Sunday, March 05, 2006


I picked myself off the couch this morning to go to my UU service. I wasn't that thrilled to go since the last few services have focused on fundraising and institutional issues, but still I am member and it is a community that has a great deal of value for me. It turned out to be a surprising service, dedicated to the theme of odysessys. Select members of the community were asked to share their spiritual journey with the others and through this act of storytelling help us gain a greater understanding of who we are. I loved it. I could sit and listen to peoples' stories for hours. Storytelling to me is the basic form of building community. When you tell someone your story, you are deciding to trust them, to make yourself vulnerable, and thereby inviting her to understand what it's like to look at the world from where you sit.

While listening to three of my fellow UUs' spiritual odyssey, I couldn't help but wonder what I would say if asked to share. My first impulse is to say that I am simply not a very spiritual person. There are some people in my life who seem consumed with understanding a larger purpose to our existence, or finding value in a transcendent being. Many of my students, I have noticed, are deeply preoccupied with the idea that a loving God gives us meaning, value and a moral structure. None of that resonates with me.

I grew up very active in the Lutheran church. I still have the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer and many other facets of the liturgy memorized. I remember the tenets of our church and I liked the communing with other families that took place after the service. We used to go, almost without fail, to Marie Callendar's after the service, where I was allowed to get a piece of chocolate cream pie for lunch! I also loved the camping trips, bike trips, and family dinners we shared with our fellow congregation. But, I never found myself overwhelmed or swept up by basic religious questions. The entire concept of a God didn't strike me as important or necessary for my sense of self or purpose.

Then I chose to go to a Catholic college. I remember the first time I went to Mass. I thought it the most bizarre ritual on earth. I panicked when the priest gave me communion (which I wasn't supposed to take), because I might reply wrongly. I couldn't figure out when to kneel, when to stand, what responses to say, and what on earth all the incense was about. Worst of all, the homily's were terribly unsatisfying. They seemed driven by guilt. I remember distinctly after we bombed Baghdad in during the first Gulf War, I went to mass in Rome. I was studying in Rome through another Catholic school. The entire homily focused on how important it was for young men to join the priesthood. I was repulsed. I was seeking some comfort and instead got a scolding for not taking my part to preserve the Catholic church, and, I wasn't even allowed to participate as a priest anyway since I was female.

Slowly after that experience in Rome, my interest in belonging to a Church completely waned. It wasn't a conscious break, it was a slow shifting of interests and priorities. I didn't feel incomplete without Church and I was becoming intellectually preoccupied with other questions. Only in the last few years did it occur to me to reconsider the question of joining a Church. As I debated this question, I realized that what I believed was wholly unclear. I still couldn't tell you whether I am an atheist or agnostic. And, you know what, I don't really care. Beliefs about an extra-worldly being are totally irrelevant to my day-to-day existence. My moral convictions do not come from a higher code, but rather are forged through experience, storytelling, and a deep felt sense of what is just.

That last admission--that I have a deep sense of what is just--is the closest I come to being religious or spiritual. I usually never confess to others that I operate with this internal compass because some wise ass will inevitably ask me how I know that my intuitions about justice are right or wrong. This debate will go nowhere since neither one of us could tell you, in accordance with any standards of truth, what the "right" thing to do is. But, I guess my sense of purpose and my dedication to doing what is right, here and now, in this world, comes from listening really carefully to the stories of suffering and joy that others share with me.

I also believe that we have a deep impulse to make sense of our lives and search for clues that we are on the right path. I am not sure that the clues are really there. Maybe we invent them or see what we want to see in order to tell ourselves a story that helps us understand who we are. But the goal doesn't seem to get the story accurate, but to keep telling it, revising it, and fitting it to what we deeply wish for. Without stories we seem rutterless, lost to a endless meaningless and chaotic events.

So, my spiritual journey, if I have one, seems bound up with finding myself in a community with people secure and safe enough to share their stories. If there is anything like grace in this world, it seems to be the magical healing that comes from another person telling you in one of your most desperate moments that she has been here too and survived. While some believe grace to be a gift from a transcendent being, I see it as the gift that we, as fragile, frightened and finite beings, give to each other. We have the capacity to rescue others in their moments of disconnection; we can help them regain their dignity because we remind them that failing or suffering is part of being alive.