Jane Ann asked if I would share with you the story of my faith journey. She posed a few questions which I found to be a clear outline.
First, what was the God like who you used to believe in as a child (or what you were taught to believe)?
Second, how has that changed over time?
Third, what do you trust/believe/have faith in now? Let it be personal and theological.
I am the oldest of five children from a working class family; I grew up in a part of Brooklyn, now called Bushwick. We lived across the street from Our Lady of Lourdes church and we all attended the parish catholic school. My maternal grandmother owned the house we lived in and she lived upstairs from us. She was an important influence in my life. She was a devote catholic – attended Mass and communion daily. She prayed daily devotional prayers at home and she hosted a group of older ladies who came once weekly to pray the rosary in her living room; the women gathered around a tall statue of the Virgin Mary. The women prayed as the church prescribed in those cold war days: for the ‘conversion of Russia’ and for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. She prayed that one or more of her 32 grandchildren would have a vocation to religious life or priesthood.
The community was predominantly white and Catholic. Around 4th grade a Lutheran family moved in a few doors down from us – this was something new to me. Once, while visiting a Catholic friend whose divorced mother was Protestant, we took out her mother’s huge and beautiful gold leafed Bible. As we opened it, I saw the words: “King James Version.” I knew from school that Catholics read the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible (actually, in that pre-Vatican Council era few Catholics read the Bible!) Nonetheless, I knew Catholic’s weren’t supposed to read the King James version of the Bible and for a moment I froze, waiting for the bolt of lightening to strike! Eventually I came to realize that a few other neighbors were Protestant, including an older couple across the street whom we called Aunt Sadie and Uncle Gus. The only Jewish people I knew were Mr. Fisher and Mr. Cohen, the local pharmacists, the life insurance man, Mr. Waxman, and a variety of trusted medical doctors who treated us.
I count myself fortunate in my Catholic school education – as I was spared some of the awful experiences some kids had in the 50’s and early 60’s. My “God exposure” at school and at home was focused on a personal relationship with a loving God/Jesus. My mother was an easy going mom, friendly and kind. Each morning as we left the house she’d call out to us: “Sacred Heart (of Jesus) protect me,” and our response was “make me a good boy or girl.” Years later, at a family gathering my brother Tommy told us that this ritual was so ingrained that even as a adult he found himself repeating it as he left his house in the morning. Years later, while ministering in a Spanish parish in Bushwick, I learned of and loved the tradition families had of asking in Spanish for a ‘blessing’ as they left the house. That was, indeed, what my mother was giving us each day! My younger brothers and sister would play with the Christmas nativity figures, with such vigor that eventually Mary and Joseph’s noses were scraped off from them “kissing.” (I told you my Mom was easy going.)
A pivotal point in my spiritual journey came early in 8th grade when the teacher/nun gave each class member a copy of the New Testament. She encouraged us to read the Scriptures regularly at home. I embraced this suggestion with fervor. This opened my heart to a new world – I discovered and was enthralled with John’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles to the Ephesians, Phillipians and Galatians. I especially loved John chapters 15 to 17 where Jesus tells us that He “is the vine and we are the branches” and “live in my love.” And “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Live on in my love.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” This sense of God’s presence within us and all of creation remains key to my sense of God today.
From elementary school, I went on to St. Joseph’s HS in Brooklyn and was taught by the same order of religious women (nuns), who taught me in elementary school – the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood. I was a high school student during the early 60’s, right in the midst of the civil rights movement and the reign of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council – urging the church to open its windows – to engage with the world and to reach out in dialogue to believers of every faith, exhorting the church to be more relevant to the modern world. As a student I was exposed to nuns who went to Selma and marched with MLK, and another who worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. At this time our neighborhood had an influx of Spanish families, and I got to know some of the families from the Spanish choir at church and found myself enthralled with the Latin community.
As high school was culminating, I decided I wanted to enter religious life after graduation. (Actually, I knew this was what I wanted to do several years before graduation) As the oldest of 5, and a ‘parentified child’ in my family, I was not drawn to marriage and motherhood. I dated from 10th grade, had fun, but didn’t feel ‘called’ to this vocation. For me, it was the religious women I knew who were doing exciting things with their lives. They were educated women working for justice, teaching in the inner city. I joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in September of ‘65 – and went to the order’s college to become an elementary teacher. The novitiate (the religious/spiritual formation program) and college classes were filled with many wonderful teachers those who taught theology, philosophy, literature, sociology, among my favorites.
When I hear the fears, guilt, negative beliefs, stunted theology some Catholics are straddled with, my heart aches for their pain. I feel deeply grateful for the exposure I had to teachers and deeply spiritual women and men who encouraged my growth and development as a whole person – spiritually, psychologically, intellectually, personally. As a result of the Vatican council there were many changes in the way religious women lived. There was more freedom – as nuns were no longer required to live in convents, some chose to live in apartments sharing in the life of the neighborhood/local community and engaged in ministries of their own choosing including: social work, law, medicine, prison ministry, ministry to the poor in inner city, in Appalachia and in Recife, Brazil. Religious women were also now given personal responsibility for the design and depth of their spiritual life and practice. There were many rich opportunities for retreats, spiritual direction, exploration of different methods of meditation and prayer.
After teaching primary grades for 5 years, I requested to go on for a masters in social work, I was given the green light and went to Fordham University in the city. There my world continued to expand – I studied with Chritian and now Jewish students for the first time. Once graduated, I returned to Bushwick, to do social work in a largely Hispanic parish a few miles from my own Bushwick neighborhood, doing counseling, running groups for kids, developing a homework-helper program, and a summer day camp. Along the way, I connected up with a Catholic Charities Mental Health clinic, for supervision on some serious counseling cases. Eventually I worked part time at the clinic and part time at the parish.
It is at Catholic Charities that I made two dear friends, Nan and Barbara, both Jewish women with whom I shared many common ideas and interests. This was, for me, the first time I began to see marriage as a viable option. Simultaneously, I was in my own personal therapy and the question of my vocation started to arise. The questions emerged from within me and they were disconcerting for a long while. Among other things I knew my leaving religious life would disappoint my father greatly. After a few years I decided to take a leave of absence – and during this time Nan introduced me to her husband’s cousin, Stan, a recent widower. Stan and I started dating and married 10 months later. We lived in Sea Cliff for eighteen years before moving to Westchester.
We moved to Hastings nine years ago, shortly after the birth of our grandaughter, Julia. That first November, I was looking for a church for Advent. I looked around and was drawn to South Church – drawn in by the flag that hung over the front lawn – the one with the image of the earth from space. That has always spoken to me of a sense of oneness with all. Additionally, the doors of the church were always wide open, when my experience was and still is, that most churches are locked tight during the day. Finally, articles in the Enterprise about South’s involvement in ordaining a gay man minister, its commitment to homeless people through Midnight Run, and prison ministry all resonated within me as the social justice concerns I had been involved with over the years and my sense of church.
One last thing that still amazes me about the appeal of South Church to me personally: each religious order has a certain “charism” – a certain ’spirit’ – or ‘calling’ that is an underlying principle which goes back to its founding as a religious order. For the Benedictine priests and nuns it’s hospitality, for the Franciscans it’s about service to the poor/simplicity of life.
My order, the Sisters of St. Joseph – since it’s founding in 18th century France – has identified itself as “The congregation of the great love of God and neighbor without distinction.” Nowadays, they describe themselves, as the congregation of the “All inclusive love of God and love of neighbor.”
And the logo on their letterhead is a cross superimposed on concentric circles and bearing a striking similarity to the cross here at South Church, a simple cross superimposed on the earth. This realization still excites me, for in addition to the genuine community we have found here at South, I believe my participation here is an extension and continuation of my participation in a community that is called to be a community of the all inclusive love of God and neighbor – where all are invited to participate, without distinction. This is what I trust in – the presence of God as the one “in whom I live and move and have my existence,” the Mystery simply and profoundly expressed in Jane Ann’s weekly closing blessing – which says, “like the horizon God is beyond us, like water in a pitcher God is within us and in the outpouring of us, like pebbles in the sea we are in God…”, which resonates deeply within me like the air I breathe.
Along the way, some books that have nurtured my development: Encounters with Silence, Karl Rahner, The Cloud of Unknowing, Author anonymous, Prayers by Abhishiktananda, poems and stories of Anthony de Mello, words of Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, more recently poetry of Mary Oliver and Billy Collins and Hafiz (The Gift), Living Buddha, Living Christ and The Heart of Understanding, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Thoughts that nourish me: Thomas Merton – “Searching for God is like searching for a path in a field of freshly fallen snow. Walk in any direction and there is your path.”
In the Little Fish parable re: our search for God – by Anthony de Mello, SJ – Little Fish asks Big Fish, “Where do I find the ocean?” Big Fish replies, “The ocean is the thing you’re swimming in.”
“Oh, this? But this is water. What I’m seeking is the ocean,” said the disappointed fish as he swam away to search elsewhere.