Monday, March 16, 2009

On Religion and Off State Politics (for a post)

I attended a Bat Mitzvah over the weekend and had a blast. It was for the daughter of one of the candidates I've worked for in the past. Beyond having the extreme pleasure of seeing the Speaker of this state dancing shoulder-to-shoulder to Hava Nagila, it led me to think a lot about faith for the first time in a long time -- and how it truly can make a positive impact in someone's life.

When it comes to faith, I've ran the gamut: I started as a Catholic true-believer who was confirmed and did the whole shebang. I was on the executive council of my youth ministry and my first paid gig was as a rectory monitor at St. John's the Evangalist -- $14.50 a week for stuffing the occasional envelope and doing my homework for two hours! One of the Sisters actually tried to convince me to go to seminary school - and I considered it for more than a nanosecond before realizing that would have been a bad, bad idea.

After the abuse scandal and the way O'Malley handled the church closings, I became an extremely bitter ex-Catholic. That lasted for a period of several years, some of which were the early days of this blog. I'm no longer a bitter ex-Catholic, but I'm still an ex-Catholic. There are other issues far beyond belief that would prevent me from ever joining again. Moreover, no matter what my personal faith is as it applies to religious matters, I'm a humanist at heart: what happens in the here and now is, if not far more important than the thereafter, at least paramount in determining what actually happens when we're dead and buried (or burned or lost).

It took me a while, but at some point around a year or two ago, I realized I lined up exactly with Unitarian Universalists. I think everyone is as valuable and important whether they believe in Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha or the spiritual kami in the rocks. I don't care if you pray to God or the four corners of the watchtower. I only care if someone's personal faith interferes with another's civil rights, or when people cease regulating at the entryway of their sanctuaries and start trying to do it at the ballot box. As long as people aren't doing those things, I think we all end up in the same or similar happy places when all is said and done, whether that's reincarnation, heaven or simply the positive imprints in the people we leave behind.

I say all this despite the fact that I've only ever attended a Unitarian Universalist service once -- and that was before I actually considered myself in line with Unitarian Universalism. Going to the Bat Mitvah made me realize a few things. I wasn't truly anything because I was not a spiritual being. Faith and spirituality just didn't factor in - and that's not a good thing. It meant I was too wrapped up in the details of my causes, the numbers and figures, and not stepping back, thinking at a broader level - at the inherent value of us all. Our inherent value, my humanism, is the driving force in my life, but I wasn't thinking about it, not in a long time. Life was on automatic, and I was missing the reason behind it - and therefore some of the meaning and fun.

When I looked at what exactly someone had to do to achieve a Bat or Bah Mitzvah, I was astounded. I was back on manual, feeling the engine purr as I shifted gears. As one friend put it, 'they go to Hebrew school, learn a new language, as well as memorize and philosophize in depth on religious tomes.' That's in addition to a large service project they must complete before the ceremony, as well as a paper and accompanying public speech (some would call it a sermon) that examines some particular biblical passage -- with Saturday's being especially deep, despite the fact that the passage was essentially the instruction manual to build a golden menorah. Out of that, I learned that "history" does not exist in the Torah, only "remember." Wow.

Then consider what one must do on the day of the ceremony. A 13-year old (no less) must singularly stand up and lead the service with the Rabbi during the vast majority of the ceremony, in front of a room full of people, leading songs and prayers (in Hebrew), as well as the aforementioned sort-of sermon. That's followed by a large, well-deserved party in the honor of that person's success - the community's collective recognition and celebration of a job well done, as well as the carrot to the hard work's stick. You can boil all of that down to the fact that each and everyone who achieves a Bat or Bah Mitvah is forced to take an introspective look at their beliefs and how that applies to the world, then air it out in a very public and personal forum. All of that is not just a big confidence booster, it's building a better person.

Our spirituality - the source of why we want to be better people and what we think it means to be human - is something easily lost in us all with our hectic schedules, even when those schedules are often filled with the causes that directly apply to our beliefs. For me, it's one thing to know all people deserve good health care, a clean earth and access to high-quality public education. It was another thing to remember why I felt that way. We're all beautiful creatures set upon this earth, whether we think it by some supernatural being or a bloody and very human mess. If we each value the other and respect the consenting decisions others make as it applies to their own individualism, it only enhances this place we live on. There's the one thing I wish people of all faiths could come to live by.


Anonymous said...

It's nice to see that side of you, Ryan. Thanks for sharing.

Molly said...

Wonderful post. My spiritual journey has taken me on the path of conversion to Reform Judaism (I'm still getting there), and it's fascinating to me what lessons can be drawn from what seem at a glance to be the Very Tedious Parts of Deuteronomy and why it's important to figure out what those parts of Torah (or anything else) have to teach us 21st-century Americans.

A small point that I didn't know until recently: a Jewish child becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah at 13 (or 12 for girls, depending on the congregation) regardless of whether they ever do the ceremony, read Torah, give the sermon or learn a blessed thing. Becoming responsible for keeping mitzvot happens due to age rather than ceremony. This doesn't make anyone a full-fledged adult at 13, of course.

Personally, I think we have too few rites of passage in this society, but that's a whole 'nother post. :)

Ryan said...

I've become a big, big fan of rites of passage. One of the things I investigated after going to this was the UU rite of passage -- what they call coming-of-age. It had some of the same aspects of the bat mitzvah that I liked, inspiring introspection and being personal. I've never seen one up close, but it sounded interesting, which made me happy.

I'm pretty sure that I'm going to start attending services and at least try it out. At the very least, it will reinforce this bigger-picture thinking on a regular basis. It's so easy to lose sight.

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