I started this post last Easter. A good time for some reflection, but I wandered around and didn’t get back to it till now. My religious meanderings have traveled the same kind of road. I’ve ranged over the years from agnostic to deist. But I’ve always been Christian as well. Or have I? The Cafeteria Christian picks and chooses from this doctrine or that but refuses to sit down to the whole religious meal. That sort of defines me, so I think most devout Christians wouldn’t grant me membership in the brother/sisterhood. My beliefs and participation have been too random and half-hearted. Here’s the history.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the pew, and even a little at the altar. I grew up an undefined protestant. I recall being amazed at an argument I overheard between a Baptist and a Methodist. What was the difference? I couldn’t tell, but to these guys whatever it was mattered a lot.
My folks we’re pretty anti-Catholic, but there was a popular priest in town. Father McGoldrick was called “The Pheasant Priest” because his parish sponsored a fund-raiser at the beginning of each pheasant season. I went to Catechism a couple of times with some friends. It didn’t take, but father McGoldrick did pay his respects at the post-funeral gathering for my father, which impressed me.
Later, At my friend’s small wedding, I was the best man. It took place in Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I refused to kneel at the altar because I considered it a act of abject servility. “So, you’re one of those,” the priest said. He let it go, though, and the wedding came off nicely despite my boorishness. The couple’s still together decades later.
My wife, whom I married when I was 40, is a Catholic. Went to Catholic schools from Kindergarten all the way through college. I attended services with her fairly regularly. As a theater guy, I loved the ritual and drama. Still do. Not necessarily the dogma, but we made some friends with whom I had some interesting intellectual discussions. Still, I wasn’t moved to believe or join.
Because of people we met via my stepdaughter’s wedding, we joined an Episcopal Church in Oakland with a predominantly black congregation. St. Augustine’s seemed a perfect fit for a while. My wife was mad at the Catholic Church for its various misdeeds against women and other outrageous policies and pronouncements. I majored in English, and most of the best writers in the English language were Anglican. The small congregation was welcoming, and we had the opportunity to engage in a number of social justice projects that fit both our temperament and philosophy.
I even joined. Got Baptized and confirmed at Grace Cathedral, one of my favorite places in the world by Bishop William Swing, one of my favorite religious guys in the world. “When the Holy Spirit moves through the forest,” he said to our group, “all the leaves flutter.” I
became a Lay Eucharistic Minister. Dispensed communion both within the church and to shut-ins who couldn’t make it to the altar. I read scripture from the lectern. We made warm friends and learned things about them and ourselves we could never have discovered in a “white” church. I was even encouraged to become a priest myself. But, though I loved the experience, there were too many aspects I couldn’t quite swallow. The Nicene Creed, for example, a staple in both the Anglican and the Catholic Church, asks us to believe in the resurrection of the dead, in the virgin birth, in the notion that Christ sits at the right hand of God. If you can’t believe all that and more, you can’t fully be a part of the church was my reasoning. It was hubristic to think you were smart enough to decide for yourself where the church was right and where wrong.
Eventually, we burned out at St. Augustine’s. Too few hands, too much work. The 80-20 rule applied. Twenty per cent of the people do eighty per cent of the work. Although two of our grandchildren were baptized at St. Augustine’s their parents started going to Corpus Christi where they knew more people. Two others went to the same place. So we followed them. Besides we have a close friend who is a priest there.
We transferred to Corpus Christi with the idea that we’d follow the kids. Of course, they don’t attend services at all. So where does that leave me?
I believe that God exists and that we give him/her different shapes and names. Not so revolutionary. I think the essence of Christianity and of religious life is expressed in The Lord’s Prayer and in the admonition to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Beyond that, we’re arguing ruffles and flourishes. Organized religion, despite its ugly flaws–it is, after all, created by humans and can’t help it–provides a structure and a vehicle for doing a great deal of good. Feeds and shelters a lot of people. Provides solace and comfort. Catholic Workers rock.
So I will continue, I think, to attend. To participate. To use the church to do some good here and there. And I will continue to believe what I believe, in whatever idiosyncratic way pleases me and let all the rest wash over me. Just as do so many in the membership–priests and lay people alike–without guilt because it’s all unseen and unknowable anyhow.