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40 T/D/Y #22: Religion and Faith

As a teenager, I duly went through the process of receiving the sacrament of Confirmation. However, I had never been particularly interested in my religion nor particularly devout, and that did not change with Confirmation. I did accept the basic tenets but I wasn’t passionate about my faith, it was just another circumstantial part of my background, like being Franco-American. Also, my parents saw no conflict between science and religion, or at least never spoke of such a thing. They encouraged us to learn about the world and were happy to let us watch science and nature programs on PBS; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in particular had a huge influence upon me. I understood that the story of Creation in Genesis was metaphorical, and quickly saw that if God had made the universe then evolution, for example, must be one of the systems he set up.

An incident at Scout camp one summer soured me a bit about religion on this point. Scouting in America is officially non-denominational but still holds belief in God and some form of religion—not necessarily Christian, but avowed atheists and agnostics are not welcome—to be a key part of its values. As a result, there would always be a service at some point during the week, and I remember these always being led by some kind of Protestant Christian minister. I have no idea what the Jewish kids did, let alone if there were any other non-Christians attending the camp. At this particular camp, the minister made some kind of jocular remark disparaging science, saying something about how we of course didn’t believe in the “Big Bang”. I raised my hand at that and explained that I did believe that was just the means God used and I didn’t see any conflict there. The minister grinned at me and responded with something that amounted to “don’t be silly, boy,” and carried on with his simplistic, fundamentalist creationism sermon, while I stared at the ground, mortified, and thought about walking out.

At some point in my teens, possibly even before I was confirmed, I stopped saying prayers at night before going to bed. They just felt empty and meaningless to me and I didn’t see the point in saying them any more. I kept attending Mass on Sunday because that was a family thing and it never occurred to me to make a stand and refuse to go, partly because I didn’t have a strong desire to not attend, I just didn’t care much either way.

And then I started attending Thomas More College, which was explicitly Catholic in belief and outlook, and even had two semesters of Theology classes as part of the standard requirements. Mass was never required—with the exception of the midnight Easter Mass when we were in Rome, which as I recall had the dubious justification of being part of the art and architecture class, and which caused a furor among the few Protestant students—but on Holy Days of Obligation most of the school, including myself, would be there. Being around people my age who took their faith quite seriously made me pay more heed to it, and being in Rome, which was an intense experience in itself, also intensified my interest. I attended Rosary (a ritual of prayerful devotion) a few times with some of the students, and got my own set of Rosary beads. I also started saying prayers again at night before sleep. Finally, for the first time since I first had the sacrament of Penance when I was eight or so, I started going to confession on occasion.

This phase of exercising my devotion lasted mostly through the end of college, with my efforts to attend Mass regularly persisting for a while after that. An incident with confession, as it happened, was partly responsible for quelling my efforts to be more devout. I went to confession once at my parish church instead of to the school’s chaplain; our parish generally did not seem as old-fashioned conservative as Catholicism as Thomas More, but it was certainly far from being liberal-minded. However, without getting into specifics, the priest at my parish advised me that I should simply “lighten up” on an admittedly relatively minor-seeming matter that official Church doctrine and the Thomas More chaplain still treated as a sin worthy of confession (although it’s probably a venial or “minor” one; I’d have to check to be sure).

Eventually I stopped going to Mass regularly; I was an adult now, so my parents never made an issue about my attendance since it was up to me. Usually I would try to make an effort during the holy seasons of Advent before Christmas and Lent before Easter, leading to my sister Andrea dubbing me an “ent-en Catholic”. I also generally tried to observe the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent, and of course would attend Mass with my family on Christmas and Easter. I did also continue to say prayers at night before bed, and that has remained a habit ever since.

When I moved to Seattle, two things caused me to put a little effort into devotion again. First, my friend Farida, the wife of my college friend Tony, had been going through the process of joining the Catholic Church after being raised as a Mennonite, and she had her initiation and confirmation as part of the Easter Vigil Mass just a few weeks after I had moved to Seattle. It was inspiring to attend that Mass and see Farida and the other new communicants being brought into the Church, and to think about how this was something that they had deliberately chosen to do as adults, not merely a rote part of their heritage and upbringing. Second, my new apartment was a block away from the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University, and they had Mass at 11 AM, which Tony and Farida also attended; I had no excuse not to get up and attend as well, even after Tony and Farida moved a little ways away into a house and started attending a parish church instead. It helped, too, that Seattle University is a Jesuit school, which meant the sermons felt more sensible, if not liberal as such.

I also adopted one other devotional practice after moving to Seattle. I had stopped giving up anything during Lent, a traditional sacrificial practice that had come to feel pointless to me because I didn’t feel I had anything significant I was willing to sacrifice and doing the typical child’s sacrifice of giving up something like candy felt superficial. At some point, I believe due to an online discussion with friends, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know the whole New Testament as well as I ought to; I certainly hadn’t read it all since college, and the cycle of readings at Mass doesn’t actually cover the entire set of books. So when Lent came around again the following year, I decided that rather than give something up, I would read through the whole New Testament, a few pages a day. (In a sense I’m sacrificing some time out of my day, so I feel that counts.) That has been my practice for Lent ever since, but after doing so for the past several years, I’m starting to feel I need something new, maybe a good analysis and commentary on the Scriptures or something else to help me better understand my religion. (But it still has to be something I can get through in 40 days spending about a half-hour to an hour at most per day reading.)

When I moved across town a few years later into a condo, I again stopped attending Mass regularly, because now I had the choice of either driving back across town to go to St. Ignatius, where I felt comfortable, or walking up the steep hill to St. Anne, which ought to be my local parish, and honestly I have just been too lazy to make either effort. I have continued to attend Easter Vigil Mass at St. Ignatius, and make occasional efforts to attend Mass at other times; I made a point of attending Mass on All Souls Day a few weeks ago, for example, because recently an aunt and an uncle of mine had passed away. Despite thinking about it, though, I haven’t been attending Mass this Advent season.

Most of what I’ve just discussed has been about practices, not about beliefs. I don’t really want to get into beliefs and faith now, because this is already quite long. In short, then, I remain very conflicted about my religion and my faith. There are issues about which I still disagree strongly with the official Church position. I still tend strongly towards agnosticism, due to my understanding of science and its discoveries. I also remain somewhat perversely fond of some non-Catholic/Christian conceptions of religion, Gnosticism holding a particular appeal—I only half-joke that the reason I’m not a Gnostic is simply because I’ve never had the experience of a divine revelation. (As an aside, I’ve always been inordinately amused that one of my essays for Sacramental Theology earned the comment, “a bit too much of the pagans”, but still got an A.) Despite all that, however, I don’t feel a compelling reason to officially abandon the Church; I still consider myself a Catholic. For all the many issues where it seems the Church is getting things wrong or is at least misguided, it also still has a sophisticated grasp of knowledge and truth and revelation—the Church understands the Bible is not always literally true, and and it has some willingness (believe it or not) to adapt and change, to deepen its understanding over time. Although it has its clashes with the practice and application of science, it is not fundamentally opposed to science and is usually willing to incorporate that into its overall understanding. Maybe some Catholic priests would disparage science and pooh-pooh the “Big Bang” theory and evolution, but that is not the official Church position, and that means something to me.


( 2 have written — Write )
Dec. 14th, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC)
how about the bhagvhad gita or the q'uran?
Jan. 12th, 2011 01:36 am (UTC)
religion and faith
I enjoyed reading this, Phil. Once again very thoughtful, insightful, and honest. A little secret: I too am still conflicted about faith and religion. I think that that is a good thing. I actually worry about people who "believe" without question or doubt. I guess I've finally reached a stage in life where I'm able to detach my faith from my religion. I have faith but it doesn't always coincide with the teachings of the Catholic church. I tried to raise you to think for yourself, and clearly you do. Mission accomplished.
( 2 have written — Write )

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