Finding a new faith in an unlikely place
I do not know if I believe in God. There, I said it.
I was raised Roman Catholic, baptized and reluctantly confirmed. I had no interest in being part of a church that preached tolerance but denigrated women and gays.
I was also a passionate student of history. This passion became my college major and eventually the subject I taught for eight years. I taught ancient and medieval history, with a focus on the development of world religions.
While I struggled with my own faith, I was fascinated by the start and growth of the major world religious.
As I grew older, I started to pick and choose the ideas that appealed to me from different religions. I still didn’t have a faith I could call my own and I did not feel that I was missing anything. I went to mass for weddings and thought I should feel something, but I was incapable of that.
I remained very skeptical of Catholicism in particular. I have great respect for the teachings of Jesus, yet I also came to understand that he was attempting to reform Judaism, not start a new religion. I studied how Roman emperors allied themselves with the new faith in order to gain followers and unite their kingdom.
I became very jaded about the socio-political use of religion.
I am a believer in science. I felt drawn to the concept of Humanism, where “man is the measure of all things,” according to the Greek philosopher Protagoras. I believe in people’s intrinsic goodness. I am passionate about knowledge and wisdom and wish those things were more respected in this world.
And yet, part of me has always felt that I am missing something.
My favorite author, Madeleine L’Engle, drew my attention to Episcopalianism.
She was the writer in residence at St. John the Divine, an Episcopalian cathedral in Manhattan. While her books often contain fascinating looks at science, she also incorporates a great deal about religion.
She once said, “Religion and science? One and the same. I don’t have any trouble with it. A lot of people do. They have to put one here and one there, and I think they’re much more like that, each one informing the other… Religion is less accepting than science. Science knows things move and change, and religion doesn’t want that. So I am more comfortable with science. At the same time, I am not throwing God out the window.”
It was because of Madeleine L’Engle that I stepped into the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square in the fall of 2013.
The church is beautiful. The outside is large and intimidating, but inside, despite its size, it exudes a feeling of warmth and community. Much to my surprise, not long into the mass I started weeping and could not stop. At the time, I was two years into trying to get pregnant and had failed two IVF transfers.
I was moved by the reverend, a lovely British man who was so welcoming to me outside of the church after the mass. He asked me to fill out an information card. I did so, despite a reluctance to become a “church person”. And yet, when he called a few days later to thank me for attending, he ended up inviting me to come speak with him at the church.
I have never seen a therapist but I imagine that sitting and sharing my story with the reverend was akin to therapy. He was so kind and understanding. I felt that I had to admit my feelings on religion to him, to confess that I was not sure I believed in God. There was no judgement. He told me I was welcome at mass any time I wanted to come, but there was no pressure on me to join the church. He certainly could not make me believe anything. He could simply invite me to be a part of the community.
My husband and I began to attend mass every weekend. I started to recognize the regulars who were always warm and inviting to us. I cried my way through much of the service for several weeks, but I began to open my heart to the reverend and his congregation.
There were many things I appreciated about the church: the other reverend was a gay woman, anyone—regardless of where they were on their spiritual journey—was welcome to take communion, the congregation was clearly diverse.
And then during communion, if a congregant brought up a mass leaflet with them, it was a signal to the reverend to offer a special one on one prayer for that person. I did this every week. The reverend knew my story and our struggle to conceive and he prayed with me every Sunday, with no comment about the fertility treatments that I was going through. He hoped for a child for us as much as we did.
Several months later, he baptized my first daughter.
We moved out of the city not long after and were saddened to leave the community behind, although we had stopped attending services regularly after having a baby.
I began to think of our time at church as a dream almost. I could not picture finding another community like that one in our suburban area.
And yet, a church found me. When exploring nursery schools for my oldest, I was drawn to a local Episcopal church. The reverend, a wonderful woman, returned my call inquiring about baptism for my younger daughter and brought us in for a meeting. Again, I found the same sort of warm welcome I had in Philadelphia.
I still do not attend mass regularly. I still do not know if I believe in God. But I finally understand why people do follow a religion.
I may not have the faith, but I do love the community.