It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
The world is powered by passionate people, powerful ideas, and fearless action. What’s one strong belief you possess that isn’t shared by your closest friends or family? What inspires this belief, and what have you done to actively live it?
(Author: Buster Benson)
It took me an entire day to figure this one out, and it didn’t actually come to me until I was just about to fall asleep. So even though today is really day four, I’ll be posting both the appropriate prompt and this one from day three.
When I was young, I was raised to be a Catholic. I came from a largely Catholic family and no child that had come before me had ever NOT been so. My mother’s side was different. Her family was comprised of non-practicing Methodists who were usually just wedding and baptism church goers. My great-grandmother read The Bible every day and would make notes in the margins. She used a bookmark I made her to keep her place.
At first, my experience with the church was the classic Easter/Christmas schedule with the occasional Sunday mass thrown in. A wedding here, a baptism there. Maybe a First Holy Communion. I wasn’t much of a church goer and it was common for my father to skip Sundays from time to time, so church was pretty lax in my household. My cousins had it differently. They were brought up, each and every one, as Catholics from baptism to confirmation.
One day, when I was around 7 years-old, I decided that I didn’t want to start going to CCD classes. I didn’t want to become part of a church. Frankly, the whole idea of church confounded me. I was 7, but something wasn’t clicking or jiving with me. I didn’t get the sit, stand, kneel commands and their significance. I didn’t feel moved by the music or inspired by The Bible passages. Granted, I was just a kid and gave in to my ignorance. I decided church wasn’t for me and claimed that I wanted to worship at home. I would read The Bible, like my great-grandmother did, and avoid Sundays like the plague. Some may scold my parents for letting a 7 year-old even make that kind of decision, but at the time, it just happened. It worked out pretty well for awhile. Dad would nag about church and jokingly call me a heathen.
At family gatherings, I would be asked why I didn’t go. “Mandy Leigh, you should really go to church.”
But despite my large distaste for church every Easter and Christmas, I sat in a pew. As the years went by – and my parents’ divorce took its toll – my father turned into the classic Easter/Christmas Catholic, making time to go when was necessary. Because of the divorce, he could no longer receive communion. I was 12 then and the whole denial of communion thing really bothered me. Some guy was saying, “Oh, yes. Because your marriage didn’t work out, you can’t participate – unless you pay a fee.” Didn’t sit well with me, but Dad just sat quietly and waited until the end of the service to get up from the pew. That’s just the way things were.
I never received communion until my stepfather died a few years ago. I remember being at his funeral, a wreck, being told to stand up and go to the front of the church. I nervously put my hands out to accept it and when it touched my lips, I didn’t know what to expect.Where was the wash of salvation coming over me? Where was the peace in my time of grief? I didn’t find it in a piece of dry cracker. No, my serenity would come later.
In high school, I started to get curious about religion. A humanities track of classes had me learning more about mythology, the Reformation, papal indulgences, The Crusades, The Holocaust, and other such occurrences and suddenly, religion started to become more of a focus for me. I needed to know more and maybe find something that would work for me. No one asked me to choose a path and no one told me that I needed to. It just felt right at the time. Google was still in its infancy, but I had AOL to rely on. So I searched. I read. I made notes. I started off with Judaism and in all honesty, it was because someone had called me a Jewish slur on the school bus. Not an inspiring event, but I wanted to find out more about their faith nonetheless.
Judaism wasn’t a fit for me. So I moved on to the Protestant faiths. Still not a perfect fit. Then, Dad started dating my then stepmother and I decided to give her church a try. It was a generalized Christian church with energetic services. Rock music and tears. Flags and zeal. It was a powerful experience to observe and participate in, but I still wasn’t finding what I needed. The people who surrounded me in that church had passion and unwavering faith. While I was moved, I still possessed faith’s biggest parasite: doubt.
By graduation, I had researched and visited multiple faiths and multiple churches and still, no clicking. Ironically, I chose a Catholic college. My family cheered my choice, declaring that now I’d seen the light and would become a Catholic after all. While I attended the services, said the prayers, and experienced more than my fair share of Catholic funerals, I still wasn’t in the place that I needed to be.
I wasn’t getting what I needed and I became frustrated in my search for comfort. I had lost so much in such a short period of time and I wanted religion to soothe whatever ache I had.
It was my religion classes that started to get me on the right track. I took two religion classes with the same professor. Dr. Cassidy. When I walked into her classroom, I thought for sure that I was going to have God thrust upon me under the tenets of Marywood’s Catholic teaching policy. I was wrong. Instead of a nun, I was met with a strong woman who wanted us to walk out of her classroom with an understanding of human dignity. She didn’t push – she educated.
After taking Dr. Cassidy’s religion class, I looked into Christianity again. Some of it seemed to be a fit, but nothing was perfect. Took Shakespeare and Mystical Writers with Dr. Brassard. She blew my mind with metaphysical understandings of the universe and a much more spiritual look at God. I was wowed and started to think that maybe there was something to this spiritual business. Maybe I could be spiritual instead of fitting in with a church. That worked for awhile, but there was still a piece missing.
Another class, another religion Googled. Ethics was with a Buddhist, so I started exploring more of the Eastern faiths. Buddhism and Baha’i being two of the most considered. Again, a few parts clicked, but not everything was a cohesive fit. Then, one day, I sat on the steps of the library talking with a graduate student. She was interviewing recent graduates for her research on the perception of Catholic identity on university campuses or something like that. I volunteered.
Now, at 22, I was faced with having to communicate what I believed to someone. By this point, I had reviewed different religions, attended different churches, and read more pages on faith and spirituality than I ever thought I would read. Holy the Firm. Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Blue Like Jazz. To The Lighthouse. Excerpts of The Quran, The Bible, and The Torah. Pamphlets from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints stuck in my front door.
She asked me what my religious beliefs were. I didn’t know, so I told her the story I’ve just written. I explained that while I didn’t fall into a particular church category, I had found some “peace” in a blend of Christianity and spirituality. I told her how I felt about church and how I appreciated the sense of community, but not the teachings. I told her how I felt about God, what I beliefs I agreed with, and my frustration over not choosing a particular faith. I told her how I was supposed to be raised a good Catholic but chose to do something different. I described my journey through literature, classrooms, and search engines trying to find an answer.
Then she said the last thing I ever expected to hear:
“You know, for someone your age, you’ve got a really good sense of what you believe in. You seem to identify yourself as a spiritual person rather than a religious person. Not everyone has to fall into a category.”
Oh, my God. Literally. It was a walk-away-smiling moments of clarity.
Yesterday, I went to New York City and visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I gave my donation and lit candles. I prayed, kneeling, in a pew. After I had finished, I sat back and took a deep breath. It felt good. The more I’ve settled into what I classify as my faith, the more peace I’ve gained. I don’t get frustrated when I don’t have a box to check. I don’t feel saddened by my lack of participation in a particular ritual. My higher power, my faith, my spirituality, is tied to something I can’t define and right now, that works for me.
While I won’t go into my beliefs in detail, let’s just say that they’re unique to me and that I feel good about them. Don’t worry – I’m not sacrificing goats in the backyard. I live a pretty moral life and sometimes feel compelled to act selflessly. I don’t go to church. I don’t receive communion. I pray. I worship. I just do it in my own way.
My grandfather has been doing Bible studies and has me going over his manuscripts. One day, he wants to publish them. I’m in full support of the idea and I’m proud of what he’s put together. But before I started editing them, he did something I didn’t expect. He told me to tell him where he was wrong and to point out details that didn’t match up. For the first time for as long as I can think of, my spirituality was regarded as a strength instead of a weakness by those closest to me – and that feels good. My version of faith is like a balm to me now; it no longer frustrates.
The “Do you believe in God?” question doesn’t bother me anymore.