Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Someone is trying to tell me something. I've thought that for a long time. My past four homes, spanning fifteen years, have all been a short walking distance from a church and so, I have nearly always lived near churches. I can't remember a Sunday without bells.

In Atlanta, my house's front yard faced a Baptist church's backyard. I went to services there a couple times, but they scared the hell out of me (I guess that was their intention actually) by opening, one Sunday morning, the heavy, red velvet curtains behind the pulpit to reveal an enormous plexiglass tank into which water thundered from a spigot. Behind the tank someone had painted a bucolic scene of trees, hills and puffy clouded sky and it looked like the set of a children's play in a movie (because children's sets in real life are usually much shabbier). Steps led into the tank and when the curtains swung open, I had the feeling I was going to see the performance of an escape artist - like they were going to strap someone into a straight jacket and lock them in a trunk bound with chains and we were going to see how long it took them to escape while we all sang "Our God is an Awesome God." Unfortunately this didn't happen, but I did witness an honest to Jesus, holy roller style baptism where they took three Georgia Tech students, one of whom was a little Asian guy who looked terrified and I am positive had no idea what was happening to him, and dunked them, still in their Sunday best, totally under water. I was horrified. It felt so uncivilized and overly dramatic and just plain ridiculous at the same time to go to all that for something that is a symbolic gesture anyway. It offended all of my intellectual sensibilities and reminded me of too many films where Southern Baptists are the villains, namely the film I've often imagined of my own life where my biological father would be the bad guy in the preacher's suit.

When I moved to Florida my parents' old house was by a Catholic church, as was my apartment, which sat cattycorner to a magnificent cathedral where each weekend there were weddings and where, as I complained about here many years ago, every funeral had to have bagpipes. They drove me crazy with that damned Amazing Grace. I hate that song. Please don't let them play that at my funeral. I want "What I Got" by Sublime and I want everyone to sing it, ok?

And now it's happened again. My new house is by a church too, a big, eyesore of 60s style architecture, Catholic, St. Pope I've Never Heard Of. My backyard faces the church's backyard. As I type I can look out my back doors and see the church roof and waving flag.

I've been going there a lot lately. Each morning I take Baby Lawns on a walk and I am drawn to the church's courtyard. The church is up on a hill and the courtyard is at the bottom of the hill. On the hill, they have erected a waterfall shrine that is a replica of Lourdes. An all white Mary stands at the top of the waterfall in her little grotto, while an all white St. Bernadette kneels at the edge, looking up at the albino Holy Mother and neither of the pair have eyeballs. They look like Little Orphan Annie. I think they'd look a lot less creepy if they had eyeballs, but that is just my opinion. I also think they'd look better if they weren't holding cheap, fake flowers, the electric colors of which look tacky against the alabaster statues.

I like the waterfall part though. It tumbles over shiny white rocks that look like chunks of a glacier that is magically impervious to the Florida heat, and into a clear, cool pond. Standing there, you almost feel like you could drink from it, except that it fumes strongly of chlorine and burns your nose if you stand too close.

I started going because the baby likes the sound of the water and the colors of the flowers. She likes the old ladies who always stop to talk to her too. If the baby gets fussy I can put her in her stroller and take her to the shrine to Lourdes and every single time she'll shut up, though sometimes we have to stay there, with me pushing her back and forth because if I stop, she'll cry again. We spend a lot of time there. I see people dipping their fingers in the water, stopping to pray to the blanched Mary statue, which to me was outrageous because as a child I was taught that Catholics were heathenish idolaters and were all going to burn in Hell for worshiping statues.

But I realized that each day I began to look forward to visiting Our Lady and that her presence calmed me. I began to pray and contemplate too. I don't believe the statue is real, but she is a reminder and a symbol of something real, though I can't exactly articulate what. To me, she is another mother and she's calm and smiling, reminding me to smile and be calm too because everything is going to be fine. She brings me peace and isn't that the point? Aren't we supposed to seek solace in church for peace?

I wasn't raised Catholic, but my mother and grandmother were, so there is a long tradition of Catholicism on my french side. I even have a great, great aunt who was a cloistered nun in Montreal. She escaped and ran off with a priest. They married and became teachers. My mother and grandmother are no longer part of the church. My grandmother became disenchanted when rules she believed to be absolute truths, were suddenly changed. She says it made her feel that it was all made up if they could just do that. In the 60s the church threatened her for taking birth control pills when to have more children would have meant her death. My mother resents the Catholics because they scared her when she was a little girl with a vivid imagination who took everything literally. The fear and guilt, she says, were unbearable.

Somehow, no one has ever been able to scare me with religion and Lord knows, they've tried. It just hasn't worked. I'm immune to religious guilt. Because of this, I don't hate church. Sure, people of all religions have done some pretty crappy things in the name of God throughout history. I get that argument. I have faith though and I believe that all sincere seekers of truth will find it and that all paths leading to God are valid. To clarify, I don't mean that all religions are valid because I firmly believe that any religion or culture that preaches violence is not a path leading to God, but that's for another time.

I'm coming to a period in my life where I want something more spiritually. I'm seeking a deeper connection to compassion. I've started going to mass at the church each morning with the baby. I don't believe it all and I never will, but I don't have to. The reason that I feel no hostility towards religion is because I grant myself freedom - the freedom to explore, to question, freedom from guilt and freedom from beliefs which are not my truths. I am not obligated to go or to endure rituals which don't speak to my soul and because of this, I can experience church or any other spirituality with peace and openness. Religion should only ever be on your own terms. It should be a flexible thing that you can make your own. Religion should adjust to the person, not the other way around.

Religious practices and beliefs can be harmful when they are forced on a person. They should never be used as a means of control or to inflict terror. The sickest, most dysfunctional people I know were those who grew up in religious homes.

At the same time, the healthiest and most well adjusted people I know were those who grew up in homes where religion was a part of their lives in a way which provided structure, a foundation of tradition and a sense of celebration. It can be done right and in a way that adds a lot of fulfillment and joy to a family.

I'm not going to force religion on Baby Lawns, but she will grow up around plenty of religious diversity. She is going to be part of a Hebrew baby naming ceremony as well as a Christening. She will be Christened this June at the church in Millpond where my family has been going for generations. I will tell her stories from all cultures and I will read to her from the Bible, teaching her spiritual lessons that won't scare her or make her feel like she is a bad person. I want to raise her to love her God, not fear or resent Him and I want her to be free to not believe in God at all if that's what works for her, though it's not what works best for me.

Right now, my visits to the courtyard and to morning Mass are providing me with something I was lacking. I feel renewed when I go. I feel awe inspired within me. I feel joyful and full of sincere praise at God's creation and love for us. I am free instead of oppressed. I am calmed when I am anxious. I look forward to the meditative moments that church gives me.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I told you yesterday about how I'm giving up chocolate, but I am also going to use the next forty days as a time to explore my own beliefs and values in a way that can hopefully help me to become a more compassionate and faithful person. A lot of my exploration will be in writing, right here and I'll really welcome input with your experiences and ideas about religion, spirituality and God if you choose to share them.

Peace be with you on Ash Wednesday no matter what your religion.


Kerry said...

Churches are usually pretty, and I like going just for the architecture. I like the Mission churches, too, for the history.

Religion's funny. A lot of people really get going about it, in both positive and negative ways. As in, defending and ridiculing. Fascinating. And yes, I agree with you that religion can be a good thing and it makes me sad when it's turned into something bad- warnings and guilt and fear and all that. I think the biggest thing that gets me is when they preach they are the only real church. I can't believe that any one church is the only one, the real one, and that all others are fake. I think if you inspire people to be kind and caring and thoughtful, I don't care what you call yourself and it's great.

Anonymous said...

I myself am a lapsed Unitarian (just when you thought it couldn't get any more casual) and what you're talking about, you might find a church home at UU. I'd recommend looking into it.
The below site also has some interesting info about spirituality.

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