My mother wasn’t the sort of woman who allowed her children to contradict her. But, at 16, I flatly refused to go to church anymore because of my near #metoo moment with a Methodist minister. I never told her why because I knew she wouldn’t believe me. But it was the one time I can remember her giving up in the face of me refusing to do something she demanded I do.
Eventually all she said was: Someday you’ll come back to the church.
I didn’t say it to her (she probably would have slapped me) but what I thought was: Never going to happen. I don’t need that.
“That” being going to church. Why didn’t I need to do that?
Because I’ve felt connected to G-d all my life.
I’ve always had an awareness that G-d was everywhere – wasn’t just in everything – was everything. Today I’d probably say I felt the Shechinah – that part of G-d that’s manifested in the physical universe.
I never told my mother this, but going to church more often than not made me feel cut off from that awareness. Oh, not if no one else was there. But when the building was filled with the, for me, overwhelming mental noisiness of lots of people, my G-d awareness would begin to fade. And when many of them were there simply to show off their best Sunday clothes, and their best Sunday manners, I couldn’t feel G-d at all. Which didn’t seem that weird to me. Perhaps G-d really wasn’t there at those times. If I’d had a choice, I know for sure I wouldn’t have been there.
I’m not saying there was nothing of G-d in church. Of course, there was.
There was great beauty, and brilliant teaching, and inspirational song; as well as people getting together to support each other and to do good. And sometimes, the “Spirit of G-d” filled those buildings ’til you thought the walls would burst wide open: because how could any physical building hold in all that holy energy?
But it wasn’t filled with that energy all the time. For me, especially after the incident with the minister who was supposed to be counseling me but who let me know that he had other ideas about what we could be doing when we were alone, it wasn’t enough of the time.
Adding to that, like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz”, I saw a couple of the people behind the church curtain. One of my cousins was a minister. He was an OK minister I guess, but he wasn’t much in the way of a good man. And I saw my mother… once she and my step-father stopped getting along… do some things that I was pretty sure Scripture wouldn’t have approved of.
In case you’re wondering, there are some things you just can’t “un-know” no matter how much you wish you could.
I was completely, absolutely, positively certain (because what 16 year old isn’t) that not going to church wouldn’t affect what I valued most: my awareness of G-d.
Time passed… as it tends to do. I finished high school and then college, got jobs, moved around the country. Did some good things and some incredibly stupid things. Made friends and un-friends. And I mostly forgot my mother’s words.
I continued to have questions about things that I was pretty sure were important, but that I hadn’t been able to find answers to in “the church”. Not that I ever stopped looking.
However, I now began searching for those answers in the whole lot of books that I read over the years about philosophy, psychology, eastern religions, western religions, new age religions, kabbalah, and other religious/philosophical “stuff” that I don’t even remember anymore.
Though all the years, and all the searching in books, I always remained aware of G-d in the whole lot of places I lived and visited. Happily 16 year old me turned out to be right that I didn’t need to attend church for that.
I danced with G-d on the shore of Southern California’s ocean, absorbing the concepts of vastness and eternity, and realizing how very small and insignificant I was; that, in fact, all people were, in time and space, by comparison.
Friends who saw me, made fun of me for doing it. But I didn’t stop and those dances are still some of my favorite memories.
I sat by myself in the deserts that stretch across the states of the western U.S. figuring out that if you stayed in that immense, terrifying G-d silence long enough, it would either make you mad or make you a mystic. Possibly both. Since I wasn’t ready for either, eventually I journeyed on.
I celebrated the wonder of G-d: in the breathtaking, indescribable grandeur of the Rocky Mountains; at tiny, beautiful, still perfect though abandoned, Shaker villages; looking up and up and up at the towering majesty of what began as simple rocks before they were dragged, by ancient seekers, to become Stonehenge in England.
I connected with G-d in small one room churches that contained pagan corn fetishes; and huge soaring cathedrals with paintings of green man g-ds and stars of David tucked away in the corners. I smiled as I wondered about the folks who had put them there.
In buildings and under the sky, I felt G-d.
What I did not do, or feel any need to do, was worship. My G-d awareness always remained strong, and I was more than content with that for a very long time, over forty years in fact.
During this time I never felt the need to “go back to the church” as my mother had predicted I would do.
So I was more than a little confused when I first started to feel some kind of “lack” in my spiritual life. It took some time and I had to think about it a lot before I could identify what that lack was.
It happens that another place that I connect with G-d is battlefields. There’s an old saying: There are no atheists in foxholes. It’s likely a lot of the dying reach out to G-d in their last moments. And I have no doubt G-d reaches back.
Of course there can never a physical touch because what we are made of and whatever G-d is made of are incompatible. What I think is that we can feel the energy that jumps across that little gap between G-d and us – the connection – of us reaching for G-d, and G-d reaching for us.
I mention this battlefield awareness because at the time I was trying to figure out what I lacked, I was living in a battlefield. And in is the correct word. I know that sounds weird, but the U.S. Civil War battle of Gettysburg was fought all around and through the town of Gettysburg. So the whole town is a battlefield. One of the mysteries (or miracles) of the battle is that, despite the 51,000 casualties suffered by the military, only one civilian was killed during the three days of fighting.
Anyway, living there, I was very much aware that G-d still lived there too.
(I could go on for quite awhile about what it feels like to stand on first the Confederate, and then the Union, side of the place where Pickett’s Charge happened. I won’t, but I could. I’ll just say… G-d is most definitely still there. And if you don’t know anything about this battle, click here. It was, insofar as this is possible when there is so much pain and death, a truly magnificent battle.)
Anyway, eventually I figured out what the spiritual lack was that I was feeling. There are two parts of any religious experience: the inner (emotions and connection – Jewish: ahavah and kavannah) and the outer (requirements and actions – Jewish: mitzvot and avodah).
All my life I had the inner part – an emotional awareness and connection with G-d.
It took me awhile, but eventually I realized that what I no longer had was the outer part. My 16 year old self would never have believed it, but I did finally miss the ritual, and even being the raging introvert that I am, I also missed being part of a religious community.
After I got over my shock, I considered how to get what I needed.
My mother’s words had always been lurking in the back of my mind, and they pushed themselves right up to the front when a lapsed Catholic friend asked me if I wanted to go to classes with her at the Catholic Church in town. She was considering, I don’t know what you’d call it exactly… “un-lapsing”.
But even leaving aside that #metoo minister, I still had all the serious issues with Christianity (of any variety) that I’d ever had. Getting into all that would be a whole other article, so I’ll just say one of the major stumbling blocks for me had been, and continued to be, “One way, His way.”
As I kid I attended Bible Study in the summers and they had us memorize whole chapters from the New Testament. The single verse that I remember is from John 14 – “In my Father’s house there are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.” I have always taken that to be a statement by Jesus that everyone has their own unique path to pursing a relationship with G-d. And that he’s assuring his followers that that’s the way it’s supposed to be, or he would have mentioned it.
I learned later that the idea of an individual unique path to G-d is also a part of some Eastern religions. It was one thing, sometimes the only thing, that I could agree with them about.
Still I knew this was important, and I was trying to be fair, so I did some thinking about Catholicism, which I considered to be the model for all forms of Christianity. I figured if I was going to be a Christian again, I might as well be all in. I even bought a couple of books because… reading books is what I do. But after a little reading and, to be honest, not a whole lot of thought, I knew this wasn’t what I needed to fill my “lack”, so I said “no” to the classes. (Strangely, after I opted out, my friend never went either… or “un-lapsed” as far as I know.)
The thinking, like the beat, went on… (a reference to an old Sonny and Cher song for you younger folks).
I’d once been a practicing new age pagan long enough to become a second degree Wiccan High Priestess. (And, no, Wiccans do not worship Satan. Satanists just get the most press. As Katherine Kurtz, in her book, Lammas Night, said: No self respecting witch would worship a Christian g-d of evil.)
This thinking took longer because, in a general sort of way, I never had any serious problems with Wicca.
I had no issues with the idea that the male and female energy in the world needs to be brought into balance, and that we need to take care of the Earth or it isn’t going to be able to continue to take care of us. (The first idea is very much kabbalistic, and like a lot of neo-pagen ideas, probably stolen from Jewish Kabbalah; and the second is climate science. So no, I had no issues with those things.)
Admittedly, those two things are not all of Wicca, but they were the things the Wiccans I knew were most focused on. And certainly joining a Circle would have fulfilled my need for rejoining a religious community. But I also knew, as I always had, that Wicca wasn’t entirely my path.
That “knowing” is the reason, I never accepted the third, and highest, degree as a High Priestess. I felt it would have been, in a way, misleading my Wiccan friends about who I was; and I would have been denying to myself some of the truth about my own path, even though I didn’t entirely know, at that point, what all of that truth was.
Again, the thinking went on… to a consideration of eastern religions.
Even though, as I said above, there were some ideas in those religions I could agree with, there were many more that I couldn’t accept at all. And I had that same “knowing” that none of the eastern religions I was aware of were entirely the right way for me.
I concluded I needed to find a western path, and one that included only the one G-d I had always been aware of. Thus, I finally started looking into the monotheistic religion about which I knew absolutely nothing. Given my religious curiosity and all those books I read over the years, I’m still not sure how I managed not to know anything at all about Judaism.
In any case, that led to me buying my very first book about Judaism: “Judaism for Dummies” I started with it because I knew that the “for Dummies” books, although they have that silly title, were a good way to get enough vocabulary to read other, more substantive, books on whatever subjects they happened to be written about.
And the book did exactly that.
It was the starting point for my first five years of wrestling with the complexities of what it means to be Jewish. It was the book that eventually led to the dip in the mikvah that I took a little over twelve years ago. And it was also the book that led directly to the three bookcases I now have that are stuffed to overflowing with way more substantive Jewish books.
I’m still learning and wrestling with the complexities of what it means to be Jewish, which I have to say is my favorite thing about being Jewish. It is not so much that I think I have to find all the answers, or that I think there is any chance that I ever will be able to do that.
What I’ve realized is that my true path leads me to try to find all the questions.
I’ve also realized that I “sort of” did the thing that my mother predicted that I would. I went back, not to “the church” exactly, but, at least, to organized religion. It just lives in a different building; one that is also often filled with great beauty, brilliant teaching, inspirational song, and lots of holy energy.
I ended up adding back the piece of religion I put aside all those years ago when I was an upset and stubborn teenage girl. I did come back to ritual. I did come back to a religious community.
Very luckily, 16 year old me was right about one thing: In the years between church and synagogue, I never lost my awareness of G-d.
So here I am. Lack clarified and resolved. Inner and outer religious needs reconnected. On my true path. Being my own kind of Jew.
Like so many other things she said to me, my mother’s words about coming back to the church will probably always haunt me. Even though she ended up being mostly right, I do occasionally wonder how she would feel about the religion I “came back to”.
Next month I’ll be lighting a candle and saying prayers for her 24th yahrzeit, so I’ll never know the answer to that question.
But I think… maybe… no longer being 16 I can only say maybe… that’s OK.