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(I presented the following reflection this morning at UUCR in Philadelphia.  To view the video on YouTube, click here.)

 

“I doubt therefore I think. I think therefore I am.”

— René Descartes

 

In thinking about my journey to religion, I realized that skepticism played and continues to play an important role.

On my desk where I write every day is a small mirror — no more than two inches high with a black and white photograph of my mother on it — taken in 1928.

This mirror is the image on the cover of my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

mothermirhome

My mother was a feisty card-carrying atheist whose lifelong motto was Shakespeare’s “To thine own self be true.”

When my mother was dying of fourth-stage bone cancer, I was staying upstairs at my parent’s house where I woke up and had a mystical vision of her standing at the foot of the bed. At this point, she could no longer get out of her bed which was downstairs. The next morning, when I told her about the vision, she bawdily said, “Oh, that wasn’t me.  That was Jesus.”

Then she had a good snicker.

Religion was always good for a laugh in my house.

Of course, there always is some truth to humor — so maybe my mother really is Jesus or maybe Jesus is my mother.

It took me a while to internalize my mother’s motto about being true to myself.

First I had to get through being an adolescent in the seventies in a working class landscape. One thing led to another, and I was caught up in the whirlwind of substance abuse. Nothing was off limits.  A few of my friends did not live through this.

Although I did survive, I had and still have a fair amount of regret about this period of my life.

This led me to realize in retrospect that religion can be useful in keeping pre-teens and teens on track.

But as the saying goes “it’s all grist for the mill.” I wrote two novels based on my adolescence — the first more autobiographical than I usually admit.  The second novel which I recently completed is called Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage and is more or less straight up fiction based on the landscape of my adolescence.  The protagonist is a young, dashing, motorcycle riding lesbian who was someone I knew (not me) who went to jail for dealing drugs.

But I do believe in second chances — and third — and the novel has a happy ending. It’s not true — in the sense of nonfiction — but it has a core of emotional truth. In fiction, anything is possible.

I was the first in my family to go to college — during which I tried to fit in as a heterosexual and failed. (The less said about this period of my life the better.)

Then, finally, soon after college I came out. What a relief.  During this time I remember going to a women’s spirituality talk at a bookstore, and thinking well, I don’t need that!

Then the gay men I knew started dying. I went to a lot of funerals in those days and a lot of marches  and encountered signs that said things like “God created AIDS” and “[Derogatory word for gay men] will burn in hell.” This put religion into perspective for me.  Not only was it unnecessary, but it was barbaric.

Besides, I was a feminist of the “Hey, Ho, Patriarchy’s Gotta Go” variety.

This was another reason to be dismissive of religion.

But as the decades rolled by, I noticed that when things around me fell apart, I tended to fall apart also. Then in my forties, when I worked in Center City, I befriended a deeply closeted gay man who was a practicing Orthodox Jew. We butted heads on a few things, but I really respected his belief in God — truth be told, I envied it.

Then, as the saying goes, a few other things happened.

I didn’t know it, but I wanted — needed — to develop a stronger inner self.

And I have — thanks to my yoga teacher Jane Hulting, my spiritual teacher, really, who led me to this church and taught me many lessons along the way. I ended up here intuitively — without searching for a church. One day before I joined, I was sitting in the pew and experienced an opening inside of me.  I heard a low chanting — a rustling all around me as people recited “The Lord’s Prayer.”  Now, no one was actually saying the “Lord’s Prayer” — not in this church, not that day, not ever to my experience. But that is what I experienced.

So this is my story of religious salvation — even if the word salvation kind of makes me cringe. It would because I’m a skeptic and I’m being true to myself.

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I presented this reflection as part of the November 15 service at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Stenton Avenue in Philadelphia.  To watch piece on video, click here.

 

Heroes, saints, and mythology all occupy the same space in my mind. Saints may be as old as the hills but they are a new category to me.  Last year, I started reading about female saints at Catholic.com as research for a novel I just finished — titled Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. I was raised secular and was inspired to research the saints based on one of the conversations in the New UU, a group for new Unitarian Universalists held here at Restoration.

What I found on Catholic.com was fascinating.  The female saints, in today’s lingo, are often differently gendered. Often they were martyred with their particular, also female, friends.  Hmmm.

To give you an idea of the saints, I am going to read a short excerpt from my novel Art:

 

March wind gusted. Grace remembered that March thirteenth,  just a few days away, was the feast day for Saint Grace. When she was nine, she learned about her name saint in preparation for her confirmation.   Grace was mesmerized by the stories of the female saints. One escaped a violent marriage and became the patron saint of abused women. Another became engaged at the age of three and when the engagement was broken, was overjoyed to live a life of virginity.

The ones who were persecuted captured Grace’s imagination. She remembered looking at the images of martyrs holding tight to the stake where they would be burned, golden halos shining behind their heads. Saint Apollonia’s faith was so strong that she jumped into the flames.

…..

Grace did her essay on her name saint. Saint Grace lived in Spain where she died in three hundred and four A.D. …. If Spain had chilly March winds in the year three hundred and four A.D., it might have felt like this on the day of Saint Grace’s death. Grace remembered reading that Saint Grace was unmarried. She was arrested and tortured. Her breasts were cut off. She died in her prison cell from internal injuries. She was martyred in the Roman Empire’s Great Persecution.

 

The saints occupy a place in my mind that is as magical as it is necessary.

Imagine, for a moment, that we lived in a world with no strong female role models, such as the saints on Catholic.com.  I, along with many others, would have to be the saints rather than be inspired by them.

And so I am thankful to the saints.

Almost every morning, as part of my yoga practice and Buddhist chanting practice, I reflect on what I have to be thankful for.  I have a lot to be thankful for — including the fact that I am here at Restoration.

When Maria and I talked about today’s service, she asked me what it feels like to be a member of Restoration.  I came to religion later in life — after fifty — and from a secular background.  I never thought (even, or maybe especially, in my wildest dreams) I’d ever be a member of a church.  Becoming a member of Restoration is an inclusion of my past. So many here have been in the various communities that I have long been a part of.  It is also an expansion of my world.  I am exposed to much more now — including the saints on Catholic.com — than I was before.  And I feel connected to others in this Beloved Community.

I am thankful to my partner Barbara.  Although she denies it — modestly,  I like to think — she is my anchor.  And all that she does to care for us — and our cats, Felix and Princess Sappho — makes everything possible.

At Restoration, the pews (and the seat behind the curtain and in front of the piano) are full of living saints who make it possible for us all to be here.  I am thankful for each and every one of you for all that you do and most of all for being yourself and for being here.

princess-sappho (2)

Princess Sappho (who sits on my lap as I write)

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This morning, for Palm Sunday, I presented this novel excerpt at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister.  The segment is also on You Tube. Click here to see the video.

Although I was raised by a card carrying atheist mother and an agnostic father, I always loved Palm Sunday.  I loved the pale green palms.  I loved the story. I loved the donkey.  Maybe it was the pagan origins that drew me in.  Even as an adult, Palm Sunday held its appeal.  Still, I thought that religion had nothing to do with me. And over the years, I came to think that I had dodged a bullet.  Still, I wanted to believe in something — maybe I wanted to believe in myself more.

A few years ago, I experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of coming to this church.  My first thought was that “they don’t own it.” ‘They’ being the Christian right and ‘it’ being religion.  Last year when I read the Bible — I was actually surprised to see how little anti-gay material is in it, except for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, and some rules in Leviticus — that also include not eating shellfish or wearing garments made of linen and wool.

As a second generation feminist coming of age in the seventies, I lived by  the motto that rules were made to be broken.  As a creative writer, it is not unusual for me to view the world through  my characters. When I heard that the theme for worship this month was Brokenness and Resilience I thought of my maternal grandfather, Joseph.

His brokenness and resilience is something that has been passed down to me. He was a Merchant Marine, a lover of opera (he was Anglo not Italian), an alcoholic and a batterer to his wife (my grandmother) and his daughters (my mother and my aunt). I developed my own theory about him and when I told my gay male friends about him, they gave me knowing nods.

I am going to read an excerpt from my novel Catwalk which is set in the late 1920s in the Prohibition era.  Joseph, the protagonist, is a gay man and is also the son of a Baptist deacon. My grandfather, Joseph, was raised in Biloxi, Mississippi.  The fictive Joseph is in love with his boyhood friend Vince, who he was separated from and who he pines for. Joseph, my grandfather, abandoned my mother (and the rest of her family) when she was seven.  I never met him. I always wanted to know more about him — even if I had to make it up.

I’ve been working on this novel for ten years and when I was in the revision process, I noticed that it was full of religion.  I realized then that religion has always been with me — as a fact and as a fiction. Palm Sunday, which Rita will tell us more about, was my pathway to religion.  Religion fueled Joseph’s demons.  But in this section where Joseph falls asleep under the stars on the beach of the Mississippi Sound — religion enters his subconscious in a good way.

————–

Joseph lay down on the sand and curled into a fetal position. It was a hot summer night.  He shut his eyes and listened to  waves wash over pebbles.  He fell asleep and dreamed that he was standing in the cemetery with a shovel, digging into the sand.  A familiar voice called to him. It was deep and pleasant.  But it was distant. The voice brought back everything that he had ever loved.  They had been boys together, sitting next to each other in church, swimming through the waves to a deserted isle where they could pretend they were shipwrecked sailors. Vince was a part of him.  His voice brought everything back — Vince being bullied when he was a boy — the scar that was left on his cheek when Joseph had defended him. The two of them becoming fast friends, boys growing to men. He remembered the first time they had made love.  Memories of sea foam.  Their shared experience of being fathers was part of their love, too.  Vince was at his happiest when he had become a father, twice over.  Joseph had been happy for him. He had almost been as happy when his own children were born.

Vince called to him in a deep, melodious voice that was separate from Joseph but part of him, too.  The voice was louder with every shovel full of sand that Joseph dug up and flung over his shoulder.  He dug faster and faster – but still the voice was far away.  Eventually the hole he dug was so deep that he could no longer reach the bottom.  Joseph saw translucent arms reaching toward him from the hole.

Suddenly the apparition became filled with blinding light.  As Joseph stared into the light, he saw that it was a tall figure with wings the span of an Albatross.

It was Vince disguised as an angel — like one of the angels who came to visit Lot in Sodom.  There were two angels that visited Lot.  Joseph could be the other angel. The neighboring men from the town had knocked on Lot’s door, saying that they wanted to “know” the angels. But in Joseph’s version, the angels would leave together — hand in hand.

They would fly to a land in the clouds where two men could love each other.  Their love was bright and true.  Their love was so strong that it would change everything — including a world that denied they existed.

Joseph cast down his shovel and dove into the hole.  When he reached the brilliant angel that was Vince, he fell right through him.  He realized then that the dazzling light was fire.  Yet the flames did not burn or scorch him. The fire cleansed him.

The Bible said that Godly fire would consume the wicked, but not the righteous.

His love for Vince was as pure as the fire of God, and Vince returned it.  Together, they would spread the gospel of love.

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