I’ve been thinking a lot lately about religion–it must be my age. I’ve had a strange religious journey in my life. My earliest memory of church is of attending Methodist Sunday School on our Army post in Germany and singing hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” but I was really raised–sort of–in the Episcopal church, by parents who had tried out a variety of religions themselves–from the Methodist brand to a very secular Unitarianism–and ended up in the Episcopal church. My mother always seemed to choose her church on the basis of the quality of sermon being offered there (something she got from her father)–so we switched around a lot.
I remember when I was confirmed in the Episcopal church–the process that made me a real member of the church and allowed me to take communion–I asked the priest, who happened to be a very open-minded kind of guy, if I should worry about the fact that I was having to vow a lot of things that I wasn’t convinced I completely believed or accepted in my heart of hearts. He was a sweet, older man, and he said the important thing was to believe in the big picture and not worry about the details. He said this with such kindness and such acceptance of me that, right then and there, I believed: I believed in him, and, since he was such a good, kind, intelligent man, I believed in his religion. The power and virtue of his faith convinced me more than any of the creeds I was memorizing.
My husband and I were married in the Episcopal church by another wonderful man, Mr. Hadden. We didn’t know at the time of our wedding that he was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but during the service, he lost his place, and my husband and I had to coach him along, whispering things like, “Isn’t this where we are supposed to kneel?” We got pretty tickled–and I have always loved Mr. Hadden for smiling at us and even laughing a little along with us. He was another true Christian. (He eventually christened all of our kids in the Episcopal church–even our youngest who was so big–weighing 11 pounds and 11 ounces when she was born–that he almost dropped her at the altar!)
When my husband and I had children, I really wanted them to be raised with some kind of spiritual base, so I taught them to say prayers at night, and I read them some of my favorite stories from the Bible, and we often said grace over meals–but we never could quite carry off getting them to church every Sunday. Getting all four dressed and looking good on time usually stopped us dead in our tracks. This showed in our children: I remember one Sunday when our oldest was about 4, when we took her to the Methodist church in town, and she asked why there was “a big T” in front of the church!
When we moved to Asheville 17 years ago, we tried taking our four kids to an Episcopal church for a while, but an incident there drove me away. The children were lined up to take a modified version of communion for non-confirmed kids, and my oldest daughter took the host in her hand but then didn’t raise it to her mouth. Instead, she let it drop on the floor–because she didn’t like the taste (and because her mother had not raised her right and taught her the proper treatment of the host!). The minister stopped, right in the middle of the service, and upbraided her in front of the whole congregation–which completely embarrassed her and left her in tears. We left that church after that Sunday and never went back.
And, so, after a few more visits to a few more churches, we came to the Unitarian church. It offered a combination of great religious education classes for our kids, great sermons, and a general feeling of acceptance. And let me say right out front: I love the Unitarian church. I love its inclusiveness. I love its whole approach of not putting any one religion over another. I love its social activism. But here’s my problem: sometimes it’s just a little too intellectual and thoughtful for me–and this seems to be getting worse lately. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and want to harken back to my childhood. Or maybe it’s that, with age, I’ve come to believe, more and more, in the unseen things about life, the mysteries that can’t always be explained with reason and logic. Or maybe it’s just that sometimes I miss belting out “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “A Mighty Fortress is our God” instead of the modified, less passionate, Unitarian versions.
I haven’t found the right combination for myself yet–I’m investigating Buddhism– but I do know that, as I get older, I find myself longing for something more–and worrying about not having given that kind of base to my children. Don’t get me wrong: all four of our children are loving, kind, generous people, so I would call every last one of them a real Christian. I have never seen them treat anyone badly or without respect and kindness, and I know that they will continue, throughout their lives, to make us proud. But I do worry about their own dark nights of the soul, when life throws them curve balls. I wish I had given them a more solid kind of anchor to hold onto, something that could help them, even at their lowest point, to keep believing in life and in themselves and in people–since, in the end, isn’t that really the whole point of religion, no matter what form it takes?