Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Fall From Grace: Part 5 - Cattle Dynamics

Strangely, when left with nothing spiritually, unlike what I've heard others experience, I felt no particular loss. No dramatic disconnection. Maybe it's that I've struggled with accepting my own independent thought in terms of how others viewed it for a long time. Maybe it was that in some sense, I finally felt some relief in that I finally felt like I understood why I had felt so uncertain for so long.

The only loss I think I felt was the fact that I no longer shared a certain kinship or fraternity with people over a spiritual matter.  Even when I knew I wasn't the only one struggling in a group to grasp and accept the religious tenants, there was still a certain understanding among the group and a camaraderie that I have missed.

In the course of my "disconnection",  I did come to see just how much religion plays as a part of people's fabric regardless of what color the threads might be, or what their tensile strength may be.

It's hard to find other things for which people devote such passion and interest.  And even when the passion and the devotion is misguided, people are afraid to give it up.  Afraid for some to face the reality that they follow not because they believe, but because they know of no other way to maintain all that comes with being one who believes.  Yet they miss the boat that faith for the sake of faith is as empty as no faith at all.  It's only much more convoluted.

Over the course of my years as a religious "investigator", I've found that I'm often in the middle of the less than favorable examples of what I'm investigating.  The pastor I grew up knowing at my church was allegedly found to be shirking his responsibilities to his vow of chastity (fortunately with women his age).  I also don't recall our church at the time doing much beyond Mass and Sunday school for the kids. A lot of the day to day interaction and faith building was missing.

As I dipped my toe in the pagan community here locally, I found all sorts of cringe-worthy behavior.

I will say I think my experience with the pagan community here reinforced the ideology for me that god, in whatever form it might exist, has little concern for the day to day minutia of life.  Little frustrated me more than watching people pin their hopes and dreams on the supposed will of some ethereal being rather than on their own cognizance and ability to be willful.

My experiences have shaped my long-standing belief that in order to be successful and happy in life, you must make your own efforts.  If god sees fit to shine down upon you, all the better, but watching people sit around waiting for it to happen, or worse, blaming failure on the lack of supernatural support just reinforces my understanding that religion can, unfortunately, breed very immature, self-centered, and closed-minded individuals.

I think it's safe to say that nearly all religions and faiths of the world have something to offer the spirit, and those that choose to belittle or otherwise demean others based solely on their faith, or more to the point, their divergence of faith from their own, miss the boat.  And not for the fact that their own beliefs are necessary at issue as much as that they haven't come to understand that to truly know deity, you must transcend the dogma.

And going back to that statement of people who have faith to belong, it's not something that a lot of people are willing to even strive to find.

Put them in their little corner, bury them in scripture, and ensure that they never see the light of day, and they'll live their sheltered lives as happy as they think they can, free of truth, light, and perfect understanding.

No different than any other part of life, I suppose.  Some want to find a routine and stick with it.  Others want more.  And ne'er the twain shall meet.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Fall From Grace: Part 4 - The Promise Moroni Broke

"I've been searchin' every which-a-way yeah yeah" - The Coasters

I say disinterested agnostic for two reasons. First, I hadn't given up on the idea that there was a god of sorts up there, or that there was a true path, I just realized that the Catholicism my family practiced and whom they practiced it with was not a path that seemed right to me. Second, lots of other things were going on in my life at the time, and I honestly didn't devote a lot of time to my faith or any thought towards spirituality. That's not to say it didn't stumble on me from time to time.

Total side note: In a very demented and sadistic way, it is incredibly humorous to bring a Protestant to a Catholic mass, and watch what happens as the Lord's Prayer ends. For those that aren't familiar, the Catholics seem to cut short the "Our Father" where as Episcopals and others continue the prayer with the line, "For thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory are yours, now and forever." Bit of debate and a lot of history as to why there exists this difference. But it can be a fun prank, given that the portion of mass following the "Our Father" is silent for a moment or two, so when the unsuspecting Protestant continues on their prayer, they expose themselves rather readily. Personal experience? Me? Naaaaaahhhhh... ;-) Actually less about inflicting that, and more about having it happen before I knew about the little add-on, and me feeling bad and amused at the same time. Gotta love life.

Late high school and early college were pretty much the same ol' same ol'. Can't say I really stumbled on much of anything, but I didn't go out of my way to look either.

Wasn't until I was out of college, living on my own, having already moved to Seattle that I encountered something different. A tale that definitely changed the way I look at a lot of things.

Lets put it this way: beautiful young Mormon woman in a dead-end marriage, poor judgment on both our parts. That pretty well sums it up.

But so many different things came out of that experience including my opportunity to define polyamory in my life, a taste of things to come with regards to disaster preparedness, and a dip into the sea that is being a Latter Day Saint.

Mormons love pre-made converts. As a once-Catholic, I got treated almost like royalty. I already knew most of the theological teachings. I knew how to parrot them as much then as I did when I was younger. And boy could I be convincing.

I think somewhere along the line, I hadn't really planned to go headlong into this. I did it because young Mormon woman in question was in search of a better leader of her little family, and this was the only way she knew how to do it. I fell deeply and madly, and in spite of the poor choices that started it, we pushed forward in hopes of making things work. They didn't, of course, but that didn't stop us from trying.

In the process I learned that the 80% of the theology I knew was no match for the 20% I was going to learn. Tales of natives in a far away land from that of Jesus and his disciples. Prophets and Masonic Rituals and other non-Christian beliefs.

If you've ever gone through the Missionary's teachings, one of the things they ask you to do is to pray on these teachings. The angel Moroni promised that the Holy Spirit will send you a sign. A burning or warming of the breast if you pray upon these, and these teachings are true. Missionaries swear by it as the litmus test of their faith.

I did my best as a convert with good intention. I prayed and read.. and prayed some more. No burning. I stood up and proclaimed my testimony. And I prayed yet some more. No burning, save that one time with the really crappy pizza. :-P

Not a good way to start.

As a side note, looking at various interviews and accounts of both born-in Mormons and converts alike, very few ever experienced this burning or anything resembling a filling of the spirit when praying specifically towards the intention of Moroni's Promise.

Being told, "it will happen some day", I kept plugging away, balancing my new role as a Mormon in my life.

There were various things that happened. Details of prayer meetings, and things I read in the Book of Mormon and other holy documents that made me skeptical.

But the moment that sealed the deal for me, and allowed the entire house of cards to collapse was as a result of an evening I spent with my Ward during a couple's Valentine's Day gathering. In spite of the fact that things had gone south in the not-so-good way with my favorite Mormon, and I was flying alone that year, they invited me out anyway to spend some time with people and enjoy myself. It wasn't too bad all things considered. But as I settled in and enjoyed the food and company, I began to feel the other couples. I've always had a way about sensing people. Hard to describe other than to say that either I'm exceptionally good at picking up on non-verbal queues, or something because I can read people fairly well. And what I read for most of the couples in that room was that there was little passion there. Sure, they loved their spouses and families and would have it no other way, but I could sense that many had given up a part of themselves to do it. And while it was willful, it was not necessarily happily.

That's not to say there weren't couples who were obviously passionate and in love. And age or length of marriage had nothing to do with the distinction. But I understood partly why my "friend" was so willing to turn her back on her marriage and find someone who might bring some light and joy to her life where none existed now. That passion she had was part of why I fell for her, and to think that I might, as a matter of course through my beliefs, choose to give up finding that with someone bothered me greatly.

Things were never the same after that, and there was a final straw involving a doubting investigator whom was of African descent. He was dismayed to learn, during the course of his induction, how the early church treated people of color, and both the missionary's responses and how it all ended up being handled really painted quite a picture for me. The gist of which was that apparently God changed his mind and that it was ok for black folk to be eligible to be among the chosen.

That's been an ongoing issue for me. The idea that a book-based theology is allowed to change. Governmental systems have amendments. The word of God is supposed to be infallible. People argue that the people doing the writing are to blame, but if you were a supreme being with the power to do anything and everything at will, wouldn't you ensure that your supreme and holy word got put down in the way you intended? We have enough religions and theologies based on the visitation of a spirit or other entity to an individual who was moved to dictate what was spoken to him, even if the individual could not comprehend the text. Seems like there shouldn't be too much wiggle room on that. And yet, there is.

Could it be that the words are written fine, but it's the humans that can't understand them? Sure. A big part of any religion is interpretation. I don't have a huge problem with that unless things are so ambiguous that it causes huge reversals of position.

Then again, lets talk about how the interpretation of God changed just from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Can't even find consistency in the same book, much less anything else.

So yeah. These experiences contributed to this web of mystery that continued to thicken and thicken to the point where I was left tangled in pieces of this reality which conflicted with other pieces and left me confused and dismayed. And pardon the expression, but heaven forbid somebody try and explain why this happens or why the inconsistencies aren't really wrong, but are a "test of my faith".

That's about the time where Occam's Razor stepped in, and I took a big step backward and decided that all this convolution passing for dogma was not only not God, but that God wasn't god. And if THAT God wasn't god, then how could I know if ANY gods were god?

It was an inevitable yet still heartbreaking realization.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My Fall From Grace: Part 3 - A lot about livin' and a little 'bout love

Sokath, his eyes opened. - Star Trek TNG: Darmok

So as I entered my high school years, I struggled with a lot of things as I'm sure most do. Between various social outcast issues, parental problems involving my controlling Father, and trying to figure out what I planned to do with my life, my plate was rather full. Spirituality had never held a high place in my life up to now, and with all that I was attempting to keep in balance, it ironically fell even further to the wayside.

However, as luck and Catholic tradition would have it, Confirmation, or the ceremony whereby a young Catholic or convert professes and confirms their choice of faith is celebrated in the teen years. In my parish this also mandated attending a retreat weekend put on by members of the youth groups. This lead to a set of experiences that would change my life forever.

Firstly, due to space restrictions, I was diverted into the retreat group for young adults versus the high school age group. This turned out to be an unexpected blessing. I had always had a tendency to get along better with older people, and this time was no exception. The retreat, involving lots of soul searching and guided meditation, went surprisingly well. I emerged with a renewed if not altogether new perspective on my spirituality, and felt good about things for a while.

However, my confirmation continued as scheduled. Rather than take some time to re-evaluate things and become one with my experiences and move forward in a more positive way, I opted to keep my parents off my back and just continue with the ceremony. I of course realize now that I should have at least discussed it, but discussions didn't often go well in my family, and I really hadn't come to a point where my beliefs and my values would be something I would feel compelled to defend.

After my confirmation, I was invited by our deacon to join the youth group. Given that my experiences with them were with the young adult group versus the high school group, I petitioned to join the former, and it was agreed that even though I was a few years too young, that my experiences and the relationships I had built while on retreat were worth something, and I was permitted to join.

This opened me to a closer peer group that was attempting to live their faith. Some were more successful than others, but it was nice being part of a community with a common goal.

During this time I was also helping my Father serve Mass in the capacity as an usher. My responsibilities were to help seat people and also to help pass the baskets for the various collections. There were at least 4 of us that sometimes included my Father if he was not up serving for the priest. I was contributing, but again, it was less for me and more for him.

Later, our young adult group put on our own retreats for the next sets of Confirmation candidates and I got to enjoy and appreciate the comradery that happens when you work as a team to bring to fruition a big event.

As all this continued, I still noticed that this group was no different than the Catholic community at large. There was a great deal of the same hypocrisies that existed in the parish as a whole.

I remember one particular incident where we met at a member's home. He presented himself as being rather devout and he had a certain charismatic way about how he carried himself and was generally well liked and respected. He was well versed and studied. But what struck me as amusing was while walking through his home, unbeknownst to him, I discovered his Playboy magazine subscription which he kept in plain view in his magazine rack in the den. I didn't confront him with it. I was still rather shy back then. But I do remember others shaking their heads knowingly and without much shock or surprise when discovering the same stash.

I think the lesson I was supposed to learn that day was that even the best of people have weaknesses and that it should not taint or tarnish the good works they are doing. Instead, the message I took away was that I couldn't trust anybody, and that expecting people to be a better breed of human was a myth. Further, because nobody else felt the need to address it with him (to my knowledge), I was that much more upset that he would be permitted to continue his supposed charade unchallenged. He lost a bit of my respect that day, and I am sure he probably didn't even know why.

That experience coupled with a bad crush experience with one of my teammates where I ended up feeling as though the rug got pulled out from under me, I opted to discontinue attending the youth group after having been a member for several years.

Not long after that, I announced timidly to my parents that I was no longer going to be attending church on Sundays either. I cited that I was not really much of a believer and that I was tired of being a hypocrite. They didn't understand, but at that point I had already been coming out of my shell and standing up for myself in other ways, and this was just one more. I didn't really concern myself with what they thought about it. I would well imagine they thought of themselves as failures, though they never expressed it, nor did they ever really address the issue directly with me ever again.

And so began my venture into disinterested agnosticism.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Fall From Grace: Part 2 - School Daze

"Come! all ye, and learn the secret that hath not yet been revealed." Liber AL-2:2

So growing up in a semi-devout Catholic family means being semi-devout. Which in a Catholic family means Catechism. Most of the rest of you would refer to this as Sunday School.

One of the things that was interesting about our parish, and I think several others do this as well, is that Sunday School is held DURING the Mass which means the kids miss one of the central rituals to the dogma. I never quite understood how they justified that, and even though I'm sure other kids were perfectly oblivious, I couldn't help feeling like I was missing out on something going on at the Church.

The little kids learn about the fluffy good parts of being Catholic and Christian (don't want to scare them too early). The somewhat older kids learn about the fire and brimstone, and parents readily take advantage, as this is about the time that kids start thinking for themselves. Older still, you learn about your obligations as a Catholic and a Christian, and your preordained path including First Communion and Confirmation, as well as the other "degrees".

As a side note, looking back I realize how much Catholicism and even various other Christian groups have taken from old world secret orders. There are paths of progression that very much resemble degrees and rituals in other orders and groups. It's somewhat amusing.

Baptism is the entry ritual of bodily nature into the religion. Catholics don't typically believe in full-body immersion, but prefer a symbolic cleansing and anointing. This typically takes place long before any age of consent, and the expectation is that it confers a certain level of "protection" upon the infant, and it is expected to be done very soon after birth. As such, I don't recall mine, but I've seen pictures.

The next is what is called Holy Communion, or rather the First Communion. During mass, there is a Eucharistic celebration wherein those who are worthy may partake. Part of the process to becoming worthy is to go through your First Communion. This happens around the age of 8. It involves an extra set of Catechism classes to understand the symbology of the ritual. At least in as much as an 8 year old is expected to understand. Typically this is also the time wherein Catholics attend to their first confession as well. Confession as a Catholic concept is where you visit with a priest during a designated time and retell your transgressions and receive absolution for them with the understanding that if you are truly penitent, your sins will be forgiven.

I understand the psychology of confession. There is something very cathartic about releasing the tensions of guilt and frustration over things that we know we've done wrong. While at times it can be intimidating, it also can lift the spirit when you are told you are forgiven, and it can alter your mindset in such a way that you are made aware of the harm you caused, and work some level of penance in effort to fix what you have undone. However, Catholics view the ritual of confession as the sole means to be absolved of sins, and no matter how sorry we are, no matter how much we've prayed, no matter how much reconciliation we've enacted with those we've hurt, and no matter what we do to make things right, it doesn't count without a proper confession.

This brings me to the beginning of what later becomes a recurring point arising time after time after time. That is, if God is so powerful and so omnipotent, why does he need a celibate man in a dress to tell me if he has forgiven me or not? Is God incapable of expressing his own absolutions? Are we to believe that he's too busy to tend to the fallen of his flock? Is he so arrogant as to think that we are not worthy to interact with anyone but his underlings? This idea of needing a go-between seemed silly at best, and political elitest hierarchical bullshit at worst.

Anyways. Back to my First Communion, this I remember a bit. We all get dressed up, we all partake first, and then everybody coos and ahhs over us. That's about it. And thereafter, I'm eligible to follow with my parents in procession to receive Holy Communion assuming I remain worthy by attending confession regularly. And so it begins.

Most of the rest of my school-age experiences were mundane. My family celebrated the usual Catholic holidays and they often included lots of family, and the chaos and resentment that many family gatherings tend to bring. Beyond that, I can't say I had any particular religious experiences, but I did notice a distinct disconnect from what was the religious world of attending Mass on Sundays to the majority and remainder of the week. We would be regularly admonished to live our faith and yet I can't say that we brought it home. I don't remember the experience of noticing anybody that appeared to live their lives differently as a result of their faith. Did that mean they weren't living their faith, or did it mean that living their faith didn't amount to much anyways?

It took me a while, but later in my life, I finally saw a person that was living their faith, and I understood at that moment that people like them are rare.

In the meantime, I got great examples of those that weren't.

Monday, January 19, 2009

My Fall From Grace: Part 1 - The Beginning

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Gen-1:1

So as a process of my development over the years, one thing that has been notably defined and re-defined is my acceptance and perception of spirituality. Having grown up in a somewhat devout Roman Catholic family, there were elements of spirituality throughout my life, though on some level, they never gelled with me.

I remember learning to say my prayers before bed. As a child, I understood that the idea was that I was supposed to be talking to God to praise him, rejoice in him, and humbly ask for his forgiveness and his assistance in my day-to-day life. However, as the Catholics we were, my prayers consisted of a rigid set of prayers that supposedly served various purposes, but generally took the personalization out of it. I remember Hail Mary's. Our Father's. There were others, but I don't recall them now. But I do remember a sense of solitude in the ritual. I later learned that it was not uncommon in other religious Christian families to say the evening prayers together as a family. We didn't do much of anything together as a family. But thats a whole other post regarding a whole other topic.

I certainly remember going to church. We went every Sunday for as long as I can remember. And I remember my Dad helping out in one capacity or another.

He grew up in the church, and as a young man, once considered life as a priest. He entered the seminary and studied for some time before he realized it was not to be the lifestyle for him. This didn't change his devotion to the church any. He would often "serve mass", which for those of you not familiar with a Catholic mass is the role where you assist the priest up at the altar. This is commonly done by altar boys and girls, but depending on your community, and their interest, there may not be enough kids to provide for the role, so adults who are trained for the roles are welcome to help out. He would also help out with the ushers both in seating as necessary (our church was almost never full enough at the masses we attended to require help seating) or the passing of the collection baskets. This particular role is one I would later learn and help with, but more about that later.

I didn't have much other familial religious influence. My family was not close to most of the rest of our extended family except for our living grandparents.

My father's mother, much like he, was also a rather devout Catholic. She had also grown up in the church, and had very strong feelings about religion and the role of the church in her life. She, more than my parents, was one to ensure I knew what prayers to say and when, and she, unlike my parents, would pray with me and make efforts to nurture that part of my life. She tended to be strict and unyielding in many ways, and I imagine this speaks a lot as to why her influence, as strong as it was, did not have its intended effect on me.

My mother's mother was quite a different sort. Having come from Mexican descent, she believed, as many do, in this cross-breed form of Christianity that has a Catholic influence along with a pagan-ish influence from the native ancient peoples such as the Mayans and the Aztecs. She did not attend church with any regularity unless it was with our family, and she had not grown up or live with a specific religious sense of being. She did, however, live within the influence of various superstitions and things of that nature. And this influence was something that was prevailent in her ancestory. It was once said that her sister, my great aunt, had the "evil eye" and that strange things happened whenever she was unhappy from the time she was a young child. These stories and experiences were my first taste of spirituality outside of my home, and in this case, alternative spirituality.

Oddly, when I was young, religion was not something that kids talked a lot about. I remember knowing that people did different things, although I don't think I encountered much out of the mainstream Catholic and Protestant sects until much later in life. People went to church, they did their thing, and almost nobody ever talked about it, or it seems thought much about it beyond that. I don't recall the school going out of its way to discourage us. I just don't recall it being something of interest.

So with this hodge podge of experience, my toe-dips into religion were, in my mind, tentative at best. There was always the "face" I put on, however. My father was strict and controlling, and of course that meant that things important to him were, by extension, "important to me".

So my beginnings of religion and spirituality were in large part to satisfy my family. I don't recall any particularly interesting personal experiences. I prayed for things, and my prayers didn't seem to have any particular effect one way or another. Things seemed to happen however things were going to happen. I didn't feel as though my spiritual efforts afforded me anything other than a measure of peace in the family. And given how things would go later, I have mixed feelings about what that peace cost me.