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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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Janet Mason drivers license photo 2011

(photos: Here I am in 2011 in a Driver’s License Photo post layoff (left) and here’s me (right)  last week in a 2015 Driver’s License Photo — reinvented and being the writer and woman that I wanted to be in my fifties!)

Janet Mason Drivers License Photo 2015

This morning, 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.

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.

Belief.  Recently, shopping in a chain drug store with my partner, I came across a plastic rock with that sentiment carved into it.  It gave me pause — this piece of plastic that could easily be categorized as “junk,” in the overcrowded aisles of American life.

I stopped to think what the word means to me.  I was raised secular — but, in fact, I did have  belief.  All my life I have worshipped literature and art.  I revel in nature. For the most part, I have always been my own person. But I have also, at critical junctures in my life, descended into the many faces of self destruction.  So, I understand that wisdom is gained through making mistakes. There is even a scientific theory about this, based on the fact that mistakes are how discoveries are made.

I have a sign on my desk that says “Never Give Up.”  It was given to me after a chanting session at a Buddhist party — Nam Myoho Renge Kyo — which translates to “Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra” or “Glory to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Supreme Law.”

As a creative writer — as well as a human being — I have to believe in myself.  Honoring the voice inside of me feels like an act of survival.

The fourth Unitarian Universalist principle is “A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning.”  When I read the principles, this one in particular, it has occurred to me that I have found a faith that fits my beliefs.

Creative writing is a way of making sense of my world.  I turned my last crisis into a novel — with the working title of Flying.  I was laid off from a high stress marketing job working for a major nonprofit headquartered on Rittenhouse Square — a good setting for novels and movies.

At first I thought the crisis was solely in being laid off and deciding what I was going to do next.  But in hindsight, I realized that I had to recover from five and half years of stress and make sense of why I had moved so far away from myself.  I also had to make some sense of the losses in my life during that time.  These included the death of my elderly aunt (my mother’s only sister); two weeks later the death (at the age of 55) of my close friend Toni Brown, also a lesbian writer; and some months later the death of a friend and co-worker, a gay man in his early 50s, who went home from a meeting and hung himself.

In this section of the novel, I read from the passage that I begin by quoting Reverend Kathy Ellis (referred to in the novel as “the minister”) in a sermon that, in fact, drew me to this Beloved Community:

“Dr. King wrote about his own suffering, ‘My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering.’  Notice that he said – unmerited. He is not blaming himself, not blaming God, and he wrote that he learned from this suffering:

“Dr. King was able to use his suffering to strengthen his sense of the power of love, to strengthen himself. But notice what he did not say. He did not say that suffering was good. He did not say that he deserved it or that he sought it. He did not say that God punished

him. He said he found strength and comfort. And he used that creative transformation, that strength to challenge evil and to work to stop others’ suffering.”

….

I felt my eyes welling up with tears that sprang from my own compassion about the violence and the hatred that was perpetrated against Dr. King, especially in light of the fact that he lived by the philosophy of nonviolence. But as the tears spilled down my face, I realized that I was also feeling compassion for myself, for never having been a believer in anything — including in myself.  I felt a long channel of light open up inside of me and I was filled with divine presence. Maybe it was God.  Maybe it was the divine Lotus Flower Sutra.  Maybe it was the essence of everything.  But as I sat in my pew, feeling the minister’s words enter my body, I knew that the pillar of light was me. I was all that was good and holy.

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