Friday, August 25, 2006

Religious Chick Chat

So a week ago I made some calls to some girlfriends and arranged an impromptu Girls Night Out on the fly. It had been a looonnnngggg week and hey! I had a coupon! Time to go sip some cocktails and split a few desserts with my Girls. It was just what I needed.

The conversation at Girls Night is usually varied and all over the map. Many wide-ranging topics are covered, usually with much humor. I mean, if you can't laugh about your mother-in-law having a complete break with reality and spending 3 hours locked in a bathroom in the fetal position, what can you laugh at? (not my mil, but I wouldn't put it past her) Last week? The conversation took a turn into God-land.

It turns out that the majority of us have all had something to do with the Catholic Church at some point in our lives. Past or present. It seemed as if most of us were raised Catholic, to varying degrees of involvement. Some just went to church on Sundays, but others were steeped with the doctrines and attended Catholic schools through college. Myself, I was a church-going girl with my family every Sunday, did the occasional Sunday School, and did 2 years (5th & 6th grade) of Catholic school. You know what? After all of that I don't know shit about being Catholic. Clearly I wasn't paying attention. Or something. Know what I remember the most about going to church every Sunday as a kid? Watching the shoe parade of the people that walked past my pew on their to or from Communion and deciding which shoes I liked, and which shoes were downright ugly. That and the occasional scruntiny of hair styles. THAT was church to me. Inspirational, no?

But it seems I'm not alone. I've found that MOST "cradle Catholics" (those born into it vs. those who specifically CHOSE the Catholic faith later in life - converts) aren't very educated about being Catholic. You mean there are specific saints for stuff? Don't ask me - I don't know who they are. Quote the Bible? I wouldn't be able to (except for maybe a line or two from the whole "Love Is Patient" verse you hear at I've never read the Bible. Pray? Do I pray? Um, no. I don't. I sort of feel like I don't know "how" to pray and feel very stupid when I try. Plus, I feel very contradictory about that because when I "pray" it's because I want something and I feel selfish about asking for something. Like what I want, even if it's something "good" - (like "please help my mom feel better"), what impact do my meaningless words have in the grand scheme of things?? Isn't God supposed to be all-knowing anyway? Isn't everything supposed to happen for a reason? If so, then my silly "prayer" won't make a bit of difference. I'm more of a woman of action vs. the inaction of wishing hard, which is sort of what praying has always felt like to me. You may as well drop a penny in a fountain, the intent is the same. Praying to me feels the same as wishing and hoping. When I blow out the candles on my birthday cake, am I praying? I wished for a boyfriend, let's say. Isnt' that the same as getting on my knees and praying for someone to love me? Seems like the same thing to me.

So the ladies at Girls Night were all talking about this. It was very, very interesting to hear others have the same confusion and conclusions I do. Most of us who got married in the church did so because we felt we had to for our families. Those of us who've had our children baptized (which is the subject that started this whole line of conversation - that and the question about why do we need to have Godparents anyway??), did so because we felt we "should", not because we really thought we were erasing Original Sin from the souls of our babies. Because that? is bullshit right there. I can't believe a God would punish innocent babies. I believe a God would be all-loving and forgiving. So the notion of Original Sin and baptism seems unnecessary and of a vengeful church I want nothing to do with. And yet, I had my children baptized. Couldn't hurt, right? was my thinking there. And it made my family happy. And Godparents - I see it as more of an honorary thing than really expecting someone to step in and guide my child in the ways of the church if they feel I'm not doing a good enough job in that department. And no, our childrens godparents aren't all Catholic and aren't even the chosen guardians of the kids should something happen to Mr. Chick and I. So what is the point of a godparent, anyway? (back to the original question posed at Girls Night).

Don't get me wrong - my parents are not crazy religious freaks. In fact, now that they have the lake house and are up there most weekends they don't even go to church most weeks. They've really backed off now that the kids have grown and it's not a big deal. My sister who has 3 kids goes to church every week with her family, but I think it's more because they've put the kids in the parish school (their public schools suck, so they went private) and feel an obligation to go to the church as a result. Just a guess, though, I've never asked her about it. My other two sisters? Like me, they don't go to church often, and mostly go when it's a holiday and the family goes together. I find that interesting. Very interesting. Maybe I'm not the only one in my family who is questioning/rejecting the Catholic notions. Hmm....

So all of this has gotten me thinking about what my beliefs really are. Do I believe in God? The word "God" makes me slightly uncomfortable. I find that most things having to do with organized religion and God make me feel uncomfortable. I didn't have any bad or negative experiences with the church, but I find I don't have a lot of faith. I'm realizing that I believe in a Higher Power, whatever that may be, and that "God" is what most of us are familiar with. (although I kind of like thinking of that Supreme Being as Mother Nature) Ok, fine. But there is so much about "church" that turns me off that I can't see ever returning to a church. Do I think there is a heaven and hell? I struggle with this. On the one hand, I want to believe in an after-life. That I will somehow be "rewarded" by my decent behavior in this life. But then again, as a teenager I had an abortion so that should mean I'm going to burn in the eternal fires of hell, no matter what else I do in this life. The fact that I devoted my life to my children and family and raised two good souls counts for nothing. I'm damned already. So why go on? So you can understand why I have a hard time with the heaven and hell idea. The Catholic Church says that unless I confess my sins to a priest I'm not forgiven. I'm sorry, but if God is really omnipresent like we're told, then he "hears" me when I talk to him. When I express my sorrow and remorse in my heart, mind and body, he knows. Why do I need the formality of going to a priest? I don't believe I do. I've had extreme remorse for the abortion, especially since having kids, so I feel like I've asked for and received forgiveness for that. Maybe it's just that I've found some acceptance with myself for what I did and the actions taken by a scared and young teen. Is that God talking through me? Can't be sure.

I also had trouble understanding why, when I wanted to get married and have an outdoor wedding, I couldn't. Not according to the Catholics. To have a Catholic wedding, it MUST be in a church. I call bullshit once again. Because if God truly created everything here on earth, then a park could be equated to a cathedral, and what's the difference?? The priest could just as easily bless the grass we're standing on as the alter, and then it's holy. Right? And I remember something about "when one or more are gathered in His name...", but I guess when a wedding is involved, those gathered must do so in the 4 walls of a building we call church. A vineyard won't do. Which bugged, and still bugs, to this day.

Another thing that bugs? When people say and do stupid stuff like they're leaving important decisions "in the hands of God" or other such crap. I believe God has given us all free will and he "helps those who help themselves", so when people check out of their own lives and leave things to God, I get very frustrated. I don't think God will be making that decision for you. I don't think God will be making that next job opportunity come your way. I also don't think God makes life and death decisions about people. I think it's random, and I think it's biology. Why this child gets cancer and survives but this other child doesn't? God had nothing to do with it. It just happened that way. Am I supposed to believe that God loved one child more than the other? Is that why they "miraculously" survived but the other child didn't? Did their family pray harder? No. Just no. It wasn't "meant to be", it just is.

I'm realizing that the parts of the church I liked had nothing to do with religion at all. The parts I liked were the community aspects. The knowing who else would be there. The friends. And let's not kid ourselves: the coffee and donuts after Mass. I never got any comfort or inspiration from the sermon. I rarely listened. I was there for the people. And when I go to church now - usually on Christmas or Easter - it's to be with my family and share inside jokes with my sisters and see what everyone else is wearing. Yes, I guess I am that shallow. The music is nice, but I'm not rushing out to buy the CD. I'd rather spend Sunday with my family, making a big breakfast and reading the paper together. Besides, at the young ages they are, it's a nightmare taking my kids to church anyway. They are busy and would distract not only me but the other people around me from the service. And really, what would they be getting out of it anyway except a lesson on how to be quiet and color in the pew? Why make them do that when we could be taking a walk as a family to the park, enjoying the majesty of Mother Nature?

Maybe I'm too analytical and literal. Maybe I just don't have enough faith. I'm happy if church and religion do it for you, but they don't do much for me. I would just rather keep my spirituality private and personal, I guess. Whenever an ambulance passes by with it's sirens screaming, I think, "please let that person be ok". Whenever I see a beautiful sunset, I stop and admire it and feel peaceful. When I see my children sleeping, I say a quiet "thank you" in my heart. Is that praying? maybe. Is it me being religious? Perhaps. At least, as religious as I want to be right now. But it brings up the question about religion and what to say/do about it as the kids get older. Already Nicholas is asking questions about death and dying. And it's really convenient to say, "when you die you go to heaven". But I'm not sure I believe that. I don't know if there is a "soul" or a "life force" that lives on after our bodies die. I just don't know. A big part of me thinks that we just stop existing. Period. We don't "go" anywhere. We just die. The end. Not romantic, is it? I'm not sure we're reunited with loved ones who've passed on before us. I just don't think it works that way. But what do I say to my child so I don't scare him? It makes me wonder if Heaven and Hell were invented to ease fears. And hell - again - makes me think of the phrase "God-fearing", as in "he's a good God-fearing man". What does that mean?? If God is so great and forgiving and all-knowing, why would we fear him?? Why would you want to? I want to believe in a God that is kind and soft and gentle and not at all scary or worth fearing. Not a wrathful or vengeful God. Wouldn't that be Satan? And THAT leads me to think about these two warring dieties: God and Satan. I just can't bring myself to believe that God is sitting pretty on a cloud up in Heaven while Satan is down in Hell and they're battling for our eternal souls. Does that mean Life is just a game? The one with the most souls wins? I don't believe that. That sounds like a comic book to me. Or a Greek tragedy.

But getting back to Catholicism specifically, I'm at odds with the notion that only men can be priests. Why men? How are they different, or more special, to be better priests that women? I don't believe they are. I think women can be just as spiritual and connected to God as men, so I have trouble accepting that double-standard. Women are the life-givers. We have a direct hand in creating life by bearing babies. How is that not spiritual and God-like? And so I think most priests are really good men, I don't think they are any better than the nuns or lay-women, and don't think they deliver a better message as a relult. I don't think they have a more direct connection to God than anyone else. And the Pope? The whole Pope as a direct link to God? No, it feels political. I mean, he's elected by men, right? But the Pope is a big part of being Catholic and I don't buy it. Just like I don't buy the whole Communion wafer being converted into the body of Christ. Nope. It's just a wafer and it sticks to the roof of my mouth and doesn't taste good.

And the Bible? I don't believe it's the end-all, be-all guide to God. I just don't. It was written my Man thousands of years ago. It's a good story, but not the whole story. There is a good message conveyed by the Bible, but it's not the ultimate authority, in my opinion. I have to believe it's been subjected to many iterations, the fallibility of man. Did you ever play the game Telephone? How the original message morphs into something completely different as it goes on? I think the Bible must be sort of like that. It's changed as it's been translated and re-written and edited by those Men in power through the years until it's something different that it was originally. It's a good guideline, but I don't put stock that it's all there is. And the people who live their lives quoting it and using it as an excuse for something? Utter crapola and the most annoying thing ever. It's like they can't think for themselves. Those who can use the Bible as part of an argument, skillfully crafting a persuasive point of view and the Bible bolsters and supports their bigger argument have a lot more success with me than those who just say, "because the Bible says so! The end!". Church feels a lot like pure Bible study in a literal sense, and I'm just not down with that. It's incomplete.

I'm finding I put more "faith" in the scientific theories of evolution and life in general. That makes more sense to me than "God created the earth and everything in/on it, including Man, and on the seventh day he rested. Period." So when my child asks me something, like, "who made the moon?" I tend to tell him that the moon was made when the Earth was made and that it's a big rock orbiting our planet, blah blah blah, than to tell him that God made the moon, end of story. Somehow, that feels like a cop out to me.

I'm having a hard time finding an appropriate label for myself. I don't feel I can claim to be a Catholic, since obviously I'm at odds with too many of their beliefs. I'm not sure I can even sincerely claim to be a Christian, since I struggle with that as well. I don't feel Pagan applies, since I don't believe in many dieties. I'm not an Atheist, since an Atheist doesn't believe in any diety at all. I can't fully commit to that... yet. I guess that leaves Agnostic. Websters defines Agnostic as "
a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god." That seems to fit me at this point in my life: Agnostic.

I don't feel like I've adequately explained myself in this post, having just re-read it. I'm scattered and just scratching the surface. I lack clarity. I wasn't even sure I should publish this post and put it out there. It seems to go against the grain if you admit to not necessarily believing in God, per se. A black mark against me - so be it. It seems to go against my upbringing as well. But I can't help it. A big part of me wishes I was a believer, because I think life might be simpler that way. And a lot of people obviously get much comfort in their faith. What do they know that I don't? I guess I'm a Doubting Thomas (look! I DID know the name of a saint - wait? WAS he a saint or just someone in the Bible? See? I'm useless in all matters of religion. No interest in it.) I'm not quite willing to admit that I don't believe in God at all, because that's not true. I just can't buy into the notion of Jesus as God as described by Christians the world over. I sort of see God as a nameless, faceless Supreme Being entity who set up mankind and the Earth and gave us all the tools we'd ever need. Enough rope to hang ourselves, so to speak. What we do with our lives is up to us. I don't need a church to worship in, or a doctrine to believe in. I only need to see the beauty of Life and respect it. I believe life is random and full of beauty as well as pain. I don't believe in a God who would "save" one here but let millions die there. There is no logic to that. So I believe it's random and not pre-decided by God.

I think we each need to live our lives as fully and gracefully as we can, live and let live, be good and honest and respectful towards others, and we'll do just fine. I don't need to go to church every Sunday to do that or to prove anything to others. And what surprised me is that most of my friends have arrived at this very same idea as me, independently. I think it's more common than you might think. There are many former church-going kids who are no longer part of that scene as adults. It's not that they reject the church outright, it's that it no longer has anything to offer them. There is no value to us. And so we create value elsewhere for ourselves. In our families. And friends. We all recognize that churches do many many good things for people and communities. We are NOT knocking churches. If it works for you - great. It just doesn't work for us at this time. Maybe we're the ignorant ones. We are not preaching our way is the right way. I don't believe there IS strictly one right way. And I pretty much hate preaching. I think what we're rejecting is the rigidity of church and the contradictions. Too many scandals. Too much "do as I say, not as I do" stuff.

Does this make me a bad person? No. If you think it does, please go away. Please don't try to get me to change my mind or illuminate the virtues of religion to me. I don't want to get into it. I've never had a bad religious experience, but all things Church have simply never resonated with me. And I don't care enough to force the issue. I tried, many years ago, to explore other churches with my friend who was also born Catholic but willing to explore something else. We tried Presbyterian and Unitarian and a few others, but ended up back at a Catholic church, mostly because it was familiar. But we didn't stick with it. It couldn't hold our attention or interest very long. It didn't resonate. Mostly I think we were investigating churches because we were anticipating getting married and wanted to find a place for that. Silly, huh? Not really the actions of the Faithful. And so I don't want to hear that I've just not found the "right" church. I have the right church: the world around me. I find and recognize the beauty of "god" in the flowers and the trees and wonder of my kids. I don't want to sit for an hour on a Sunday in a building singing songs and listening to a preacher, hoping to find enlightenment. Not my idea of inspiration. If I want inspiration, I go to a lake and admire the scenery. Or I cuddle in the arms of my husband. Church feels impersonal to me and I've never connected with a church, so please don't try to convince me otherwise. If your experience or reality is different than mine, great. Good for you. I'm all about whatever makes you happy and fulfilled and satisfied. So let me have my beliefs and I'll let you have yours. Because that? is the only "good word" I need.

This is a very well-written, thought provoking post and I commend you for writing it, MP. And not only because I tend to agree.
Hello, Long time lurker here. Read Thomas Paine - The Age of Reason. I think it will make sense to you and your beliefs. My husband was a PK (preachers kid). He has never recovered and won't step foot inside of a church. Ever.
Wow MP, everything I thought and felt about the Catholic faith since I was a little girl. I went to Mass every Sunday, Holy Days, Cathechism from 1st grade until 12th, made my 1st communion, and Confirmation all under my parents rule. Did I get A THING out of it?? Absolutely not. I know a fewe songs by heart, I know all the mass by heart because basically it is always the same. All I do is question this religion. WHY do I have to confess my sins to a priest so he can hand me my "punishment"? Is God telling him what my sentence should be??? My parents are devout Catholics and claim my children are going to go to hell if they don't get baptized. Huh?? They act like if you aren't Catholic you are going straight to hell anyway. Sorry, I don't buy into it either. Did not get married in a Catholic church, my children are not baptized in the faith and what good is a Godparent. I haven't seen mine since I was like 5 years old. God is everywhere NOT just the Catholic church. You have put everything I've thought and felt into much better words than I ever could. Thank you
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