When people say to me “Happy Easter”, I feel a bit conflicted. The “Happy Passovers” don’t bother me, nor do the “Happy Ramadans” I hear from my Muslim relatives. But I can understand why it bothers me; I was born into a Christian family, one which conveyed mixed signals about the religion, let alone the origin or meaning of the holiday. We were a secular family who went to church together maybe five times, tops, during my childhood. The subject of religion was never spoken of in my family; we were one of those educated, white, liberal households who hung their cultural hats on the Episcopal Church, but who seldom actually went there.
In that my parents were music lovers, and in that classical music – more specifically Baroque music – was their thing, a lot of religious texts went along with the territory. And that always confused me greatly. They would sing along with choirs, lifting eyebrows and swaying with great emotion, yet the words they sang were completely counter to anything they espoused to believe in real life.
My mother is fairly foul-mouthed person who would often loudly chastise religious folks for being “goddam Christers”. There was a strong implication in my household that anyone who believed in Jesus – or who was loud about their beliefs – was tacky and ignorant. This message, however subliminal it might’ve been, was delivered to me loud and clear. So when I was 12, I decided that I needed to learn for myself what this religion thing was all about, and I asked my mother to please drive me to St. Augustine’s for service every week.
Sunday school and the occasional youth group events went along with the experience. And, after noticing peers serving as acolytes, I asked if I might not be one too. So began my five-year stint as an alter “boy”, attending the 8 a.m. services with the ancient and unintelligible Fr. Lightburn and sometimes, with nerves present, the high services for Christmas Eve or Easter with Father Mazza himself.
I loved the ritual, the mystery, and the notion that I was performing actions that had been done by so many before, for hundreds of years, in the very same manner. I felt the essence of reverence in the pouring of the water over the priest’s hands before he prepared the sacrament for communion. I loved the very name of the container into which the water spilled – the lavabo bowl – its Latin-derived name just reeked of antiquity. The service – in particular the smaller, less well-attended one – pulled me in. I loved the silence (no music accompanied these early services), the robes we wore, I loved the lighting of candles (there was a slightly stressful moment when you held the long taper up to the candle and waited for the wick to take the flame), I loved the way we two acolytes stood during the service, motionless, flanking the alter. I loved the language too – I relished the recitation of the Nicene creed. (For me it was never the same after the church later modernized the text.) All of this motivated me to try and better understand the meanings behind the pageantry. It seemed disingenuous to be part of a service, the reasons for which weren’t entirely clear to me.
For several years in my adolescence, I struggled with the concept “God is everywhere”. How could this be? And how disturbing was this? I knew He was supposed to love me, but really? Did he also watch me as I undressed? Was he in the shower with me too? This I never liked.
One day in youth group we’d baked little heart-shaped dough pieces onto which we’d painted the words “God Loves Me”, and I remember a moment in the green, wet grass outside in the church’s courtyard when I got it. I had been holding this small thing in my hand and thinking very hard. If God was everywhere, then God had to be… energy! What else was everywhere? Energy was present – latent or active – in every single thing in the universe! Finally, I had figured it out. I was giddy. I was ready to accept this religion thing now. The Jesus-coming-back-to-life thing would still need some work, but at least I now had some sort of reliable footing onto which I could build.
And so I passed the next decade thinking that yeah, there was merit to the basic tenets of Christianity. But of course, the more one learns about the world, other cultures and other religions, and about how power works in general, the more one grows understandably skeptical about the whole concept of organized religion. By my mid-twenties I was pretty sure that the truths that Jesus et al were trying to share with the world had been corrupted by the filter through which the information was given; the messages were coming to us through a lens of privileged men (I’d say “white” men, but there are more races implicit in the re-telling than just the white guys). We were not getting the unadulterated truth. The message – as well as the terms and conditions which the religion laid out for its believers – had become mainly a vehicle for power and suppression. And it was not always easy to know where the truth ended and the falsehood began.
My mother-in-law was the first person to introduce me to more metaphysical ways of organizing the world. She was a bit wacky – and she never really liked me much – but she taught me a lot, and I can credit her for expanding my ways of thinking. A lot of the stuff she turned me on to was, especially at the time, very “woo-woo” and would’ve had most mainstream folks rolling their eyes and passing judgement. But it was material worth considering. After all, we humans have an innate need to quantify and qualify our existence, and every little bit of information helps us along the path. Even if we choose to be atheists or agnostics – that in and of itself is a choice. Like the old Rush song goes, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”. Me, I’ve always chosen to keep my thinking open.
When my husband left me, it threw me into an existential tailspin. I spent hours upon hours reading all manner of material related to spiritual thought. I meditated, I visualized, I learned about ancient texts and beliefs in energy. At the time, I was desperate to learn why my husband had treated me so badly, how he could possibly have justified his behavior, and how it was that he simply didn’t care anymore. The concept of past lives was the only thing that supported my new reality. This idea held the possibility for a definite cause-and-effect phenomenon which helped to explain things. And for a very long time I was fully invested in that belief.
Now, I just don’t know.
A few months back, I started speaking aloud Nichirin’s Buddhist chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” every day. I’m no closer to allying myself with the Buddhism thing than I was before I started chanting, (and I do think many Buddhist folks I know are just as fanatical about their beliefs as are super-devout members of any religion) but I do feel very much in agreement with the way in which all sects of Buddhism champion a continued effort towards a higher level of peace and acceptance. Plus, I am growing more comfortable with the concept of impermanence. And I’m not chanting for religious reasons per se, but for the mental focus it brings to me. The way in which it offers clarity and specificity to my goals. For me it’s a vehicle for good and productive living rather than an expression of any belief system.
And it has me thinking again.
Are we part of an individually, soul-based continuum – or a more general, energy-related, molecularly described continuum? Either way, we are unquestionably made of stardust. We are, on a purely physical level, made of the cosmos, and to that physical cosmos we shall return.
I’m sure that Jesus lived, and I know he was a great teacher of love, and although I’m not convinced, I think he even might’ve come back for a minute. I’ve had plenty of my own metaphysical and unexplained experiences, so I can’t dismiss this high-profile event out of hand. And while I’m questioning such things, I might also ask: Did lamb’s blood painted on doorways really prevent the deaths of newborn babes? Did the angel Jibreel really visit Mohammed and impart to him the teachings of the Koran? Did Siddhartha really banish the evil Mara?
What seems to matter more than the verity of any of these historic claims is that they provide us with belief systems, something we humans crave. We want to know that waking up this morning was necessary. We need to feel important, validated and purposeful. And all of these teachings, at their heart, are about the very same things.
Spring is a time of renewal. And it doesn’t much matter what we call it, or how exactly we got here. A renewal by any other name is still just that. All of it is correct. All of it is right.
Happy Spring to us all.