FREE TO BE

My Prayer to Passage today is from the children’s album and book Free to Be… You and Me released by Bell Records and produced by Bruce Hart, Carol Hart, and Stephen J. Lawrence.

I asked God, “Why is there so much control and judgement surrounding what we may and may not believe as Christians? Or as a part of any organized religion for that matter?”

A song played into my day,

“There’s a land that I see where the children are free. And I see it ain’t far to this land from where we are. Take my hand. Come with me where the children are free. Come with me. Take my hand, and we’ll live in a land where the river runs free. In a land through the green country. In a land to a shining sea. And you and me are free to be you and me.”

Stories collected from my interviews of people reflecting on their reasons for no longer attending church will continue to be shared here, in addition to other topics that happen to be on my mind and in my heart.

The following selections are from my interview of Mary, a 24-year-old woman who explored her personal beliefs in college while majoring in Social Work and minoring in Gender and Women’s Studies.

MARY, 24, SOCIAL WORKER:

“I grew up in a large family, a large Catholic family. We went to church every Sunday. It was part of our regular routine. We prayed before and after meals. We prayed the Rosary during Lent. That’s how I grew up. Faith was always very present. I didn’t feel like I put up much resistance to it, so I didn’t feel a lot of pressure. It was something that was expected.

I grew up on a farm in a small farming community, and so everybody belonged to the church. And it was kind of like the social thing in the country. I was very involved. I was always very involved in things in general. I liked learning about stuff. And I got confirmed and taught religion classes for a while. I was even a confirmation sponsor for a friend. It fit.

I enrolled at a Catholic college. But I didn’t choose it because of that. I remember going there for a college visit. I was walking on the campus tour, going across the little grassy area by the big Abbey church, and the bells started ringing. I felt so comfortable and connected. I even remember describing it in Catholic terms, being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit.’

Now, describing that experience is the same. It’s the same feeling, but the words that I use to describe it and my beliefs that I center it around are different. I feel that I have consistency. Only the way that I view it is different.

I led confirmation retreats in college. I joined a group called Shine and went to different parishes among people who were about to be confirmed. That was my path at the time. But somewhere along the next two years or so in college, things started to shift in me. I examined my beliefs more. And not even around spirituality and religion, but social justice and different social issues.

I took social work classes and learned about the world, expanding my viewpoints on things. I started to not feel like it was such a good fit anymore. And I couldn’t fully describe it. For about a year I didn’t actively try to explain it. I didn’t know what I believed and I didn’t explore it. I didn’t know if Catholicism was a good fit for me.

Around that time, I bought a book on Paganism. I read the first couple of pages and thought it was really cool and interesting. But it got shelved on my bookshelf, and I didn’t get around to it. It wasn’t the right time to read it. I was wishy-washy. I still went to church on holidays, with my family, but I didn’t know exactly what was going on with me.

My junior year of college, spring semester, I took a class called ‘Bible, Church, and Gender’ with one of my favorite professors. I was a Social Work major and a Gender and Women’s Studies minor. So that class fit in perfectly for exploring issues that I had and questions about; the Bible, the Church, and gender. In the class we talked a lot about the Magisterium, about the Pope and the magistrates in Vatican City, and about their stances on things and their official documents from the Church. It was cool because I got to see what the leaders of the church were officially saying; their stances on things like birth control and any sort of contraceptives, the ordination of women, homosexuality, and gender. We did dabble in science and evolution. It was an interesting class and it was open.

Our professor considered himself a loyal dissenter, which means that he is a Catholic theologian, he identifies himself as Catholic, and he goes to church every Sunday, but he disagrees with many of the major stances. So the more I learned, the more I thought Catholicism wasn’t a good fit for me. I didn’t feel that I had the energy and I started to question some of the core beliefs. And I realized that I may disagree with these issues and still be part of the Church.

Yes, I believe in a Higher Power. I don’t believe in original sin and that you’re born a bad person; the whole sinner concept. ‘Redeem yourself.’ When I did go to church, I started to feel that I was at fault for something; guilt and shame. ‘Sin, repent.’ It became very apparent. And I decided that I was not Catholic. That was a difficult statement to make. I’ve heard people talk about being recovering Catholics. ‘I’m not Catholic,’ I said, waiting for the lightning bolt to strike me down.

Looking back now, I enjoy the way that I was raised, with structure and a belief system. It was about being a good person and helping people. I like all of that, which is difficult for me now when I think about having kids. How would I do that? I have thought about it. And it would be a big deal, not being Catholic.

My mom and I don’t have a really close relationship. It’s a generational thing. Her generation doesn’t talk about feelings. If there is anything even remotely unpleasant or difficult, she doesn’t talk about it. If there are problems in relationships or marriage, she believes people should deal with them on their own and put on a happy face. ‘You’re fine.’ It’s difficult because that’s not how I am. When I stopped going to church altogether, even at Christmas or Easter, she wouldn’t bring it up. But I knew that it bothered her. I avoided it. I didn’t talk to her about it. I didn’t tell her my reasons.

Then about a year ago, I picked up that book on Paganism again. Initially, why I bought the book in the first place was because I read the first couple of pages and it was all about being earth-centered. Everything was all about the Universe as a Higher Power. And I liked two main concepts: Blessedness — that everything in the Universe is blessed and has a spark of the Divine in it, which is a warm and comforting thing. And I believe it. I don’t just think it’s a good thought. And connectedness — that everything, everybody, is connected on a deeper level. God is in everything. Of course. That resonated with me. I think everything is blessed. When I was young, I believed God was a separate entity, far away and not touchable. I definitely didn’t feel all of this blessedness. So I read the book. And I identified with a lot of it.

I was able to identify with what I believe and why, and what I don’t believe and why. I think it’s very important for everybody to examine their beliefs and come to their own view points. I think it’s important to grow up with some sort of structure, but then there comes a time when everybody needs to see what fits. I do believe in God. It has taken me a long time to be able to call it God; I have a problem with Catholicism’s male focus. God is neither male nor female. God doesn’t have a gender, yet God is often referred to as ‘He’ in Catholicism, and I have a big problem with that. When I say ‘God,’ I’m talking about my God.

I don’t feel that there is freedom in Catholicism. I’ve never felt that I could examine my beliefs within Catholicism. Rather, I was told what to believe. I don’t consider myself Pagan. I believe that everybody is free to decide what works for them. Yet there are certain ethics. It’s not that you can decide to kill everybody because that’s what works for you. I’m not like that. It is the freedom to decide for myself and to be who I am that I didn’t find in Catholicism.

About a year ago, I was invited by my sister to a spirituality study group. But I couldn’t decide. It wasn’t the right time. Soon, however, I started attending that group. So, sophomore year of college, four years ago, I was choosing nothing. Junior year, I started making some decisions. I didn’t want to do the whole Catholicism thing. Then I was up in the air until the summer after my senior year. That was when I was doing a lot of searching, working, reading, and making definite decisions. I was stating what I believed and what I didn’t believe. And for a little more than a full calendar year, I’ve been practicing, figuring out, and fine tuning more of these choices. I’ve been asking myself what I believe.

These are some of my core beliefs: I believe in the concept of the Universe. I believe in a Higher Power. I believe in my God; not a Catholic, white man, white beard God. I use the word God interchangeably with Universe or Higher Power because I think that it is all connected. Everything is connected, and things happen for a reason, even if it might not make sense. My God is the same as their God but different. The Universe is a Divine entity, which is in all of us. I don’t want to go into the quantum physics part of it because I’m not very good at quantum physics. Pagans refer to it as magick. It’s different than magic tricks or anything like that. Magick is basically prayer and meditation. I think all of those words are synonymous. People just call it different words. We’re all doing the same thing; manifesting thoughts and intentions.

So in the past year, I’ve been doing these things and developing my own spirituality for me and what works for me. Yet I haven’t really shared a lot of this with my mom or anyone else. I don’t go to church. And things that make me feel connected — most connected to the Universe, connected to the Divine, to God, to my Higher Power, which allows me to meditate and pray — are things like my spirituality study group or other grounding activities.

This summer I frequently went back to my college campus to run. I run out to the chapel. And I sit there. It’s on the top of a hill. There is a lake, and I can hear the water, the wind, and the trees. I can’t hear traffic or any other people. And I can smell nature. The sun reflects off the water. There’s no place where I have felt so connected. I wanted to call my mom and tell her. I needed to. I needed to let her know that just because I don’t go to church or do the whole Catholicism thing does not mean that I don’t believe in God. I am a spiritual person. For all she knew, I didn’t believe in anything. I hadn’t included her because I was afraid that she wouldn’t accept me. That was probably my own projection.

So I did call her. And I told her. And she was kind of caught off guard and said something like, ‘Oh. OK. Well, good. Thanks for telling me. I’m glad.’ But the next week she was asking me about whether or not she could put my name on the church group list or something.
I said, ‘No. I don’t go to this church. I don’t belong to this church.’
She asked, ‘What church do you belong to?’
We were outside, and so I put my arms up and said, ‘This one.’ That was a big step for me to take.

The conversation was not very long. And I wanted to say it because I knew that otherwise I would talk myself out of it. The Universe gave me that opportunity. And I said, ‘I just wanted you to know that I was out there, running. And for me, that is like going to church. It’s a very spiritual thing for me to do.’ That’s how I explained it.

Church in a building works for some people. They’re able to connect and they’re spiritually fed by that sort of an agreement. And that’s great. I think that a large part of the population just goes there and goes through the motions. They don’t really get a lot out of it. There’s the expression, ‘Going to church doesn’t make you any holier than going to a garage makes you a car.’ That’s one that I used for a while with my family.

But it’s what you get out of it that makes a difference. So for me, being in that facility doesn’t work. I need to be outside. I need to be connected to the earth in order to feel that. Church in a building is too distracting to me, and it kind of goes along with everything else that I wasn’t grooving on. I’m not going to listen to some man up there telling me what I’m supposed to believe and what I’m not, and what’s making me a good person and what’s not.

I think that spirituality needs to be very individual. A board and a group of people, that’s all fine for structure, but in my experience, there isn’t a whole lot of room for individuality. Maybe someday I’ll go back to the Church. And having grown more on my own, maybe I’ll make it work for me. I don’t know.

I feel it’s important to be, at times, in a group for spirituality, as groups are very therapeutic and nurturing. But in order for me to be able to meditate or pray, I need to be by myself. I like my spirituality study group because it has a lot of like-minded individuals. And there are group dynamics. I feel accepted and I am able to have conversations about my beliefs. I think that’s all very important. And sometimes I need to be by myself, and there’s certainly room for that.

With church in a building, I’ve experienced gossip. We then need to answer questions as to why we’re not in church, and we need to explain ourselves and to justify what we’re doing because we’re not there. Clearly, you know, we’re practicing witchcraft and worshipping Satan in the woods. Of course I’m being sarcastic. That’s an annoyance of mine, especially if I’m doing stuff that spiritually feeds me. Why is it of concern to anybody else? People, unfortunately, also sometimes use religion and faith as a weapon. And some people use the Bible as a weapon or take it out of context. That turns me away.

People in the Church can be very liberal, open minded, and not in agreement with some stances. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are conservative, vocal, and actively discriminatory against individuals. That’s a huge turn-off. I try to keep in mind that it is the individual who is making these judgments and statements, but this is why I don’t do organized religion. I don’t want be a part of that. It frustrates me. It makes me angry. I really have a problem with any views that are ultra-conservative. They push me further away. Now I tend to surround myself with like-minded people, so it feels like it has been a long time since I’ve experienced anything like that.

People are the Church. The magistrates, the Pope, the Cardinals, and the Bishops who are at the Vatican are kind of a separate entity. They aren’t the Church. I think it’s important that there are people who are dissenters, who don’t agree with certain aspects. I think that the Church needs to be more inclusive; to include all individuals, all genders, all ethnicities, all sexual orientations. My ultimate hope is to be part of a group, but individualistic, free, enlightened, inclusive, and non-judgmental.

I hope church-goers are able to find something that works for all of them. If it works being in a building, and that makes them feel spiritual, then great. I also hope for a lot of growth, as I experienced. I think asking questions is very important. I hope people will have the freedom to ask questions and still remain part of the Catholic faith. My ultimate hope, my ultimate perfect world, would be to see the Catholic Church move toward a more inclusive worldview. Really, the Church is made up of the people. I would like to see the people, as a whole, being more inclusive to everyone.”

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