April 11, 2009

Religion, Part One

'A man arrives at the gates of Heaven. St. Peter asks, "Religion?" The man replies, "Methodist." St. Peter looks down his list and says,"Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8." As the man walks past Room 8, he hears raucous celebration, but he heeds St. Peter's admonition and tiptoes past. A woman then arrives at the Pearly Gates. "Religion?" "Jewish." '"Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8." She complies. Another woman. "Religion?" "Baptist." "Go to Room 11 but be very quiet as you pass Room 8." The woman pauses and asks, "I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?" St. Peter pulls her aside and whispers, "Well, the Catholics are in Room 8, and they think they're the only ones here."'

I grew up Catholic -- not the traditional rosary and incense and saints kind, but the post Vatican II, felt-banners, guitar mass, nuns in street clothes kind. Traditional or not, as far as I knew, the world was divided into Catholics and non-Catholics, and I was a Catholic.

I never dreamed of being anything but a Catholic -- unless I could somehow be Jewish. Perhaps I didn't quite have the Jesus part down. What I did understand is that being Catholic, even the felt-banner kind, means being steeped in ritual, and so does being Jewish. That was the heart of my experience of religion, of God. Sunday morning mass was all there was.

That, and bed time prayers. They were rote: The Lord's Prayer, a Hail Mary, and "God bless Mommy and Daddy and my sisters, and make me a good girl. Amen." Long into young adulthood I could not go to sleep without this little routine. It had become like a lucky rabbit's foot or a four-leaf clover. I was afraid not to do it, as if the ritual itself had some power to ward off demons.

But it wasn't enough. The demons encroached. Finally, in young motherhood, I was in a deep spiritual crisis. I wasn't a "good girl." Oh, I tried to do all the right things, but life was proving too much for me. Bed time prayers weren't enough. Ritual was not enough.

For a long time I had sat through sermons, listened to the gospel stories thinking, How could Sunday morning and bed time prayers be all there is? This Jesus was saying something far more radical. What was I supposed to be doing about it? Now I was desperate for an answer. If God could not be found by just showing up on Sunday morning and at bed time, how would I find him?

In desperation, I did what I had scarcely ever in my life done: I asked for help. I reached out first from some younger but more spiritually secure members of my family, and then from whatever books I could get my hands on.

There were the many spiritual volumes sitting on our shelves from our Catholic college days. There was the 12 inches worth of shelving at the local public library devoted to religion. I didn't even know what I was looking for as I searched. For God, yes, but what did that mean? So I just read and read and read.

I don't know what happened next or when it happened. If I were a Christian of a certain stripe, I would say I was saved. Converted? I don't really know. I can't say the day or the time. But I didn't know Jesus, except in a vague, historical character/mythological figure sort of way. And then I did.

And then he asked me to do something I never, ever expected.

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