I admire people of faith but am made nervous by those who live in a spiritually gated community.
God knows I’m not religious, but I consider it a privilege to know people who are — just as I am honored to know people who are brilliant mathematicians even though I personally still count on my fingers.
Good folks have offered to instruct me in both areas of study. Yet despite suspecting my life (not to mention my afterlife) might be way better for it, I thank them and decline.
But I’m not too proud to ask for their help: when, for example, death and taxes find me at their doors.
Here’s my deal with religion: I’m a believer in the power of other people’s faith. I do not share their faiths, but I have belief in their enviable belief that someone (often with a capital “S”), some entity, somewhere is looking out for us.
So entirely am I willing to throw my lot in with theirs, in fact, that I have no shame in asking a friend to say a prayer for me — or even one of my loved ones — when necessary. I feel like their prayers have an express route and a tracking number whereas my own efforts would wind up in the dead letter office.
If I’m asked to help, I tell people I can offer them a good thought, a hug, meat loaf, a book or pudding: I’m not up to saying a prayer because I wouldn’t know what to do anymore. The old ones I repeat so entirely by rote they sound like jump-rope rhymes. The new ones, the ones I try to make up from the heart, sound overwrought, pretentious and absurd in equal measure.
Trust me when I say I’m better at meat loaf; my cooking is more sincere. The ingredients are fresher, less adulterated and more worthy.
It’s not that my family didn’t try. I was raised a Roman Catholic, but it was the kind of domesticated Catholicism that focused mostly on the length of your skirt rather than, say, the depth of your penitential observance.
Certainly, I identified as a Catholic. I was helped by the fact that the years of my childhood were a big time for nuns: There was “The Singing Nun” (complete with Grammy-winning single), there was Rosalind Russell playing a nun in a successful movie “The Trouble with Angels” (directed by Ida Lupino, no less) and there was “The Flying Nun” (complete with bubble-gum cards) starring Sally Field.
And although I didn’t go to Catholic school because it was too expensive, I knew several nuns since we lived right near a church. Many of them would stop by to chat with my aunts. This was a big deal. At least one of my aunts had attempted to join an order but couldn’t make it, so I suspect there was a sense of wistfulness behind her friendliness. (There was also a little resentment; I remember her joking: “Why are they called nuns? None of this, none of that.”)
Yet my background in religious instruction was no more effective than my training in arithmetic. Most of my serious personal religious instruction came from reading leaflets. There were dozens of them, new ones every month, covering everything from “Is It Lust or Love?” and “The Catholic Girl’s Guide To Teen Life” to “Impure Thoughts: Danger Zone!” — all available for a dime’s donation. These were, in effect, CliffsNotes for the soul. They summed up, dumbed down and misled; they inoculated me against having to deal with genuine moral questions by diverting me with the difference between “petting” and “heavy petting.”
I stopped going to church at 16, when my mother died.
She’d been a devout Catholic, dying with the rosary wrapped woven between her fingers, but wanted to be cremated. Our parish disapproved and refused to grant her a funeral Mass. A family friend who happened to be a priest said prayers, but he did it, not as a representative of the church, but as a personal favor.
Is it a surprise, then, that since that time I’ve learned to count on the faith of favors, offered with love and given freely? Kindness is a convincing prayer.