“Why don’t you want to get married in a church?” A question from my dad a while back as we discussed my wedding plans. I try to articulate myself, since he seems to think this is me renouncing my faith. I understand why the break in tradition may seem that way, and I try to explain what I believe, and what I think about the little question around the meaning of existence. I started to talk in circles about what I do believe in, and how a church wedding just ‘isn’t me’. The conversation was cut short, but I have spent the week thinking about the next time we pick it up again. I recognised I’ve never really sat down to unpack where my faith is at in relation to what I believe and practice, so I couldn’t really give my dad a satisfactory answer, for him or for me.
So, I’ve sat and thought about my faith; where it’s at and where it came from. The first bits easy; I know how happy I am to have grown up a Catholic. I loved being a part of the community and contributing from choir, to alter server to Sunday school teacher. Nostalgia, perhaps. You can’t forget the turmoil of separation from new toys on Christmas morning to go to mass as a child, or when I got older the pain of getting up early on Sunday and witnessing the longest homily anyone with a hangover has ever had to endure. Undoubtably, the church has played a huge role in my life and shaping the person I have become, and I recognise there are positive and negative facades to that. There are many corruptions and much toxicity within in the institution, of that there is no doubt. I realise I cannot drape the faith in its entirety in the shroud of wrongdoings of some of its members. Corruption and all its ugly hypocritical heads are natural symptoms of power to us fallible humans. But that’s not what this is about. I want to explore the contribution being brought up Catholic has made to the foundation for which I have built my belief system upon. Until now, I don’t think I’ve taken the time to look past what we’ve learned about the church to see what that foundation is really made of.
Let’s rewind, back to basics. Faith has always played a huge role in my life. Catholic school the whole way up, prayers before bed, no meat on Fridays, stop to say the angelus, christening, communion, confirmation all in our local church. Each time I go there, the faint smell of incense lingering in the air is so familiar. It’s bizarre for one smell to evoke such a spectrum of emotion in me. Stopping to light a candle will always be a peaceful moment I love to take. The pride and feeling of importance being an altar-server, to the distress of spasming fingers post cutting out 50 kid’s glitter drenched decorations for the next event in the religious calendar. The joy of standing tall to sing at the pulpit, to holding it for support while trying to keep composure as I spoke at my grandmothers funeral. Sunday school was my favourite time spent in the church and the reason was how we were getting back to basics with the kids. They would come to the room at the side of the alter while their parents were at mass to read with us. The story would be focused on the importance of being a good person and how the bible teaches us about that. Then we would all just colour in. Four or five of us would sit and help the kids, most importantly listening to all the happenings from their week. We’d hear about school, home, their new toothbrush, going to their friends house to play, the dog next door, how their little brother got stuck in the toilet. The content was irrelevant, the importance lay in that we just listened. Eventually, their tale would wind back up to something relating to the story told, and we would celebrated the example of kindness. I loved being a part of those children’s early experience with faith.
What we taught in Sunday school is part of the solid foundation I took from being Catholic. The simple teachings lying at the centre of major world religions that seemingly divide us. Simple teachings that lie at the centre of humanity, regardless if you identify as having faith or not. The commandment of love thy neighbour as thyself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Compassion. Empathy. Love. This core belief that’s simply pivotal to just being a good person is not the only commonality, with practice and ritual also having golden threads passing between. Reflections and intentions, celebrating life and honouring death. There may be differences in the clothes we wear or the words we say, but the basic premise still boils back to the basics.
In the exploration of my own faith, one book I read was ‘The Art of Happiness’. Conversations between HH Dalai Lama and Howard C. Culter; a western psychologist seeking for alternative views on common experiences in the modern world. In the final section of the book focusing on the all-encompassing theme of spirituality, the Dalai Lama explains how we cannot expect someone else to have the belief system as we do, and the most important piece for all people, believers and nonbelievers, is basic spirituality.
“…no matter how wonderful a particular religion may be, it will still only be accepted by a limited number of human beings, only a portion of humanity. But as long as we as human beings, as long as we are members of the human family, all of us need these basic spiritual values.” (Pg.258)
To him, there are as many religions on the planet as there are people. He frequently meets with leaders from Christianity, Islam and Judaism, Each time, he comes away with learnings, taking a new piece to add to his own practice on the never-ending path of spiritual enlightenment. We are all different, and what resonates with one may not with another. With so much to learn from one another, all that truly matters is connection to the basic spiritual values of being human. The path you take to this connection and what you could term as your core belief system may resemble that of someone else, for example if you shared the same organised religious faith, but the two will never be exactly the same.
To me, it is not that faith and belief are diminishing, but evolving. We have endless resources to learn about different perspectives, opinions and practices, giving access to a wider plethora of spiritual tools in a way organised faith has never seen. If we take the bible, a collection of human perspectives and their interpretation of events, their learnings, how can we expect the faith to apply that perspective to everyone. I say this about the bible only because it is the sacred text I have learned the most about, but the principle remains the same. No two people are the same, so how can we expect people to have the same path to basic spirituality and beyond? It may be irrelevant how we get to learn about love and compassion, as long as it kept at the centre of what we do. No one is perfect, and it the way we live our lives won’t always be either. All we can do is our best to link back to the basic spirituality that connects us.
So taking all of this in, where does that leave me. I pray, I meditate, I speak to people who have passed away, I send them love. I go to mass sometimes when I’m back home to take special time remembering those gone with my family, and of course at Christmas! I go to christenings, communions, confirmations, wedding and funerals to celebrate with the ones I love. While I’m at mass I take the time to sit and reflect rather than join in the group prayers, although still knowing the words by heart. My abstinence is not some form of protest nor do I like to draw attention to it. I will still sit, stand and kneel as required, as I think it’s wrong to disrespect rituals or spaces deemed sacred to anyone. For me, the ritual does not hold the same meaning to me as it once did. The church, both building and institution, are not the centre of my belief system anymore. I will forever be grateful for the basis given to build upon, and its part in my basic spirituality. But now taking time to turn within and reflect while those I love surround me and do the same in their way is what I take from my time in the church.
I believe in something much bigger than ourselves and it’s been called by countless names through the ages. I believe it is something we are all apart of, and love in all forms is how we tap into it. Love, kindness and compassion for ourselves, loved ones, people we’ve never met. Our whole human family, including those to join in the future.
Reflecting on the role the Catholic community has played in my life, I recognise I do want that acknowledged as my fiancée and I celebrate our lives up to this point and embark on the next chapter together. We know we want our day to reflect how we feel; we are soul mates. Many pieces aligned for us to recognise the soul within ourselves and one another, and the church began me on that journey. It won’t be the tradition many around me are used to, and it won’t be the centre of our celebration, but it has an important role to play.
Our beliefs are our own, our fundamental beacons guiding in a bid to make sense of it all. Some overlap with other people, but the journey is unique to us. Harmony between these 8 billion different belief systems is possible with open hearts and minds, the spirituality within us and the compassion between us.
So, no, I’m not losing my religion. I’m finding it.
Some of my favourite place where I found learning:
The Art of Happiness: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Happiness