At the Unitarian Universalist church I attend I was asked to speak on Sunday about My Spiritual Journey. Oh God, I thought. Where to begin? When I was young I supposed that by forty all my opinions – political, religious, ethical – would be decided. At 78 I’m politically consistent but still adrift about a lot of other stuff.
Growing up in a Catholic family in England, the nuns at school told us we were lucky to have been born in the One True Faith; I enjoyed this certainty for a while, but in my teens was already uncomfortable with rigid dogma. Papal Infallibility didn’t fit with the history of the Borgias or the Inquisition. When I was 15, the Vatican announced that St Mary had ascended bodily into Heaven and every Catholic had better believe it. I thought at best it was irrelevant and at worst this would stretch my credulity like frayed elastic. However, frank discussion was encouraged at home by my Father, raised a Wesleyan, which eased the pressure.
My Mother, born of second generation Irish immigrants, recalled the most striking lesson in her education: a nun at elementary school required the class to be still enough to hear a pin drop, and when she had their attention, said with emphasis: “For ever and ever, your soul will burn in hell if you don’t go to Mass on Sundays.” Even my Mother didn’t believe this was a Mortal Sin. Neither did I embrace the idea of Original Sin. We have enough sins of our own without inheriting them.
In my teens I sang in the church choir. I love plain chant, Fauré’s Requiem, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and so on. I liked that the Mass was in Latin because it was the same in every country. Familiar with the liturgy, I could follow it in Spain and France just as easily as I travelled.
More tussles with faith arose in my twenties. In 1957 I discovered while employed as nanny to her daughters by a Duchess in Spain, that she’d bought an Indulgence from a priest allowing me to eat meat on Fridays, which was a sin in England. “I wish you hadn’t done that,” I said. She explained that Spaniards were granted this dispensation as reward for supporting the pope in a mediaeval battle. It only cost 25 Pesetas but I objected to paying for redemption. It reflected badly on the Church.
In Spain in that era poverty-stricken peasants gave their meagre coins to the church to bedeck the statue of St. Mary with precious jewels, carried shoulder high in religious parades. I thought it would be better to improve their diet of bread and olives. And self-flagellation struck me as masochism rather than humility.
Later I saw on British TV an Hispanic woman interviewed in her mud floored hut, furnished with a stool and a cooking pot, say in Spanish (not translated in the documentary), “Yes, we had twelve children, but God is good because four of them died.”
I never had a problem with ritual, in fact I liked it. What I didn’t like was the affront to my intelligence and that was decades before we learned about failure to curb pedophilia or corruption in the Vatican.
During my twenties (1960’s) the Pope’s Encyclical interfered with family planning. Some priests courageously tried to help their parishioners ease their conscience in ignoring the ban on contraception, but I argued with one who called me arrogant, when I declined to follow the church’s teaching. There was a brief discussion in the confessional about the rhythm method but, I protested, I was not regular. The priest told me it was acceptable to take the pill to make one regular, as long as it wasn’t to prevent babies. When I called that hypocrisy he lost patience and told me I should get out of the church if I felt like that. I wept; I’d been three years married, and was about to give birth to my second child. But priests in general were more understanding and often tried to help their flock work around the Encyclical.
I tried to hold on with both hands to my Catholic faith, but logic, justice, and humanity forced it to slip through my fingers over the decade, coinciding with the birth of twins from my fourth pregnancy.
In Catholic teaching, if a choice is necessary in childbirth, between survival of the mother or the baby, the child must be saved rather than the mother. I can only speculate this is to ensure the greater survival of the Catholic congregation. The night before my twins were born I told the doctor, “I know I’ve put ‘RC’ as my religion, but if you have to choose between me or the babies, save me because I have three more at home who depend on me.” I couldn’t go to church after that.
That was the final straw for my Catholic faith. Religiously adrift in my early thirties, I explored other avenues to faith, and found the Church of England too Establishment, and the Methodists too self-effacing to my taste: I liked it that Methodist women read the lesson, but while singing a hymn about being “lowlier than a worm” I rebelled, thinking “I am not lowlier than a worm. I’m doing my best.” I’ve never grasped the finer points of Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist etc. and I hadn’t heard of Unitarian Universalist. I thought Quakers all wore grey bonnets and addressed each other as ‘thee’. I stayed at home on Sundays.
To improve my earning power I went to university at 42, when the boys were 8 to 16. I was seeking a path to economic independence. In a Sociology seminar the Professor posed the question, “Why is it that in every society, man seeks religion?” No one spoke. Sociology has a language all its own and we didn’t understand the question, or rather the answer he was seeking. When he repeated it I said, “Perhaps there’s something in it.”
He was apoplectic. “Because man seeks to make sense of his world!” he bellowed. I told him I thought university was a forum for debate. He was still ridiculing me as the seminar ended. One of my friends was a lecturer in his department. She told me that he was asking faculty members, “Who is this dreadful Dight woman?” Realizing I’d made an enemy of the head of department, I switched to studying International Politics.
Around this time a marriage guidance counselor told me about the Quaker group he belonged to and gave me a slim booklet entitled “Advices and Queries”. I was amazed that Quaker tenets could be encapsulated in so few pages and in the few minutes it took to read, there was nothing to which I took exception, and nothing I was obliged to believe in order to join the Society of Friends. I started attending Quaker meetings in 1982 and continued with some breaks over the next 30 years. I found Quakers genuinely open minded and tolerant, liberal and receptive, for example to LGBT. Some Quakers are also Buddhist.
I realize in retrospect that I was always seeking a group of people with whom to share faith. Why did I feel it necessary to join a religious group at all? I always found Jesus’ teaching convincing even when I couldn’t picture God. Since I stopped seeing Him as a benevolent grandfather, I can’t imagine God. God doesn’t need gender and isn’t limited to our image. I find the Earth so wonderful, I marvel at its complexity and beauty. I lift up my eyes to the mountains, and while watching a minute insect so small it’s barely visible, walk across the page of a dusty book, I wonder at the muscles, veins and digestive system contained within that speck.
When my children were small, not wishing to mislead them in any way, I told them “I think there is a God but I can’t promise you. I just want you always to keep an open mind and to think for yourself.” The irony is that in middle age one of my sons is an avowed atheist, saying science and religion are incompatible (I disagree) and the only one of my sons who goes to church accompanies his Irish wife to Mass. When I cautioned him gently about Catholics believing all they are required to believe he said, “It’s a way of life, Mum.” So I have four Catholic grandchildren out of twelve.
The extent to which people in Ireland have modernized their views in recent years is notable. In their Referendum last month Ireland became the first country in the world to vote to legalize same-sex marriage, only two decades after homosexuality became legal. The church doesn’t like it but 62% of the people do. Their independence of thought presumably owes much to their disillusion concerning predatory priests. The churches are still full.
In the light of overpopulation in the world I consider the Catholic church’s continuing opposition to contraception irresponsible if not criminal. Is it OK to overpopulate the planet provided the extra people are predominantly Catholic? I don’t think so. A religious body run by men lacks insight into the realities of family life. Their refusal to allow women into positions of authority is another failing.
I regret I’ve largely failed to encourage my children to be faithful. I raised my family to be moral as I understood it. They are honest, truthful, don’t steal or covet their neighbors’ goods. They’re compassionate, socially responsible and kind. But you can have all those qualities as a Humanist.
I believe that all religions, not just Christians, are on a path to their version of the same God: many paths to one destination, some of them rocky, and we have no right to judge others’ beliefs or to assert our own as superior. I also see religion as a means of social control and responsible for many wars. Every person has the vast responsibility to think for himself.
I think there is a life hereafter. I’ve read about near death experiences and seen some convincing mediums. Reincarnation is a concept I don’t understand but after forty years of research at the University of Virginia into 3,000 plus incidences of alleged past lives, reincarnation is considered proven by many there. The majority of the population of India and 25% of Americans believe in reincarnation.
Last year two friends in the UU community encouraged me to join in Sunday worship. I’d been attending the local Quaker meeting for nine years, since I came to America. But I live alone and the customary Quaker silence at meetings had become oppressive to me. I need the interchange of ideas and my head, forever busy, is hard to focus in a vacuum. At UU I welcome the inclusivity and encouragement of debate in the congregation, and I value that like Quakers, it is lay led. The hour we share on Sundays goes quickly and leaves me spiritually refreshed.
I’ve often felt lost on my spiritual journey but keep on trekking and I still don’t know where the road will go.