Are You There Dog? It’s Me Jessie.

You know the old saw about the dyslexic agnostic – “Is there a Dog?”  I’m a seeker.  I’m clear about that.  What I’m not always clear about is what it is that I seek.  I suppose the desire at the very center of all this seeking is the desire for comfort.  I seek comfort.  Being a bookish sort, I spent a good deal of my childhood finding comfort and escape in stories.  The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster was a vivid standout in my youth.  Milo was an intrepid seeker and a lover of words too.  We were kindred spirits.  For me, nearly always, there has been comfort in learning and ideas too, though sometimes new ideas can stretch the bounds of what is comfortable.  This is true with regards to my ideas about God.  I am decidedly uncomfortable with organized religion, but I’m a believer of sorts. One of my favorite prayers is St. Francis’ Prayer for Peace.

Public domain image

My favorite version of this prayer is John Foley’s musical arrangement sung by Steve Bell.   I listen to it a lot.  My spiritual life seems to be more of a personal relationship with God and that relationship is tender and even tenuous at times. It has evolved in fits and starts.  We, God and I, are entering new territory again and I find myself praying more often.  Today, my prayer consists of listening to Peace Prayer on repeat until my iPod runs out of juice…and trying to breathe…in and out, in and out.  My current need for prayer is all wrapped up in the impending elections, marriage, motherhood and humanity.  Big stuff, I know.

Dear Hubby and I recently enrolled our son, Bear Boy, in kindergarten at a Catholic school. Deciding on the best school for one’s child, particularly one’s first born, is far more anxiety inducing than I had ever anticipated.  Of course, the worry began the moment Bear was born.  Folks talk about the all-consuming love they feel when their children enter their lives.  What those folks talk about much less is the all-consuming, nigh on paralyzing, worry that comes with parenthood.  It’s sort of like being Giles Cory with the weight of the world pressing down on your chest (but without the witchcraft accusations and actual stones, mind you). Elizabeth Stone wrote, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” That is elementally true.  I can’t think of a truer thought in the world.  As a parent I am called upon to be the fiercest protector, while all the time being wretchedly exposed and vulnerable.  That depth of vulnerability surely requires something superhuman, something magical, something like hope, faith and…prayer.  While, I’m nearly certain Dear Hubby and I made the right choice for Bear for so many reasons (class size, test scores, community, etcetera), I struggle mightily with the Catholic Church.  Mightily, mightily I struggle.

In the soul searching confusion of my early 20s, I came across a phrase that seemed to speak to me about surviving in the chaos and sadness of a modern world.  “Never cease from praying.”  This may be the second truest thing I’ve ever heard.  I sometimes feel this is an odd admission for someone like me.  I am more of what you might call a spiritual skeptic.  Then again, I’m really only skeptical of organized religion and their religious institutions.  I’m nominally Christian, not in the born-again, fundamentalist, bible-based, moral majority, conservative right fashion.  I’m Christian, because as much as Judaism and Buddhism fascinate me, and as much as other religious traditions help shape my spirituality, I was born to Catholic parents and baptized in the Catholic Church.  So, Christianity is the most convenient of religious traditions from which to draw for my spiritual needs.  I’m still skeptical.  As most conflicted or recovered Catholics will attest, there is an evolution to this skepticism.

My parents were born in a small town.  This was the sort of rural community that had an Irish Catholic Church and a German Catholic Church – and then there were the Lutherans and they might as well have lived in another town.  My father’s family attended the German Catholic church and my mother’s family went to the Irish Catholic church.  Brother Mine and I were baptized in the Catholic Church.  Then our folks divorced and mom discovered feminism.  But, she stuck with the Church, teaching CCD classes, until the powers that be shunned her as a poor role model.  So she left.  I attended mass off and on after that and even flirted with confirmation classes, but ultimately turned away too.  I had too many questions and the Church didn’t seem to answer them.  When mom died, the Church’s official position was that she died in sin and as such would spend eternity in hell.  I stopped believing in heaven and hell right then and there.  My father’s parents worried I would forsake the Church.  Clearly they were a few years behind in my faith life.  I informed them, with a devilish bit of glee, that I would be converting to Judaism.  I really was interested in Judaism at the time.  Then again, I was interested in just about anything that was removed from my unhappy reality.

Not long after, in college, I discovered religion through the lens of psychology and philosophy.  I was introduced to Jung’s collective unconscious and William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.  James said, “The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.”  Ah, I thought, I understand this.  Nearly the next decade of my spiritual life was spent in letting the past slip away and seeking out a new belief system.  My journey back to faith really began on a rainy winter day in San Francisco.  I rode the bus to the central library and walked up the grand staircase to the reference department.  There I asked for a book on volunteerism.  I spent the next few hours looking at a log of volunteer experiences throughout the United States and how to apply for them.  About six months later I drove north to Tacoma, Washington where I would spend the next 12 months living and working in community with six other seekers through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

I continued to wrestle with religion as an institution, but came to embrace my own spiritual belief system.  I discovered the first and only Catholic Church I have ever found that welcomed women and homeless and homosexuals and the disabled and everybody historically disenfranchised by the Catholic Church.  St. Leo’s was a truly remarkable place (and, as a sweet cosmic bonus, it carried the name of my darling Grandpa Leo).  I encountered prayer as a conversation.  I experienced an epiphany as regards Jesus as an historical figure versus Jesus as a divine figure, by finding the divine in my fellow humans. During an evening confession-cum-reconciliation service at a Trappist Abbey retreat center, I engaged in a heartfelt exchange with a priest about original sin.  That evening, in my retreat house, I wept and I found God there with me.  I discovered that my relationship with God was personal and unique and complex.  And I learned that one’s faith life is often only as nurturing and fulfilling as the faith community in which one chooses to grow.

I’m still growing spiritually and I still have questions that are odds with mainstream beliefs and churches.  I don’t believe in an afterlife.  The concept of nothingness after death is more comforting in my mind, like the Buddhists’ concept of achieving nirvana only after leaving behind all worldly ties and desires and worries.  I don’t wish to spend eternity on a fluffy cloud worrying over my descendants.  I believe Jesus is filled with love for and wishes well for all humans.  And I strongly believe the church as an institution has no right to influence legal decisions concerning my body or the body and health of my daughter.  Nor do they have a right to dictate legislation about what sorts of people can legally marry outside the walls of their institutions.  Dear, dear, sweet Anne Lamott  says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  True, though I like to think of God loving all the same folks I love.

So, this brings me full circle to our decision to enroll Bear in a Catholic school.  He attended (and Goose Girl now attends) a Christian preschool.  Originally it was the one local preschool that stood out to me as the brightest and most welcoming space for my kidlets.  Then it grew into a community foundation that seemed to teach love and charity and responsibility.  A place to belong.  My husband attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through his freshman year of college, and given his druthers wants to see the same for Bear and Goose.  I still think we’ve made a good choice, but I worry about how to teach my kidlets to question what the church teaches them.  How do I share with them what is beautiful about a faith life without trapping them by the limitations of religion? I sometimes feel compelled to make apologies for the school we’ve chosen.  How, as a humanist, do I justify supporting this wildly flawed institution?  I discussed this recently with a family friend – both Catholic and politically progressive (an oxymoron right?!). His response was simple and eloquent.  “I go to mass to pray in communion with my brothers and sisters.”   William James also wrote, “There is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see.”  I am pretty sure this is the next great leap in my spiritual evolution.  Today I’ll continue to listen to Peace Prayer on repeat and practice my breathing. In and out, in and out, in and out.

*As an added prayer today, I wish for safety and shelter for all those affected by Hurricane Sandy.  If you are moved to help, here is a link to the American Red Cross site.

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8 Responses to Are You There Dog? It’s Me Jessie.

  1. Charla says:

    Oh my friend, the memories this brings to mind. I think about that time in our lives as so spiritually rich. I felt that I’d found a church home that would be mine throughout my life. I was confirmed at St. Leo’s the year I met you, right? And I thought I could accept that The Catholic Church taught all sorts of things that are antithetical to my understanding of Christ as long as St. Leo’s didn’t teach those things.

    But eventually I found that I couldn’t go anymore. Some of it had to do with my sister-in-law, who worked there but was essentially forced out because of politics, but most of it was the realization that officially, the powers that be saw me as second class because of my gender. And saw my gay and lesbian friends as worse than second class.

    So like you I am still seeking. I read an interview a few years ago about a book on the Bible and the author said that he wished he could believe in God, he wished he could accept the Gospel and happily accept the teachings of the Christian church but he couldn’t. I believe in God, but even that is tenuous at times. But I miss that comfort, if that makes sense. I miss having a dogma that explains all of life’s trials and tribulations. I miss the community of like minds and souls.

    Maybe by starting this blog, this House of Hope, you are creating that community for some of us, just like you created it at the JV house in Tacoma so many years ago.

    Miss you, love you,


    • My gracious, yes Charla, that was a spirituality rich time. I’m a little sad that St. Leo’s didn’t end up being the church home you were seeking, mostly because I look back on St. Leo’s as being the standard for what I hope to find in my community and have not (at least not in the Catholic community).

      I do remember what a remarkable Easter we had that year. The washing of the feet was one of the most humbling and powerful experiences I had ever had. And then we went to Skagit Valley for the tulips. Good memories friend.

      Love you too!

  2. Christa says:

    I think faith is a such a personal thing. I know that we have talked about this before a little bit, but I think giving your children a faith foundation is a great thing – no matter where that “home” is. They will grow to know when and where they feel compelled to question, and they will learn by your example. I grew up Catholic – attending mass every week. I went on to attend a Catholic college and believe it or not, it was there that I learned the most about other religions and that it was ok to question and to form my own opinions and beliefs! My theology professors encouraged and expected it…and seeing that even they didn’t agree or believe exactly the same things as the person next to them was refreshing.

    Many years later, for many reasons, our family does not belong to a Catholic church. Nor do either of my parents. We all have found our own churches where we feel we belong and where we feel both spiritually comfortable, and spiritually challenged. Technically I belong to a Lutheran church, but I am baptized and confirmed as a Catholic. What does that make me? I don’t know. How do I explain that to my children…I don’t know yet.

    My main goal for my children is to give them a foundation. To teach them about Jesus, about God, the Bible, about being a good person and what that means and looks like. To give them a place where they feel safe and loved – no matter what. Like many, I went through a very tumultuous time in my childhood. There were times when I contemplated what it might be like not to be alive, and not to have to deal with the struggles I was facing in my family and with myself. At a moment when this internal struggle reached a peak, I remember being dragged to Sunday mass (as I was every Sunday) and the sermon was a very direct discussion on suicide. I can remember to this day where I was sitting and the feeling I had at that moment. That I was glad I was there. That God was talking to me, reaching out in some way, some how. That I wasn’t alone. What greater gift can we give our children?

    Don’t apologize for the choices you are making. Feel confident that you are doing the best that you can, and with the best intentions.

    • My goodness, I am so honored by your thoughtful and honest comments. I really appreciated your comment about teaching our kidlets to be good people, both “what it means and what it looks like.” When I feel the need to justify myself, it’s not usally against external opinions, but some internal dialogue I have going with myself. Thank you for the reminder to be confident in our decision.

  3. I am totally overwhelmed by your deep feelings on God, religion, children, and how to proceed with all of them. All the topics require insight, careful thought and to a degree, living with the doubts and the questions. You may never find all the answers that you seek but hopefully you will acquire settlement in your mind and heart. It will be a long journey with many twists and turns. I think children require honest answers to their questions and it’s okay to say you don’t know. They need to know they are loved and respected. That their feelings do matter. Regarding your uncertainty about your “kidlets” attending faith based schools, I feel it gives them a good foundation to learn to question and hopefully find answers to what they believe about life and their place in the world. We all have our moments when we dare to say “are you there God?” I don’t believe there is ever only one answer to some of life’s deepest questions. We are constantly evolving, growing and changing. Life is not static, but sometimes very complex and at other times very simple. Now I’m starting to sound preachy and I don’t mean to be. Let me think about all that you pose and perhaps I can offer a better response.

    • I think this was a very thoughtful response Shirley. And I agree, we are provding our kidlets with a fine foundation on which to build. With regards to “the church” my bigger conflict is that they are so much slower to evolve than their parishioners and often protray the church policy as the only response to the world rather than a piece of the dialogue. I will always be at odds with Catholicism and that’s okay.

  4. Hi Jessica, this is lovely, thanks for inviting me to read it. There’s nothing more energizing for me as a pastor than hearing people’s stories bravely told, and also seeing how refreshing these stories are to the people who hear them. In fact, we’ve got a little group of people new to the church meeting Sunday for the first time. I may share a few of your words, to get that conversation going. But where does nurturing community cross over into that “institutional” or “organized” religion territory? Maybe it’s when all I’ve got for someone is a platitude? When I’ve held people hostage to my ideals? Or talked the talk but at the end of the day, when it comes to my life, maybe I’ll do better next week? Or being so anxious about the church’s future, that I’m unwilling to face truth and needed change! Focus on what color the narthex carpet should be, instead. Bottom line, I guess, is that I certainly haven’t gotten to that point where I’ve said “religion’s not so bad, after all.” I wouldn’t say that I’m a “seeker” or one who’s finally “found it.” More that my spiritual life is lived between the nastiness and the amazingness of being one among many doing the religious thing together. Or something like that.. -Bernt

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