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Finding My Religion

Dan Picasso

"Catholic is a race," my brother once told me as we killed a bottle of rum at the Wild Goose, a ticky-tacky pub on the north side of Chicago. We'd just loaded my entire apartment into a Ryder truck destined to light out for Minneapolis in the morning, and we needed a nip and a few juke selections to revive our flagging carcasses. My brother, who's always been the best kind of bar-stool philosopher, decided to use this pit stop for an impromptu seminar on theological roots. "You will never stop being Catholic," he said, waving his filterless Camel like a papal staff. It sounded more like an assurance than an admonition. "You can move away from here, but you can't move away from it."

"Here" was the epicenter of Catholic faith in the Midwest, and "it" was a rather extreme diet of Roman Catholicism. I'd spent 12 penitent years as a student in the largest Catholic school system in the United States, attending formal Mass six days a week during the school year. Where I grew up, every girl in the neighborhood had a closet neatly lined with plaid uniform skirts and white blouses in descending sizes, most passed down from neighbors, sisters, and cousins. Rather than being preserved in starch like our cherished First Communion veils (pricey lace shrouds from a store called Saint Mary's), these uniforms bore witness to years of horseplay and aggression. The crisp box pleats had long since collapsed, the squares of plaid were crosshatched with ballpoint pen, and the blouses took on a jaundiced hue around the collar and armpits. On the last day of school, graduating eighth graders ceremoniously destroyed their kilts with scissors, knives, and Bic lighters. It was a dogged exorcism of sorts by girls who hadn't yet realized that even if they moved a thousand miles from "here" and renounced "it" repeatedly, their Catholic roots were far hardier than a cheap acrylic skirt.

When my schoolmates and I were little, we embraced Catholicism in its purest and most rigid form. Well-schooled by geriatric nuns and priests whose sensibilities were formed long before Vatican II, we often invoked obscure dogma that even our parents had forgotten about. I refused on religious grounds to eat breakfast if I planned to receive Communion within the next half-hour. (This old stricture made perfect sense to me: The body of Christ should not be made to coexist with Froot Loops in a Catholic tummy.)

At the ice-cream social following my first confession at age seven, I turned to my mother and said, "I want you to know that I finally feel cleansed." I'd been waiting weeks for the occasion, compiling Top Ten lists of my most egregious sins (inspired by late-night Letterman viewings with my dad) and drawing pictures of how I thought my tortured soul might look (half white, half Crayola black, bisected down the middle with an ambiguous stripe of pink.) I wasn't the only kid who was completely committed to my faith, either. We were all gung ho, utterly devout. We had drunk the consecrated grape juice. We were the best kind of disciples: blindly obedient and willing to believe anything that was said in that massive red brick church with the bats in the rafters.

But as we Catholic girls stumbled toward adolescence, some previously inviolate bubble ruptured in our psyches, releasing a noxious and seductive gas that smelled to me like Charlie perfume, smoldering reefer, and other pleasures of the flesh. The changes didn't happen overnight, but eventually all of us succumbed, even the girls who'd always wanted to be nuns and tucked plastic rosaries in their Lisa Frank pencil cases. Electrified by MTV, public school mixers, and the swarthy, menthol-smoking skate punks at the Orland Square Mall, I suddenly decided I definitely didn't want to be Catholic anymore. Why subscribe to a belief system that made me feel so bad when nihilistic grunge rock, Boone's Farm wine, and boys with hot, downy chests made me feel so good? When Layne Staley from Alice n' Chains groaned, "Deny your maker," on the radio, I thought to myself: "You know, he makes a good point. That Layne Staley is going places."

A lot of lapsed Christians I know, Catholic and otherwise, like to complain that they didn't have a say as to which religion they were raised in. Like me, they were dunked in the baptismal font as infants, enrolled in religious schools, and forced to dress as myrrh-bearing vagabonds in countless Nativity plays. (My school did that ritual one worse--we reenacted the Stations of the Cross, complete with a blushing fourth-grade boy in Hanes as the naked Christ.) "My parents should have allowed me to discover my own belief system," people say. Or, "Religious pedagogy is toxic for children."  

That Marlo Thomas shit is kind of cloying--and irrational--if you ask me. It's logical for parents to foist religion on their offspring. After all, my mom and dad also got to govern my wardrobe, diet, education, vocabulary, and access to the Porky's film franchise (access denied). What's a little mandatory Christ in the midst of all that oppression?

Technically, at the cusp of adolescence, I was given a choice. The sacrament of confirmation, traditionally celebrated around the age of 13, is the closest a Catholic kid will ever get to an escape hatch. Receipt of the sacrament implies adulthood in the church--and a willingness to continue on the same spiritual path. From that point forward, you have only yourself to blame for picking such a frustrating and dogmatic faith. Even though my beliefs were rapidly waning by the eighth grade, I chose to be confirmed, primarily because it seemed like fun to select a saintly middle name, one of the inexplicable perks of the sacrament. (I picked Joan of Arc because the actress who portrayed her in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure had a bitchin' haircut.)

On confirmation day, I donned a new K-Mart dress, teased my hair to stratospheric heights, and headed to church with my classmates. Though I couldn't have been a more casual confirmant, I felt an unfamiliar surge coruscate through my veins when the priest anointed my forehead with oil. It was a chilly, haunting sensation that suddenly justified the term "Holy Ghost." It was one of the few times in my life that I felt touched by the divine. Chosen. I shivered and returned to the pew with my sponsor. (I'm not sure why newly confirmed Catholics have sponsors--it's just one more thing we have in common with alcoholics.)

That day was the last time I found myself believing wholeheartedly. From then on, my suspicions burgeoned. As my friends and I entered our mean teens, routine religious doubt soon gave way to blatant sacrilege. We scorned the church outwardly, speculated as to which of our altar boy chums had been molested by clergy, and declared to our horrified parents that we had become pro-choice at the urging of Eddie Vedder. My friend Renee and I began sitting together when our families attended High Mass on Sunday; we'd spend the entire liturgy poking each other and smirking every time the old Polish priest attempted to say "Jesus."

"Jee-sass," we'd whisper to each other, our faces burning with suppressed laughter. "Jee-sass lubs us all." Our mothers wore twin scowls, not realizing that later in the evening, Renee and I would change into revealing tops from Contempo Casual and pounce on our boyfriends in the backseat of Renee's Dodge Dynasty; mocking a priest's grasp of English was the most venial of our offenses. Renee and I had recently decided we were Wiccan, mainly because we liked the idea of love spells and pentagrams and directing elaborate curses at girls we didn't like. We didn't realize that we made even worse Wiccans than we did Catholics. The strange hybrid of amateur occultism and self-worship we'd invented was the perfect religion for Ouija-bored teenagers. It spooked our parents, it allowed us to feel a modicum of control over our newfound sexuality, and the accessories were wicked cool. My bedroom reeked of candles, patchouli cones, and the 13 secret herbs and spices necessary to establish that Wicker Man vibe. These days, Hot Topic spirituality is all the rage, but I like to think I was a trailblazer in that regard. A first-gen poseur.

I wrote to Renee recently. I hadn't seen her in eons, but I was curious as to whether she'd ever recovered pieces of her Catholic faith from the religious crime scene that was our adolescence. I knew that she'd had a son and married one of the very guys we'd crushed on as teens, and I wondered if she'd started attending Mass again, converted to a different faith, or eschewed the idea of a higher power entirely. I wanted to see if my brother Marc was right about all "recovering" Catholics eventually boomeranging back, however reluctantly, to their native beliefs. My letter to Renee read, "Are you still a Catholic? If so or if not, why?"

She wrote back, "I am not a Catholic in the sense that I don't believe abortion, condoms, and masturbation are wrong. However, I still have that Catholic guilt. I found a nondenominational church that suits me, and I have met many other turned-off Catholics. But my son was baptized (Catholic) and might go through the other Catholic sacraments.... Oh fuck, who am I kidding? We will probably have seven kids and force them to go to Mass every Sunday, or at least on Saturday evening. I am still too guilt-ridden, I guess."  

Renee went on to criticize the so-called "supermarket mentality" that selectively embraces certain aspects of religious doctrine (such as God's all-forgiving benevolence) and deny others (like that whole Revelation seven-headed dragon mindfuck). "I really feel that to say you are a certain religion you have to believe everything it says and everything it stands for," Renee wrote. "It really pisses me off when people try to pick and choose, like 'I'm Catholic, so my boyfriend and I just buttfuck instead of having real sex.' That's not the way religion works."

I agreed with Renee on some level. "Religious" implies scrupulous devotion and unyielding adherence to a certain set of principles, sacred or profane (for example: I listen to Def Leppard religiously). A person can hardly define him or herself as religious and only believe half of what they're taught. Could they be called spiritual? Fine. But not religious. Personally, I could never call myself a Def Leppard religionist if I only played the hits and refused to embrace their post-Mutt Lange catalog.

The notion of shopping around and cobbling together your own personal articles of faith is maligned with increasing frequency these days, and by surprisingly diverse factions. The pastor at the semi-liberal Presbyterian church I attend recently lambasted so-called "Wal-Mart Christians" in his Sunday sermon. (He didn't employ the phrase "buttfuck," but not everyone is as eloquent as Renee.) "You can't commit to Jesus and then say you don't believe in all of his teachings," the pastor warned with a fiery conviction seldom seen in inclusive, touchy-feely churches like mine. "You can't say you're a Christian and then refuse to invite others to share in our faith."

At this, I shrank in my pew. I'd rather snack on fiberglass insulation than heartily encourage my non-Christian friends to join the flock. Witnessing has never been my strong suit. Neither has religious fellowship, but I continue to soldier forward in pursuit of this crazy little thing called Christlove. But it doesn't mean I hope my Jewish and Buddhist and atheist friends will eventually embrace the wholesome delights of the Jesus Jamboree, nor do I worry that their souls will be condemned to a cartoonish vision of hell where corpulent little devils stab the buttocks of heathens. Does this unwillingness to witness to my faith put me in the dreaded company of those noncommittal Pik n' Save Christians? And what about the fact that I'm still Catholic in so many ways, praying novenas to Saint Jude in troubled times, crossing myself when I spot an ambulance, habitually ordering the fish sandwich on Fridays? I find myself feeling like a spiritual orphan of uncertain parentage, stranded in nameless territory without a reliable moral compass.

 

People are usually surprised to hear that I'm Christian at all. Apparently, being a sardonic former sex worker means I ought to be supplicating Ba'al and scoffing at all the moronic sheep who'd rather reflect on Sunday morning than sleep off their vodka hangovers. To that I say: 1) There is nothing implicitly sheeplike about collective worship. In fact, studies show that sheep have not been known to commune for religious purposes. 2) It's entirely permissible to attend church with a vodka hangover, a violent-looking hickey, or an exposed tattoo depicting a babe in bondage. In fact, I do it often. Nobody cares, and if they do, they're either too Christian to judge me or too Minnesotan to judge me to my face.

My issue lies not in whether or not I should be a religious person--I've always been a religious person; I've never even flirted with atheism--but in the fact that as an adult, I've always embraced selective aspects of different faiths, rather than cleaving to any belief system. The idea of treating religion like a Shakey's buffet is distasteful to people like me who were raised on ritual, but it's simply not possible for me to settle on one static image of God. What's a lapsed-Catholic-Presbyterian liberal-feminist-Jezebel to do?

Richard Cimino and Don Lattin's 1998 book Shopping for Faith fleshes out the religion-as-consumerism metaphor in grand detail, discussing the rising popularity of "postdenominational" spirituality that embraces myriad religious traditions. The book includes profiles of Episcopalians-turned-Buddhist monks, Korean Mormons, and Reverend Matthew Fox, a minister in San Francisco who uses tai chi, pop music, strobe lights, aboriginal prayers and Celtic blessings in his "Techno Cosmic Mass." In contrast to the popular view of Christians as an unremittingly conservative bunch, Shopping for Faith documents an explosion in religious diversity and doctrinal crossbreeding. Gay clergy have gained acceptance even in many moderate Christian congregations, and Kabbalah, that formerly esoteric offshoot of Judaism, is all the rage among wealthy Galleria shiksas sporting red yarn bracelets and Pilates-toned glutes.  

As in so much else, celebrities have gone a long way toward setting the popular tone of religion. In 1985 Madonna angered Catholic officials with her irreverent costumes and imagery; 20 years later she's adopted the biblical name "Esther" and only drinks water blessed by a certain celebrity rabbi. (Seven years ago, Madge was chanting in Sanskrit on her album "Ray of Light" and wearing bindis. It's possible that Madonna is the original Wal-Mart disciple, though she'd no doubt shudder at the plebian connotations.)

This flexibility has allowed religious thought to flow seamlessly into modern pop culture: The popular MTV Yoga DVD achieves the impossible by pairing the quest for a quiet mind with the presence of a former Real World cast member. Britney Spears has a Hebrew tattoo on her neck and, before giving birth, released a saccharine single about God and his plan for her unborn Federfetus. In the evangelical sphere, Stephen Baldwin (Threesome, The Sex Monster) has produced a DVD that combines extreme sports with Gospel teachings, even jokingly insinuating that Christian BMX bikers "get more air." And viewers who tuned into The Surreal Life a couple of seasons ago saw an unlikely friendship blossom between roommates Tammy Faye Baker and Ron Jeremy. When an avowed Christian evangelist can see eye-to-eye with the star of Sodomania 42: The Juice is Loose, it's apparent that religious boundaries have crumbled in some fashion. Consider: Meditation no longer appeals exclusively to practicing Buddhists. The tarot and other methods of divination are prominently displayed at mainstream booksellers. Books like Dan Brown's ubiquitous airport read The Da Vinci Code have provoked mass interest in the gnostic gospels, the sacred feminine, and Holy Grail conspiracies.

I understand why a lot of people look down on the thought of shopping around for religious beliefs. If the road to enlightenment used to be a winding pass for weary pilgrim feet, we're now led to believe it can be traversed in an afternoon for a mere $19.95. This brand of instant accessibility extends beyond Christianity and Judaism; books like The Nice Girl's Book of Naughty Spells and Be a Teen Goddess! make Wiccan practices feel like a shallow after-school diversion (though I would have admittedly purchased both books during my youth). Never has religion seemed more tailored to the commitment-phobic.

Yet the tension between institutional religion and personalized variations is not entirely the product of tawdry consumerism. In fact, it's as old as Christianity itself. The 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels, by Princeton University religion scholar and historian Elaine Pagels, traces this fight back to the two centuries following the death of Jesus. Working from "heretical" and long-lost versions of the gospel stories that were unearthed at Nag Hammadi in 1945, Pagels offers this thumbnail history of the struggle between followers of a personalized, gnostic Christianity and the forebears of the modern hierarchical church that eventually won out:

 

Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the Gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.

Second, the "living Jesus" of these texts speaks of illumination and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal--even identical.

Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as soon as Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their being from the same source: "Jesus said, 'I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out.... He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.'"...

Gnostic Christians undoubtedly expressed ideas that the orthodox abhorred. For example, some of these Gnostic texts question whether all suffering, labor, and death derive from human sin.... Others speak of the feminine element in the divine, celebrating God as Father and Mother. Still others suggest that Christ's resurrection is to be understood symbolically, not literally. A few radical texts even denounce catholic Christians themselves as heretics who, although they "do not understand mystery..., boast that the mystery of truth belongs to them alone."

   

Does all this begin to sound familiar? And where, exactly, does the mass movement toward personalized religion leave those who are more inclined to cling to a specific denomination, or practice "pure" forms? According to Cimino and Lattin, "brand-name religion is on the wane." The hard-line Catholics of my childhood, the ones who stooped to kiss the bloodied feet of the life-sized plaster Christ in our church vestibule, are an endangered species. The doddering nuns who taught me about original sin have long since retired or ascended to Paradise like emperor penguins finally gifted with flight. The church of my youth is manifestly in crisis; when I visited the website for the Archdiocese of Chicago not long ago, the bottom third of the homepage was devoted entirely to news about local sex abuse scandals and related resignations.

Can ancient, enigmatic and often difficult faiths survive in a world where bored seekers demand answers now? Or are they fading into virtual obsolescence, replaced by diluted versions that are easier for the masses to digest? Part of me wishes for the latter. I fail at fasting. I abstain from abstinence, and the poverty thing is always a bitch.

Yet my brother's tipsy prediction was right. I never really left the Catholic Church. I still occasionally attend Mass at the conservative parish in my neighborhood, especially during Lent (the guiltiest time of year, even for us Catholics who refuse on principle to watch The Pa$$ion of the Christ). I'm aware of some excellent, progressive Catholic churches in the Twin Cities, though I've never summoned the guts to venture into one and explore a more tolerant, optimistic facet of my dreary heritage.

My experience isn't exclusive to Catholics. I know people of wildly disparate religious backgrounds who've found themselves rejecting their inherited beliefs while longing for the security those beliefs granted them. I've also met plenty of people who were raised without any clear religious beliefs at all, and are now determined to impose some rigid program of spiritual practice upon themselves. Sometimes I wonder if this restlessness is actually about God at all. Maybe it's just classic rebellion disguised as religious vision questing. After all, I wouldn't borrow my mother's high-waisted jeans, so why would we share a Messiah?

That said, I don't think orthodox religion is truly at risk. There will always be believers who thrive on rigidity, modern-day flagellants who are brought closer to understanding through routine and sacrifice. I acknowledge the beauty and validity of many of those traditions. And the idea of a cosmic velvet rope separating God and humanity is admittedly a comforting one. It's akin to being a sheltered kid and believing that your father is invincible; you may be wildly misinformed, but that blind sense of security is sweet while it lasts. But the Gnostic texts, for lack of a better metaphor, insist that Daddy can bleed. The idea is disquieting--if we've inherited God's divinity, how can God protect us?--but ultimately far more satisfying to me than the orthodox beliefs that have sought to muzzle the curious for ages. I've had my share of core-rattling Touched By an Angel moments--brief instances in which God seemed to be standing right beside me, tousling my overprocessed hair like a kind scoutmaster--but most of the spiritual epiphanies I've had in my life were far earthier, borne of personal reflection, diverging beliefs, and the admission that I can't ever fully grasp the sacred. Could it be that those of us who are sheepish regulars at the World Religions Buffet are actually cleaving to ancient teachings? At the very least, "humble seeker" sounds infinitely more flattering than "Wal-Mart disciple."

When I received the sacrament of Eucharist in the second grade, I asked my mother why I had to dress in white lace and carry a gardenia and prayer book down the church aisle. She thought about it for a moment and replied, "It's because you're supposed to look like a little bride of Christ." I didn't dig the sound of that at the time, and I suppose I still don't. The term "bride" has a morbid finality, a possessive, human feel that stands in direct opposition to what I like about spirituality. I enjoyed blushing beneath that frilly veil with the dove appliqués, but I didn't think of myself as a bride. I thought of myself more as Christ's buddy than a vessel for the body, a newly minted apostle bursting with an inexhaustible supply of questions. But I understood my role in the day's proceedings, and I accepted the consecrated host with an unfurled tongue like our teacher had instructed. I whispered "amen" as if it were a spell. It rained afterward, and I didn't feel any different. I didn't know then that a new dress and an unleavened wafer couldn't open my eyes. It would never be that simple.  

Last October, I got married. In the Catholic Church, the sacrament of matrimony is a big one, typically requiring premarital counseling with some underqualified priest, months of competitive church-wrangling opposite other wholesome couples, and of course, ceremonial garments from Hal's Bridal & Tux. I wasn't interested in a Catholic wedding; besides, my handsome groom was twice tainted by the "sin" of divorce. I could have found myself bound by a tangle of contradictory spiritual traditions, trying to create the perfect muddled marriage rite for a couple of postmodern seekers. Fuck that noise. My betrothed and I decided to buck the religious question and get married in Las Vegas, that earthly playground for those who'd rather find a $100 poker chip than the meaning of life. But as we gripped hands on the Star Trek-themed altar and exchanged nondenominational vows before a costumed Starfleet minister, I felt that familiar shuddering sensation, the feeling that God had just walked through my soul like a little poltergeist. If God can be found at a themed hotel in Sin City, I guess God can be found anywhere.


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