“Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing like the love that lets us share our name.”
-The Avett Brothers “Murder in the City”
This morning I took my toddlers for a long walk to let my husband sleep in and get some Sunday reflection time for myself. The weather was warm enough to be comfortable, but the sky was filled with low gray clouds which seemed to be more an addition to the ambience than a threat of rain. I decided to play my “Mellow” station on Pandora. This particular configuration of source tracks, likes, and dislikes results in a playlist that could either provide the unobtrusive atmosphere of a coffee house or the tortured backdrop for a person debating extreme self-harm. It ultimately depends on the state of the listener, not the variety of music.
As we circled the cul-de-sacs and waved at the occasional appearance of families heading off to church or mowing lawns, I was surprised to watch my children interacting with the music. Usually, they actively engage with classic rock, kids songs, 90’s alternative, pop, even metal, but they haven’t spent a lot of time immersed in Mommy’s somber, contemplative collections. A song by the Swell Season called “Lies” came on, and I noticed my son rhythmically and enthusiastically rocking. When it ended, he applauded with vigor. I peeked around the back of the stroller to see his eyes welling with tears, his sweet smile broad. I was dumbfounded by the depth of the connection he seemed to have to the painful melody. The next song to come on was by Damien Rice, to which he had an identically emotional reaction. Oh God, I thought. You have both your parents’ angst and all your father’s Irish.
Meanwhile, at the front of the stroller, my daughter was off in an entirely different world, only noting that some music was playing, so it must have been a good time to sing. Her tune was cheerful and loud. She danced and clapped, swinging her head broadly from side to side as if she was at a good old fashioned tent revival. My God, I thought. You have all your mother’s wild, West Virginian mountain woman.
When my husband and I found out we were pregnant, I was not anticipating a battle of religion. One of the primary things we share is our spiritual experience. In fact, we met at a Thelemic mass at which I was a guest of my Johannite priest. I had assumed, incorrectly, that as neither of us took part in traditional religion, our children wouldn't be expected to be raised in it. To my great shock, I found myself waiting in an examination room at the gynecologist arguing heatedly about why in the name of all that is holy my husband seemed to think our unborn children would be Catholic. There must have been an issue with another patient because this first edition of an often rehashed argument between us lasted at least forty-five minutes. I am certain that patients and staff on the other side of thin walls were captivated by the raging incredulity of a hormonal woman raised Protestant detailing the atrocities and theological contentions of the Catholic Church.
At some point we realized things were getting out of hand and veered the conversation into a funny hypothetical that comes up often when you're raising twins. Let's make a social experiment of them! What if we raise one Protestant and the other Catholic? Again, neither of us practice either of these religions anymore. We don't practice them for reasons. We aren't about to start spending our Sunday mornings dragging our kids to two churches to prove a point to the other. In the end, there isn't even a point to prove. We married each other, didn't we? Despite all the flaws, these are religious backgrounds that produced people we liked enough to make a family out of. Assign one to each of these two children, and chances are, neither of them will be superior either.
But knowing intellectually that Catholicism and Protestantism are equally both unappealing and valid does nothing to heal the emotional and psychological rift between those who have experienced one system or the other.
My children daily reinforce the power of nature over nurture. Generally speaking they've had the same experiences with the same people their entire lives. They've been the same places, had the same rules, given the same affection, even eaten the same meals. I can count on one hand the number of times I've had the chance to spend time with one without the other. Yet, they are incredibly, often drastically different human beings, and they have been since long before they ever uttered a word. This brings me to a sense that much like so many other traits, religion feels like a genetic inheritance.
Growing up, my parents weren't terribly religious. My father was raised Catholic, and to some degree I was mesmerized by that path. I loved the idea of the pomp, the mystery, the high rituals, the goddess figure and her rosaries. I gathered none of my impressions of those things from him. Catholicism, like so many other aspects of his past, was a thing he did not want his children to experience. We were raised Methodist like my mother. It was not the new rainbow Methodism. It was old school, one-step-away-from-Anabaptist Methodism that we encountered when going to church with my grandmother on trips to West Virginia. Our home congregations were more mainstream but far less mandatory. I was baptized, my siblings were confirmed, but by the time I reached that age, it wasn't a priority for anyone. I did eventually fall into vehement Born Again Christianity, but that's a story for another time. Mostly as a kid, I took religion with intense seriousness but never because I was expected to, only because I was very, very literal and had an excellent memory. I also just really loved the grape juice at communion.
The only time I ever heard the word “catholic” in church was during what I think was the profession of faith. Lower case “C.” I remember asking my mother why we believed in the Catholic Church if we weren't catholic and she explained that the actual word means something along the lines of “entire.” That explains how you have a nine-year-old who appropriately can use the term “catholicity” in a sentence.
Nevertheless, I had very strong opinions, inherited opinions, about Catholicism. Who were they to issue gatekeepers between me and salvation? Who were they to claim so much righteousness after centuries of murder, oppression, and cultural genocide? Who were they to speak about golden calves when they prayed to saints and Mary? In what world can you pick and choose which parts of the book a Roman council created are actually relevant except for the part where Peter is the foundation of the church? Because that part is unquestionably true? When I argue with my husband or certain members of his family, the conversation tends to lean toward the theological points, the very strong opinions that the ritual magic of high church is inherently superior to the sanitized proletarian nature of Protestantism.
To be sure, the quality is different, but to question the spiritual potency of one over the other is insane. There is powerful agency in Protestantism and its altar calls. There is the sense of becoming John the Baptist when you are given right to baptize. There is a sense of becoming like Christ when you lay on hands. There is a sense of the Holy Spirit in the room when parishioners are speaking in tongues. Fuck, some of these guys handle poisonous snakes. There is very potent, very real magic in Protestantism, just as there is very real magic in the majesty of the Catholic Church, it's mysteries, it's cathedrals, and the moment when a priest and not your prayers absolves you of your sins. The absolution is in the surrender, not the mode of surrendering.
It almost goes without saying that these feelings meet Gnosticism with open arms. The rift between Gnostics and Catholics dates much farther back, all the way to the time of Christ. A Gnostic can feel some distaste for that church; as it literally came close to killing them off entirely. Still, if you attend a Gnostic mass, you'll be far more familiar if you were raised Catholic. They value very similar rites. Yet Gnosticism has a strong element of improv, of “yes and.” Do your Catholic looking mass, then go celebrate Beltane. Whatever. Do you. The proof, the truth, is in you and not your affiliation.
So when it comes to being yourself and choosing or choosing not to determine a faith system that suits you, your inheritance is entirely relevant. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the one that fits you isn't a choice. I learn from Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, you name it. My home is Christian Gnosticism because it deeply connects to the mythology and schema in which I was raised, eliminates most of the things that pushed me away from it, and opens the door for so many things outside of it.
In terms of my children, I could be entirely wrong. They are still toddlers, but I can envision them some day. I can see my son kneeling and crossing himself. I can see my daughter using a divining rod, staring down a rattlesnake, then praising Jesus outside in the woods. Your spirituality may not be a genetically inherited trait, but your soul certainly has its own fabric, character, and qualities. I don't know what they'll be when they grow up, but I know they'll be in a family who, no matter how hard they're biting their tongues about the other, accepts and supports them the same way the Gnostic church and our own families have done for us. As for their first rites? They were baptized in our house with about a hundred loved ones surrounding them by my mother-in-law’s best friend, a renegade natural priest who created a Greek Orthodox/Celtic/Hebrew service with four unmarried, cohabitating, spiritual godparents with no particular affiliations. It was a first birthday, Samhain, baptism party with three costume changes and more love than I could describe. My mother cried. My father’s spirit filled the room. Protestants, Catholics, and those who are neither came to love and support them.