Since I was a little girl, I've wrangled with religion. When I was too young to be closed and cynical, I was open, bright-eyed, unquestioning. I remember when it was time to pick my confirmation name, I did some research, and I picked Saint Bernadette. There was something about her discovery, at the Virgin Mary's behest, of an underground spring, that appealed to me. And so, I became, Lisa Camille Bernadette Wines.
All my brothers and sisters were older than me. When the three eldest were licensed to drive, my parents let one of them drive, and we kids went to mass alone. What were our parents thinking? We ditched mass. I can't remember what we did instead. I just remember voicing my concerns, way back in the back seat of the car, about missing mass, and one of my brothers laughing at me, saying, "Wallow in your sinfulness!" That statement became a funny inside joke for all of us.
Later, when we moved to Arizona, we started going to a Tridentine Mass, that interesting version of Catholicism (think Mel Gibson) made up of people who thought that The Second Vatican Council was infested with multiple devil possessions and therefore they refused to accept the changes that resulted from that particular Council (turn the altar around to face the people, perform the Mass in the local language instead of Latin, etc.). Thus, everyone who resisted change, well, continued to resist change. Last time I checked, they still do.
I was 15, and admittedly rebellious. But I looked around at the congregation and saw what looked like those Mormon people that they recently rounded up so as to protect their minor children from sexual assault. One family in particular, with the tall militaristic Dad and his buzz-cut hair, his tired wife with dark circles under her eyes, and a line-up of 38, maybe 41, children. I think they were all girls. The mother and the girls all wore the same dresses, made by the mother. Everybody dressed weird. Everybody WAS weird. They still are.
I was no longer bright-eyed and open. I just sat there and thought about sex, and probably scowled. I was 15.
But does the fact that I lost my wistfulness and replaced it with disdain mean I had to toss out my confirmation name? Discard Bernadette like she was some cheap trick I picked up and forgot about after she, and her magical underground spring water, no longer interested me? I walked away from religious fanaticism, religious stuck-ness, religious judgment, religious shame. But I think that maybe Bernadette is still inside me, freshly washed, and sacred.
My images of the Virgin Mary have also sustained. Belief isn't a part of the issue. It's not important to me whether Mary existed at all, or if she really did have an immaculate conception and bore the child of God without having had the pleasure of a big sweaty hump n' bump in the hay with ol' Joseph. It's all so unimportant. It's what Mary stood for, in my mind, that mattered: gentleness, creativity, softness in a sometimes harsh world. When feeling helpless about the recent victims of the cyclone in Burma, the earthquakes in China, the overwhelming sadness of America's destruction of Iraq and its people, I can only close my eyes and conjure up my only vision of grace, Mary with her soft robe, encircling those millions of suffering men, women and children.
Unfortunately, the whole God concept just keeps pissing me off. Unfortunately for God, he's been defined as a guy. A mean guy. A truculent guy. A guy you have to plead with for mercy. A guy you have to prove your worth to. A guy who can flick you off the face of the earth without a backward glance. A guy you have to obey, or else. This is all just a really bad marketing strategy as far as I'm concerned. God should fire his publicist, and start a re-do of his image. Hell, if a stylist can make Howard Stern sexy, God would be a piece of cake. Wild horses couldn't drag me into a belief system that has some guy like that as it's titular (pardon me) head.
Jesus seems less nasty, being that he deigned to walk on earth amongst the hoi polloi and hung out with prossies. (I like that Mary Magdalen part of the story). His message was about love, evidently, but most fanatical Christians these days have forgotten all about that. Hate and self righteousness has much more power.
Despite all of this, have I ever experienced the sacred? Yes. There have been swoonful moments in my life. I have had no visions of the Virgin Mary, but would welcome one. I have lots of things to chat with her about. I once saw Jesus' framed picture in a guru lineup on the back wall of the Self Realization Fellowship church in Phoenix, Arizona. I smiled and thought, "Yeah. There you are, in the company of your peers. You go, boy." Then I failed miserably helping the church womens at the Sunday ice cream social. I committed the sin of taping the paper table cloths onto the picnic tables, while allowing bits of tape to show. This got me thrown out of the kitchen, and relegated to assisting a nice man and his son as they were blowing up balloons, tying them into happy, bouncy clusters. They welcomed me as an assistant (I've always fared better with men), and asked me if I would take on the job of tying the balloon clusters to the tent poles and anywhere else I deemed appropriate. It was when I was tying a bright orange cluster to the easel on which was lovingly placed Paramahansa Yogananda's painted portrait, that I made my biggest mistake. "ORANGE! You can't put orange balloons near the portrait of the master!" Or whatever they called their revered guru. Two women were horrified at my, I guess, mortal sin. Ol' PY was laughing from his floating lotus in the sky, I gar-uhn-tee.
I don't know about you, but as soon as people start worshipping a scroll or papyrus or book that was written by a bunch of guys, or worshipping a freakin' picture of somebody, it's time for me to go. So, I exited the companionship of that church and all others. It was my lesson that every time you organize a religion, the organized get stuck.
Now, spiritually lonely, I look about me and try to rise above my self-centeredness to see the sacred. I'm sure it exists. I'm sure of it in that wide-eyed, open way, even though miracles are on the decline (not counting eBay virgin cheese sandwiches). I sometimes look at That Guy across the room and know he is a child of the sacred. I look at all my students that way too. Before they even walk into my classroom for the first time. And since I'm in Europe, where classrooms are full of students of all colors, languages and origins, even them thar axees of eevuhl, I am more acutely aware of the sacredness of humanity.
And every once in a rare while, when I can set my anger aside, the acrid, fermenting stuff that covers up my deep, dark, spiritual sadness, my disappointment in those spiritual "betters" whom I've met along the road, when I can see beyond my own personal shame to the light of redemption, I can sometimes feel sacred myself.
I need to take a dip in Bernadette's sacred spring more often, and as I climb out of the cool, refreshing pool of purity and grace, there will be a delicate hand offering me her rose-scented robe, blue with sparkling stars, with which I can dry myself, and feel safe in the warmth of her loving embrace.
This post was inspired by an article by David Brooks in The International Herald Tribune, entitled Neural Buddhists. It may seem unrelated, but somehow, I think it's not.