Thursday, July 26, 2012

My "religion"

Well, I guess here goes any chance I have for being future President of the United States, or any elected office for that matter.

So I have to be honest here, this is the blog post that brings the most anxiety. This anxiety stems from a few places, no doubt a large portion coming from that Catholic guilt I perfected as a child.

I think I should say upfront, that I am not intending to offend or claiming to be "correct" in anything that I state. I think that is actually one of the biggest challenges with religion, everyone thinks and feels that they are "correct." How can everyone be "correct"? You believe what you believe, that is all you can say, really. Your beliefs work for you and in that way, they are correct. As in you have correctly found what works for you. That is all I am doing here, I am stating that I have correctly found what works for me, and me alone.  I am making no claims to be "right." I am continuing to use this blog as an exercise to learn about myself and discover my passion. Part of this journey, has been thinking more about what I believe about life and in general.

What makes me so anxious about this? I am sure it is partially obvious, religion and one's beliefs can be a sensitive and intimate subject. Additionally, until this moment you may of had certain assumptions about what my beliefs were. Similar to one's political beliefs or one's career, someone's "religion" or lack of "religion" is often a big part of who they are. Once you know something intimate about someone, unfortunately you make assumptions about how they will be present in the world and how they will react, think and respond to daily life and happenings in the world. We often put people in boxes. I think because it is easier to try and find ways to group people together or distinguish ourselves from others. It helps us feel like we have a better understanding of the world and on the other side, a way to be a part of something. A need to find ourselves a member of a certain group and ability to find ways to distinguish between us and them (unfortunately). It is like suddenly finding out someone is of a different political affiliation than you assumed. Did finding out this new information change how you felt about them, even though they were the same person before you found out as they are now, after you found out. If you learn something intimate and personal about someone, sometimes it changes how you view them, your perception and expectations of them, what you think about them and how you perceive them, even though your finding out has no bearing on the person they are. They are still the same person they were before, regardless of you.

Born and raised Catholic I made my confirmation in high school. I know I hypothetically "had a choice," but let's face it, I didn't have a choice. Almost everyone I knew growing up was Catholic and if not Catholic some denomination of Christian (Protestant, etc). I do not think I had any exposure to other faiths until I went to college. I remember arriving on campus being slightly embarrassed that I didn't have this religious or cultural experience.

I had always considered myself spiritual, but had way too many questions from a very early age to truly believe that my Catholic roots would remain intact. I went through a bit of a struggle with this. I was born and raised Catholic, as were most of my family and friends. I appreciated so much about my childhood and there were some great takeaways.

My love for community service and community, in general, came from the church I grew up in, Good Shepherd. I really loved seeing how involved my Grandparents were (Landry). My Grandmother would always work at the money station during the yearly auction and my Grandfather and then father would help out, as well. My mom and dad were also super involved, helping out with the auction, teaching CCD, helping with the annual Festival and then designing and creating the infamous Good Shepherd Haunted Houses every year. I had so much fun growing up in a community where I felt supported and cared for. This community was a huge gift that my upbringing gave to me. I think fondly of these days and even more fondly of my childhood priest, Father Foley.

Father Foley was a very special man. He was jolly, loving and caring and a real community builder. I never really liked going to church, but I loved Father Foley and the time spent outside of the pews. I loved seeing friends at CCD (looking back on it I did, at the time I despised it), I loved helping put together Thanksgiving Baskets for families in need and I loved going to the Church for Haunted Houses, Festivals and the yearly auctions. I loved walking into the kitchen during the festival and seeing all of the behind the scenes hard work. Everyone working so hard to make amazing clam cakes, chowder, etc. We were a real community and I will forever be grateful for that feeling and those years I had a child Catholic. I really enjoyed feeling a part of something.

As I also alluded to, I also appreciated the idea of service I learned. It may have been due to my huge "fear of Hell" as a properly guilt-filled Catholic, but nonetheless, I really did enjoy it. Once again, at the time, I am sure I hated going to church to help put together Thanksgiving baskets and organizing Christmas presents for those in need, but looking back, I really do appreciate the service that was instilled in me. I also have to give a HUGE credit to my high school student council here. What I learned in Church, blossomed in student council. The seed may have been planted by forced community service, but the passion quickly became voluntary service. I spent so many hours in high school doing community service. Helping to volunteer at our town recycling, soup kitchens, senior centers, homeless shelters, recycling at the school and even volunteering within the school.

When I first arrived at Wheaton, I use to attend the Catholic Services, on occasion. I always appreciated the hour to contemplate. That is what I felt about Sundays. I figured if I was going by choice on Sundays now, versus being forced and dragged out the door as a child, there was clearly a part of me that appreciated something about that Sunday service, even if it wasn't particularly what was being said. Wheaton was a nonsectarian institution, however, they would offer different services for different student populations

While at Wheaton and being exposed to other ideas, cultures and religions, I had the opportunity to start asking even more questions. I asked so many questions growing up. It was really hard for me to "just believe." I struggled with this a lot. There were the standard questions I would ask of everyone around me. They were also the same questions I would struggle with internally all the time. I then had the wonderful opportunity to take a World Religions class while at Wheaton. It was honestly one of my favorite classes. If I could go back to school, I think I would love to take more of Religion classes. At some point, I would love to find the time to read all of the ancient religious texts from the many world religions. I would love to have that knowledge and basis. I would love to have the opportunity to find the commonalities and differences for myself. I would also love to read more about Greece and its founding, learn more about Egyptians, as well. I believe there are many commonalities that aren't often discussed. There are so many different faiths and philosophies that I feel add so much to the world. So many beliefs that I have found to help bring me my own peace and aid to my personal and spiritual development. I find so many stories and sayings and words of wisdom and guidance from Christianity, to Buddhism to Native Americans. I also actually got my highest mark ever in this class. I decided to do my final paper on a Jewish tradition I had never heard of. Our teacher was a Jewish Rabbi and he gave me an A+ and commented on my insight and perspective. Not having had much experience or exposure of the Jewish faith, other than some friends I had made, some professors and now this class, I took this as a huge compliment.

I really started having an identity crisis as the news continued to break about the abuse scandal within the church, learning more and more about the churches feelings on same sex relationships and health care (including women's right to choose, end of life care, etc). For a long time I would call myself Catholic when it came up, I felt like I needed to call myself something--again going back to that box, to help people understand me. It eventually got to the point when I was personally no longer comfortable calling myself Catholic because there became more and more at the forefront that I did not personally agree with and just did not believe. It seems odd to me that even though there was a lot I didn't believe for so long, it wasn't until the social issues became so against what I believed in that I stopped referring to myself as Catholic.

For awhile when people would ask me about my religion (which comes up more often than you may think, and especially seems to when you are unsure and uncomfortable with your answer) I would say I was born and raised Catholic and stop there. I didn't know how to end the sentence and didn't really know how to answer the question. I felt like so many people I knew were Catholic or Christian. How can I honestly answer this question and not have them think "less" of me or like something needed to be "fixed". It really was a very unsettling time. Coming to terms with my own beliefs was confusing and scary, but exciting and liberating. I went through periods of reading the bible, being fearful and so very confused ( I think I have said that a few times now).

Growing up, I did what I felt I was supposed to, in-part, because I was so afraid. I was afraid of making "God" angry and I was ultimately afraid of going to hell. The first step in liberating myself was letting go of that. First of all, I believe that you should want be a good person, not because of something you think you are going to get (in Christianity ultimate goal of access Heaven), you should want to be a good person because it is each of our responsibility to leave the world a bit better than we found it, a true form of altruism, if you will. I also believed that you shouldn't be afraid of messing up because you may go to Hell, but that part of life is making mistakes and that I, gasp, just did not believe in Hell and I was finally going to say that out loud. Wow, part of me is now afraid I am going to hell (Catholic guilt coming through in joke form). I also believed you shouldn't want to hurt people, because it was wrong, not because of Hell.

 Researching other world religions, philosophies and cultures was such a big part of my journey. I found myself very attracted to Eastern philosophies, Buddhism, especially. So much of what is said and taught I whole heartily believe in, it resonates with my soul and my being.  I find their ideas about anger, fear, potential, love and religion to be inspirational and how I get through my best and worst times. As someone who battles with anxiety, in general, I have found my numerous Dalai Lama quotes around my desk getting me through those most difficult attacks and days. I find that breathing, meditating and reading help me so much during these difficult times. I also believe we are all humans and that that common thread should be enough, but when I come back to reality and see the world we live in, I am reminded that not everyone feels this way. I consider Buddhism as my daily overarching philosophy, the things I try and remember in all aspects of my life. I find it stretches throughout work, relationships and even my "religion." I don't use the word religion, very often. I often say I don't consider myself religious, but more so spiritual. Finally acknowledging this all out-loud, I am realizing there is so much I need to learn and read and discover about Buddhism.

I also found myself turning to science. You hear so many negative things about science from religious leaders, but for me, it brings me comfort. If Buddhism is where I turn in my difficult, stressful and anxious times and is my daily philosophy of life, than science is where I turn for my moments when I need to remember there are so many things bigger than me, energy is never created nor destroyed and the fact that we are here is evidence enough for me that we have purpose in this world. The environment that needed to be present immediately after the Big Bang to allow us to even have the possibility to be here, we have purpose, we should do good things and make this world a better place. We are all created out of the elements that stars are made of, the most comment elements found in stars are also found in us. We are all literally stars and can stop reading the gossip magazines, because in all honestly, we are living a star-filled life already. All of our potential is within us, we need to stop looking outward and look inward (ok this resonates with my Buddhism beliefs as well). This is where I turn when I need to remember I am not everything and that the world literally does not revolve around me. This is where I turn when I need to remind myself why humans need to protect our home and that we really should not take life for granted. This is where I turn when I need to expand my mind, remind myself I do not know everything, we do not know everything. Heck 96% of the universe is stuff we do not fully understand, dark energy and dark matter. We only understand and can explain 4% of the known universe. Do not even get me started on possibilities of other universes. This is also where I turn to remind myself that this planet is not just for us, that we share this planet with millions of animals and plants and they deserve to be here as much as we do (more Catholic guilt about not being a vegetarian comes from this belief). This is where I find hope for the future. I like to think eventually more people will come around on the importance of science, science literacy and that less people will be so afraid of it. And when I really need to geek out, I just watch this video

The biggest piece of the puzzle was discovering Unitarian Universalism. In 2007 I went through an extremely difficult time, personally. I had some very dark days. Lots of sleepless nights, anxiety, stress and crying. I am realizing now that the timeline of all of this is a bit out of whack. Discovering Unitarian Universalism back in 2007 was the the big moment that put me on my current path and triggered it all. This difficult time is what really started me looking towards where I got my strength, comfort, beliefs and life philosophy. Becoming a UU back in 2007 and being exposed to so many different readings, stories, quotes from other world religions is what really got me interested in Buddhism. Attending services that discussed science openly, reminded me of my love for science, which is what triggered me to rekindle that flame. I owe my current mental state and my journey to my UU discovery.

So, again, I apologize for the out of order nature of this.

Back to the story.....I remember looking up "Liberal religions" in September of 2007 and coming across a church right in my neighborhood that called itself a "Liberal church", it was called All Souls. This still had me skeptical. I knew there was a lot about church and religion that made me very anxious. I knew I needed something, but was uncertain if finding a "religion" was the best way to go? I mustered up all the courage I could and headed to services one Sunday, all by myself. Once again, I figured if I was going willingly, there was clearly something I was hoping to get out of finding a place to learn and grow. I walked in and sat in the back, incase I needed a quick escape or incase I was made to feel like lightening would strike. I began reading the order of service and found our covenant and "what UU's believe." All of it made me begin to think I may have found my place. I wanted to include it all here (below), because I am not sure I could explain what I believe any better.

I found myself at a place where so many things were embraced that I was not use to. People were encouraged to decide what they believed and believe what they wanted and not be afraid of it. Science was discussed openly and taking into account and not feared, or ignored. There was room for movement, change and and our covenant and philosophies were only rigid in the way we should live our life, there were no creeds, per say. Deeds not creeds is a very popular saying.  Religious freedom was praised, along with a women's right to choose. Homosexuality was not considered a "sin," in fact sins weren't discussed. Hell wasn't there to fear and stories and readings from so many different people were shared openly to teach lessons and make us reflect on ourselves(the Torah, the Bible, Buddhist quotes, quotes from Mother Theresa, teaching of Jesus, quotes from Emerson and Native Americans to only mention a few). There were people from so many different religions present, people who were born and raised Jewish, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, all coming to this one place, realizing we all believed different things, but also realizing that didn't mean we couldn't all believe what we wanted, whatever it was, together,as long as we all agreed in how we should live our lives, our covenant, etc.

Religion can be a dangerous thing. There have been so many wars, deaths and injustices due to different religions throughout the centuries. It made me really nervous about ever affiliating with anything, knowing the damage that organized religion has managed. Millions persecuted for not believing "the correct" thing, millions in exile to try and be allowed religious "freedom" to only be introduced to the new "correct" thing they are supposed to believe. I had the amazing opportunity to take a UU history class this past winter and it was truly fascinating to learn about UU roots, and also learn about the different periods of religious persecution world-wide. I learned more than I ever understood about the Church of England, which was also fascinating to think about where the separation of church and state came from and why it is so very important. I have no doubt that the "God" that I believe in would never want someone killing in their name, it is the opposite goal of this love and energy I believe in.

I do believe we are all connected, I do believe there is so much I still need to learn about myself and the world around me. I am just grateful to have recently discovered some tools to aid in my journey. The two pieces I now need to work on are getting back involved with community service on a personal and individual level and making more of an effort to find that community at All Souls. I like to attend services, lectures and musical performances, as an introvert, it is just much more difficult to jump into the community aspect. As a child, I had my Grandparents and parents to thank in helping usher me into the Good Shepherd community.

I guess you may say I have an a la carte type of "religion," affiliation in name as a Unitarian Universalist (if people ask me today I would call myself a UU), with a Buddhist philosophy, scientific grounding and with a dash of realizing there is so much I don't know or understand. I believe in positive energy, souls, love and light and karma and I have found what brings me the most comfort, peace of mind, what makes me happiest and what challenges me and my soul. I do honestly believe that everything happens for a reason, just find again and again, I am not always sure what that reason is--although I am certain it is most often a lesson I am meant to learn. I believe in listening to the Universe and trying to listen to nature. I believe that life is unfortunately "not fair." The more I think about it, however, I guess I shouldn't expect it to be. This fact alone causes me to be grateful more than I think I would be otherwise. Nothing is owed to me. I do not believe that "God" loves any one person, religion, sports team, state or country more than anyone else nor is there punishing involved. In my mind, God is not a person or being, God is "love" and our utmost potential, something to work towards, it is the energy that pulsates through space and time and ties us all together. I have found what inspires me to be a better person and treat others around me with love. This is just what has worked for me and I look forward to learning more of what works best to keep me centered and grounded.

Wow, that was a lot to process and acknowledge.....

Coming up next:


What 5 year olds teach me

Subway stress

Letting Go

Morals and ethics in an ever polarized world

And that's all she wrote....

Our Covenant

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

■The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

■Justice, equity and compassion in human relations,

■Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

■A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

■The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

■The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

■Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.

The living tradition we share draws from many sources:

■Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

■Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;

■Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

■Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.

■Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and enables our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

What We Believe

1.We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal theology, and to present openly their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.

2.We believe in the toleration of religious ideas. All religions, in every age and culture, possess not only an intrinsic merit, but also a potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.

3.We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, or a document, or an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.

4.We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind and heart are truly free and open, the revelations which appear to the human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, and wondrously exciting.

5.We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge, religion and the world, the sacred and the secular, since they all have their source in the same reality.

6.We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice -- and no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

7.We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are the natural product of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace that finds completion in social and community involvement.

8.We believe in the motive force of love. The governing principle in human relationships is the principle of love, which always seeks the welfare of others and never seeks to hurt or destroy.

9.We believe in the necessity of the democratic process. Records are open to scrutiny, elections are open to members, and ideas are open to criticism -- so that people might govern themselves.

10.We believe in the importance of a religious community. The validation of experience requires the confirmation of peers, who provide a critical platform along with a network of mutual support.

Some of my favorite Dalai Lama Quotes:

"We need to embrace the oneness of humanity and show concern for everyone--not just my family or my country or my continent."
"Our planet is our house, and we must keep it in order and take care of it if we are genuinely concerned about happiness for ourselves, our children, our friends, and other sentient beings who share this great house with us."
"Whether we profess to be Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, we should not simply be satisfied by the label. What is important is to extract the message contained in these different religious traditions and to use it to transform our undisciplined minds."
"When you lose, don't lose the lesson."
"According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It's not passive--it's not empathy alone--but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have wisdom and loving kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is kindness)."
"Constant fear, constant anger, and hatred actually eat away at our immune system. A calm mind, compassionate mind, increases positive body elements."
"Love and compassion are most important, most precious, most powerful and most sacred. Practicing them is useful not only in terms of true religion, but also in worldly life for both mental and physical health."
"This is my simple religion. No need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies. Our own brain, our own heart, is our temple....The philosophy is kindness."

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