I have been reading an excellent book by Marcus Borg titled Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most. This book appears to be the summation of the author’s own spiritual journey which he characterizes in terms of memory, conversion, and conviction. Memory involves acknowledging spiritual roots from our early spiritual experiences.
A major branch of my own spiritual roots is Catholicism and in particular Irish Catholicism. As I told a client from Ireland once, we Irish Catholics know two things very well — suffering and guilt. Irish Catholicism has a heavy dose of stoicism about it, a stoicism that I see in my own experience of suffering. My mother used to say “It’s God’s will”. I tend to quote Kurt Vonnegut: “So it goes.”
I came across another interesting theme as I reflected on my early Catholicism. Ironically, for a religion that has traditionally been very negative about the body, many of my meaningful memories from early Catholic ism are sensual. The smell of frankincense on Holy Thursday as Pange lingua was intoned. The sight of new fallen snow on the way home from Christmas Eve Mass. Certain hymns sung by certain singers. My own senses have been foundational in developing a relationship with the God of my understanding.
Another important early experience came when I was a freshman in high school. Our religion teacher was Fr. John FitzPatrick SJ and our textbook was the teenage version of the infamous Baltimore Catechism. Early on, Fr. FitzPatrick had has turn to the page that listed all the side effects of “impure acts”, the Catholic euphemism for masturbation. The effects included everything from disease to insanity. Only warts was missing. Father then told us “Boys, take all this with a big grain of salt.” This was a new and liberating thought. He was encouraging us to THINK, not just to accept something on blind faith. I’ve never stopped thinking and reflecting on what I believe.
The Catholicism of my childhood was heavy on guilt, especially sexual guilt. It involved little study of the Bible and lots of rote memorization. Yet I also see that it (perhaps unwittingly) affirmed the role of my senses in relating to God, thus opening a doorway to mystical experience. I see that it opened a doorway for me to think about what I believed rather than just experiencing what Borg calls secondary faith, i.e., faith based on what someone else has told me I need to believe. And, yes, the stoicism of my Irish Catholic ancestors is serving me well.
Reflections: Think about your own spiritual and religious memories. How did those people/events shape your spiritual journey?
Well, there’s the photo of me at age 5 standing beside Billy Graham with his hand on my shoulder because my parents wanted to have a picture of us together; and there’s me wanting to go see “The Living Desert” with my fifth grade class and fighting with my parents about it because according to them “movie theaters are filled with evil and sinful things”; and then there’s me on my knees beside my bed trying to pray away the gay at age 16; and then there’s me getting kicked out of a bible college because my sexual orientation blew out of the closet. But there was also me chasing butterflies in my mother’s flower garden and me picking up sea shells with my grandma on a Florida beach and me picking up rocks with my dad in Big Bend National Park and me hiking and camping in Pikes Peak National Forest in my thirties and me at 50 lying on my belly on the ground sobbing when I connected with Mother Earth in a way I had never connected before. And there’s me discharging my grief in a West African grief ritual and me sitting in a sweat lodge on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. Without the Earth and indigenous wisdom, my spirituality would have never blossomed, and I would have become a bitter, cynical atheist. In fact, I don’t think I’d be alive at all. I’m grateful for all of the images and all of the journey. I wouldn’t take anything for it now.
Spiritual and religious memories and how they shaped my journey. I had one parent who was deployed much of the time and another who worked much of the time so I was partially reared by a Mexican-American housekeeper. Every night she read her religious verses way into the night. When I called her at her home, I sometimes interrupted her leading the rosary. She said she needed to pray the rosary because the world was so “desorganizada” and this would help. I never heard her say a word in anger, ever, to anyone. Later as an adult I became a political refugee and a stranger in a new city to which I had fled. I had no friends there except my husband who was at work all the time and I had a little baby. The members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints visited my tiny apartment every day. They invited me to their homes and to their church gatherings and events. They were my family at the time. These are my memories.