On Spiritual Roots

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?