I’ve wanted to get religion for much of my life. I like the art and architecture, when it’s not aimed at the lowest common denominator. I appreciate the rock-solid sense of belief I’ve witnessed, as well as the incorporation of doubt amongst the most thoughtfully devout. I’ve just never felt I’m right for a godly dunking, or missing all that much in my inner spiritual life.
I came of age when a religious upbringing was a given. I went to Sunday schools in various Protestant denominations, picked up the basic stories and holidays. For a couple of years I went to elementary school in the U.K. run by the Church of England. Traveling around Europe as a kid, I grew obsessed with paintings of St. Sebastian full of arrows like some holy human porcupine.
When I got around to noticing girls in middle school, I joined our small Virginia town’s Presbyterian Church so I could impress Elaine Dameron, who would hold my hand during services. Eventually she figured out I was faking my devotion, even when it came to her. After which I read Siddhartha, learned about the Tao, tried learning the complicated poesy of Islam, and became the token goy at a growing number of friends’ Passovers and sabbath dinners.
An uncle who became a major force in the Southern Baptist Council was always pushing baptism. I lived in the same small city where Jerry Falwell made his mark, and chose to attend his Thomas Road Baptist Church several times in exchange for Lynchburg Mets tickets. For a while I called myself Unitarian.
During the Nineties, living alone deep in the Catskills, I decided I should give organized church-going a try. I showed up at several nice-looking older churches I’d been passing by for years, or occasionally showing movies at. The ministers each time would come up and thank me for trying them out. They could tell I was fresh, a new face among the half-dozen parishioners left.
But nothing took hold.
Eventually I started going to monasteries to write. It started with some time at the Y2K millennium in a Benedictine oasis in Quebec and built into an every-other-month habit. I got to know a Catholic abbot well enough to have long talks in his story, his Golden Lab farting on the floor between us. I’d tell him how my wife was Jewish, how I admired all religions. He’d ask what he could do to help me cross into faith.
“Father,” I told him one of the last times we spoke. “You’ve shifted me from atheism to agnosticism.”
He smiled, I think because of the progress he saw in my small steps.
I smiled, knowing that I’d gotten far enough for this lifetime. And I smile now, realizing this is a story I now return to, as I’ve done previously and again now in this column.
I guess it’s where my spiritualism is finally at.