Losing my religion, finding my faith

It is my distinct honor to welcome Kristen from Motherese to this space today. Kristen’s blog is one of those I admire most, for her lucid and intelligent probing of questions so relevant to me I often feel she dug them out of my brain. Kristen is dear to me, too, for leaving me one of the comments here that has meant the most to me. It turns out we have a personal connection that neither of us knew, and I love that we found each other through the ether first.

Kristen writes beautifully about questions of identity, politics, parenting, and living in this world.  Her posts are shot through with personal reflection and every single day she makes me think.  Her essay here talks about something that is much on my mind of late: faith.  I am certainly grappling with some big questions of belief in my life: I feel often as though I’m groping around in the dark, occasionally grabbing something solid or feeling a truth, as gentle as a moth’s wing, brush against my cheek.  As I grope, I feel lost but am propelled forward by a distinct, unavoidable longing for something.

I’m delighted and blessed to have her words here today.  Please go check out Motherese.  You won’t regret it

Losing my Religion, Finding my Faith

We worry. We wonder. Anxiety steals our sleep.

I worry, too. I worry all the time.

I worry about forgetting lines to plays that I am not in. I worry about forgetting to mail a mortgage payment. I worry about passing a fifteen-year-old calculus exam. I worry about my dad embarrassing me with an uncouth comment.

I worry that Big Boy will have another meltdown at tumbling class. I worry about what the other mothers will think of me when he does. I worry about why my son would behave that way. I worry about how I will handle it.

These are the shades of my worry.

But there are other shades, too, shades that don’t cast an inky penumbra over my mind.

I don’t worry about dying young. I don’t worry that the world will end before my kids grow up. Even in the face of graphic evidence of the possibility of calamity, I don’t worry about catastrophe – natural, economic, interpersonal.

I have always thought of myself as a neurotic person, as a woman whose days are sketched in anxiety and colored in worry. But recently it occurred to me: I do worry, but I worry about the small things. I do not worry about the big ones. I worry about my performance, about how it will be evaluated. But about the most important things? The life-altering, life-threatening, life-crushing things? I don’t worry.

Instead, I practice random acts of blindness, never allowing these deeper, soul-shaking worries to penetrate my bedrock of faith.

And this is a strange revelation for me. After all, I am an agnostic. I am not a religious person anymore. But I still have a sense of subconscious serenity honed, I think, through an early commitment to religious practice. I grew up with a traditional religious education: I went to Catholic school for nine years and went to church every Sunday, loving the rituals and the singing, the candles and the community. I was never sold on the dogma – on transubstantiation, the ascension, the Holy Trinity. But I believed. I believed in the benevolent, white-haired gentleman. And I prayed to him every night before bed. I confessed my white lies and my gray doubts. I asked him to protect me, to look after my family. And – it seemed – he did.

My family faced its share of health problems. People we loved died. But my own life – and my own experience of it – seemed to take place in its own sort of numinous space.

In my adult life, some bad things have happened to me. I have faced illness, high-risk pregnancies, and physical violence. But I have never doubted my fundamental security.

I don’t spend time these days talking to that white-haired man. I don’t ask for intercession or for forgiveness. Now I am more a veteran of religious practice, with a medal of faith pinned to my chest, a talisman against the deepest doubts.

I am the seasoned traveler in Christina Rossetti’s “Up-Hill”:

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

In this life – this entropic life – I feel safe.

But now a new worry sprouts: how will my sons, children of an agnostic mother and an atheistic father, unschooled in religion, never steeped in belief, find their safety? Without faith, will the monsters of worry call to them from under their beds and from behind their closet doors?

Do you worry about the small things or the big things? What role does faith play in shielding you from worry?


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23 Comments

  1. Posted February 2, 2010 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Wonderful words on faith and worry. I worry all the time. Worry is a current that snakes through each and every one of our lives whether we choose to acknowledge it or honor it or not. Depending on the day, worry shakes me or goes largely unnoticed. I am not sure whether I endure the worry because of some inchoate faith, or because in living, in slogging through and celebrating the days that pile up, we cannot consciously handle our worries all the time. Thankfully, we are creatures who are not immune to distraction.

    Lovely piece. And lovely (and true) introductory words.

  2. Posted February 2, 2010 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Lindsey, for hosting my writing here today and for your generous and humbling praise. What an honor it is for me to see my words alongside yours.

  3. Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I think that the practice of pondering the greater expanse of existence, whether through meditation or religious study is appropriate for keeping perspective, and helps us keep our worries in perspective. I also think that the practice of grateful acknowledgement for the gifts in our life, whether through prayer or other form of thought or speech is a necessary part of living the good life, for children and adults alike.

    I rely on prayer to center myself, to release fear and worry and in its place, accept divine love and the precious knowledge that I am not alone in my journey.

    Thank you for another very thoughtful essay.

  4. Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    So often faith and religion are used interchangeably. They are not the same thing. I am sure, Kristen, that your children will sense your faith and will grow up with their own version of faith!

  5. Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    I love these words: “Instead, I practice random acts of blindness, never allowing these deeper, soul-shaking worries to penetrate my bedrock of faith.” That, after all, is what faith is all about, whether it be religious faith, relational faith, or personal faith. As always, Kristen, your words get to the very heart of the matter.

  6. Posted February 2, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I love this phrase “random acts of blindness.” I too grew up going to Catholic school & church (and am now a devout atheist), but have not pondered much on how that has shaped who I am today (other than that constant, nagging, endless guilt!) And I do worry about everything…climate change, war, the future, the past, my house burning down, the teacher thinking my kid is neglected because he wears the same outfit day-in day-out. Wonder where that comes from (oh yeah, it’s genetic from my mother. and her mother. And probably her mother too.) Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  7. Posted February 2, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I am a professional worrier. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s just they way it goes.

    I’m also an agnostic. I don’t worry about them struggling to find safety, per se. I think they’ll find strength in their brains and their skills and the help of others.

    But I do wonder what will happen if something really hideous happens to them…that’s when I envy people who have religion. Religion gives such comfort when the unexplainable BAD happens.

    Thought-provoking post, as always.

  8. Posted February 2, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    I do worry about the little things. As you said, dying young doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to–when I was a teen with all sorts of ideas for my future.

    Now, I wonder if I am doing enough for my children. Do I pay enough attention? Are they going to grow up wondering why their mother was always on the computer? Things like that.

    My faith has answered many of the questions I used to have. I pray each and every night because I know God loves me and cares for me. Because of this belief, I don’t feel as anxious about change. I don’t feel as incompetent as I once felt. I also know that He will provide the answers I seek to those small concerns.

  9. Posted February 2, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Gah. Excellent post. And since I’ve been grappling with faith too, it really hit home. I grew up with nonbelieving (in anything but a general conceptual God) parents, found my own way to religion, and am slowly finding my own way out of it, I think. Or into something new. Something at least slightly different. Agnostic defines me quite well too. Or at least some shade of agnostic.

    Anyway, you can tell I’m confused, but thank you for this! Well written, as always!

  10. Posted February 2, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Beautifully written, as always. And these are questions that engender more questions, rarely with answers of any static nature.

    I worried as a child about grades and accomplishments. Similarly, as a teenager and young adult. I worried about what others thought of me because I had little faith in my own perception of myself. Except when I was in France, ironically – a foreign country, and yet a culture (and language) in which I felt not only safe, but at ease, and freed of the constant worry and self-questioning.

    Every mother I have ever known worries, and her worries spread like wildfire when her children are born, and they reshape themselves as risks change in a child’s life.

    As I grow older, I have cast off the smaller worries, and I have many – and they are of the larger sort. Health concerns, pressing money worries, and other more significant issues than what anyone might think of me or my actions.

    Through all of this – I was raised in a particular religion; I do live with a hybrid and open faith (a different thing), yet despite that faith the worry is very tangible.

    I know others with no religion and no faith who also live with relatively little worry. I suspect that to question – whether at the level of minutiae or grand questions – is the natural activity of a probing mind. Balancing the intensity of worry with some stepping back and self acceptance may or may not come. But it came for me, in exchange for a very different set of concerns.

    If I could, I would drain away the incessant inner dialogue of worry, but retain the power of questioning.

  11. Posted February 2, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I do not worry about losing my house, or my savings, or my career. I do not worry about catastrophic events or my plane being blown up by terrorists. I do not worry about dying. Instead, I worry incessantly about the small things. I worry about which airport is better to fly into. I worry if it’s okay to wash my underwear on a non-delicates cycles, and if it’s less busy at the grocery store at 10 or noon? I worry about running out of bacon. Sometimes I think it’d be easier to worry about the big stuff. At least that worry seems “useful.” But then again, is ANY worry useful?

  12. Posted February 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Yep, I’ll join the worry club. I worry when my imagination is activated. And when I worry…i worry BIG. Because my imagination is big. Worst case scenarios become insanely vivid…I don’t like this quality. but lately, I’ve been practicing using my overactive imagination to visualize the alternatives–both dramatic and likely. As for faith, I’ve always been someone I consider both religious AND spiritual. But that faith has never erased my fear. Great post.

  13. Posted February 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Great to see you over here, Kristen! And such interesting words on faith and the difference between faith and religion.

    Interestingly, I’d say it’s my faith (I know, who’s ever heard of a Jew who’s not an atheist or Orthodox?) that’s taught me to live in the “I don’t know.” It’s taught me to be comfortable with the mortal, with knowing less than everything, with knowing my limitations.

    Strangely enough, even being a believer, I will say that when my daughter comes to me with her worries (and she has many) it never helps to try to soothe her with faith. Faith has helped with the big picture. But the middle-of-the-night, the under-the-bed? She needs the here and now – mom and dad, concrete and in the room across the house.

  14. Posted February 2, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    such a beautiful post – and so timely for me. i am comfortable living in the geography of i-don’t-know, and gray is my favorite color. i was born, raised, and still live in the bible belt, and have always been an outsider. just this morning i was chewing on my agnosticity/spirituality, my personal philosophies, my belief system, my doubts/worries. how i was trained to depend on some white-haired male ghost and his earthly mouthpieces for everything. oh i don’t know. it’s been a long, disjointed day and i’m still chewing, but i tell you what: your distinction between religion and faith added dimension to my continuing internal discussion!

  15. Posted February 2, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Gorgeous words and excellent questions. I do not practice any religion, but instead depend on my own sense of dignity, and that of my friends and family, for comfort and guidance. But it doesn’t keep me from grinding my teeth, biting my nails and worrying myself nearly into a panic sometimes. Meditation helps. Trying to be in the moment and all that. Helps a LOT. I have a few people I want to share this with now – because it is so comforting!

  16. Posted February 2, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I adore you, Kristen! This piece spoke so deeply to me. And honestly, I’m a child of parents similar (so it sounds) to you and your husband. And I’m left searching. A lot. What I do recommend to you is to keep the conversation open in your family, discuss different religions. Give them a base to make their own decisions when they’re ready.

  17. Posted February 2, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to both LIndsey and Kristen. One of the things about parenting that inspires me is that it offers a common ground of love that can potentially bridge all diverse points of view.

    I think we can love God and be fine so long as we define “God” not as a dude on a throne, but as a word pointing to the mystery of the source of all our questions, all our darkness as well as light.

    Western religion has split good from bad and left us hopelessly incomplete.

    I think we can also love the world and each other and leave God out of it and be quite alright.

    I am just plain unsure about it all, but I feel that the world is alive in some transcendent way. And I resonate to Meister Eckhart who said that if the only prayer you ever said was “Thank you,” it would suffice.

    For more on this see The Grace of X ( http://tiny.cc/Pup7G)

    Namaste

  18. Posted February 2, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    So beautiful, Kristen: your faith and your worry. They are not mutually exclusive, nor does one cancel out the other; rather, you have interwoven them (whether known or not). Here are the quotes that show me such:

    “I don’t spend time these days talking to that white-haired man. I don’t ask for intercession or for forgiveness. Now I am more a veteran of religious practice, with a medal of faith pinned to my chest, a talisman against the deepest doubts.”

    A gritty, profound, and tender faith – with the patina of past tradition enhanced further with the named reality of life, of doubt, and certainly of parenting. Faith that is rich, earthy, real.

    “But now a new worry sprouts: how will my sons, children of an agnostic mother and an atheistic father, unschooled in religion, never steeped in belief, find their safety? Without faith, will the monsters of worry call to them from under their beds and from behind their closet doors?”

    A faith “on behalf of” now emerges. It is yours – imbued into your children. It does not need to be taught, indoctrinated, or even memorized through catechisms, creeds, or choruses. It is undoubtedly seen, felt, and trusted in the reality that you have faith in them, in yourself, in your deep knowing, your truest voice, your out-loud self. Worry will pervade, but faith will overcome.

    My language, I know, but it – and you – ring true for me. I’m grateful for your words, your heart, your life (and the faith in such that your children can’t NOT experience and trust).

    And thanks, Lindsey, for having Kristen in your beautiful, faith/doubt filled space. Perfect!

  19. Posted February 3, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I worry about small and big things and everything in between.

    My faith is a hope in things I can’t see, but know exist or will happen. It isn’t something tangible, but a bursting in my heart towards light, truth.

    Thanks for the intro to Motherese. I love her already.

  20. Posted February 3, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    So well put Kristen!
    With or w/o “religion” I’m sure your boys will be wonderful spiritual men.

  21. Posted February 7, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    You express your deep thoughts so beautifully, Kristen.

    Religious practice leaves a lot to be desired when set next to faith. Practice is practice, but it never makes one perfect.

    Faith, on the other hand, leads us to one who is perfection, through whom we can see beyond the monsters under the bed and the devastating earthquakes.

    I, too, grew up in with a very traditional religious education, and somehow my family gave me the freedom to come to grips with my faith and my creator. I pray I’ve been able to surround my sons with that freedom as well. Ultimately, though, it’s not up to me. They’re in hands bigger and stronger than mine, and I can trust them to him. That’s my shield.

    I’d say, be honest with your sons. Let them know what you have believed and that it gives you security. Continue to search and give them the freedom to search, too. And talk to that white-haired man once in a while. What’s it going to hurt? One day, you may get an answer.

  22. Posted February 11, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    How did I miss this post? Sorry to be so late to the comment party here. I agree with Nicki that there is a difference between religion and faith. I am not necessarily religious but I feel strongly about traditions, I am spiritual and I am faithful to the Jewish religion. I wonder sometimes if I should be involving my kids more in the religious aspects of Judaism but then realized it’s the traditions that I bring to my home, the way in which we celebrate and the beliefs that we uphold and talk about that are important, regardless of how “religious” they may be. The warmth and love that you bring to your kids in your house is what matters… not how religious you may or may not be.

    As far as worrying, I worry about the big things. Exactly the opposite of you. I always think the little things will work themselves out (although I do WONDER about the little things constantly) but the big things? I am petrified of them.

    GREAT post!

  23. Posted March 10, 2010 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    A beautiful post.

    I think worry is second nature to most mothers. The greatest challenge for me, is to not let my son see too much of that worry — for fear that he will start to lack confidence in his own world.

    Finding faith, is probably a journey that never ends because each day’s challenges have the potential to test it.

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