This entry is going to be long and extra-rambly. I apologize in advance.
In my experience, most children growing up in the United States have a consistent religious background. Either they were raised in a particular religious tradition, or they weren’t raised to believe at all. Mind you, I am fully aware this is a huge generalization. Just stick with me.
My point here is the consistency. And the fact that I didn’t really have that.
Another point I’d like to make: No one is more anti-smoking than an ex-smoker, and no one is more devout than a convert.
Take these two basic premises and blend them together, and you’ll get my childhood (in terms of religion, anyway) in a nutshell.
My family is very big on ancestry, and the roots of my religious ambivalence can be found in those huge rolls of paper that some member of my extended family bothered to compile.
It starts on the Mayflower. As most U.S. children learn quite young, the Pilgrims got on that rickety, scurvy-ridden boat to search for religious freedom. I know once they landed that they didn’t extend that freedom to anyone else, but it WAS the basic idea that motivated them to make such an insane voyage. At any rate, they were religious dissenters who wanted to be able to follow their own faith without having to worry about being beheaded/stoned/burned/imprisoned every other minute.
John Alden and Priscilla Mullen married in this brave new world and (according to the huge scrolls I mentioned earlier) began to multiply like bunnies. Something like twelve generations later (no, I’m not going back to check), my grandmother was born into a strict, upright Christian home. Her own mother and father may have seemed like the epitome of conservativism, but only until one looks more closely. My great-grandfather was the SECOND husband to my great-grandmother. Her first husband had been a drunk, and she’d divorced him. I’m honestly not sure exactly when this divorce happened, but we’re probably talking around 1900, so you know old Flossie (yes, that really was her name) had some serious balls. It was a clear path to her – she had strong moral beliefs and was staunchly anti-alcohol. Her husband wasn’t on board with that, so out he went, even though she was uneducated and poor and had a small son to support. So Flossie remarried and along came my grandmother and various other children.
My grandmother married a Methodist minister, so there weren’t a lot of wild and crazy times going on in the household in which my father grew up. Dad’s family was not pleased when he let them know he was engaged to a Roman Catholic girl, and my grandmother wrote him a letter condemning his choice. He had a serious lapse in judgment and showed the letter to my mother, thereby ensuring that there would be uncomfortable family get-togethers for years to come. My father was a scientist, so it isn’t much of a shock that he would eventually declare himself an atheist, especially when one considers the rather heavy-handed religious upbringing of his childhood. To add insult to injury, his sister married an Episcopalian and converted, so I imagine my grandparents were a tad miffed.
Anyway, the end result of all this was that there was no religion in the home when I entered the world beyond the standard Christmas and Easter “fun bits.”
Then around my seventh birthday, my father decided that my mother’s religion looked mighty nice, and so he converted with a vengeance. Before I knew what hit me, I found myself baptized Roman Catholic. They put me in a Catholic school and suddenly I had to get up on Sunday mornings.
(I should also mention that my mother’s family was similarly waffle-y when it came to religion. Her own father converted to Catholicism when he was 90, so there’s no statute of limitations on our inability to commit.)
As I grew up listening to earnest priests and deacons standing by the altar proclaiming the tenets of the faith, I started to realize that 90% of the time, I thought they were wrong. I began to get frustrated, sometimes even angry, at the principles they laid out for the congregation. And whatever other questions I might have had, I was pretty sure that the purpose of attending church wasn’t to get yourself all pissed off.
So you see, religious dissent is a family tradition. I think it’s hardwired into my DNA.
But this is all rambling background. What I really want to address is the concept of faith.
My parents are now distressed at what they believe is my lack of faith. Their attachment to their own religion is making it hard for them to see that I do have faith – it’s just not their brand. Unlike them, I do not feel the need to label my moral code as one religion or another. Each formal religion offers words of wisdom that can be taken to heart, so why restrict oneself? I’m not fond of labels in general, anyway. I can respect all religions – I respect their beliefs, their traditions, and their ceremonies. They have value to those they speak to, and I don’t look down at those who follow them. Except those Westboro people. That’s not religion; it’s ignorance and hate.
On Christmas Eve, I got into a fairly bad car accident and my car was totaled. A teenager driving a Volvo just shot out right in front of me, and there was no way to stop in time. I ended up in the E.R., but my injuries were fairly minor. I pretty much missed Christmas thanks to the muscle relaxants the hospital gave me. We now have only one car, and the kids go back to school on Tuesday. Oh, and the insurance claim is on hold because the person in charge of the file is on vacation. Until Tuesday.
So here I sit, bruised and sore with a boot thingy on my foot, not able to rent a car or shop for a replacement, and I’m actually fine with it.
See, here’s where faith comes in.
My car was originally my grandfather’s car. He paid cash for it not long before he died, and I wound up with it. I always felt his presence with me when I drove it. My faith tells me it was him who made me turn the steering wheel at the last second so that the impact was on an angle instead of head-on. My faith makes me believe that he helped to make sure that I got out of the car and walked away.
More than that, though.
My faith also tells me that, although I lost both my vehicle and a sentimental object, this is a message from the universe that I need to let go of material things that no longer serve me. Today I called a salvage company and watched them haul away the first car I ever bought new – the car that drove my babies home from the hospital – a car that hadn’t run in over a year. In one week, we went from three cars to one.
Because I have faith, I believe that the experience that young girl had that night may change the way she drives in the future, making her more careful and cautious and perhaps one day preventing a much worse accident. In that light, I can see how the accident may have been purposeful, and I can accept that.
Once the smoke cleared that night and I was tucked up in bed, feeling every single muscle in my body moan and protest, I was able to be thankful for more time with my children and husband. I was able to find joy in the knowledge that I still had time to finish my newest novel. I was grateful that I would be able to watch my children open their Christmas presents in the morning. And I also reflected on what the accident meant for me, and what message the universe might have wanted to give me with that very loud wake-up call. I listened for the message.
When people experience great loss or hardship, they often lose their faith. The most devout Christians I’ve met are also the richest – like the story of Job, it’s easy to be faithful when your life is perfect. But if we are to have true faith (in a purely non-denominational sense), we must on some level approach life with acceptance and surrender to the idea that we cannot understand now the purpose of these painful moments and lasting wounds. Faith allows us to have confidence that the universe is following a plan, even if we cannot see or understand it.
Did I second-guess and if-only every single action I took leading up to that accident? Oh, you betcha. That’s what we human beings do.
But if there’s one thing I’d like to share with you, it’s this: Look at the hardships in your life. Is there a pattern? A theme? What can you learn from these experiences? How did they lead you in a direction you wouldn’t have traveled otherwise? You may not see anything. You may even only see negative outcomes. But what did that negative outcome teach you about yourself?
My faith includes belief in the idea that we are each here to learn certain lessons, and that our souls chose to learn these lessons before we were even born. And if we don’t learn the lesson, the universe will turn up the volume and repeat it.
My body hurts and my legs are black and blue, but the universe has definitely got my attention. Because as much as I accept that it happened, this is one lesson that I definitely don’t want to have to repeat.