Typical Individuality

Or How Diversity Unites Us

Lizz Schumer

Lizz Schumer
Buffalo, New York, USA
August 13
writer, editor, reporter, photographer, propagator and patron of the arts: all.
Author of "Buffalo Steel" (Black Rose Writing 2013), I'm the editor of a small newspaper in upstate New York, hold an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. I also freelance for several publications, both print and online.


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AUGUST 18, 2011 4:58PM

Me and religion: it's complicated

Rate: 13 Flag

I’ve gone to church almost every weekend this summer. No, I haven’t had some dramatic religious conversion. No, I haven’t reawakened my passion for Catholicism. But there’s something there I want, although it isn’t the something I think most of the attendees are looking for.

Remember when you were a kid, and you couldn’t go to sleep without following a certain ritual? You had to have that special animal, or blanket, or both. The door had to be open, or closed, or closed to just the right metric distance. You had to play a certain song, or someone had to tell you a story, or some alchemy of events had to take place or else you just wouldn’t be able to sleep. The ritual wasn’t just reassuring, it was essential.

There’s a reason people call certain foods “comfort foods.” They represent our childhood, or the childhood we wish we had, the one that was stable, predictable, easy. They take us back to a time when we felt in control, or someone else was in control, and everything was going to be okay. Like those bedtime rituals of our youth, those foods make us feel safe.

For me, religion is like that. I’ve been Catholic on paper since before I was born. Although I don’t agree with the politics of the church and the actions of some of its followers and practitioners make me want to stand on soapboxes and throw things, it can’t be matched for the comfort of ritual. Stand when the priest comes in, read certain passages in a certain order with a specific set of songs. Stand, sit, kneel. Sing, pray, hold hands, chant, respond. In the Roman Catholic Church, it all happens the same way, every day, all around the world. The church is, for all its flaws, unified. A solid, predictable entity, lousy with tradition, creamy-rich with ritual.

But there’s more to it than the clockwork motions of the mass. At my church, my parents’ church, the same people have been going for as long as I can remember. I have watched children grow into adults, leave and come back with their own families. Others have watched me, and we know each other in that sort of way that people who have been doing the same thing for years in tandem know each other. The building itself wraps me in its soaring blonde wood rafters and faint lingering incense spice like an old blanket. I can sing along with all the music.

My confirmation sponsor, who stood behind me when I officially professed my Catholic faith in high school, who watched me give the keynote address at that same service, who sewed my first communion dress and conducted the choir in which I used to sing, waves me over every week. “Keep the faith, kid. I’m prayin’ for ya,” she says with a grin and a shoulder pat. Steady as the sunrise. She knows me for a person I haven’t been completely for a long time, but who’s in there somewhere inside.

The person that comes out and sits with me awhile in the pew, who listens to the homily and holds my hand when I kneel and cradle my head in my hands. The person who still prays when the Eucharist is raised high, who still tries to feel that stirring in her heart when she asks, “Please, Let it all work out for the best. Whatever the hell that is, let everything be okay.”  You can say Hell in church, I’ve found, as long as you’re earnest about it. That person knows who she’s talking to when she asks these things. She knows someone’s there when she cries in the dark. She knows she’s not alone, but I can only find her between those walls, as my arms tremble, gripping the pew white-knuckled to raise me from my knees.

The movement of the mass is increasingly difficult for me. My head rides waves of vertigo as I sit, stand, kneel, repeat. My hands shake as they grip the pew in front of mine when it becomes the only solid thing in a world that has turned to ocean waves around me. Each week, I stagger forward to receive communion, praying that the floor remains solid beneath my feet, that the building doesn’t suddenly pitch forward, that my head doesn’t send me tumbling into the crucifix. I make bargains with the man on the cross: if I make these motions for you, if I do what I know will make me sick, you’ll keep me well. If I sit and stand and kneel here, you’ll let me do it outside too. For one more week. Just one more. And then one more.

And it works, it seems. Or in that place, I can convince myself it does.  

It’s not that I don’t believe in the god of my childhood. It’s not even that I can staunchly say, with atheistic arrogance, that I know there’s no higher power, that I can absolutely refute the existence of a saving grace. I know that the church and I have several irreconcilable differences, but I also know the prospect of a life devoid of the comforting feeling of religion is bleak, dark and lonely.

And I’ve been finding that in church, this summer. Not the religious stirrings I used to feel as a teenager, when I followed sheep-like the beliefs of my parents, before I knew any alternative. Not the fearful obligation that I know drives so many of the faithful. Not even the guilty duty of a daughter trying to appease her very Catholic parents. The comfort of ritual draws me back, the safety of a solid island that, even amidst the turmoil of life, has never moved. Even when the teddy bear’s fur gets matted and scratchy, the child still clutches it close. Because it’s real, because it’s familiar, because it makes her feel safe. The church has become my teddy bear. My comfort. My salvation, but not in the religious sense. The comfort of a community, of a ritual, of a place where everyone knows who I am, even if I don’t know what that is. 

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The church connects us to so much and to so many...I really have always loved the connection to my own history and to the history of my family and others...it feels secure. You got it right..
I'm not Catholic, but my friends who are say the religion never really leaves them. Great piece!
Marty'sHusband: Well-put. I hadn't even thought about the historic aspect, but that's definitely a huge part of it. Thanks for reading!
Christina, they're right. No matter how hard you try, you can never quite get away. Thanks!
That why it has been called the opiate of the masses and you couldn't have described how the comfort it provides comes to get you. Except when it doesn't. rated
Well said, Lizz. Congrats on the EP.
Well said, Lizz. Congrats on the EP.
You're so right, rosycheeks. Thanks for the rate!

Glad you liked it, trilogy. Appreciate the read. :)
The rote Catholic prayers we learned as children are my comfort and ritual. I admire your courage to lay aside the bad things and "keep the faith." Whatever it is that makes you worry about moving through the mass physically, I too have similar obstacles. This piece was familiar.
Linnnn: there is something comforting about that rote-ness, isn't there? I'm glad you could find something here to relate to.
I understand where you're coming from. I have been feeling that way for years, but in the past few weeks I have lost my will to go to church-used to go once a week- and pray. Rated.
I love the way you told this. Although I grew up without that comfort, I understand it. ~r
So let me see if I understand this correctly. You lend your moral (and, presumably, financial) support to an institution based on superstition, power politics and misogyny. You're willing to overlook worldwide child rape and obstruction of justice going right up to the Vatican's front door. (That would be the door behind which Cardinal Bernie Law was sheltered from RICO charges.) You're eager to associate yourself with people who regard you as a second class citizen, fit only for either breeding or working cheap for the Church.

And the stated reason is apparently that it gives you some sort of warm, fuzzy feeling. So, no. There's nothing complicated about this. It's just plain nuts.
I spent some time at a writing fellowship at a Catholic university this summer, attending morning, noon and evening prayer with the monks and just soaking up the sense that God was indeed doing something with these people. I understand perfectly what you're saying. I hope you always feel it.
I wish I had that kind of community....it's a wonderful foundation. Though my faith is strong it's wonderful to have others who are not only spiritual family but friends as well.
Thanks for saying this so well. I'm Episcopalian (sometimes called Catholic lite) and the people, the ritual and the beauty keep bringing me back, too.
Erica and Joan, thank you! You always have such kind words.
Mandy Cat, yep it probably is. And no, I don't tithe. I don't believe in financially supporting religious institutions, whether I agree with their politics or not. Which I don't, incidentally. Nor do I condone the actions of the church as an institution; their misogyny, cover-ups and stance on equal rights are definitely not aligned with my own. However, I do appreciate the community with the individuals I know in the church, and those do not view me as a second-class citizen, no matter what the "official" stance may be. Thank you for reading, and thanks for your input.
High, Anne and Julie, thanks! There's something to be said for community of any kind, no matter where you find it. Perhaps that's why we all hang around this Open Salon place, eh?
Altho I realized many years ago that I was an atheist, and that's why my religious search was leading nowhere, I understand very well what you mean. I have many fond memories of church from my childhood (esp. the singing, my very favorite thing) and sometimes go to the local UU church for that little hit of community, and for the pretty rituals and the singing. I think you described very well religion's enduring presence in peoples lives, despite the concurrent difficulties it can also bring.
bookscatsetc (great username, by the way), the singing is definitely a part of it. I'm a huge musical person, so that really gets me. For example, today was the retirement mass for a nun who was my elementary school principal, the woman who led my school for nine years. And would you know, although I haven't heard it for almost a decade, I knew every single word to my grade school's anthem. Amazing.
Lizz, first of all, congrats on the EP. Secondly, I am awestruck by the way you have found comfort in something that is usually the thing that repels people: formal religion. A built-in community of people you don't share faith with? Your vulnerability to share here is beautiful and scary. I'd love to hear more....
Lizz…I’m an agnostic who found your essay a pleasure to read. But your response to Mandy Cat was sublime…and in a sense, that is the real test of your “morality.” I don’t think Mandy was baiting you, but she was forceful in her comments. The way you responded was beautiful—and that impressed me even more than your initial remarks.

In the late 1950’s, was lucky enough to serve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican (one of the side chapels, of course)—and although I have no truck with the Church at all these days, I still consider that honor to be a highlight of my life. Seeming contradictions can easily exist side by side.
Brazen: stay tuned! I have a feeling there's more to explore here, too. Thanks for reading!
Frank: "Seeming contradictions can easily exist side by side." You said it. I don't think a human being exists who isn't full of contradictions, on some level. I'm certainly no exception. And I think being part of the pomp and circumstance of mass at St. Peter's is a honor, regardless of your affiliation! Sort of like going to see a procession of British royalty even though I have no allegiance to their monarchs. Thanks.
Nothing at all complicated about a homo-sapiens need to feel the collective unconscious for instinct knowledge and ancestral calm. This is as natural as we get; Hawaiian Pantheon is outdoors, right in the church itself; so are many others. This is the GOOD feeling people get at service they are always talking about ... and atheists who deny are in major denial.

But, Mass- to say it like origination, to take Rome at her word, this won't do in the 21st century- this is the Mass-Teries, the Mysteries of Egypt and Greece, the Mother Catholics stories appropriated each and every one save poor Tobit (16 century was tough one for scrolls) just as her holidays, her temples themselves and her Mass, the simplified one-step for the common folks rather than the invitation only Egyptian two-step, well both are youngsters whose grandparents were Homer and the Sumerians who wrote this stuff, with their own Akkadian influences, all coming from our traditions as a people of one race, the human race. Saying it all started in the time of Herod, or even the church's foothold in Rome, clearly an artifact of another rough century, the 4th.

Ah, Rome, she is with us every day the world throughout. Such is Legacy.

Imua (Onward)