I have been thinking that I’d like to go back to church. It’s been a vague desire in my mind for a few years, but one that has been amplified lately by the increasingly verbal state of my children. I cringe every time they wrongly identify a church as a school, a cross as a plus sign, or a priest as a Knight of the Round Table. I knew that we were really in spiritual arrears when I overheard my oldest say about the supposed son of God, “Do you know why they called him Cheesus? Because he loved cheese.”
I didn’t want to tell him that he was wrong because it’s possible that Jesus did love cheese. He loved a lot of things after all. I tend to favor the cheeses that hail from France or Spain, but Bethlehem might have been a glimmering bastion of dairy for all I know. I am certain it smelled like it anyway.
The problem with returning to church is that I don’t know how. I’ve fallen away from the Catholic church, the faith in which I was indoctrinated to the ways of the divine and the mysterious. The fissures began the way they do for all youths on the brink of adulthood. Too little time. Too much sleeping till noon. Too many friends luring you into misadventures. Too few mothers to steer you back toward the straight and narrow. The complete break with the church happened when I learned that the priest whose booming sermons had reverberated inside my eardrums for most of my life had been charged with sexual misconduct with young boys. My entire religious inculcation was defrauded with one glance at his mugshot emblazoned across the paper. This was different than the times the facade had crumbled before, revealing the Wizard of Oz within. When Milli Vanilli was exposed as lip-synching, I kept their tape in my boom box for another couple of years. I couldn’t do the same with the Catholic church.
It didn’t help that they’d stopped serving donuts after the Sunday masses either.
I have since been to church for the occasional Catholic wedding. It’s unavoidable when one has a disproportionate number of Italian and Latino friends. But there is a comfortable anonymity in sitting before a priest I will never again hear in a church that I will never again visit. Attending these weddings is a stark reminder of how far down the totem pole of priorities religion has slipped. I no longer know the hymns by heart and I’m always a beat behind the other parishioners in the never-ending rituals of standing and sitting and kneeling. My husband, who grew up in a household devoid of any traditional religion, is certainly no mentor in matters of genuflection and signing of the cross. When the people in the pews stood to receive the sacrament at the last wedding we attended, G whispered, “Hey, I’m hungry. Grab me one.”
And so I’ve become that modern phenomenon of spiritual but not religious. I don’t know what that means, however, since all of my spiritual beliefs are unavoidably clothed in the religious trappings I was exposed to. It seems to mean, for the lot of us, that we believe in a higher power but we’d rather go to brunch as opposed to church on Sunday morning. That probably also explains why I see God in the flaky crust of pastries. It means we want to go to Heaven, if there is one, because Hell, if there is one, sounds really unpleasant. It means we prescribe to the notions of good will toward man, but we can’t actually summarize the Commandments beyond don’t do anything weird with your neighbor. We know who Jesus is and some of his great works, but Peter, Paul, and Mary are just members of an aging folk band.
This time of year especially, though, and even more so in the shadow of a grisly crime directed at the most innocent of our race, I am feeling like being spiritual but not religious is not doing much for my enlightenment. It’s like being on Weight Watchers but never counting points, which is a sin I am also guilty of. I want to believe in my spirituality and the idea that I can revel in God at any turn and in any place. I’d like to think that I am capable of teaching my kids about the invincible force of love, and the cohesiveness of community, and the salve of kindness apart from the dogmatic shrieks of false prophets.
But I also want answers from someone who sees more clearly and devotedly than I. I need to look upon the face of someone whose eyes are not ensconced with the glaze of doubt that covers mine. I need to hear from a person who can claim insight into the human condition that feels entirely alien to me at this moment.
Mostly I need my kids to see a cross and know it to be the emblem of something bigger than mathematics.
And, Cheesus Christ, I need some donuts.