When a religious journey takes an unexpected turn

One of my go-to writing haunts on the web is the Interfaith Family Network, where I blog semi-regularly about interfaith (Jewish-Christian) marriage and parenting. I’ve found the space a non-threatening way to do what doesn’t come naturally to me: share my evolving thinking about a topic while my thoughts on it are in-process. Because the organization/website/blog supports the maintenance of Jewish identity in interfaith relationships, though, the other half our interfaith family life (the, ahem, Christian/post-Christian/cultural Christian) gets mentioned less.

Plus, it’s awkward to talk about religion, or at least it’s awkward to talk about my own religious life. Holidays, funny things toddlers say at services, my continued sense of learning from and about the Jewish tradition after 15-odd years of being in an interfaith relationship: all of these topics are easy compared to writing, publically, about where my own religious perspectives fit in the mix.

I’ve mentioned on that blog, and perhaps here, that I’ve (mostly, well, usually I phrase it more strongly than that, but there’s some internal hemming and hawing) identified as a Unitarian Universalist for a great many years now, somewhere close to 15 or 16 years. That seems like a lot. And yet, every few years, and sometimes more often, this little voice inside me pipes up: aren’t you still an Episcopalian? 

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to an Episcopal church in the last fifteen-odd years. My grandparents’ wedding anniversary celebration. My dad’s wedding. Visiting my dad on another occasion or two. My grandmother’s funeral. Usually I just felt uncomfortable about leaving, that kind of discomfort where, if you’re far more honest with yourself than you can actually be, you kind of want to be welcomed back, but aren’t sure, and no one’s coming out and making the matter clear or easy to understand).

And there was that time, now about 9 years ago, when I was thinking about converting to Judaism (which I’ve just written about for the Interfaith Family blog), wandered into an Episcopal church, and got freaked out and sad and felt more things than I could really process. When I told myself, being all fundamentalist and proper, I shouldn’t be taking communion because I wasn’t sure I could say the Nicene Creed and mean it.

And how I  didn’t know how to face a communion hymn that, despite its beautiful tune, said something about “only through the blood of the Lord.” On the face of it, as my mind would have it, this wasn’t a theology I thought I could support. It was a theology I thought I’d given up years ago in college, when an atheist (now-ex) boyfriend convinced me that I didn’t believe literally and therefore, wasn’t really a Christian, a believer. He laughed when he learned I couldn’t spell “Episcopalian” (“you can’t even spell your own tradition!”) and taught me how to spell the name of the denomination in which I’d been raised by saying “I Ain’t an Episcopalian,” emphasis on the IAN. Yes, there are more memories there.

There I was, nine years after the ex-boyfriend and nine years before this year, considering Judaism, reading prayer books, longing for God, trying to figure out if I actually believed in a divinity, not to mention if this was Trinity, or a unity, or a god within that’s a god above and beyond that which our minds and souls can comprehend.

I gave up, ran away, freaked out. I (as usual) thought too much, worried too much. I trusted less and felt less.  As I recounted for Interfaith Family, I knew that I didn’t “feel Jewish,” even though the beautiful melodies of the Friday night prayers stay with me and linger in my mind long after the Shabbat candles have died down.

I wasn’t sure what I felt,  and I was scared to feel anything different, challenging, awkward, that might get me rejected, scorned, or laughed at. So I retreated back to Unitarian Universalism. Joined a committee at the church, spoke form the pulpit a few times. Took a part-time job managing a well-known historical resource for the denomination.

But I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that something was missing, that holding the sermon as the centerpiece of the worship service, and the gathered community of fellow seekers as the sacred reason for coming together, simply wasn’t going far enough. I missed, in a word, regular reminders of mystery, symbolism, the bold assertion that there are things we humans cannot know or comprehend but can only glimpse, things that go beyond even the confidence of our well-developed minds.

I managed to stuff those nagging questions down for years. I tried, two years ago when I started this blog, to let those questions out, but must not have been ready. The questions, the longings, came back, as they often do, during the season of Advent.

And now I’ve been going to Episcopal services since New Year’s, trying to figure out what this might mean for our interfaith family, for the religious liberal I remain, and the threads that tie it all together. I’ve been writing about deep feelings since I was far too young, but still just old enough, to give them words. There are more words to write,  but all of this is another story for another day: one I expect I’ll be returning to here as the reflective season of Lent begins.

4 Comments

  1. Emily, this is a beautiful piece. I feel your emotion and longings throughout it, through your reminiscing, your risk-taking, your fragile attempts to put in words what, ultimately, is beyond words. I must come out of the closet and confess I, too, am part of an interfaith family–one that began as conservative Christian and has led to Tom becoming agnostic (along with our children) and me remaining in the church, albeit a more liberal one. I confess, too, that I am an interfaith person–that all of my spirituality and belief doesn’t fit into Christianity anymore. One of the reasons our children haven’t remained in the church is that I have explored native American, buddhist, daoist, and other spiritual practices. These have put flesh on my Christian belief, in a sense, or at least enabled me to explore and experience what I believe in different contexts. It has been so hard for me to accept the girls’ refusal to go to church with me, because I continue to feel so anchored there. I often describe their departure this way: it’s as if they are in a different dimension. They learned through the church that we have new life because Jesus was raised from the dead, so they, um, are raised, too, truly at a different level. Going to church, to them, is truly a bizarre experience. They don’t get the dead guy, the blood, the sin, etc. And they were taught and raised to believe these things! I guess I have to believe they are truly raised (sorry for the hokey language) into something new, and I have to, well, believe what I say I believe. It’s not that simple, of course, and I do believe one day they will need to revisit some of the specifics of their heritage. But, for now, I need to let them fly into something new. We don’t know what that is, but it is.

    Thank you for being so open and vulnerable in your piece. I can only imagine how difficult your journey has been, and the fear of stepping out of accepted boundaries. We are such interesting creatures, aren’t we? Liberal and open until, well, we’re not allowed to be. It is Lent … as you say, a beautiful time to revisit these questions with an open heart and a listening ear, and I pray that you discern with honesty, with hope, and reassurance your pathways to Divine love. Peace to you and Ben.

    • “Coobreeze,” thanks for this reflective comment, and thank you so much for reading! I don’t think I knew that about your family, but given where J.M. went to school, it’s not too surprising that they’d head for the land of the spiritual but not religious / religious nones/ agnostics. I think thinking of yourself as an interfaith person is beautiful – and that knowing yourself to be grounded in one tradition but informed by others is a really wise way of looking at religion, especially today. I think one of the things I’m working on is articulating this interfaith religiosity, about which I have a couple of posts I’ve been working on. As for your girls, who knows where they will end up in years to come?

      For me, Ben’s brought me to see the blood/sacrifice/eucharist in a different light – as something that, from the outside, sounds truly weird/gruesome/gross. I don’t know that I ever crossed over to quite seeing it, myself, as weird/gruesome/gross, although many aspects of it give me pause (and that sounds like a good topic for another post!) Back before the ex-BF-made-me-atheist stuff, I tended to understand resurrection as more of a resurrection of spirit that waxes and wanes in this life, than as a literal rebirth of the body after death. But, who knows what happens after we die, or at the end of all things? Many thanks, and peace to you and yours.

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