Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Secular Saints

In Community, Fulfillment on May 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Together, my good friend Louellyn and I make up the Smith College class of ‘76 Alain de Botton fan club. She started the group, but I, the more materialistic of the two, am the one who now owns a copy of everything our idol has published (in hard cover whenever possible: de Botton’s books are always exquisitely designed). This month I ignored her request to wait to read his latest until she could finish and send me the copy I Amazoned over for her birthday. I ordered one for myself so we could read it simultaneously (she lives in Massachusetts, I’m in Michigan).

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, employs a strategy the author readily admits will “annoy” both religious and atheistic readers. In chapters stuffed with illustrations and photographs, he looks at the trappings of faith (“music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals, and illuminated manuscripts,”) for insights that might be useful in secular life.

In a Q & A on Amazon.com, de Botton outlines his thesis:

In the 20th century, capitalism has really solved (in the rich West) the material problems of a significant portion of mankind. But the spiritual needs are still in chaos, with religion ceasing to answer the need. This is why I wrote my book, to show that there remains a new way: a way of filling the modern world with so many important lessons from religion, and yet not needing to return to any kind of occult spirituality.

For example, in a section titled “Role Models,”  de Botton notes that the characters we encounter in sitcoms, video games, tabloids, and the daily news tend to include what he politely (and poetically!) refers to as a “paucity of paragons.” He admires the Catholic Church for offering believers “some two and a half thousand of the greatest, most virtuous human beings who, it feels, have ever lived,” and wonders if the rest of us might not be able to compile a similar list of secular paragons taken from our cultural history and literature.

Here’s Louellyn’s response (in an email she is letting me reproduce here):

The deeper I get into it, the more I love the book. My Catholic friends from childhood had saints they relied on. In the Greek Orthodox church, we had saints, but I knew nothing about them. They didn’t have the same importance, I guess. The only saint I had some affection for (and I never heard about him in my church) was the Italian from Assisi, Francisco, with his love of birds, animals, nature. My kind of guy!

But I did and still do have a patron saint from our culture, our literature, someone whose life was so exemplary that he has always shown me the way. Atticus Finch. You think of Atticus and immediately the thought of justice comes to mind, but he embodied so many virtues. Charity (toward the mentally limited neighbor), prudence, temperance, patience, courage, hope…  What virtue did he not embody?  If there were any doubt that this was a man worth emulating, that he was a saint on par with those whose statues are carried through the North End on a summer day, that doubt was dispelled when he walks out of the court room and every single person in the balcony rises to his feet, a scene that not only causes me to cry when I watch it, but a scene that causes me to cry when I think of it … like now.

And then who could forget the scene where Atticus is at Tom’s family’s home, and the father of women who said she was raped confronts Atticus and spits on him?  Atticus could have said, “Jeb, Scout, we are putting Alabama in the rear view mirror and heading for NY.” But did he? No. He takes out his handkerchief and wipes the spit off his face, and holds his ground and keeps working.  Which gave me the courage to wipe the spit off my face and hold my ground and keep working.

Chris Hedges, paraphrasing Aristotle, said that courage is the most important of the virtues, because without it, one is unlikely to practice any of the others. My patron saint is the embodiment of courage. He guides my daily life.

Beautiful, no? I doubt M. du Botton could have said it better.

Who is your personal patron saint?

I’ll tell you about mine in another post. For now, I leave you with a prayer written to be prayed to one of the two and a half thousand, St Expeditus, patron saint to procrastinators and “everyone who needs a quick solution for their problems”:

St. Expedite, witness of Faith to the point of martyrdom, in exercise of Good, you make tomorrow today.

You live in the fast time of the last minute, always projecting yourself toward the future.

Expedite and give strength to the heart of the man who doesn’t look back and who doesn’t postpone.

Amen

St Expeditus

–Debra Wierenga

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Congregating in Faith

In Community, Fulfillment on May 16, 2011 at 12:36 am

I’m a churchgoer.

I say that right up front because, while I have a lot of friends at my church and others, I also have a lot of friends who aren’t churchgoers, whether or not they are believers, never mind in what.

Every now and then I have to revisit my reasons for going to church. Sometimes I get an an awfully tempting offer for another Sunday morning engagement, sometimes I get lazy, sometimes it’s just not easy to be part of a church.

It’s unfortunate, right off the bat, that the word “church” is such a buffet. There’s the “church” building, there’s “church” as a Sunday morning event, there’s the “church” as a nonprofit organization, there’s the “church” as a hierarchy, there’s the “church” as a congregation of people. No wonder we can find ourselves ambivalent about the whole thing; it’s hard to know what we’re even thinking about. And to make matters worse, there’s the occasional use of “the church” to give form to a point of view, often ascribed to Christians, who may in the moment be behaving in less than Christ-like ways.

My non-church friends talk to me about worship; they ask whether I can’t worship anywhere and at any time. And of course I can. I know I need, though, that weekly structured mindfulness in company with others who are working to be mindful of the same thing. So it’s not worship so much I’m headed to church for, but headspace, recalibration. And since I’m a puzzler, who carries conundrums on the back burner of her heart until they become at least a little clearer, I’m also looking for missing pieces, for wisdom that comes from others’ experiences and education.

I wish I could claim to be pursuing only worship. I’m sure I would feel a better person if that were my only aim. My nature, my history makes it more complicated than that, or makes me a needier person.

I saw only two movies before I was in high school: Mary Poppins and Sound of Music. The church my dad pastored had members he knew to be more conservative than he. He took seriously the advice from Paul to the Corinthians: “Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul was encouraging early Christians to set aside their inherited religious laws against, for example, eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. At the same time, he didn’t want a controversy about whether eating that meat was sinful to get in the way of God’s larger message, which is, we’re reminded, to love each other as God loves us.

For my dad, movie theaters were like sacrificed meat. He didn’t, himself, believe that movie theaters were of the devil, but it wasn’t a controversy he particularly wanted for a distraction within his congregation. When we wanted to see a movie, we went to the far north side of the city to the east, where it was unlikely that any parishioners would see us. And there were only two movies attractive enough to warrant the risk and the travel. I thought Julie Andrews was the world’s only movie star.

Whatever other lessons those episodes taught me, somewhere I also retained the knowledge that my relationship was not so much with “the church” as it was with the individuals in the church. This makes for a complicated, messy, rewarding life together, but it’s part of the reason that showing up at church is on my priority list. And it helps me to remember that when “the church” does something, it’s not a single institutional entity, but a collection of individuals, who are, each in his or her own way, trying to do what they think is right.

Saying I learned this lesson doesn’t make it true. In spite of my best intentions and deepest insights, I can leave a church committee meeting or other gathering in deep frustration. I confess: Sometimes I stew.

On my better days, I remember that a congregation is a complicated network, that it will never behave as though every member knows the same things or thinks the same things or lives the same life. Especially difficult is seeing what looks like timidity in discussing “welcoming the sojourner in our midst” through immigration reform or, more generally, what it means “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.”

Those issues are too connected to the political realm for some, and that means it’s too easy to act like Republicans and Democrats instead of like Christians, I guess. I struggle to see justice, mercy, and humility as that sacrificed meat; they seem to me to be so much more, to be required of us as children of God.

In society more broadly, we seem to have lost our “commons,” that place where we can come together to talk about what we all hold dear and where we have differences. I’ve read lots of articles and essays about how the fragmentation of the media and the isolation of our lives exacerbate that: There are TV stations for liberals and TV stations for conservatives, and viewers of each are reinforced in a very different reality; I know how different the realities are because of the station that runs in the waiting room where I get my oil changed. And when we sort ourselves by political (or other) persuasion, and then interact with folks only like us online, it’s far too easy to demonize and diminish other points of view.

A church congregation, it seems to me, is one place where differences could be talked about and explored, with confidence in a foundation of love. In spite of being drawn together by a shared faith, though, we’re still just people. And people have their feelings hurt and assume that everyone else thinks like they think—or should. We all have our own histories, including family members who’ve been alcoholic—or not, friends who are gay—or not, financial security or insecurity. And because we are, after all, only human, what we think we know can get in the way of what God would like us to know.

I have mused this week about whether it was time to take a different tack in my church life. My friends and colleagues know that I often say, “too hard,” and while usually I don’t mean it, this time I might have.

My spousish one asked what I was thinking on that score today as we arrived home from church. When I said I was tending to stay the course, he nodded.

“You’ve got to belong somewhere,” he said. “And a church is probably a better option than most.”

Especially when it’s a church into which you’ve been deeply knit, with people who are willing to struggle with what it means “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.” And when that’s too hard, the answer, especially in church, even in church, is to love more.

–Lois Maassen