As a self-proclaimed atheist since sixth grade, I never expected to receive communion in a church again. In fact, it was my decision not to partake in communion so many years ago that represented my separation from the Catholic faith in which I was raised. In the Catholic mass, the ritual of communion is enacted each week (whereas, in most Protestant practices of Christianity, it is only offered sporadically, once a month, or only for special occasions). In the hazy memories of my earliest catechisms, it seems to me that communion was the single most important event in a Catholic practicer’s spiritual existence. It’s one of the only strong messages I remember about my former faith.
Growing up in the Roman Catholic tradition, communion taunts you as a rite of passage because you are not allowed to partake in it until you have taken your second grade catechisms. First Communion is a big deal — it is its own ceremony that requires dressing up (ironically, like little brides and grooms, which I never understood, unless it was symbolic of your “marriage” to Jesus? Someone Roman Catholic help me out here!) and involves a big party where you get lots of religious paraphernalia, or money, from your relatives. I still have the little order of service booklet (I can’t spell the name I know it by — “misselette”? — and too many years have gone by for me to determine whether or not my ears were clogged when my mom called it that). In other words, First Communion is a big deal. And you’re left with important choices (taken quite seriously), such as, “Should I have the priest put the host in my hand? Or directly in my mouth?” (for thy hands are too dirty to touch the host!)
Additionally, communion is such a huge deal in the Catholic faith that if you are a not Catholic and you attend a Catholic service, even though you are a fellow Christian, it is considered disrespectful (maybe even a sin?) to take communion. Likewise, a Catholic attending the service of another Christian faith — even Lutheran, which is always joked about as being “Catholic Lite” — you are not to take communion. This is so ingrained in the Catholic psyche that people have been known to become insulted when another person breaks one of these rules of etiquette in their church.
With this religious upbringing still engraved in my brain, communion to me represents everything about acceptance of the faith. So it was absolutely a huge deal the day that I consciously chose not take communion in front of all my extended family — almost as big of a deal as the day that I, as second grader, chose to take my First Communion. I don’t remember when or for what occasion that day occurred, but I do remember the fear and nervousness that had preceded the moment. I knew it would be an outward sign about an internal decision I’d made, and perhaps the scariest moment in my life because I knew I was rebelling against the principles under which I was raised. My mom, of course, already knew of my decision and we’d stopped going to church probably long before I reached that day; however, this was my first public declaration of that decision.
My palms sweat as row by row, the parishioners exited their pews to stand in the communion line. As the ushers came to my pew to grant permission to enter the line, I stayed where I was as members of my family jostled to move around me. What would they think of me? I wondered. Would my mother be blamed for allowing her child to “go astray”? I know my dad was not too happy with my mother allowing me to quit my catechism and stop attending church. At that moment — though I know it was far from true — I felt as if every eye in the church were focused on me, and I thought I could hear their voices saying disappointingly, “Oh, another heathen.” Of course, most people probably just thought I was Lutheran.
For years, it seemed to be an unspoken agreement in my family that I was “of the fallen.” No one brought it up, though I know there were probably many prayers directed towards me and my “heathen” mother. There are probably still prayers directed at me from family and friends desiring me to return to the fold. For that, I thank everyone involved in this act. No one is hurt by the positive energy of a prayer. I went through a phase where I cared deeply that anyone prayed for me. I even wrote an angry retaliation poem in high school called “Don’t Pray for Me” and it was printed in the high school literary magazine. I used a pseudonym, but my very Christian classmate, Renee, who was on the review committee for the magazine, came to me later and informed me that she knew I’d written it. I’m sure she then began to pray for me, despite my vehement demand that she didn’t. For as much praying that’s been directed my way in my life, you’d think things would have turned out a little better. Maybe it would have been worse if no one had prayed…? I will never complain about someone asking their deity to bless me.
The quiet in my family broke, inevitably, at a family gathering I attended the year I graduated from college. I (stupidly, I realize now) chose to stand up for a cousin who wasn’t present that day. One of my aunts was telling another aunt about how my younger cousin, Jenny, had told her mother that she did not want to go through confirmation because she didn’t think she believed in God. Her mother said she was thinking of forcing her to do so anyway “for her own good.”
Sirens went off in my head. I barked, “Isn’t the point of confirmation to state, as an adult, that you accept the religion and all for which it stands? How can you force someone to do that? You force them into baptism [Catholicism performs infant baptism] but confirmation is supposed to represent your choice. Free will.“
“Heidi, you kids don’t know what they want,” one of my uncles piped in. “We know what’s good for you.”
And, thus, a spiral of arguing broke out in which my entire family — all those who felt they were strongly Catholic — attacked me. The few members of my grandmother’s large family who were not devout Catholics anymore did not argue on the side of faith, but they were not quick to jump to my defense; rather, they kept themselves decidedly neutral. My mom was not there to defend my position or my right to speak up. I was attacked and told that even I — as a college educated person — did not know what I was talking about and I was assured that some day I would return to God when I faced death.
I left the party crying. I never felt more alone in my entire life. They made me feel as though I was the only person in the universe who felt the way I did. It was the same way the kids who picked on me in school always made me feel… I was the odd-ball, the different thinker, the outcast. It seemed like things would never change. All I saw ahead of me was a life of loneliness and seclusion. That day, I drove to the local MetroPark and cried as I sat on a bench along one of the trails.
“Why?” I implored to the mute emptiness around me. “Why am I so alone in my thoughts?”
I have always looked on that event as the example — not the exception — of how people of faith (particularly Christians) behave when faced with a non-believer. Because I’ve always felt attacked for my beliefs (or lack thereof), I spent a lot of years completely avoiding the topic of religion all together. I was an atheist “in the closet.” When people around me admitted to being Christian (which is the most predominate faith in the United States, at least in the white-bred Midwest where I’ve spent 80% of my life), I would just nod and bite my tongue. My silence neither admitted to or denied my religious leanings.
The thing is, I don’t believe that I ever lost my faith in the divine. I’ve always had a vague notion or feeling of being a part of a larger system of something more powerful than myself. Perhaps this system is simply nature or the cycle of life. Standing atop a mountain and viewing the world beneath your feet gives you a feeling of infinite smallness, leaving you helplessly confounded in the magnificent beauty of it all. I’ve had moments where I could almost feel the Earth itself breathing in the wind. My arms outstretched, I felt the wind caress my body and I imagined it going through me, changing just as little as it passed through my atoms so that some small part of my essence was carried onto the wind and passed through the trees, the rocks, the little scurrying critters. My love of nature has always yielded a sense and understanding that we humans were a part of a living, breathing system — not outside of it or above it, but woven within it.
Most recently, I found myself invoking the divine while viewing the night sky through my telescope. One night, after finding and viewing several objects from the Messier catalog, and gasping at each sight (which most people would find unimpressive because these objects do not appear in colorful detail shown in magazines), I found myself composing a poem that began with the following line:
I see God through my eyepiece
These words fell so naturally out of my thoughts and onto the paper. I stared these lone words on the page, embarrassed by the thought, yet dying to extrapolate the thought further. What would people — particularly, my mom — think if I ever shared this poem with them? I wondered. Why was “god” the only word I could find to express my reverent awe of the mysterious, exotic beauty I saw with the super-powered eyes of my telescope? These were not the thoughts of an atheist!
Shuddering with disgust at myself, I crumpled up the paper and threw it away beneath a pile of smelly trash to ensure no one I knew would happen upon it. It was too big of a revelation about myself to acknowledge at the time. But the words had already formed in my brain, and in my brain they were tattooed. Each time I turn my eyes to the night sky, the words surface again in my consciousness, begging for me to elaborate on their meaning, and I feel the powerful truth of the emotion I felt when I initially thought them.
As my aunt predicted (and it is to my disdain that I admit this particular aunt was right about anything she said to me that day), I would return to religion when faced with death. Not right away, but somewhere towards the end of a very prolonged journey through grief. I sought religion because I couldn’t find my way out of the “valley of the shadow of death.” As an atheist, I was stuck there, unsettled, without a staff or rod. All I could see was death around me. I feared death at every turn — would I get in a car accident and die? did I too have a ticking time-bomb inside my body of which I was not yet aware? Focused so ardently on death and the fear of death, I was missing out on being alive.
During the first year of Mike’s death, I started attending pagan rituals with a friend who was a practicer of this faith. I knew I needed something and I wasn’t about to step back into the church of my youth. In fact, I was pretty much running scared from all Christian churches because I’d always felt a little affronted by the people who practiced it. I needed something, but something so obtusely different from the faith of my youth that I wouldn’t even associate the two. For awhile, it was a lot of fun because pagan rites — despite the general false assumption that their rites involve dancing around a campfire naked — are highly meditational. I did get a lot of comfort from them on the surface. However, I always had trouble with the dogma of the faith itself. If I had trouble conceptualizing the existence of one god, imagine how much harder it was for me to envision a pantheon of very human gods running the universe.
I remember sitting in a pagan affirmation ceremony once, watching new participants declare their faith and old participants restating their faith, all the while thinking, “I just can’t buy this. I don’t think I can buy anything.” Because I’d been to a lot of rites that year, many of the grove members were surprised that I did not use this moment to officially join their ranks. But I knew that I couldn’t even pretend. If I were to ever join a religion, I would have to really mean it. I just wasn’t feeling it. My attendance at these rites became sporadic.
I had a similar experience several times in the last year while trying to reconnect with the religion I originally walked away from all those years ago. I explored a few Christian churches of other denominations and attended a Christian 101 — “alpha”– class at a large local church. Twice in one week, I found myself urged to “give my life to Jesus” at that moment if I felt so inclined. Again, racing through my head were the doubts and the knowledge that I just didn’t buy into the dogma, as much as I might have wanted to. And, believe me, I wanted to. I want answers, I want to believe in something that would give me all the answers I sought. It could have been easy to just give myself over in the spirit and heat of the moment — to catch the fever of those around me who were excited and enlightened by their faith — but for me, the pledge would only be half-hearted because I do not truly believe what the religion describes.
In the end, I’ve always felt that pledging myself to one belief or another excludes the beliefs of someone else and asks me to sacrifice too much of the person I am in order to be a “follower.” For example, I love the essential messages of Christianity which urge you to be a good person, to live a sanctified life, and to avoid doing harm to others. There are some great essential messages about overcoming the human urges towards the brutality and savageness that seem to run rampant in our carnal veins. However, with Christianity comes a certain confidence in one’s own salvation at the exclusion of all those who do not believe — all the Buddhist, Hindu, Judaic, Islamic people whose religions offer just as valid perspectives, in my eyes, on our place in the universe. Each of these belief systems hold kernels of truth and wisdom from which we can all gain an understanding of not only ourselves but the cultures who practice these beliefs. Additionally, aspects of Christianity exclude people whose lives do not fall along the path of the majority and many of these people are my friends. I do not see these friends as anything less whole or sanctified than me. And I can never be so confident as to say that I know the key to salvation, or, that we need “salvation” at all. I have no idea what lies beyond this life, if anything at all. I need the space to both believe and doubt at the same time.
In the background of my recent spiritual journey was Unitarian Universalism. The first time I had entered a UU church was in Boulder, Colorado. One of my pagan friends had suggested I look one up when I moved and it took me about a year before I actually set foot in one. I went with my ex-boyfriend who used to regularly attend a UU church. I don’t remember particular details about the service, for I was really nervous the whole time and slightly uncomfortable with my desire to find religion. Because this faith occurred inside four walls (unlike the pagan rites I’d been attending), it was too familiar, even with all of the specific mentions of God or Jesus removed and the lack of an obvious ritual format. Still, I left intrigued and may have returned again had my ex been interested. But by that time, he’d decided he had no need for religion in his life, which only increased my feeling of unease with myself and my search for meaning. After I left that service, I pretty much dropped out on religion for the next several years of my life. It was only recently, during my awakening — the conscious rejection of the throes of grief — that I found myself with the thirst to explore my spirituality again.
I attended the Unitarian Univeralist Church of Kent for the first time in the middle of this past summer. I was nervous and quickly found a seat in the back and tried to make myself invisible to the entering congregants. However, a little old lady seated next to me immediately extended her hand and introduced herself. I responded in kind.
“Have you been here before?” she asked me.
“No,” I said, nervously.
She smiled. “I just started coming here. It’s nice. Different. But nice.”
The service generally opens with a tradition I’ve seen in a lot of Christian churches: a greeting and handshake to your neighbors. At first, this always made me kind of nervous. I’ve become more used to it now and find it a touching way to take yourself out of the little weary cocoon we build around ourselves to keep each other out (which is the opposite of community). As I’ve become more comfortable in the congregation, I’ve noticed how people often go out of their way to walk across the church to greet new people or old friends seated in different areas. I think our music director purposely seeks to shake the hands of a few people he doesn’t know just to provide that welcoming atmosphere that was immediately characteristic of this church to me.
That particular day, the music director performed one of the songs he wrote. I don’t remember specifically what it was about, only that it made goosebumps form on my arms and described perfectly the way I was feeling at that moment — wondering, confused, looking for something more but not knowing completely what it was. I pictured myself in the woods, arms outstretched, trying to embrace the immaterial wind. The thing about air is that you can feel it touching your skin and moving your hair, but when you try to express love back to it in a human way, all you get is empty space for it cannot be touched. That is what God is like to me.
I left the service that day feeling serene and comforted. No one had demanded anything of me other than offer me an opportunity to learn more. In the coffee hour after the service, I’d learned a little about the congregation and had been impressed by the fact that they had a “social justice committee.” I got the overwhelming sense that I’d met my people — others who were concerned about the same things spiritually and ethically as I am. I’d been moved in a way during that service — not just with the music, but also with the message — that no other church or ritual had managed to accomplish within me before.
I’m not so sure that Unitarian Universalism is quite what those in my extended family had in mind when they desired my return to God. As it turns out, when you are faced with your own mortality, quandaries about hope and salvation do enter your mind when you realize just how stark the truth of our proven reality is. You find yourself wanting to believe in something — no matter how ridiculous or illogical it sounds — because you don’t want to face the alternative. I didn’t want to believe that the very vivid and real person that I knew in Mike no longer exists. How could that be? I knew him so well. How could he be there one day and not the next? The desired conclusion is that he’s not gone, that the essence of who he was still exists in some other plane, somewhere else, enlightening the faces of gods and angels and saints with his inquisitive and intelligent mind. His unique character. His sweetness. And sometimes I like to imagine that he peeks in to check up on me, make sure I’m doing okay. I don’t know if this is true — I cannot profess to it being true. But it’s sure nice to believe.
On Sunday, I stood before the congregation of the UUC Kent with about fifteen of my fellow new members and publicly proclaimed my membership to not only the church but my quest to spirituality through UU-ism. As part of the ceremony, I was invited to light a candle from the ceremonial chalice — the flaming chalice that signifies the UU tradition — and then add my candle to a sand garden on a pedestal before all the congregation. As each new member added his or her candle, the bright light of all the individual candles cast a glow across the altar that even eclipsed the light of the chalice itself. To me, this ritual represented a very UU idea that each individual brings value to the congregation — to the community — as a whole. Receiving energy from the flame, each one of us promises through this ritual to return to the church, the community, the world, and the universe the fire of our own individual flames, our talents. Take, but give back. The individual alone is one small flame; the community together can bring daylight in the dark. (The concept of bringing light to the darkness dominates mythologies and religions throughout the world. I often wonder what religion would be like in a world that is not so dependent on the sun and the light of day!)
I was very moved by this ceremony. After adding my candle to the pedestal, I walked across the altar to receive a yellow rose and a pocket guide to Unitarian Universalism, which I might find handy as a discussion piece for people when they ask me my church. Joining a church is huge step for me and, admittedly, a very scary one. Years ago, I renounced all religion as illogical and I systematically cast it out of my life, refusing to hear anything about it. To even admit a desire to live on beyond the physical body was, to me, a sign of weakness and an inability to deal with my own mortality. If that is the case, then I am weak.
Unitarian Universalism is not a religion, really, except in concept. It’s a conglomeration of several world beliefs; a welcoming community for all people who enter regardless of race and sexual orientation; a place for people like me — those who can’t particularly swallow whole any particular dogma — to feel free to worship and celebrate life according to the ideas that make the most sense to each one of us. Unitarian Universalism lets me express God as I have seen, felt, experienced It; at the same time, UUism lets me admit that I don’t know for sure if there is a god or life-giving energy. UUism allows me to believe in something more than this world, but also celebrate the joys and weather the pains of this known life. As I will undoubtedly have to explain to everyone as I become more comfortable revealing my beliefs, Unitarian Universalism is like Humanism with a religion.
Given the dictates about communion of the faith in which I was raised, it seems fitting that the service welcoming new members involved a communion ritual. But this communion was not the symbol of a last supper or a man who died on a cross; no, this communion was of the type we humans have been practicing among each other for as long as we’ve gathered ourselves into clans: the sharing of bread and drink with our fellow man. Food is more than the energy that sustains us; it is how we express community among each other.
At this service, the communion of cornbread and cranberry juice was a celebration of thanksgiving to coincide with the upcoming holiday. We celebrated the fruit of the earth and the human labor that turns the fruit into our daily food. Not completely unlike the symbolism behind the Catholic faith in which I was raised, but not quite the same either. Communing. Admiring and accepting our very different paths and how they have come to intertwine with each other. That’s the universal “God is love” message I’ve been hearing in the back of my mind all these years.
Turns out that I can buy something. It’s just that my something is more vague and a little less dogmatic than everyone else’s. But that’s what works for me and I’ve finally found a community that shares a similar vision of the world as me. I’ve signed onto a faith that sees the world inclusively — no one faith is wrong and no one faith is right. We’re just here to make the world around us a little more just and a little more pleasant for all to live in. I hope to use the seven principles of UUism as my guide as I move to make positive changes in my life that may include a return to college and new career. As we newbies recited in our responsive reading, I have entered this new phase of my life “with a deep feeling that I have come home this day.”