April 04, 2004
I used to be Catholic. In the mind of the Roman Catholic Church, I still am, since I was baptized and confirmed, and I have no letter from the Church with my official excommunication (though I know of someone who has one). Nonetheless, I maintain that I am no longer a member of the Church, since we do not believe the same things -- a position that I think is both fair to me and to the Church. I'm not going to rant too much about religion in general, since I have already clogged up the internet with that. I only want to talk about religion and me. I no longer harbor any sort of grudge against the Church, and I feel like being raised Catholic did some good things for me. Twelve years of Catholic school, two years of graduate school at a Catholic university and nine years as a altar boy did give me the idea of a sense of "spirituality" -- enough of an idea to know that I both didn't have any "real" "spiritual" experiences and that I desperately wanted to have a few. I read about the saints and sinners and sinners-turned-saints, and I wished that I could feel the hand or gaze of God on me. I almost became a priest in the idea that I might find some of these experiences (well, that was also, in part, because I was tricked into going to a seminarian cook-out with the Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Baltimore by a very kind and well-meaning pastor). I never found them. And, like so many philosophy majors, I read Nietzsche, realized that my religion wasn't doing it for me, and I stopped going to church. The early anger at my Catholic guilt-complexes and other by-products of being raised Catholic, including my ardently cynical atheism, are long gone now. They are replaced by a sober suspicion of zealously religious people and of complacently religious people and downright contempt for the Right's attempts to legislate their grandparents' religion. I have nothing against organized religion anymore, and I can acknowledge lessons to be learned from Francis of Assisi, the Jesuits, and Jesus. But, for me, religion is an exclusively personal and private experience. I have lived to have those long sought after "spiritual" or "religious" experiences by now. It's never happened in a church, since it can never happen for me if I try to make it happen, or even if I try to let it happen. My mother had a wise point a few weeks ago. She said that she walked out of the hospital in Baltimore from a diabetes check-up, and the sun was shining over a warm afternoon in the middle of winter. She said that if you can't feel "God then, when can you?" I think that any connections I have managed to experience with the divine are personal in this way, and they have come from things are simple of the love of another person or sunshine. If neither the sun on your face or birds singing outside of your window can connect you with something bigger than yourself, then what will? I think there are some people who either can't get this feeling on their own, or they experience it best within some sort of group. That, I think, is the role of organized religion: to connect people with the divine who either can't do it alone and prefer not to. I have talked to a lot of Catholics who say that singing or praying in a group connects them with God. I have also talked to other Catholics who feel a stronger connection praying alone in their gardens or bedrooms. I suppose I would like to be able to go to a church and feel something greater with other people than I can feel on my own. But I just can't. What's better? Neither, I think. William James says that one's preference of a philosophy is as much determined by one's own temperament as it is by anything else, and I think that religion is much the same. People who work out their problems alone might like to meet God on their own. People who like to talk to someone after a break-up or a deep joy might seek consolation in other people and might prefer to pray and sing in a church with other such people. To each and all their own. As for me, I feel like I am -- at times -- able to tap into the divine on my own. I suppose I would be a member of the Church of John, then. I'll heartily declare, with Walt Whitman: "A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books," even the Good Book. And, since that's how I manage to find some God, that's all right for me.