Monday, March 10, 2008

Rewriting History

There are many aspects of losing faith that are deeply disconcerting. Many are obvious -- some because they are superficial, and some because they are so huge they can't be ignored. Others are below the surface, deeper currents that are only recognized because of the faint, telltale swirls on the surface of my mind.

Missing church, that's one of the obvious ones. For three years, I missed church as often as possible. I was sick a lot. (Chocolate martinis on Saturday night can reliably produce an upset stomach on Sunday morning.) I'd refer to the local race calendar and run 5Ks that were scheduled for Sunday mornings. I'd stay home to take care of a marginally sick child. About a month ago, I finally told my husband that I just wasn't coming to church for a while, and quit going entirely. It took a while to get used to figuring out what day of the week it was without the mental anchor of Sundays.

Another obvious one was the realization that I had completely broken the habit of random prayer for unimportant things -- making green lights, getting somewhere on time, finding my keys, all those things that used to make me feel so thankful if they were "answered", and so frustrated if they weren't. Without that running mental commentary, I still have an occasional sense of ringing silence, like the nearly tangible absence of sound when a noisy radiator or refrigerator shuts off after your ear has ceased to consciously hear it.

The loss of Christian community is a change so big that it can't be ignored. It happened gradually, over the course of a few years, but its loss is no less painful for that. The Christian community can be exasperating for myriad reasons, but it is also an easy place to find companionship. There are people to talk to who think like I think, whose experiences mirror mine, whose goals and life choices and hopes are close variants of mine. When my thought patterns changed to the point that our common ground shrank to only include the things we would have had in common if we didn't go to the same church, much of that connection was lost. Without a new community to replace it, that loss still leaves me reeling at times.

As real as these changes are, they shake me in a different way from the other questions that quietly eased into existence while my attention was on the loud clanging of the immediate paradigm shift. What about the first thirty years? What about my earliest memories of Sunday School, of watching my parents start a church, of learning to arrange beautiful piano solos from the old red hymnal? What about church camp, Vacation Bible School, the commitment I made at the winter teen retreat? Were those real, or just an extended course of indoctrination?

As the child of the pastor of a small church, the members of our church were our community. They were my teachers, my friends, the parents of my friends, my role models, my encouragers. I cannot look back at those good people and believe that they were misguided fools, blundering through life with religious blinders on. But I also cannot accept much of the structure of their belief system, and the conflict between old memories and new thoughts is dizzying.

I think back to the church camp I attended through junior high and high school, and loved so much that I worked on the kitchen crew all summer for pennies an hour just to spend more time there. It was wholesome, fun, uplifting, all of those good things. I made good friends, sang fun songs, and experienced many moments of deep spiritual conviction and joy. Or did I? Was it just the natural emotional and physical high of being outside all summer with kids my age, getting lots of sunshine and exercise, and indulging every possible adolescent desire for self-expression during the "sharing times"? Was I just being swept away by twice-daily services that were calculated to walk us through a time-tested emotional arc, where we were ramped up with music, made to laugh, calmed down for the speaker, manipulated into feelings of guilt, and finally brought to tears of repentance with the intense pressure to raise our hands and go forward for the confession du jour?

So many things, not just church and camp ... I can barely stand to think of the beautiful old hymns that I have played so many hundreds of times, hymns that guided my beliefs, comforted my tears, challenged my mind. Their comfort and teaching was real, but now that I question what they taught, their comfort begins to fade and that breaks my heart more than almost anything else in this rocky journey. I want clarity of thought and honesty of mind, but the cost is mounting and I must wonder what price I will eventually pay in memories and comfort lost.

Whether I like it or not, these things have shaped me, and unmaking these memories feels like unmaking myself.

1 comment:

taikyotojin said...

I wanted you to know that I still read your blog, and find it very interesting.

On the subject of this blog, I'd like to say that memories don't need to be edited for context nor content. You felt what you felt, you saw what you saw. They were honest emotions evoked by a set of conditions that will never be met again.

As a child (or even a young adult, adult, and old codger) you believe a great many things that are altered, forgotten, or re-written based on experiences you've had since they were formed. That doesn't cheapen the fact that you had those experiences, nor negate them altogether. The experiences you are having this week, you may not have in the same way again, even if the same circumstances are met. That doesn't mean that today means less as a result.

Just because you no longer believe what you once did, you can still look back fondly, with a touch of sadness, at what once was.

Even though I now know that there's a person inside that big yellow bird costume, doesn't mean that my memories of wanting to live in his nest no longer exist...or can't exist because my faith in him is no longer there.

Sometimes bittersweet memories are the most poignant ones of all.