Saturday, December 15, 2018

Advent Reflections: Walking With Mary

Photo by Kevin Birnbaum.
This past week, I officially broke my ties with the Catholic church. I asked both churches I was registered at to remove my name from their rolls. Administrators at both churches responded quickly, thanked me for letting them know, and wished me a blessed Advent. No questions asked -- which I found kind of odd. Not that I wanted the opportunity to air my grievances, but you'd think they would wonder why a parishioner was leaving. Maybe they're tired of being reminded of how the abuse scandal is causing people to leave. Or maybe they've been directed by their higher-ups not to ask.

A few years ago, when I was feeling called back to my Christian roots, I couldn't have imagined I'd end up rejoining and then leaving the church of my upbringing. It was a long and sometimes difficult road back. And I suppose I could sit back now and wonder what the point of it all was. But I think maybe I know.

The only profound religious experience I've ever had in my life came shortly after my return to the church. I was sitting in a side chapel at Seattle's cathedral, in front of a beautiful antique statue of the Virgin, contemplating. Mary had been the one constant in my spiritual life. No matter how far away I'd wandered from my Christian roots, she was always there, even if only remotely. So I felt comfortable coming to her with my questions, doubts, concerns, anxieties. At some point I stood and reached out to touch the statue's hand, and as I did, I felt a warmth engulfing my body. My skin broke out in goose bumps, and I was overcome with an intense rush of emotion. It felt, for lack of a better explanation, like love. Tears welled up in my eyes as I looked up at the face of the Virgin. It took my daughter to ask me what I was doing to break the trance and bring me back to the present.

Now, assuming my imagination wasn't simply running away with me, I have to believe that Mary was trying to tell me something. What I think she was telling me was that I was unconditionally loved, and that if I needed her help, she would take me by the hand and lead me to the source of that love.

At the time, I thought that meant I needed to remain in the church. And so I did. Even when I had doubts, I took the teachings on faith. I prayed the rosary daily, I went to confession, I dutifully followed the church's teachings.

But I soon began to struggle with some of the teachings -- the same ones I'd always struggled with. I began visiting some Orthodox churches and found that, to me, their theology made a lot more sense on several points. But the Orthodox church had its own problems (in my opinion), and my concerns with the Catholic church began to mount.

Then news of the latest abuse scandal broke, and for me that was the final straw. It wasn't so much just the abuse, although that in itself was horrendous, as it was the corruption and cover-ups of an old boys' club that allowed it to happen. With the response to the scandal being slow, ineffective, and often tone-deaf, in which clergy and church apologists have attempted to blame everything but the abusers themselves and those who covered up for them, I realized at last that this was an organization I could no longer support. Staying, to me, would have felt like enabling. Because if people keep showing up every week anyway, what incentive would the church ever have to change?

And so I've sent myself back out into the spiritual wilderness, where I've spent most of my adult life. I know now that I'm a Christian at heart, which is to say I embrace, and do my best to follow, the ethics of love for all and care for the poor that Jesus established for us. But my other spiritual experiences, from Taoist to Buddhist, are also part of me and always will be.

As I continue to find myself drawn to the nurturing warmth and comfort of the Sacred Feminine, I think back to that moment in the chapel. And I can only assume that Mary, as the Christian face of the Sacred Feminine, was trying to tell me that if I needed to ground my spiritual walk in that feminine divinity, it would give me a solid footing no matter where life took me.

I do think it's given me a much deeper appreciation of Christian teaching, for one thing. Where, in the past, I'd decide I was fed up and walk away from Christianity altogether, now I don't feel as if I have to do that. And I think it's because I used to react to Christianity based on whether I accepted every teaching as literal truth. But when you discover the deeper meanings, when you see how the scriptures point to universal truths about the human condition, when you no longer see your faith as motivated by staying out of hell but by doing good for its own sake, then you realize you no longer have to run off to China or Japan to find your spiritual center in another tradition. You can stay right where you are, as you'll find that all the great traditions point toward the same truths about life and death and happiness and love. There's nothing wrong with embracing what's good about other spiritual and religious paths, but in the end I speak Christian. It's my spiritual dialect. So that's where I stay. I don't need a church to do it.

Granted, it would be great to find a spiritual community, but I'm not hopeful I'll find one. Most lean either too liberal or too conservative. And sadly, most outside the Catholic and Orthodox traditions ignore the Virgin. If they think about her at all, it's only during this time of year, leading up to Christmas -- the day we couldn't celebrate if not for Mary's "yes."

But wherever I go, I feel I'll have my Blessed Mother's presence guiding me, helping me to keep my focus on the things that are important. So as she makes the long trek to Bethlehem in the days leading up to Christmas, I feel almost as if I'm following in her footsteps, trusting her to lead the way, knowing that she alone will give birth to the Light of the World. I might lose my way as I journey through life, but looking back, I think the reason Mary reached out to me in that chapel was to let me know that however far off the path I might wander, she'll always be there waiting for me with gentle words, a kind smile, and welcoming arms.

I have faith that my Mother would never lead me astray.

No comments:

Post a Comment