Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A transformative moment

I've just discovered Steven's blog, and the suggested meme for today. It's just the kick I needed to get this idea down on paper (screen!) and out there.

A transformative moment.
It was the spring of 8th grade, at church, in the classes preparing us for Confirmation.
Catholicism for me up to that point had always and exclusively been a Sunday thing. Well, plus the occasional get-out-of-school for a morning for the odd holy day of obligation (I would rather have stayed in class than go to Mass, but Mom would take us).
I never especially liked church. Dressing nicely is not my thing. Catechism held little interest (a nice fairy story, but do they have to tell it over and over and over; are there no other stories on the shelf?). I didn’t have any friends there. And Mass itself was just so boring. Sometimes I’d get dizzy from all the standing and sitting at attention I’d get nauseous and by the time the Sign of Peace came around I was ready to throw up in the aisle. Which I did on more than one occasion - remember that time in the cathedral, Mom?
That brings me to one of the build-up moments. We were at evening mass downtown, during the homily, when a man on the other side of the aisle held up his hand to ask a question. The priest ignored him. The man insisted with his raised arm, respectfully, but persistent. The priest went right on as if he didn’t see anything at all.
And I thought, what is this? What's he doing? Can you really ask questions in church? Nobody ever told me I could ask a question.
And I thought, well that’s not very nice of the Father. The man has his hand up, waiting patiently to be called on. Why doesn’t Father let the man ask the question? I want to know what it is. I want to know what the priest will say when he’s not reading from a script.
I went away that night thinking of the man who kept his arm up for a good many minutes, and the priest who kept on giving us our weekly lesson, whatever it was, all the while shooting annoyed looks at the question man.
Why can’t you ask a question in church?
Of course I know that there are many other occasions for asking your questions, and interrupting evening Mass at the cathedral in San Diego is not the most discreet.
But why can’t you ask a question in church? And aren’t the thoughts behind those killer glances from the pulpit sins, of a sort, and there’s the priest right now, in the middle of mass, thinking bad thoughts? I was a kid. I went off on these tangents.
Then confirmation class. It was the first time I’d really examined my faith. As long as I didn’t examine my faith, I could pretend to have some, maybe just a little, back there on the floor of the braincloset with the rest of the things I don’t ever really think about. But now it became clear. All those bible stories, all the Jesus Loves You, the entire eternal life business, I just didn’t buy it. I’d examine it, and it didn’t hold up. I didn’t believe in miracles. I didn’t believe I was being watched over by angels. I didn’t believe I was loved by some person who lived long ago and far away and who furthermore had been killed.
I would have liked to believe. A lot of people apparently took a lot of comfort from it, and there did seem to be an advantage in going to heaven as opposed to hell if indeed such places existed. I really wanted to belong to the club. But belief is a matter for the heart, and my heart wasn’t in it. So I started to feel guilty about not believing, and it was a sin to lie and pretend I did (though if the whole thing is just a story then “sinning” is part of the story and from there you can go in circles until you figure out that morality is independent of religion), and a terrible sin to receive communion in this state of apostasy but how could I refuse to step up for communion with my parents right there?
And then there were all the things that God was supposed to want us to do, or not do. A whole lot of people seem to know what God wants, and their messages are sometimes in conflict. It’s a lot for a kid to figure out. Some kids just take it all in, being Catholic to their marrow from the day they were baptized. Not me.
Then in class we got to a certain thing that God wanted us to do. He wanted us to use our gifts to the fullest. And what is God’s greatest gift to mankind but our capacity to think? We can reflect, and question, and build theories, and discover. God wants me to think. My thinking leads me to see there is no particularly good reason for me to believe in the existence of God. For me to deny this doubt would be putting my brain under a bushel and therefore a sin against the god I was trying to believe in. Was it the philosopher Blaise Pascal who decided it was better to believe, because if there is no god it doesn’t matter, but if there is it’s better to be on the right side. Well, one day it all boiled down to a conclusion: I’m not an atheist for whom God cannot exist, but I am one of those doubters, an agnostic.
I doubt God. But it’s okay; He told me to.


Tessa said...

A beautifully written and thought-provoking post. Thank you for sharing that with us - an absolute gem.

Thank you, too, for visiting my blog and for your lovely comment. It is so nice to 'meet' you! xx

Butler and Bagman said...

Wow! I had the same experience...not with raised hands in church but discovering doubt in the process of confirmation. I, too, became an agnostic. My grandparents who raised me insisted that I go through the confirmation ritual (probably for other family members) but allowed me to choose afterwards. I chose not to go. It wasn't until years later in A.A., needing a power greater than myself, that I developed a faith in God -- although I still refuse to try and conform that belief into a rigid religion. I just feel something at work in my life and I call it God and even enjoy some churches but they don't have to be Catholic or Protestent, or even Christian for that matter.

steven said...

hi nanu, thanks for joining in on this day!!! ive linked you from my blog so hopefully people will make their way over and read this amazing piece. i grew up as a "protestant" but had many very similar experiences of questioning, wondering, and very fortunately i came from a family in which both grandfathers were ministers and one was actually prepared to talk. he was intrigued by other religions and brought his son up to be a seeker and to ask questions, which in turn was handed on to me. so i have a pretty clear sense of what i think. i also know that life is long and every moment brings transformation with it. hence the meme!!! have a lovely evening. steven

Eryl Shields said...

I know exactly how you feel!

NanU said...

Thank you, all. This meme and these new blogfriends came just at the right time. I've been meaning to articulate these ideas for a while, but it isn't easy. And sometimes I get so fed up with religious people who assume that without an angel on my shoulder my life must be devoid of meaning. Hardly! Besides, I'll be happy to believe in a higher power once I find a compelling reason to do so. I'm not so much anti-God as anti-religion, anyway.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Nanu - so nice to discover you by means of steven's meme.

I too, am an agnostic apostate! A different religion, a different process - but the same reflections, questions and conclusions.

And I delight every day in my freedom to think my own thoughts and delve into the wisdom of other philosophies.

Truly transformative to take such a stand for oneself.

Titus said...

NanU, that was a wonderful piece of writing and I loved the way it built to it's conclusion. I think I have faith in my genes (or my nuns did a good brain-wash job!) and just exclude reason from the equation but your cogent reasoning here was so interesting and comprehensible. Thanks, really enjoyed it.

Reya Mellicker said...

God isn't the problem, but churches and especially narrow minded church officials are a really big problem. Of course you should be able to ask a question in church, unless you're doing it to break the energy.

I love seders because they are a chaotic mix of ritual, questioning and arguing, too. Plus food and wine. That's my kind of religion.

This is a wonderful story. And don't you love the way Steven made all of us think so hard? That's great, if you ask me!

Amy said...

Oh, I'm so very glad that you found me or that I found you or that we found each other!

This post is wonderful. As I was reading it, I thought, "What a courageous question to ask as a child. 'Why can't we ask questions in church?'" Of course, having become adults who question, we know why don't we?!

Question everything, yes?!

Totalfeckineejit said...

i've thought for a while now that'Question time' after mass would be a good idea. :)