R is for Religion (The Later Years)

r xmas fancyWhen last we left my spiritual self, I was identifying myself as agnostic or atheist and had a knee-jerk reaction of “eww” to any mention of organized religion. I was in this world during my twenties and during that time period I didn’t think much about my spiritual life; I was too busy trying to keep myself alive (financially and physically. Major Depression is a hard task master). Eventually, my life evened out and I started to think about the big pictures: why am I here, does God really exist, etc.

As I contemplated those questions, I had to admit that there was “something.” I wasn’t sure what, but I knew there had to be something above and beyond our physical existence. After all, if all there was was the physical, nothing in a spiritual plane, I should have been dead, homeless, friendless, family-less, and so on. There were too many instances in my life where I was pulled back from the brink of disaster for no particular reason. And it couldn’t have been luck, there were too many for it to be luck.

So I started to identify myself as “spiritual but not religious.” I figured that was a great way of saying that I couldn’t stand the thought of organized religion. Then I read an article about a new trend of people setting up altars in their homes. A home altar was something I’d never heard of and it sounded almost sacrilegious. Hence I was fascinated.

Not long after, I was in one of my favorite places, a bookstore, browsing and happened to wander into the metaphysical section. Usually, I avoided that area, as it was right next to the religious books that I wanted nothing to do with. I’ve no idea why I ended up there (God perhaps?) but I found a book about altars. As I paged through the book I discovered something new: Neo-Paganism. Now, I’d heard of Wicca and been told that it was witchcraft and evil (by a conservative Christian) so I wasn’t so keen on investigating it. But Neo-Paganism sounded intriguing. So I did some research and was fascinated by how different this “religion” was from everything I had had contact with. There was a Goddess, more than one for that matter, and it revered nature. From there I slowly started researching Wicca and found that it wasn’t evil as I’d been told but a nature religion that embraced the possibilities of the person.

I was hooked and read everything I could get my hands on about Neo-Paganism, Wicca, Witchcraft, Goddesses, and

The Goddess Hestia. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Goddess Hestia. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Feminist Religions. I bought myself a necklace with a pentagram charm and wore it daily. I tried spells and chose a Goddess to worship (Hestia, Goddess of the hearth). But there was a problem. I felt disconnected from the spiritual (not to mention occasionally silly conducting rituals alone in my apartment).

So I tried to connect with the larger Neo-Pagan community. I live in a largely conservative, Christian, community. There were no community centers or clubhouses where Neo-Pagans congregated. I turned to the internet where I found listings of gatherings within drivable distance. And I promised myself I would attend one.

But the big test, the one that declared if I was really going to commit myself, was if I could get out of my bed for this religion. And I couldn’t. I made note of gatherings, planned to go, but never did. Eventually, the very nature of Neo-Paganism began to bother me. Despite some claims that Wicca and other Goddess-worship/nature-worship religions had been around for centuries, passed down in secret, there was no real evidence that this was true. Much of what drew me to the religion in the first place, the ability to be a solo practitioner, to basically make up your own religion, began to make me uncomfortable. And gradually the various trappings of Neo-Paganism fell away from my life and I went back to “spiritual but not religious.”

During this time period, I was working at a job that required me to work at least one weekend day. Typically I was scheduled to work on Sundays. Since I wasn’t happy with organized religion, I didn’t mind this at all. Until I hit my late twenties and, seemingly out of nowhere, I’d get the impulse to go to church. I, of course, ignored these impulses, but they bothered me. Why should I want to go to church, I’d ask myself. Look at how organized religion oppresses women and homosexuals. Look at how narrow-minded most religious people are, how unforgiving, how hypocritical. I didn’t want anything to do with these things.

Then my brother got engaged to a cradle Catholic and began to take RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes in preparation to convert to Catholicism. Over the months he attended the classes, I watched him closely for any evidence that he was turning into one of those hypocritical people I hated. Didn’t happen. In fact, he seemed to become more like himself, more settled into who he was, more peaceful.

But it was his wedding day that was the turning point for me. My brother and sister-in-law got married at the local cathedral, a gorgeous building of stone and stained glass. I’d never attended anything Catholic before, so the entire ceremony (properly called a Wedding Mass) was new to me. And what I saw was nothing like I’d been told about Catholicism. There was silence in the church itself, a type of reverence I hadn’t encountered in a church before. The Mass was beautiful and included more Bible quotations than I’d ever heard before. And the homily given by the priest was eye-opening. Instead of a generic speech about marriage I’d heard in other wedding ceremonies, the priest talked about my brother and sister-in-law. He knew them, personally, and spoke about their relationship in loving terms. It was a joyful, yet reverent, speech. Not once did I flinch when the priest mentioned Jesus. Afterwards, I was hopeful that maybe I could come back to organized religion. That maybe I could find a place that would accept me without the restrictions of the churches of my youth. That maybe God wasn’t so far away.

Exactly one week later, my schedule, inexplicably, changed and I had Sundays off. Not quite ready to walk into a church, I did what I always do when I’m confused or anxious about something, I turned to books. I learned a bit about each of the world’s religions and decided that I had to give the religion of my youth a chance. I told myself that I’d give Christianity a year, and if it didn’t work out I’d start in on the eastern religions. A voice in the back of my head told me that I’d eventually become Catholic, but I ignored it, thinking it a remnant of my childhood fascination with the nuns in the musical Sound of Music. So I read a bunch of books on Christianity, the different branches, outlooks, philosophies, dogmas.

After a few months of reading, I started “church shopping.” Every Sunday I’d drag myself out of bed (big sign right there) and attend a service at a different church, including the Catholic Church. My community seemingly has a church on every corner, so it was quite possible to spend over a year and not go to the same church twice. Most churches were “nice.” Some were boring, others a bit too cookie-cutter. I even attended a “mega-church” service, which I hated. It felt like I was going to a concert, not a worship service. All along I continued to do research into Christianity, thinking about the various dogmas, the history, debating with myself about the veracity of it all. I began to read the Bible. And slowly, I started to accept that Christianity, with all its problems, was the religion I had to accept. It was the religion of my heritage, it was in my blood, and I could not turn away.

After six months of “church shopping” I was exhausted. So I began to narrow down my choices and after a month or two of prayer and consideration, chose the Episcopal Church (for those unfamiliar, Episcopalianism is the American branch of the Anglican Church). My local church was “high” Episcopalian (in other words, very much like Catholicism) and I fell in love with their Mass, the ritual and reverence was soothing.

But it wasn’t until I accepted communion that I knew I was a Christian. From childhood I understood that communion was an important aspect of Christianity. When I began to fall away from God I started refusing communion, despite my family’s insistence that I take it on the few occasions I went to church. They told me it was just a symbol, a part of the community. But I thought taking communion, a fundamental aspect of a religion I didn’t believe in, would be hypocritical of me. So from my teens until my late twenties I refused communion.

Taking communion at the Episcopal Church, where it is believed that the bread and wine are God (not physically though, that’s where they differ from Catholicism), was an indescribable life-changing experience. For the first time, I felt I was accepted by an omnipotent being. That that being loved me, with all of my flaws.

wood rosary

Rosary

The next year or so was one of the most stable and life affirming of my life. I went to church most Sundays and began to make positive changes in my life. I started to pray the Rosary and set up an altar in my home. The fact that much of what I loved about the Episcopal Church was actually remnants from its Catholic past bothered me a little but I chose not to think about it. All I wanted was to be done with all of the pain and confusion of choosing a religion.

Of course, life doesn’t always give us what we want, and my life changed. An illness in the family prevented me from attending Sunday Mass and slowly I began to feel discontented with the Episcopal Church. I disliked the organization of the church, it felt unstable. And I seemed as if I was “stealing” things from the Catholic Church, despite the fact that many Episcopalians recited the Rosary and prayed to saints. With all my time being filled with taking care of my ill family member, I rarely attended church of any kind and stopped considering myself an Episcopalian.

After a few years, my family member died and my time was my own again. I considered returning to the Episcopalian Church but, since the things I loved most about that Church were the things that they kept from the Catholic Church, decided not to return. After a few months of religious aimlessness, I started attending Catholic Masses. I missed the familiarity of the Episcopal Mass, but knew that the Episcopal rituals were derived from the Catholic and found comfort there. And when RCIA classes started, I attended.

Attending RCIA classes was interesting, and occasionally confusing, but always fruitful. Over the nine months of classes, I learned a lot, thought even more, and eventually accepted that I was Catholic in my heart.

I found in the Catholic Church a place where my questions were answered, where people much smarter than me had debated the issues and made decisions guided by the hand of God after centuries of prayer. It was a church that welcomed doubt, loved and forgave without reservation, and accepted me as I was, confusion, doubts, reservations and all.

I was brought into the Church Easter of 2010. I have not regretted my choice to convert to the religion my (now deceased) mother once told me was evil incarnate. In the years since I have occasionally struggled with some of the dogmas of the church, but have never stopped feeling like I am Catholic in my heart, mind, and soul. Catholic I am, and Catholic I will be.

Blessings to all of you.

Be well.

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