Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Who's Joining Me on My Next Journey?

Or, this post could be more appropriately named, "The Longest Post Yet."

Happy New Year! Rather than making resolutions, I’ve set goals for myself, but that’s not what this post is about. Outside of my goals, I’ve decided this year I’d set out on my own spiritual quest by exploring other religions to discover what spirituality is, what it means to other people an what it means to me.

Let me explain…

Why do we cringe when others mention religion? Our currency has “God” written on it, when we say the “Pledge of Allegiance,” we say, “one nation under God,” yet, we can’t openly talk about God or faith without fear of offending someone. Religion seems to be the hot topic in the presidential race. Why does religion make us uncomfortable? Is there a difference between religion and spirituality?

Religious Mutt
I think of myself as a religious mutt, my father is Lutheran and my mother is Catholic. Somewhere along the way, I was asked who I wanted to go to church with. My father’s Lutheran church services seemed to last for hours on end but the Catholic masses were done in under an hour, 45-minutes on a good day. Best of all, Catholics can attend mass on Saturday so church didn’t cut into precious sleep time on Sundays (although, we frequently attended 8 a.m. mass).

Given the choice, I opted to go Catholic but truthfully, not sure if I was really given the choice, at least I was made to feel I was given one.

During my childhood and young adult life, I lived in the shadowing fear of Catholic guilt. If I did anything I deemed bad, or bad by my parents or the Church, I was condemned to hell. My whole childhood and young adult life I did things because I didn’t want to go to hell. Not only is it a bad place but hot and I don’t do well in heat. My salvation, so to say, was an introduction to the born again Christians (I'll refer to them as: BACs).

I Was Saved! (Or, Free Pass to Heaven!)
My first summer working in Yellowstone, I befriended many college-kids who were part of Campus Crusade for Christ. Best I could figure their mission was to “save” as many park employees as possible. I even think they had a quota because by the end of the season, I gave in along with a couple of other friends.

Now, I don’t say this in a bad way, but I was saved. Amen! HALEIGHLUYA!!

What does this mean? I accepted Christ into my life.

Hello? Are you still with me? Okay, I can hear the silence (and disbelief). Let me continue.

Looking back, it’s all a little blurry. No, I don’t think I was served Kool-Aid, but am pretty sure I was tag-teamed into this accepting Christ into my life business. Again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing and thought of it as a backup plan to get into heaven, in case I didn't meet the Catholic standards. And, it’s not like I had to rob a bank or commit some sin to accomplish this. Didn’t even have to sign anything (which I’ve heard rumors members of the Mormon Church have membership cards, is this true???).

The selling point of the deal was learning no matter what sin I had and would commit, by accepting Christ, I was picking receiving a “get out of hell card.”

“Now, I can kill someone and still go to heaven?” I asked (Mind you, this is something I wouldn't do).

“Yes,” was the reply.

“I could kill a dozen people and still go to heaven?” Another hypothetical question I asked, believing this “get out of hell card” was too good to be true.

“Yes.”

“Interesting,” I thought and this is where I began questioning faith, spirituality and realized how hypocritical religions are. With my Catholic background this didn’t make sense. But, according to the BACs, I could do anything and commit any sin because as long as I accepted Christ, I had my pass into heaven.

Purgatory doesn’t exist in the BAC world. Upon death, my soul wouldn’t have to sit in the purgatory waiting room praying and repenting to get into heaven. I remember back in Sunday school a nun showed a drawing of men and women looking miserable. She told us they were in purgatory. These people were not evil enough to be sent to hell yet, they didn’t live pure enough lives to make it into heaven right away. We were told to pray for one of them to ascend to heaven (I remember praying for some woman who looked like the Virgin Mary). If only the nun (and the souls in the drawing) knew how easy it was to get into heaven she could have done other things than praying. Of course, not sure what else she would have done.

When I accepted Christ on top of some mountain in Yellowstone, I felt a burden lifted. A bit of the Catholic guilt controlling my life lifted (although it soon returned and I still live with it daily).

Considering myself a BAC didn’t last long, it didn’t feel right. Upon returning home to Western New York and college, I didn’t find a group to keep the devotion going.

Have I Lost the Way?
Since then, 15 some years, I’ve been in my own religious/spiritual limbo. I was married by a youth minister (and friend) in my parent’s backyard, something not recognized by the Catholic Church. I’ve since divorced, making me feel unwanted in the Catholic Church (by Church law, I can’t take communion, but if I was never married in the Church, does that count? Probably.).

I recently learned my paternal grandfather was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for marrying my grandmother, a Lutheran, in the Lutheran Church. (He was later let back in).

I’ve discussed faith with a friend and cult member. He told me the Catholic religion is one of the oldest cults. Traveling to Italy in November made me very aware of the Church’s cult-like tendencies. I’ve prayed in Japanese temples and have randomly stopped in Catholic churches while traveling in the U.S. to light candles for those who need them lit (BTW - some churches don’t have candles. Drop in 25 cents and push a button to light a light bulb). I’ve even survived the full-length tour of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and resisted the conversion (Note to timeshare sales people – look out, I can’t be broken).

I often wonder if having a better grasp and understanding of my faith and spiritual belief (I’m staying away from the word “religion,” at least for now) would make me feel more content in my life.

So Many Questions, But Are There Answers?
It's the beginning of the new year and I’m on a journey to discover the meaning of spirituality. I have so many questions I want personally answered, such as, why do we choose the faith we do? Is it just because of our parents? When do we change our beliefs? When do we give up believing in faith? What does spirituality mean to individual people? Why do we cringe, get uncomfortable or make fun of people who share their faith? Are we afraid of something?

I saw my sister’s mother-in-law the day after Christmas. Out of nowhere she told me her neighbor is friends with the Dalai Lama and if I ever needed an interesting person to interview, I should consider him (the neighbor, not the Dalai Lama, or maybe she meant the Dalai Lama, too). I took this as a sign I need to move forward with this idea and discover the meaning of faith and spirituality.

I have no illusions of meeting the Dali Lama on this journey but I hope to meet some interesting people. I’ve already located a voodoo priestess in New Orleans for the April volunteer project. I’m going to TRY and visit different houses of worship in my community as well as when I’m traveling. And if the Jehovah Witnesses stop by one Saturday, I may just as well invite them in for a spot of tea.

A friend recently said to me, “You like to keep busy, don’t you.”

It's not keeping busy that I like. I enjoy learning, I’m curious about the world, universe and individuals. Fear is based on the unknown and maybe that’s why faith makes us uncomfortable, so much of it is unknown.

There’s so much I haven’t done, said or written because I’ve been afraid of what people may think. This time, I’m not letting that fear prevent me from pursuing this idea. If I fail, it’ll be because of me and not what others think.

Whether you think I’ve gone crazy or not (I can only imagine what my family is saying now), I hope you’ll enjoy the journey and share your input and help me understand what spirituality is. There’s no right or wrong answer.

So talk to me, what do you believe or don’t? Why?