Anyone who was brought up in the Catholic faith will understand what I mean when I say that I've spent most of my life thinking that faith and religion were one and the same. The routine was .... well.... very routine. Weekly Mass, religious ed, etc ... I was spared the indignity of being forced to attend Catholic school, but I sat in Mass each week like a good little soldier, and in my mind, Mass=God=Faith= Eternal Salvation.
As an adult, I was exposed to other Christian religions and the Jewish faith, and I was sort of shocked to learn that these folks also thought that they held the key to the afterlife (well, some Jews don't believe in the afterworld, but whatever!). When music re-established itself in life, I began to equate my participation in Mass as a musical thing that equated to faith. The music liturgy seemed to define my devotion. A fantastic music program at my church translated into me feeling quite religious and fine indeed.
So, what happened when the music liturgy was less than fantastic? I was forced to actually listen to the Mass and the homily with mature ears. And I wasn't sure I liked what I was hearing. What else was out there? Protestant churches? Unitarians? Universalist Unitarians....... New Life, Brothers of the Lord, Disciples of Christ, ....... huh? The luxuries of Protestantism beckoned. Cushioned pews. Welcome areas. Pre- or post-service coffee gatherings. Real choir areas not located at the top of punishing flights of stairs. And the coat racks ... oh, the coat racks! I digress..... Even as I occasionally indulged in these trappings, I still felt like there was something missing.
I remember that famous line from the first Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton - "It's the economy, stupid!". For me a few months ago, it was "Hey, it's Jesus Christ, stupid!" I read some materials that dared to suggest that the actual commandments of Jesus were more important than anything spoken or written by his Apostles or any men who came afterward. The more I read them and thought about them, the more I realized how little established religious practices have in common with them. Gandhi was famously quoted as saying "Your Christ.. I like him very much. I don't care for your Christians. Your Christians are very un-like your Christ." I wondered what would happen to my faith if I were to stop concerning myself with all of the superficial "stuff" that fills established religions and instead were to concentrate on Christ. Just Christ.
As the months passed, I focused on the commandments of Jesus in my daily life. What changed? I was less critical of the religion of my childhood. I realized that it could be an important social component of my life that could serve as a means to help keep me focused on the study of my personal faith. As I looked at my fellow Catholics, I was surprised to detect thoughts and feelings very similar to mine. Views toward sexuality, homosexuality and "traditional families" were leaning much more toward a "live and let live" philosophy... this was new? ...or maybe I just hadn't taken the time to notice before.
Where does this leave me today? Today, organized religion is an activity that helps me to carve out time for my faith, but it does not define my faith. For me, faith is mental. For me, faith is a feeling and a conviction. Faith for me is:
- knowing that if I try to treat everyone with dignity and respect, I will almost always come out on the other side having learned something. Some of the most surprising experiences come when you acknowledge someone who you might feel totally disengaged or alienated from - for whatever reason.
- knowing that sadness, sorrow, personal tragedy and obstacles are part of a bigger plan that I may not understand now or maybe ever.
-knowing that moments of beauty and sweetness can exist within those tragedies if we allow ourselves to see them.
-knowing that one of the greatest joys we can ever experience is to pray for someone other than ourselves and to have those prayers answered.
-knowing that I am perfect in my imperfections and that I can identify and acknowledge those imperfections without bashing myself, because faith is an ongoing work in progress.
-knowing that the good things in my life are worth fighting for. Because they won't always be joyful and perfect, but they will be sometimes challenging and always ever-evolving and always worth the effort.
Love one another as I have loved you. It doesn't get any simpler than that.