I wrestle with my spirituality daily.
I don’t know if I’m unique in this or not. I know I had a fairly common upbringing when it comes to faith in America. I grew up Christian, specifically Lutheran. We went to a church that was right up the road. We could walk there if we were feeling spry. It was a good sized congregation. There were a lot of neighbors and familiar faces. I knew I was supposed to feel safe there. We didn’t do a lot of reading from scripture in the early years, the pastor put the ideas in my sister’s and I’s heads for us. We both grew up knowing there was a very nice fellow named Jesus that was god’s son and that he sacrificed everything so that we could get a life after death. He told us that we ought to be nice to people because it’s the right thing to do, and that even when bad stuff happened we could take comfort in knowing he would always be there for us.
Once I was about ten, something didn’t seem right.
A lot of the off feelings came from the other people in the congregation. A lot of them just didn’t really treat me very nicely. I was used to kids treating me poorly. I was kind of enthusiastically awkward, I was always a little on the heavy side as a kid, and I was bookish and nerdy. So it didn’t surprise me that sometimes the other kids were mean. Little kids are just mean sometimes. They haven’t got empathy entirely figured out yet. But, what I really couldn’t understand was the adults. They didn’t seem to like each other all that much either and would engage in the same meanness. Though I couldn’t identify it as such at a young age, I was seeing politics going on. I don’t know if it’s a Lutheran thing or not, but there were always committees and chairpeople for things, and in retrospect there was an intense amount of jockeying for status and position between a few prominent families in the local church.
I got a little older, and then I started seeing some of the things there for what they were in my spiritual life. I remember being told about Christ’s humility, about God being there when I needed him. I remembered that Jesus accepted all comers regardless of their status – all were supposed to be welcome.
But… I did not feel particularly welcome. I did not feel that I belonged.
I remember families seemed to look at my family with mild disdain at times, though they masked it with a kind of politeness that we all come to adopt when having to be nice to people we don’t particularly want to be nice to. I think this was, again, possibly some politics at play as Mom and Dad had once been very enthusiastic about church participation and being an active part of the congregation before having two kids. The congregation seemed to have a constant game of who was on top, who was the most devoted to Christ, like it was some kind of competition and some of them seemed to like letting others, like my parents, know when they were on the outs. Others looked down on us when our Sunday best was not perhaps up to their Sunday best, despite Jesus having preached to people in rags who had nothing. Yet others still looked at us as lesser than they because we did not attend services regularly, which was to say every Sunday. My parents were very fond of the Gospel of Thomas. A church was a building. You could pray in private whenever it was convenient, and God was there to listen on the other six days as much as he was any one day in particular. Given that kind of attention span, surely he could have set things to rights with our congregation – yet he didn’t. Questioning His will I knew was equally as bad, so I learned not to do it when other people were watching – including my family.
I do not suspect all churches were like this, but I also don’t believe this kind of thing is uncommon either. It colored my perception of organized religion (and continues to). It had a set of scriptures that people seemed to practice to their level of comfort. Despite having a common playbook in the form of the Bible, people seemed to pick and choose which parts would apply, ignore it wholesale when it was convenient, or slavishly devote themselves to every last word, even the parts that seem totally crazy.
None of that sat right with me. I was old enough to start grasping the concept of hypocrisy by then.
Then, I started to learn in earnest about the other worlds and communities outside of my own. My father took me abroad one summer. I went to see other parts of the world, both regionally and globally. I gained new perspectives. I learned about other faiths. I learned about philosophy. Philosophy was a big one. When I hit upon Taoism, I finally felt there was something I could understand. I could grok this. It made sense. I started to question the teachings I grew up with.
In 1997, my grandmother died. She was like another mother, and was the closest family tie I had outside of immediate family or my cousins. I felt something snap and go limp inside when the end finally came after several grueling months of her being confined in a nursing facility. Much like when I was four and my childhood friend’s mother died – whom was also like another mother – I took no comfort in things like ‘Heaven needed another angel’ or ‘It was her time’ or ‘She’s in a better place now.’ The words were rote things to say to patch over the pain. They didn’t make me feel any better. I was shaken to my core.
The only thing that felt like it did any good was a secular thought: ‘The pain is over now.’ It was for her at any rate. The rest of us would have to soldier on. Nothing to it but to do it. And the scars healed. After the funeral. I was done with the church in all of its modes. I decided that my faith in Christ would have to be personal. I’d never read through the entirety of the bible. I never really felt anything in that building where so called brothers and sisters in Christ were to take all comers and accept and love one another. I felt judged and in a hollow space, a construction of man – not a construction of God.
My faith in my teachings though wholly collapsed a few months later when I saw a homeless man on 20th and Race atop a steam vent. He was filthy. You could see in his face that he had been strung out on something, his lips chapped and ashen, his skin little better, sores around rough patches of scaly skin, hiding beneath layers of decomposing rags. Shoeless, emaciated, and tucked in the fetal position, I could not tell if he was alive or dead.
And in that moment, I tightened my own jacket – far too warm and claustrophobic – and walked away.
I walked away.
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. We all do this. We all ignore it. We can’t just fix all the wrongs we see up close and personal in this world. Because actually fixing it is damned near impossible. I realized that even if I did anything for this man, if I was willing to help, to call a cop, to try and give him some comfort at my own expense, it would be a temporary fix at best. I did not have the faith that even if I had done something about it that day that someone else would do the same thing for him the next day or the day after that. I was unwilling to take this man, stand him up and say ‘Come with me, I’ll help’ without fear for my safety. There was no faith left inside of me, not for the guy on the street, in myself, or in some absentee god who had not done this man before me any favors. The thing inside of me that went limp completely after my grandmother’s passing dried up and swirled away in a bitter gust of Philadelphia wind. Later, in my apartment after many tears, I remember thinking to myself, ‘It’s okay, you’ll pick it up later. If there is a God, he’s supposed to forgive. One day, I will return as the prodigal son. I will be accepted.’
I haven’t tried going back to the Lutheran Church since, nor have I uttered a sincere Christian prayer.
But that’s a shitty ending, isn’t it? Nineteen, alone on the streets of Philadelphia in the bitter cold, feeling that last brittle twig of faith snapping. An empty vessel just eking out a life.
Well, you’ll perhaps be pleased to know that ten years later, I would feel something again, though the source may not come from where you expected.
I drifted. I began to lean a bit more on philosophy than religion. I decided to move around in different circles. I found myself in college. I let the world sort itself while I tried to figure myself out. It took some doing. The hits kept coming. Debt from college. A shitty warehouse job. Disillusionment with my chosen profession in the arts; or lack there of beyond doing work for people who looked at me as some kind of subhuman because artists were scum without any real value, interchangeable with forklifts or autodialers. Getting downsized – twice. I worked retail at Christmas. But, I had my friends, I had my family, I had my diversions. Things varied from day to day. Good and bad. I thought maybe I’d figured it out.
Then I suffered a major trauma. Where in my past I thought I saw a man possibly dead in the street, in 2005 one of my best friends collapsed in front of me in mid-conversation, dying shortly thereafter despite efforts of the people with us who tried to save him. My mind shattered. I was not well for several months, and only after intense amounts of external assistance did I get back to something that looked like me, talked like me, and could function.
But, I was still broken inside. A little hollow space was there where I once had faith that everything happened for reasons, that we were protected on high by a righteous God who righted wrongs and set bent things straight. There was a cross shaped hole in my soul. Even if you give up on one creed, the absence can still gnaw at you, and you may yearn for another to provide meaning.
In May of 2007, I had saved up a lot of money. All told about four grand. I’d decided I was going to see more of the world. I cashed bonds from my grandmother, saved up $200 a check (easier to do when I could still work within my parent’s insurance and had no car payments) over the course of a few years. I was going to go to Japan. I booked travel through AAA, boarded a United flight to O’Hare, then to Narita.
After a night of exploring Shinjuku-ku, I woke the next day, got on a bus with the tour group and we went out to the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya Tokyo.
Our tour guide, an older woman named Kyoko, explained to us the expectations of us in the temple. She told us about the ritual of washing hands and mouth, how to make proper obeisance to the Kami spirits. She told us about Inari, the rice goddess and what the folded paper streamers meant and about bound trees that were spiritually married to one another. It was all rather alien stuff to me as a Westerner, and I can’t say I put much initial thought into it. But, as we began to approach, passing Sake barrels and wishing trees, that started to change.
We approached a Torii gate that led to the main shrine. It was massive; thirty-feet tall and made from actual, whole trees. It was huge, but plainly decorated. I even stopped to snap a picture.
Kyoko told us (and I’m paraphrasing here) that by passing through the gate, it was said that it would start the process of cleansing the spirit, and would block out unclean influences. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion. I can’t objectively say. But, subjectively, something did happen. I felt a breeze as I passed under the arch of the gate, and while I couldn’t instantly put my fingers on it exactly until some time later, I could feel the broken spiritual connections began to repair itself. we approached the purification area of the shrine where we began the ritual gestures that Kyoko had taught us. I took the dipper full of water and washed my hands and poured water into my cupped hand to cleanse my mouth. I bowed and we continued further in.
We spent some time learning about the Shrine, but then caught a fleeting glimpse of the shrine maidens and priests on their way to perform ceremonies in the off-limits parts of the shrine.
In that moment I felt a little better, that emptiness inside of me lessening a bit. I had not taken comfort from anything with a spiritual aspect to it like this since perhaps my teens. I did not weep – I did not have to. There was nothing but a simple contentment, a mellow joy.
It was a miracle. Or at least it felt that way to me. I had felt right from the moment I crossed the gate,. I had begun to repair my soul.
I repeated this ritual again and again, as many times as I could. In as many places as I could.
And, eventually, I ended up in Nara.
This shrine I was told was a particularly big deal. It boasts the largest wooden shrine to Buddha in Japan if I remember correctly, and it is visited often by locals and tourists alike. And it was here that I think I finally began to fix myself. If you’re unfamiliar with some of the practices that go on at the shrines of Japan, you’ll find a frequent fixture is a prayer board area. You simply take a blank, slim wooden placard from available stacks, and then you write on it as an offering to the heavens. You can write for all sorts of things. You write for a good exam grade. You write for the return of health to a loved one. You write to honor a spirit. At the end of each day, the monks come to collect the placards and burn them as an offering to the spirits of the heavens, in hope that the smoke will carry your intent to them.
I took a placard and I took a pen. And I honored a spirit.
I finally wept. But these were not the tears of grief offered so many times before in the memory of my friend, these were tears of hope. I felt like I had finally found a way to honor my deceased comrade in a manner that had some kind of larger spiritual meaning. Thousands of miles from home, I had regained a lost part of my spiritual self. And that part remains still, slowly growing inside of me, expanding beyond that cross shaped void into something that has no edges or boundaries. Something unknowable, and mysterious, like Tao bringing forth ten thousand things. It didn’t matter that Tao was Chinese and Shinto was Japanese and that Buddhism belonged to both. What mattered was that something outside of myself, outside of direct perception, outside of comprehension reached to me, and made straight what was bent. I felt that somewhere in the cosmos, there was something at work. It had recognized me, and my friend, for one brief moment. And that would be enough for me.
It is now seven years later after the trip. And while I still feel the same way about organizational religions, I have faith in whatever force set in motion the actual healing my spirit received. And whatever that spirit is, I take comfort that it moved me.
I still struggle with it though. Every day presents new challenges, new losses, new moments. I can’t know it – I think that matters of the spirit are utterly unknowable and can only be acted on by instinct, a deep unknowing. All I can do is work within it, and hope that it is enough.