Over my lifetime, religion and faith have taken on a few different incarnations, if you will. When I was younger, like many in the suburban Boston area, I went to church with my family – every Sunday, we all piled into the family van, and depending on the time of the Mass we wore either a nice skirt/shirt (10am Mass) or a pair of jeans/sweater (Noon Mass). In the early years, Church was a great time for families to get together. Our church used to host a “coffee and donuts” gathering after Mass, and I vividly remember running around with my brothers, donating $.25 for a chocolate frosted donut with sprinkles, and hearing my parents laugh and tell stories with others from Church. They would wait down in the gathering hall while the children made their way over to Sunday School classes in the upstairs classrooms.
Soon, the coffee and donuts routine ended, and I got to the age when I would drive myself to religious education classes.
When I got to college, I no longer went to Church. After Saturday nights and early mornings recovering from hangovers of the college-variety, the last thing I wanted to do was go to Church. Scrambled eggs, hash browns, orange juice, coffee and bagels with my also hungover friends soon replaced singing, Communion, and gospels.
In my senior year, I remember going to Church just prior to the Easter break. I’m not sure why I went – likely peer pressure of some sort (or Catholic guilt). I ran into a friend of mine at the back of the college chapel and said, “Hi, Lina! Gotta love church, huh?” in my sarcastic “oh-you-gotta-be-here-too?” tone of voice. Lina caught me off guard and said, “I am filled with love and joy today! I’m fantastic! Jesus Christ has Risen! It’s an awesome day!” The childlike excitement in her eyes, from a woman who I considered academically brilliant, surprised me.
Huh? What the hell was that?, I thought. Seriously? Is she serious? That much joy over a story in the Bible?
I proceeded to an empty space in a pew, went through the Catholic Calesthenics of up-down-kneel-sit-stand-sit-kneel, and quietly listened to the readings and homily. But Lina’s excitement was stuck in my brain. How could someone be this excited about religion? About the day before Easter??
Graduate school wasn’t much different. I went to school in New York City where it was easy to be both surrounded by vibrant religious communities and disheartened by the poverty, cruelty, and human violence. I had gone to a religious service at a charismatic Christian church one Sunday with a friend of mine, and we spent well over 2 hours enveloped by singing, worship and praise, joyous and fervent prayer, Amens and Yes Jesus shouts. At the end of the service, we walked out the door and watched church members embracing wishing others to “Have a Blessed Day.” But, not more than a few feet from the church, we then saw two individuals cursing up a storm as they fought for a parking spot. A few feet from them was a homeless woman — who I would see there for the next 2 years. Not far from her, a group of young boys exchanged a verbal tennis match of profanity and insults about someone’s Mama.
Needless to say, my Amen feeling left my body pretty quickly, and reality set in.
Throughout the next few years, as a result of living in NYC and working in a number of diverse colleges, I struggled with my Catholic upbringing of how my faith viewed gay relationships and marriages. I believe that love is love. That families are families. During this time in my life, my close circle of friends were majority gay couples, and I listened to their life pasts, presents and futures. I listened to their stories of faith, families, acceptance and denial. I struggled with understanding how my own faith discriminated against their lives, against them.
After leaving NYC, I began working at a Quaker school. And, while very few people there were actually Quakers, the philosophy drove everything we did there. Each week, I participated in Meeting for Worship and that was completely different from anything I had ever known. Silence. We entered in silence. Sat in silence. Listened in silence. And, the elders ended with a handshake. There was no priest guiding the service. No reader telling me about the Bible. No holy hands delivering Communion. It was me and God.
People often ask me what impact faith had on me when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
My daughter was 2-years old, and I had just started working at a Catholic college. While my practice of faith was pretty sporadic, I still believed in a Greater power (be it She or He). But, when she was diagnosed, I struggled. I was mad. Pissed! What kind of God would do this to a child? What kind of God brings an innocent child so close to death?
When others found out about my daughter, I received hugs/cards/emails all with the phrases “We’re praying for you” or “Trust that God will guide you” or “God will be with you.” Really?, I thought. Because this feels awfully f-in lonely. My family members wanted to pray over me for strength, invoke God during church, or offer up community prayer circles for my daughter. I found this just pissed me off. But, I never said anything because I knew the religious piece served a different purpose: it helped to comfort those people. Heck, if praying makes it easier for YOU, then go for it. If praying makes you feel like you’re doing something, then go for it. But, for me – nope. Not here. Not now. Not while my child is wearing a paper thin gown with an IV hooked up to poisonous chemicals being delivered by a nurse who is in a full body armor to protect herself.
I didn’t pray to God. But, I did wish for hope.
But, of course, years of Sunday school weren’t lost on me. In the quietest hours of the morning, when I would sneak into my daughter’s room — just to make sure she was still alive — I would kneel by her bedside and pray. I prayed that God wouldn’t take her from me. I prayed that God wouldn’t let her suffer more than she had to. I prayed that God would give me strength to both protect her and to let the baby growing inside of me be cancer free.
But, most of all, I prayed that God would let me switch places. I prayed that God would put the cancer into my body and spare hers. I prayed that God would just give her a break, let me wake up from this nightmare, and that all would be just a bad dream.
Then, morning would break and we’d be back into our routine. Daily shots for my daughter. Anti-nausea medication just after breakfast. Nurses visits to flush her port-a-cath where she received chemotherapy. And, religion and God would be forgotten until the next wee hours of the morning.
A few years have passed since our daily cancer trips, and now our lives resume normalcy for a few months at a time. And, religion has found its way back.
Every Sunday, the girls and I go to Church. Catholic Church. It gives me peace. I leave Church each Sunday and am happier. I’m renewed. I feel closer to my children when we are there, and I feel even closer after we leave. I find joy when I see them make the sign of the Cross on their chests — sometimes they get it right, usually they get it wrong and poke themselves in the ears and belly buttons. During the car ride, they complain that Church is going to be boring and they don’t like having to be so quiet. Then, we arrive and sneak into a pew behind their friends, and they are all smiles again.
This year, my husband and I decided not to buy the children more than 2 presents. He’s doing it because buying so much stuff is wasteful and materialistic. I’m doing it because I want the girls to know the meaning of Christmas.
But, what is the meaning?
Do I believe the meaning is the Birth of Jesus Christ? Do I believe the meaning is family, friends and giving thanks? Is the meaning chocolate waffles, candy canes, and wishes? Is the meaning that we give more than we receive on this day?
When I read the story of the Nativity to my children, I tend to emphasize the “Look what nice people did to help out a family” — just like nice people helped our family when you were sick — than the “Jesus Christ was born today” story. Will this change? Develop? Will the kids want more from the story? Less?
All of this has been coming to mind in the recent news about Rick Warren giving the opening prayer at Obama’s Inauguration. I find so much of the commentary – from both sides of the “wings” — fascinating. Will our view of religion and the religious change? Is the goal to change the minds of religious conservatives or just to get the conversation going?
Is there a difference between “I disagree with you” and “I disagree with your life and identity?”
Can religion be fluid? Is it wrong to handpick religion?
Happy Merry Solstice/Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza/Dec 25th. Work is slow right now, so hopefully I can catch up on some blog posts!