My dad once gave me a book called Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider by Suzanne Clores. I started reading it right away. It was really, very good. I put it down and failed to pick it up again.
That was probably ten years ago or more. That’s how much of a spiritual outsider I am. Can’t even finish the damn book. Oh, I still have it. It’s lived in as many far-flung states as I have.
I identify as atheist, but only in the strict, non-deity-believing sense. I don’t *feel* like an atheist the way atheists are so often portrayed: militant atheist, rabid atheist, soulless atheist, gonna-eat-your-children atheist. I am alive to the day and the night and the trees and stars and my crazy, whiny, stumbling-block cats and my beautiful sleeping children. I revel in the universal connectivity both as offered by physicists and as witnessed firsthand. I know nothing of an afterlife save for the one my cells will experience as they blend into new creations like all organic matter, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hold sacred the tenants of life and love and community.
I used to only be able to see the monstrous side of religion. The holy wars, the sanctification of bigotry, the pedestal a group of people will believe they inhabit when compared with all others. The *certainty* of it all. The smarmy imaginary friend aspect of a god trotted out by political figures currying favor.
I’m mellowing. I can see the good. I can accept the myriad ways people choose to live and believe. I still rail against the atrocities above, condemn those who would use religion for ill, but no longer assume the remainder of believers are sheep in their wake. Not without proof, anyway. I enjoy hearing others describe their own spiritual practices and am somehow able to see their beliefs as true for them regardless of whether they are true for me.
I am an atheist, but I spent the past year attending Quaker Meeting. It was blissful. Ah, the silence! Any introvert who has ever had children can appreciate the depth of my thirst for silence. Owlet adored the childcare providers, and I trusted them to teach love and nonviolence and compassion without a strong emphasis on belief in doctrine. A year is a long time for a honeymoon to last, and last it did.
Until a month ago. One thorn, one sore thumb, one childless woman who also loved the quiet came up to me after meeting had risen. She said something I no longer recall about the noises my Platypup had made. (Minor fussing quickly soothed; if he’d begun to cry, I would have taken him out promptly.) I thought, like so many other grandmotherly folk, that she was joking, that she was delighted with his baby snuffles to the depths of her heart.
My soul was laid open by an hour of meditation in a quiet space with sweet people. The aroma of my little son’s head had infused my every breath. It took crucial seconds to reconstruct my normal barriers against idiocy and cruelty. Seconds in which this woman said my child was not welcomed by her and that she would no longer be able to come if I continued to bring him into meeting with me.
When my brain finally heard the meaning behind her words, I did the right thing. I said I was very uncomfortable and more or less dragged her over to two of the people in leadership roles (Quakers don’t have one central authority figure) and asked her to discuss it with them instead of just with me. As I stood there, quivering with hurt and mama-bear anger and repressed tears, she only got a few sentences in before they paused her to outline the appropriate channels for expressing her displeasure. One of them politely but firmly escorted her elsewhere to continue the discussion and the other remained with me to soothe and hug.
I adore these people, as a group. They are warm, honest, curious about my growing family and quick to fold us into their community. They are nonviolent by definition and deeply rooted in social activism. They are faced with an aging membership base and while I wished for more children to play with mine, the companionship of elders was a welcome change of perspective.
I went home assuming I would return the following week, but as I took time to grieve and heal, mostly while lying in Owlet’s bed helping her fall asleep at naps and bedtimes, I became uncomfortably aware of the truth. Yes, one person’s negativity was overwhelmingly outweighed by the outpouring of affection from the rest of the group. But the main reason I was there was to sink into companionable silence. Unless Platypup slept soundly throughout, I was going to be prickling at his every cough and coo. That hypersensitivity would never relax into meditation. I realized that I wasn’t going to feel comfortable until I was ready to leave Platypup with Owlet in childcare. I understood and forgave my assailant yet still felt unable to return.
But… but I loved my Sunday routine! I didn’t want to give it up. I cast around for other alternatives and immediately thought of the Unitarian Universalists. A year ago, not long before becoming pregnant with Platypup, I had decided to try out the Quakers and the Unitarians to see if either felt like a good fit for Owlet and me. We went to the Quakers first, and they were so ideal that I didn’t bother visiting the UU. Apparently it was time to resume my search. After providing an overview of their childrens’ program, the website states: “You are always welcome to stay with your infant, toddler, child or teen in the RE [Religious Education] wing — you are equally welcome to keep them with you in the sanctuary during worship. Occasionally parents opt to listen to the service broadcast from the art gallery/hallway adjacent to the sanctuary, where comfortable chairs and a selection of toys are readily available.” An auspicious beginning.
The crush of bodies and rumble of voices in the entryway was overwhelming to me and Owlet that first day! We soon learned how to sneak in across the courtyard and head straight to the toddler/preschool room to avoid the onslaught, and once inside, the congregation’s size was to our advantage. There are so many children! Yet I keep hearing that attendance is light in the summer and more kids will return in the fall. We’ve met several babies born within a couple weeks of Platypup, for example, and all stayed with their parents during the service rather than in childcare, which made me stop second-guessing my impulse to keep Platypup with me. There was play-doh and snack and her grandmother stayed in the room for the first two Sundays, so Owlet was content, despite missing her old babysitter.
I knew I’d miss my silence, and I did, although they do have a small period of silence toward the end of the hour. But I’d forgotten there would be music! I haven’t sightread an alto part in years, probably since chorus at my first college. While I sang, my soul took a tiptoe of a step into this new place and looked around. It wasn’t the same, but maybe it would be ok. The next two weeks were also good — still not as spiritually nourishing as silent worship had been, but good. And after such an uncomfortable spotlight, the anonymity of a larger group was soothing.
Then came the news I’ve already shared, about my friends’ little son with leukemia. I wanted my old experience at Quaker Meeting so badly. I needed to process and reflect, to release my worry and fuel my hope. Would I manage to do that at the UU, with all of its… talking? With that question furrowed into my brow, we bustled into the car this morning, stopped for bagels as a treat beforehand, and after dropping Owlet off, Platypup and I entered the sanctuary and settled in.
The guest speaker had clearly been chosen with me in mind. Jan Ogren is a born storyteller, and she wove a sermon on the joy of unanswerable questions with poignancy and wit in equal measure. Afterward, I went up to light a candle for my friends and their son. The piano rolled just then with the sudden roller-coaster feeling of an ocean wave and my eyes filled.
Yes. Yes, I can find the depth I crave in this new place. It is different and just what I need. I will stay awhile.