In Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes of her return to religious life:
“When I first ventured back to Sunday worship in my small town, the services felt like a word bombardment, an hour-long barrage of heavyweight theological terminology. Often, I was so exhausted afterwards that I would need a three-hour nap. And I would wake depressed, convinced that this world called “Christian” was closed to me. When, a few years later, I stumbled across that Benedictine monastery, I found worship that was far more accessible and refreshing. The monks, it seemed, were in less of a hurry, less frantic to fill the air with a quantity of words. They allowed for silence, room in which the words of scripture and Christian theological tradition might be more readily taken in, digested, absorbed. Day in, day out, they immersed themselves in the poetry of the psalms.
…In fact, it took years for me to truly feel a part of Christian worship. Ironically, the qualities that so often got me in trouble as a child -- anger, stubbornness, a daunting mix of impatience and tenacity -- were a great help to me throughout this confusing and often painful process.
I am grateful now for that experience of pain and struggle; it makes my present enjoyment of worship all the sweeter. I now find this enjoyment inseparable from my experience of the communities involved… And I find also that the long struggle to sort out a genuine Christian vocabulary that made me much more wary of religious language that strikes a false note -- the narcissistic babble that masks itself as spirituality, the conventional jargon of evangelism, which can narrow all of Christiandom down to “Jesus and me,” and preachy gusts of sermon-speak, which, in the words of the great preacher Gerard Sloyan, “is the language of a land with no known inhabitants,” p. 7-8.
In my world, I too have had my difficulties in sorting through the painful recent evolution of my childhood church into something of which I am wary and I do not instinctively recognize. Growing up, we were always instructed to not touch the nestlings which would often be blown out of their protective nests by the numerous windstorms. The danger is that if we transfer our scent onto the birds, it will mask their own and their mother will reject them, sentencing them to a slow death by starvation. Being schooled in the faith of my forefathers by my grandfather and an influential high school administrator, the events of 1987 whereby the old Mennonite church was shelved as irrelevant, unwanted, and wrong, and recast in what my parent’s generation hoped would be a refreshing coat of Evangelical paint, changed that essential scent by which I would naturally recognize “my own.” As the Mennonite-identified congregation has died out or been safely stored away in nursing homes, a growing sense of alienation has taken hold. If the church of my grandparents, and great grandparents could be wrong, then why should I accept any church that claims to be “inherently” right and everlasting? If the Mennonite faith is so wrong and had to be cast away as being incompatible with Truth as my parents’ generation understood it, then were they also ready to condemn these forefathers and remove their place from Heaven? If my grandfathers were led to Heaven through that church, then was it not dangerous to change it? In a situation where I was indeed far closer to my grandfather spiritually than to my father, these were painful and dangerous questions indeed.
Elsewhere Norris describes the period of her life wherein she described herself as “spiritual” rather than “religious” -- a phase with which I also identified. Again, like Norris, I also found shelter within the walls of the Catholic Church. Like Norris, I also could identify the reasons why I feel comfortable there -- having experienced the overthrow of an historic religious identity by a rather transient faith that has no identifiable historic or intellectual heritage or accountability, I am comforted by the Catholic church’s longevity. Finding myself adrift spiritually in a sea of constantly changing absolutes, I can no longer trust absolutes but find comfort in the great diversity tolerated within the Catholic church. And like Norris, I have often taken refuge in the “silence” of the Catholic worship service. Many Catholic masses focus not on dogma or “truth” but rather on experiencing and worshipping God. I have been to too many “Evangelical” services that feel like I am constantly negotiating a contract with my Lord -- I will behave a certain way and believe certain things if He will grant me certain favors in this life and freedom from death in the next. I will give Him. He will give me. After a certain age, it seems that one would possibly desire more out of the reified experience of his or her spirituality. I have often tried to explain my Catholic experience as being freed within the service of the mass to worship and experience my God. He needs nothing from me and I need nothing from him, but to “be” and to belong.
I am fortunate, like Norris, to have gained a more unique relationship with the Roman Catholics in that like her, I became acquainted with it through the monastic orders rather than through a local parish or congregation. Norris’ journey back to her faith was through the Benedictine’s (p. 80), mine was through the Jesuit educators and those who freely choose to follow the rule of St. Francis. Unlike Norris, I am unable to return to the faith tradition of my childhood as it has been dismantled and “archived“. So I am free to choose that which works best for me -- those who speak with words or those who speak in their silence, and which of the two will allow me greater room within their ability to tolerate diversity to preserve what has been retained from my own heritage within my own soul.
Norris answers the question as to why it is important to resolve your spiritual existence within the context of your own tradition -- “I often find that discovering the family connections is the solution to a puzzle; what happened in a family’s past can help me to place current behavior in perspective. Sometimes it is possible to see, looking over four generations or so, that the sins of the forebears are indeed visited on their children. And it is not because an angry and vengeful God has decided to punish the innocent. It comes from an ancestor having chosen death over life, sowing great bitterness, and sometimes establishing patterns of destruction that endure for generations. Blood inheritance … is not a curse that renders us helpless, but unless we recognize the patterns, and make choices other than the ones that have caused our families pain for generations, we are doomed to repeat them,” (p. 82). She goes on to say, “Surely we are more than the sum of our blood inheritance, our family traditions, or lack of them. In religious development, as in psychological development, we must become our own person. But denial of our inheritance doesn’t work, nor does simply castigating it as “nothing.” … There is a vast difference between blindly running away from old “nothings,” and running with mature awareness toward something new,” (p. 82-83). I would add that there is also a positive inheritance towards which our spirit is biased. In the physical world, we have recently been made aware that our bodies have evolved a certain way to take best advantage of the worlds of our ancestors. For this reason, I am counseled to supplement my diet with fish oil capsules because my Dutch-Swede physiology had evolved on a fish-based diet. I would argue that the same is true of our Spiritual selves. Conversion is not such a simple thing -- and we need to take care that we still feed our spirit appropriately and be wary of signs indicating the sprouts of inherited spiritual disease. As Norris points out, this does not mean that we cannot instead adopt a beef-based diet, but if we do, we need to do it with awareness and understanding, not just enthusiasm or passion.
My personal journey also explains my need to establish and pursue this blog -- it is a narrative interaction with the archive within my own memory, within the conversational narrative of others, and with the paper or print remains of the materials influencing my grandparents and great grandparents to preserve my own Mennonite identity. Memories of Bible lessons, conversations and the printed testimonies of forebears are the spiritual DNA that helps us understand who we are, how we got here, what we are prone to (good and bad), and thereby, how we can best contribute to life and grow.
In his book, Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida indicates that the archive is the cultural memory of a people -- and that within it is reflected a sort of natural law indicating our own experiential reality. In retaining access to this cultural archive we retain the ability and the right to change it, augment it, and to analyze it. These rights and abilities give us the ability to the legislate or elaborate on that “natural” law or circumstance. In this case, though the childhood church might be no more, we nevertheless have preserved its memory and retained our access to that experience -- thereby retaining the ability to learn from it, be nourished by it, and to grow beyond it -- providing of course, that a suitable environment for our soul’s nurture can be identified and that we are free to transplant our soul into that new soil.