My quest for a personal connection with religion began years ago, with the understanding I would get there someday. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would be on this path for a while, with some sort of ‘end’ eventually becoming clearer. In fact when asked my religious beliefs I always wrote “TBD.” With Christmas approaching the past few weeks, I have found myself thinking more about my current status on my path of religious discovery and consequently what Christmas truly means to me. My reason for the season.
My father was raised Baptist, more as a thing his parents believed should be done than something in which they believed themselves. Upon discovering science, he never saw room for both to exist in his life. My mother has never said much specifically about religion but always saw it as a sense of community. I was put in many church summer camps throughout the years at various churches, simply as an experience. And anytime they became too fundamental, I was instantly removed. One of my favorite childhood stories involves me being instantly withdrawn from a summer camp when I brought home a black bead to symbolize my sin. My mom was much too liberal for most churches in the area.
Consequently I’ll give any church, any religious experience at least one try. The first time I ever connected with a church was a nondenominational Christian church in Kirkwood, MO which several of my friends attended. I probably would have attended more if it wasn’t an hour away – which is a big drive for a young high school student in West County. The mid-week youth group grabbed me and was just down the street. Questions were presented as possibly having many answers, everything was largely up to your own interpretation, yet they always concluded with the doctrine of the church. Guidance with room for an individual experience.
Along the way I had also attended Catholic mass, services at a few different Methodist churches, and for a while attended a Baptist youth group (and church a few times) with a boyfriend. Let’s just say that of all of that, the Methodist church stood the best chance. In an attempt for more education on all religion I even had the chance to attend an open house at a mosque in Columbia. It was a bit of a rushed experience and I wish I could see it and the operations on an average day. There’s a few other religions on that wish list as well, which I need to force myself to make happen.
In the past year I’ve felt a greater pull to explore my beliefs. In one day I started my morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church and ended with Solemn High Mass at Trinity Episcopal Church. The high mass was beautiful. Rich in tradition and unlike any service I had witnessed before. But to me it was more of a beautiful show than something with which I connected. However, the entire time I was at the church I thought “what a beautiful start to the week they have.” Such a warm, intense mass before entering Monday morning.
At the Unitarian Universalist Church I witnessed the Water Ceremony which begins their year. Having been founded largely by professors who traveled during the summer and returned for the academic year, this ceremony was basically to bring back home a piece of their journeys. Each member collects water from their summer (or brings water to represent something symbolizing their summer) and pours it into one bowl as they tell the congregation of it’s significance. The bowl is then used to water the plants around the Peace Pole. “The combined water is symbolic of our shared faith coming from many different sources.” This was an excellent introduction for me. “Shared faith coming from many different sources” was exactly what I was seeking.
Another religious experience of note was my visit to the Washington National Cathedral. For someone on a shoestring budget and without a car, getting from Foggy Bottom where I was staying to the Cathedral was a journey. As that summer I was determined to see every inch of the city, I made the trek one Saturday. And I was instantly in awe. Something felt so right. To say I got chills isn’t exactly correct but I knew I could stand there and experience it for days. I’m a tactile person to say the least and all I wanted to do was stand and touch the columns. The tour guide said words that amplified the feeling: “We are a place of worship for all.” I learned that they held daily prayers for peace, to which anyone was welcome. Then I found their mission statement:
Washington National Cathedral is a church for national purposes called to embody God’s love and to welcome people of all faiths and perspectives. A unique blend of the spiritual and the civic, this Episcopal Cathedral is a voice for generous-spirited Christianity and a catalyst for reconciliation and interfaith dialogue to promote respect and understanding. We invite all people to share in our commitment to create a more hopeful and just world.
Over the past year I’ve started to think Christianity will never be the true definition of my heart. Yet at the same time that leaves me feeling very lost. Where do you even begin as a white, suburban girl if Christianity is not your calling? Everything I read about Buddhism pulls me in deeper. Reading “Eat Pray Love,” my head was spinning and yearning to know more during the “Pray” section. Eastern religions seemingly carry something to which my heart responds. This chapter of my journey stands simply at that: an understanding I need to do more research in this direction.
It wasn’t until my Grandpa passed that I started to ask more questions about my grandparents involvement in their church. It was obvious at his funeral that it was significant. Everyone there (and the church was packed) knew him from his town’s library or church. I had known that my Grandfather had used his religious beliefs to carry him through what I know was an extremely dark time in his life. Suddenly his house was full of books, crosses, and they were hosting Bible Study weekly. What I didn’t know, was that my grandma had always been active in her church. It suddenly made a great deal of sense. I had many childhood memories of “the Church Ladies” and attending social events with them. Now I realize/know that all of these events involved my Grandma fundraising for the church. When my Grandpa passed I realized all of my Grandma’s “dear friends” formed a group of four couples who had carried the church for years.
Before every holiday meal my Grandmother pulls together the entire family and says grace. It’s the only time everyone is silent and standing in one place. It’s the only time you can even hear yourself think in that house. Every year it’s a thankfulness for what we have and a wish for peace. It’s one of my favorite family traditions, something of which I’m not sure she’s aware. It’s a grounding experience unlike anything else. Last Christmas I held my youngest cousin (2 at the time) against me while my Grandma said grace and was overwhelmed. Thankfulness, peace, and a desire to cry.
One reason I’m not sure Christianity is my home is that prayer, in the sense of a conversation with God, has never appealed to me. In fact it makes me warm, uncomfortable, and feeling fake. The idea of mediation is much more appealing. A time of grounding and re-centering. Not a conversation with an entity that I don’t even believe needs to hear from me or to whom I need to directly converse. I believe this is why my Grandma’s grace impacts me to such a great extent. Surely it’s the tradition as well, but a moment of only my Grandma’s voice, being thankful for all we’ve been given and asking for peace, feeling the energy of my silent family honestly surrounding me, that’s what it should be.
All of my experiences, all of these moments and encounters that I know are leading me to a journey, which surely will never end, but has developed some more concrete answers lately. I’ve realized I believe most all religions are worshiping the same entity/entities. Too many of the stories overlap and carry the same ideas for them not to have developed from one place. Their unique differences developed from individualized cultures and specific societal needs. Religion is an incredible defining characteristic of one’s culture and society and thus it makes sense so many would be tailored to specific needs/desires.
But is it a God who intervenes on our behalf? Is the path already set before birth in a sense of fate? Is it simply a biotic relationship and the answer to ‘What is the meaning of life” is simply that there is none? Imagine me driving down the highway on my way to St. Louis for winter break, contemplating such. I suppose there must be some version of a god/goddess/gods which exist for the human mind to have created such stories across numerous locations with intense similarity.
Where does this all leave me as of current? With a clearer understanding than ever before, because I finally understand my search will not come simply by finding a physical church in which I call home. Honestly, I believe I may have found that in the Unitarian Universalists.
Unitarian Universalism is a religious community characterized by support for a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed; rather, they are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth and by the belief that an individual’s theology is a result of that search and not obedience to an authoritative requirement. Unitarian Universalists draw on many different theological sources and have a wide range of beliefs and practices.
I can call a church (thus a building and congregation) as ‘home’ and look to it to keep me pushing myself on my path, but my decisions and beliefs will be my own, built off as many experiences as I can afford.
I could go on for pages more about the ties between religions and the universal themes present and especially how they have shaped my definition of Christmas, but I’ll save that for another time.
This Christmas Eve I’m attending a church service for the first time ever. I suddenly got the desire a week ago. Instead of driving an hour in the snow to the Unitarian Universalist Church to which I was originally feeling called, I’ve elected to spend the evening with my baby cousins at the Methodist Church around the corner. Family defines Christmas for me in a greater way than any other message I will receive that night. Family creates the traditions I call Christmas more than the Christian definition of the holiday.
Ultimately, my reason for the season …..
My holiday season begins in Thanksgiving, includes the Winter Solstice, an Americanized Christmas, and concludes on the New Year – my birthday. A time to be thankful for my past year, for the experiences which have shaped me, good or bad. A reflection on how I’ve grown and where I’m headed. A thankfulness for the world around me, the natural impacts on my well-being as a human and the mulualistic relationship in which we exist. A time of family, traditions, watching baby cousins grow, spending time with my mom, hearing my Grandmother say grace. Celebrations with friends I love more than words, in a true form only we could manage. A moment of self reflection and a heartfelt thank you to whatever is guiding us.