When I was eight, I went to a Saturday-night sleepover at a friend’s house. The next morning, before my mom could pick me up, my friend’s mother bundled me up in my coat and we all went off to church. I remember the crisp white of the newly painted pews in the great lofty sunlit space. Bulletin boards crowded with colorful flyers for bake sales and charity auctions. Children’s crayon drawings in the halls. The minister in long white robes delivered a sermon that was boring, but pleasant enough for me to daydream while looking at the rainbow-tiled windows. The church was one of many liberal Unitarian churches scattered across Boston, with “Save Darfur” banners and pride flags hanging on the doors.
The pastor called the children in the audience to sit with him on the stairs before the altar, and before I knew what was happening, my friend’s mother was pushing me into the aisle. I followed my friend nervously; she seemed to know what to do. The pastor, a kind-looking bald man with a long snowy robe, patted the steps, and I sat down with the other kids. He pulled out a picture book about the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead. He turned the pages slowly, revealing colorful images of painted skulls and curtains of brilliant flowers. On one page, a family placed marigolds on the grave of an ancestor, their faces respectful and joyful at once, the connection from grandmother to granddaughters clear and strong. I was entranced.
That afternoon, I was full of stories about the Day of the Dead, excitedly telling my mother all that I had learned. I’m not sure what happened after that. I only know I never went back to church with my friend again.
There was plenty of reason to be wary. Both sides of my family told stories of religion used as a cudgel, a weapon wielded to drive families apart. My maternal grandmother came from a family of Christian Scientists, where a beloved relative died of a preventable disease because other family members refused her treatment. My grandmother never fully let go of the hurt the church had caused her.
My father came from a long line of Irish Catholic Bostonians, eating fish on Fridays, marrying Murphys, and excommunicating from the family anyone who dared marry an Episcopalian. He remembers going to public school, when the Lord’s Prayer was still recited at the beginning of every school day. But his family priest told him never to recite the Protestant version used in school, with the added lines “for Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory, for ever. Amen.” The punishment would be dire: reciting a Protestant prayer was heresy, a mortal sin that would separate him from God’s grace forever. My father would obediently put his head down on his desk as the children around him continued to recite.
But try as my family might to keep me away, I’d been exposed. That Boston Catholic heritage cast a long shadow over the generations. How else did I learn the right words for priest and pastor, thurible and censer, communion and confirmation?
My sister and I grew up free from the dogma of our family’s religious past, from those heavy ideas of sin and shame. Without a Bible or cross or string of rosary beads anywhere in our house, we were cheerfully willing to put up a Christmas tree and eat lamb on Easter. We had respect for the grandeur and solemnity of a cathedral. We felt awe for the art and architecture. And we still needed the rituals to mark the year, the traditions that drew grandparents to our house and gave us reasons to wear the good shoes. We loved singing the old songs. We bundled up and went caroling, wandering through our mostly-Jewish neighborhood and knocking on doors. We knew the words, we shared them with each other, and the people around me seemed to glean a quiet joy from their mysteries. But all the while, I carried a deep-seated wariness of any ritual, any preachy idea or silk uniform that carried stronger whiffs of religion.
Religion, I learned young, was dangerous; and like so many young people, I leaned curiously toward the danger.
A family friend first introduced me to Zen Buddhism when she found me, as a pre-teen, reading the World Religions entries in the encyclopedia. She was a close friend of my mother’s, my often-babysitter and -confidant, my spirit-aunt. She told me about her Italian Catholic childhood, her conversion experience, and her family’s uneasy acceptance. She described the painful intensity of moments of enlightenment, of realizing you were alive, that this was It. My reserved New England self squirmed with discomfort at all this feeling on display: so much bared emotion, longing, and joy. And yet I was drawn to it as well, entranced again, Buddhism and its stories casting a kind of spell.
Everything we talked about—whether medieval haiku or Tibetan nuns or reincarnation—felt meaningful. I devoured books about the Buddha’s life, Zen philosophy, and the latest volumes by Thich Nhat Hanh. I took classes on Buddhism in college, wanting to understand the intuitive warmth I had always felt for the stories and images and songs. But I could never call myself a Buddhist. I did not technically practice; I rarely attended a prayer session or Zendo, a meditation hall. I tried zazen, seated meditation, alone in my room or when I was riding the train, but I couldn’t imagine doing it in a room full of people who would know I was an outsider. I felt too much like an imposter, a shy stranger to a tradition that others had devoted their lives to. And I still felt wary about allegiance to any religious institution.
No faith, as far as I could see, was fully innocent. In every college class I took, in the depths of every religion I explored, there were always people at the forefront, twisting the words of the sacred poetry, abusing their power. Buddhism’s nonviolent principles had been warped before into weapons of nationalism and war. The arrival of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism in the West had been marked by instances of sexual abuse and harassment by teachers. Boston Catholics, and Catholics everywhere, had suffered their own fall from innocence. I was in high school when, as a city, we learned how priests had abused children without fear of punishment. As I walked around Boston, observing the protests, the churches with padlocked doors, I wondered how many people’s lives this awful form of violence had changed.
Would the world be better off, as my father sometimes wondered, completely free from religion? Would I be?
But I believe something would be missing from my world: some mystery, some magic. Religion is superstition and story and the uneasy yoke we put on the shoulders of the next generation, hoping it will fit. But it’s also a dream of transformation, of remaking ourselves, and of finding the community that best fits. I still bow my head when others are praying, and I sing Christmas carols on winter nights. I read koans and parables, and I appreciate their tricky metaphors, their hidden analogies for life and death, humility and awe. When I move to a new city, I look up a Zen temple and sit in the back row to hear the people around me pray and chant. I keep sending shaky little messages to the universe, asking to participate in something larger than myself.
In every state in the country there are communes and cults, back-to-the-land movements, fundamentalists and orthodoxies finding new meaning and reaching new followers. In any town, I’m sure I’d find a church or a temple with an open door, eager to have me. Every Catholic church in Boston has a “Catholics Come Home” sign above the door these days, and I’m certain that I would be welcomed into any Zendo. But I don’t fully wish to belong. I’ve decided that being curious about religion is its own state of being, one that has meaning for me. I’m always ready to be entranced again; I pause whenever someone on a street corner asks if I’ve heard the good news. I listen patiently when a beaming orange-robed monk explains the cycle of reincarnation. When I’m in a church and there’s a pamphlet that asks, “How Does a Person Become a Catholic?” I pick it up and read, looking for something miraculous. I’ll remove my shoes and step inside. I’ll look at the paintings and listen to the songs. I’ll remain a respectful outsider, free to tell my own stories.