Me and religion, we’ve had a spotty past.
When I was four I could read, spell, and pronounce Deuteronomy. So that’s something. Other than that, my learning experience has been more about what I didn’t want in my life.
I grew up minutes away from the Southern Baptist Convention; that was my family’s church network of choice. We prayed a lot, and even though we lived barely above the poverty line, we put money in the silver plate every week. In exchange, my divorced mother was marginalized because of her marriage status, and I grew up in a teenage microcosm-of-the-world, where popularity meant more than piety.
I was in this teenage girl program—the Acteens—(because the boys had their own group where they did “manly” things) and we took trips to “spread the Word,” but we really all went for a vacation. We did community service, mostly babysitting, which meant the Lord was calling us to watch other people’s kids for free.
One Saturday we caravanned to the local Home Depot parking lot to Windex windshields and leave construction-paper hearts under the wipers with the message, “We’ve cleaned your windshield so that you can clearly see your way to church tomorrow morning,” the rivets of our jeans scraping shiny paint jobs as we stretched to reach the middle. I wondered, that morning, if maybe we were sticking these on the cars of Jewish or Buddhist people. I asked about that, and my teacher replied that that would be even better, because we might be “saving” them from hell.
I knew something was amiss.
When I got a car, I visited new churches. It never occurred to me that it was an option to not be churched at all. I was Episcopalian for a while. Then I was positive I wanted to be a nun, so I went through the rigors of the six-month RCIA (Right of Christian Initiation of Adults) program at the Catholic Church, the same church Peter Cetera happened to attend during his stint in Nashville. But then my RCIA sponsor became more interested about what was in my pants rather than in my heart, so I skedaddled after my Confirmation. I was sure it was a sign.
Then I got raped. I was a virgin, and I was on a date. I had plans to give some nice old lonely rich man my gift, but there it was – gone without my permission, after I had been a dutiful handmaid of the Lord, which was so not fair. And guess what? My upbringing had stuck with me so impressively that I stayed with my rapist as his girlfriend for six months because the good Southern Baptists had taught me that having “relations” with a man made him my husband for life, so I had to suck it up and learn to deal with it.
Months of anguish and hell later, something clicked. I began to think for myself. Much like Sue Monk Kidd’s transformation in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, my own eyes opened to the sexism and classism that had seemed so normal in the churches where I grew up.
My old friends are still there in my childhood church, still happy, all having married each other, and I have no clue how they chose that path. There’s something I admire about it, something I envy about the simplicity of that kind of life. They’re so sure about what they believe, and how the world works. But I couldn’t have done it any more than Yentl could have squashed her thirst for learning. (According to them, Yentl would have burned in hell anyway, you know, for being Jewish.)
Now, I don’t mean to be so down on religion. Even though Richard Dawkins is my hero, I have enormous crushes on Franciscan monks, all of them, and old stone churches make me stop and stare like few other buildings can. I am captivated by the beauty of a Mass, too, but I just have to hightail it before they start talking about praying for all the lost souls (read: me). And I stalk nuns. There’s a Dominican motherhouse around here that’s incredibly beautiful in winter after it snows. I like to park on the street and watch the white habits drift across the white lawn.
Stalking nuns is almost as fun as witnessing the unraveling of the church genealogy in “Understanding Sheep” by Paul Lewellan. It is a confession of a lively Lutheran church that is half-Lake Woebegone and half-Peyton Place, with characters lighting up the bricks and mortar. It captures the best and the worst through the eyes of the almost-thrice-married pastor, showing how churches are not buildings, but people. Some things felt so familiar to me that I laughed out loud. Lewellan’s pace is pitch-perfect, rolling over hilarious details like there’s nothing at all silly about them, resulting in flawless comedic delivery.
“The Bad That Can Happen the Day Jesus Rose From the Dead” by Kevin Catalano is also paced by a pro. The boom-boom-boom of a child’s day, a child’s hour, the jerkiness of the movement of time, the truncated dialogue – these things let me know I can sit back and relax into the story and let it carry me. The dialect is subtle, not at all overbearing or distracting. Some scenes are just a hair out of reach of reality, which works with the child-narrator, whose perspective is really the only one we have, so believing her is almost required. Her position as sole witness provides a narrative tension that I couldn’t quite place at first, but there it is, and really, don’t we all want to believe children?
And here’s where holy days get brought down a notch. In “The Everyday Parade,” Justin Hamm puts the sacred mundane in perspective, drawing on images that are hard to erase. I admire how this poem drops us right in the action, beginning in medias res and sailing through the narrative without any bumps.
I would have appreciated a personal narrative without bumps too, but the truth is that my religious voyage taught me a lot, and stretched out my soul, whatever that means. I’m self-reliant and introspective, and check it out: I’m not killing and maiming people, like I was taught people like me tended to do. I’m kind, attentive, and aware – all on my own, not out of fear or obligation. People like me—the non-religious nuts—we’re not so bad.
My one regret: I totally wish I had ignored the church’s advice and done the nasty on my prom night, like a teenage girl was meant to do. That would have been a much better memory of my first sexual experience than I ended up with. The religious folks, it turns out, don’t always know best, and holy shit: I also found out that they’re human and flawed, just like me. So that means I can find it in my heart to forgive them for putting me on their prayer lists after they finish reading this.
Photo Source: Way of Life