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Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
March 13th, 2008

Spiritual Glutton

Searching for the "right place"

 
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For years I felt a gap between my parents and me—a gap of time and geography. When they were young, their social lives revolved around church; few of my good friends regularly attend. They’ve always urged me to “find a good church” where I could become part of a community. I’d patiently tell them that I have to make my own way; that I have friends; that I’m doing just fine, thank you very much. I knew they just wanted me to be happy—wanted me to find the security in the church that they had found growing up in the Midwest in the 50′s and 60′s.

But I live in Manhattan, I’d tell them, and we’re in the 80′s, the 90′s, the 00′s.

I grew up in West Los Angeles in the 60′s and 70′s. One friend was on the pill in elementary school; others did coke with their parents. Many people I knew had been in and out of rehab at least once by the time they were high school seniors. Plastic surgery and eating disorders were de rigeur. One neighborhood woman had an altar in her house where she chanted for a new Mercedes. Hardly anybody went to church.

An Ordered Corner
My parents came from Illinois, and somehow, in the midst of all of this, they managed to maintain a solid Midwestern outlook that included good old-fashioned Methodist church, with pot-luck dinners and Sunday school, and later, rock musicals about Jesus. In some ways this set me apart; in some ways it rooted me. It was an ordered corner of my world, a realm of familiar hymns and candle-lighting and Christmas pageants, where the youngest kids crawled around covered with carpet squares, being sheep.

It was also a source of ever-growing discomfort, and inconvenience. Each week we sat in the car in the driveway, itchy and hot in white gloves, tights and patent leather Mary Janes, my father fuming: “We’re going to be late!” Waiting while my mother—still upstairs—applied her final strokes of makeup. In church, we had to sit forever and not talk. My sisters and I drew pictures on the offering envelopes. Afterwards, we’d stand in the sunlight on the patio, sipping too-sweet “orange juice,” and, later, sneaking cups of watery coffee. Then we’d have brunch at the beach club, or the old Hamburger Hamlet (with its darkened rooms and red booths), or Ships (“a toaster at every table”).

Serious Doubts
I began to notice contradictions. At church they talked about loving your neighbor and the grace of God. My friend’s parents had concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. I read of Crusaders, Conquistadors, Salem Puritans all slaughtering others in the name of God. By the age of nine, I had already developed some serious doubts about religion.

Still, there were times when the modern Spanish-Gothic sanctuary would fill me with awe. It was so beautiful with its stillness and its lofty ceilings and its Glory Window that turned golden when seen from the inside at night. Sometimes waves of joy and peace would wash over me, bringing tears to my eyes.

And it was West L.A. in the 70′s. Along with pot-luck dinners we had a Sunday School teacher who used E.S.P. to talk to our dead grandmothers and read to us from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and exchange programs with the synagogue across the street. We even had our own batch of B-level celebrities—television actress Mariette Hartley (who taught Sunday school with my mother), singer/songwriter Hoyt Axton, and Susan Olsen (Cindy Brady).

So Uncool

“For over 20 years I didn’t attend church regularly. But I remained a glutton for spiritual experiences. I hiked in my hills whenever I was home for a visit; I sought out ancient stone chapels and arcing cathedrals, lamp-lit mosques and baroque synagogues.”

So I didn’t have an angry or demanding or a particularly sexist and narrow-minded God/church to rebel against. I was taught that we all have our own equally valid spiritual paths. But by the time I suffered through confirmation class, all I can remember is eating casseroles, staring at a chalkboard, and resenting the inconvenience. By then I was a teenager, and it was embarrassing to say that you went to church. I fought with my parents. I didn’t want to go. Church was so uncool. It was a narrow, inherently biased organization that was a waste of my time, I told them. How, I asked, to account for all of the violence perpetrated in the name of God?

Every day after school, I rode my horse in the hills, and there, in the dusty trails overlooking the ocean, where hawks circled and deer grazed, I found what spoke to me. Riding lessons were on Sunday mornings. My father, though disapproving, no longer made me go to church.

For over 20 years I didn’t attend church regularly. But I remained a glutton for spiritual experiences. I hiked in my hills whenever I was home for a visit; I sought out ancient stone chapels and arcing cathedrals, lamp-lit mosques and baroque synagogues. I explored psychotherapy, tai chi, yoga, acupuncture, mythology, astrology, shamanism and Buddhism (the list goes on). And I found that all of these have something to teach, and that in my case, they all lead to pretty much the same place. A place I long ago learned that horseback riding could take me each Sunday morning, as surely as church once had.

C & E
Still, I was always drawn to church, especially at Christmas and Easter. I felt incomplete when I didn’t celebrate centuries-old traditions of light and rebirth. I’d go into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at Christmas-time and see the rich, gold trappings and vibrant crimson poinsettias and people kneeling, praying, crying. I’d light candles. On Easter Sunday, I’d walk up the street to the lily-filled sanctuary of a Presbyterian church and sing songs about hope and love and faith being reborn into the world. I’d be moved that there are places where people can go and sit and see beauty and experience a feeling of awe. That’s what I’ve always loved about church. And yoga. And poetry. And hills rising above the ocean.

After the attacks of September 11 2001, just over a mile from my home, I would walk to work past an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian church, both of which kept their doors open at all times. I was grateful for this. I would enter and pray. But I found more solace in my yoga practice, chanting, “May the entire universe be filled with peace and joy, love and light,” and “May the light of truth overcome all darkness.”

Unmoored
Last fall, however, after enduring a plague of bedbugs, followed by the abrupt and unforeseen departure of my then-boyfriend and the sudden death of a 42-year old friend, I lost my bearings. I came unmoored. I no longer had a horse and the beloved hills of my spiritual solace were over 2,000 miles away. I couldn’t afford yoga, therapy or workshops. I felt a need to be around people willing to believe in something greater than themselves; in hope and love and joy. I began to walk up the street to the Presbyterian church every Sunday. I soon discovered that an old friend was a member. Her son draws on the offering envelopes and was a sheep in the Christmas pageant. There are potlucks and soup kitchens and watery cups of coffee, and I feel at home.

Sitting in the 160-year old Gothic Revival sanctuary with its elaborately carved pews and Tiffany stained glass windows, singing hymns to which I still know the words, I feel connected to people present and past. I feel connected to my parents. I know that we’ve all searched and continue to search for the same things—for meaning, for love and light, for peace and joy, for connection.

I still balk at any hint that this is the only spiritual path. When I can, I still chant for peace in yoga, attend fire circles at the solstices and duck into any house of worship on my path. But when I make it to church on a Sunday morning and find myself once again moved to tears, I know that, for now, I’m in the right place.

 
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The Author : Katherine Wessling
Katherine Wessling's essays have been published in the anthology, Have I Got a Guy for You: What Really Happens When Mom Fixes you Up (Adams Media), in Swing and Speak magazines, and on WNYC’s broadcast of NPR's "Morning Edition."
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