pastor and school-principal somewhere else [...but the power of the powerful is bigger].

What struck me so forcefully was that this is exactly what I saw in the rectory.
Of course. Why should it change? The Mass is no longer in Latin, girls can serve at the altar, religious wear street clothes, but the political structure remains the same.

After a few events brought this home to me fully, I said to the pastor, with whom I had a fraught relationship, "I finally understand how this place works. It's not about spirituality, it's about politics."
He narrowed his eyes at me and replied, "Just like everywhere else," and walked away.

Well, maybe he's right--you don't get away from power struggles in any human organization. Practicing a cosmic mysticism separate from human community wouldn't fit me at all. If nothing else, annoying as they are, it's other humans who provide lunch.

VII. Write Your Own Life

Democracy's even worse, or more work, anyway. You've got to participate in making up the rules and you can't blame Father if they still suck. (Though people do, of course.) I can see why people like monarchies and the like.

But if I get to choose what system I operate in, it wouldn't be a dictatorship, even the most benign one. And really, the church I worked for was relatively benign, as Catholic churches go anyway, it just wasn't a democracy.
I'd already left one Father's house, I wasn't going to stay in another. I quit the job. Eventually I quit going to Mass, though that was more because I felt full up than for any political reason. I still love to visit once in a while.
The true truths I learned, I keep with me.

Once when I was feeling kinda low and lost, sometime in my late twenties, I went to a little bookstore I liked a lot. They had a good religion/spirituality section, and I went looking for something that would offer some comfort and guidance. I stood there looking at the shelves and for the first time I knew what I needed wasn't in those books, many of which I'd read. It was in me. I just had to live it.
I turned around and left, feeling low and lost ...and OK.

Of course, since then I've read lots more spiritual books and looked to all sorts of teachers and guides and people who've helped me, including priests and nuns.
That feeling of being a tiny speck in the universe is still with me, of course, but I don't feel particularly lost in the universe. (The Enterprise is out there, after all.)

Now I focus more on those tricky little details closer to the ground, like how not to use my words as weapons. How to not fool myself, like the priest in Doubt does. And how to edit film.

This past Saturday, in the middle of filming some of the last of Orestes and the Fly, I heard myself say to the guy who's playing Orestes, who I don't know very well, that I'm not terribly interested in movies with messages.
I couldn't believe I said that, it's such a reversal of what I've said in the past. But it's true, at least in part. If I work on trying to tell a true story, and an entertaining story, I can trust the cosmic message will take care of itself, instead of the other way 'round.

Have I arrived at a religious creed of sorts?
I think maybe something like that. For now.


Bookworm said...

Your account of going into the bookshop made me think of the poem I use to make sense of things - "London Rain" by Louis MacNeice

Whether the living river
Began in bog or lake,
The world is what was given,
The world is what we make.
And we only can discover
Life in the life we make.

deanna said...

Thank you for writing and posting (I know by instinct that part of the blogging creed).

Fascinating, Fresca. I think I came at religion almost exactly opposite from you. As a minister's daughter, I experienced the politics first, and every assumption was you do church; as a compliant child I did it, outwardly, but inside I concluded I was skeptical about God. Later, the plot pieces of my life added up to there being an enormity outside myself - in religious terms I came to see the creature/creator thing. But I'd say a lot of religious people don't face into on a daily basis there truly being something beyond themselves.

After reading this I put into words what I think you could call my creed so far. I don't think such a thing as blind faith exists. I think I believe what I intuitively find evidence for (or what comes to me through life experience). The trouble is, the group (religious or otherwise) may not allow for my process or method in discovery, and so I can choose to hide from my belief, fearing the group's displeasure. (I think Kierkegaard meant by his "leap of faith" a jump away from fear of the group. Perhaps Augustine touched emotionally on this - I haven't read him yet, but my daughter loves the Confessions, also.)

Agh, I need to edit that down to a more manageable size, but thanks for getting me started. :o)

momo said...

I knew there was a reason I didn't go see "Doubt"! I'm sure it was very well done and all, but the preview made the story seem so claustrophobic.

Ha ha! my "captcha" word is Philater!

deanna said...

I needed to come back and say you've hit on something I think I've been circling for eons and lately been getting close to:
"If I work on trying to tell a true story, and an entertaining story, I can trust the cosmic message will take care of itself, instead of the other way 'round."
Thanks for that, too.

Fresca said...

BOOKWORM: Thanks! MacNeice isn't much read in America, and I didn't know that poem. I didn't connect with the entire thing, when I looked it up, but that stanza you chose is perfect.

MOMO: I wouldn't particularly recommend "Doubt"--I just watched it because I love P. S. Hoffman so much, I'll see him in anything.

DEANNA: Oh, yes, you picked out the line that is really what the whole thing is about, for me: that I don't have to create or manipulate meaning---it's there and will come out if the artist/writer does a good job telling a good story with some kind of truth at its heart.
Same goes, I'd say, for a life.

In religious terms, it's like realizing that following the rules don't make you a good person, just a rule-obeying one.
It's *being* the sort of person who discerns what is true--or not true--and then acting on that (or trying to) that makes a good person.

OOoh--I love your idea of the leap of faith as being a leap away from fear (of the group).
I don't recall that in Augustine--his struggles were more with himself-- but it's been many, many years since I read him. I don't really want to re-read the Confessions, in fact. For now, I just treasure remembering it, like an early love affair you know you can't have again.

I look forward to more exchanges on this topic--I know we will keep writing about this stuff, eh? : )

Anonymous said...

I think I've purposely kept myself insulated from experiences that could otherwise be like yours. I was lucky that my experiences of the church were almost exclusively from the social justice/knowledge-seeking angle, including from the ordained religious I interacted with. My father studied to be ordained religious for a number of years when he was a teen (they took 'em young back in the day) to early twenties and that seemed to ground him in being able to answer or at least respect my incessant questions. I learned through CCD that many (many!) of the people of the church, especially the lay people, came at Catholicism from a very different, much more dogmatic, and much less pretty angle. Percentage-wise. Almost all of the ordained religious (lower down in the hierarchy) I've met range from coded-liberal politics to I've-seen-you-at-the-anti-war-protests-before. Hearing the rigidly "dogmatic", homophobic, sexist stuff face-to-face has been exclusively from lay-people who invariably have a poor grasp on the actual tenets of the Church (though clearly, again, I've been both lucky and wearing rose-colored-glasses given choices certain archbishops made/make (my attendance may have been very spotty at that point)).

Have you read Alain de Botton? He writes/speaks about the value of churches like the one we attended, but from a secular point of view (perhaps an upbringing similar to yours?) and how they connect with these deep parts of what it means to be human. I also love listening to Cornell West speak--his intersection of faith/justice/knowledge is spot on for me.