(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.
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.