That Ol’ Time Religion

“When we get home from church, I want you boys to practice on your voodoo dolls,” I remember my mom saying as she turned in the front seat of the car towards me and my older brother. We inwardly groaned, or at least I did. The voodoo doll I had to play with was a cloth effigy of some Navajo Indian, crafted as a child’s play toy, but used to illustrate technique. Sticking pins in it while wishing it was someone else – and since I had no one I really wanted to hurt – was just a boring chore. Listening to how it should be made using the prospective victim’s hair or fingernails was just as boring: arcane knowledge for which I could see no real use.

I was baptized according to the rites and ritual of the Episcopalian tradition with all it’s elaborate trappings as a young infant. Both my parents went to church on a regular basis, especially when my father was there. I recall as a young preschooler standing before the leading members of the choir of the Episcopalian church we attended, singing like a cheerful songbird, and them judging my voice to be pure and sweet enough to join them in the choir – a position I envied, since it allowed me to stare down from the high set balcony in the back, watching the congregation. I learned the Apostles’ Creed – a long and arduous task for a child of five, but I loved the careful intonations, and the meaning and sound of the words. Before we left that church I wanted to be like HIM – the tall, thin, black frocked priest who commanded so much respect with his soft words and firm handshakes, even bending over to formally shake the hands of small children like me with a smile and a pat on the head.

When my father came back from Thailand after he arrived on our shores and in our house a “born again Christian”. That didn’t really make much difference to us kids, but it changed the dynamics of our relationship forever, and the relationship between my mother and my father suffered a lot. We had been going to church fairly regularly; now it became the weekly event religious ordinance commanded it should be. On the other hand, my mom, a free spirit who believes in certain aspects of witchcraft, and is a spiritualist who also incidentally believes in the philosophy of Christ, found herself relegated to a second hand position, told to quit her job, and stay at home like proper religious wives should be. And naturally my dad not only frowned on her Wicca-like leanings and spiritualistic attitudes, but went so far as to condemn them. The neighborhood kids held her in awe.  One kid even swore he turned her into a frog, but he got better.  (That’s an obscure reference to a Monty Python movie by the way – wry grin.)

courtesy Oxford University Press Books Collection (War, History, Religion)

My dad filled our house with religious books and texts from all the religions – copies of the Torah, Islamic teachings, Tao, Buddism, Hinduism, Voodooism, and others. Being an avid reader, I ended up reading through quite a few of them, skimming the pages and getting the gist of each religion. And of course I was forced to study the Bible in-depth. Just to deepen the depth of my knowledge (but not out of any desire or wanting to, I read the Dead Sea Scrolls – something I again re-read just a few months ago, along with their interpretations. Like most religious texts, you can read them many ways – it all depends on the answers you are looking for. I studied ancient religions and the new ones (and many Christians might be surprised to learn theirs is one of the newest on the block. “Mu” came long before, preceding even Baal and El, other gods of the past. And I never have liked Moloch, a sick fictional deity much too fond of children.) But no – I’m no follower of multiple gods; I believe in only One.

My mom, to her credit, was never one to back down from her beliefs, no matter who came to challenge them. She countered my father’s religious fervor with teachings of her own; hence the practice sessions with the voodoo dolls after church, or the signs you use when “casting a hex” (something which I actually found humorously useful sometime later – fodder for another story I’ll be posting). We learned to read palms (long life line . . . oops, too many crossings – you’ll be leading a troubled life, with several major illnesses later on!). Arcane knowledge always presented with a tad of humor, lest we take these teachings too seriously. As she pointed out, it’s not the things you DO that matters so much as your victim’s willingness to believe it, taking points of coincidence and claiming them to be your own. And it worked; she had some of the people convinced of her ‘powers’, the children of the ‘hood especially. And my dad declared her a demon.

I was confirmed at Salzburg, under the eye of the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s old hideout, by a Bishop, after spending a week in training in a drafty old castle, learning with a bunch of other kids my age. Quite an honor, I suppose – the ritual and rite was impressive, the old bishop had me kiss his ring. I remember the training acutely: how to hold the chalice, distribute the ‘flesh of our Lord’, the care that must be taken with each item. How sacred the sacrament is, and how the priest must eat any left-overs, for the consecrated sacrament is not for the trash. To rotate the cup with each person, so that no one drinks after another, wiping the golden rim carefully with the special cloth provided. I also remember another boy and I, sitting in the bowls of the castle, digging our nails into the back of each other’s hands in a bloody test of endurance born of extreme boredom – I bore those crescent shaped scars for many years – perhaps a bizarre recreation of Christ’s own scars for the knowledge I was trained to possess.

I also remember being beaten with every step as we walked to church on a military post overseas one day, my hand in my dad’s and his belt on my butt and legs for being reluctant – and the song they were singing as we walked into the church yard. I was in tears and pain – the walk was well over a mile and I got beaten every step of the way – and as we approached the white steepled building I could hear them singing “Jesus Loves You” – a song which for that reason still gives me the cold shivers. He kept me outside until I quit crying while I listened to them sing what once had been a beautiful song, beating me until I finally hushed up – and squeezing back silent tears of pain I walked inside and we sat in the back where I could hide my pain – him angry, me confused, for if Jesus loved me, why did he demand my father beat me all the way to church? It was a painful demand — that’s all I could understand, and if that was Jesus’s love, I didn’t want anything to do with it anymore.

As time went by I entered the church’s service in my early teens, becoming an acolyte, learning more about the rites and rituals. But that all fell apart when my mom and dad began their divorce, and my mom discovered that the priest was counseling not only her and my dad, but the ‘other woman’ as well. Viewing this as an ultimate betrayal, church going came to an abrupt halt, as did my ‘career’ in serving it. I didn’t understand why we quit going; that would be later on – all I knew was one Sunday we went – and then never again. Just like that; the end of a ‘career’.

My mom and dad ended up getting remarried – exactly one day after their divorce was finalized, spending my brother’s and my college money in their legal bickerings. And yes, it was a dirty, nasty divorce, but I was nearing my mid-teens and I didn’t care. Yes, they tried to use us as tools against each other, but it didn’t work with me. When my dad announced they were getting divorced, I laughed, knowing how this ridiculous farce was going to play out, and I was right. My brother fell for it one-hundred percent, and leaped on me and began beating me as I laughed at their folly — and his for not seeing the inevitable conclusion. I had seen it coming long before they did, and predicted that very end to the end: that they would remarry, making each other miserable for the rest of their lives, and influencing ours as well. They didn’t believe it at the time: after all, who is going to believe a fourteen year old kid? – and my dad passed it off as a refusal to accept the fact – but actually I was laughing because it was he and she who could not see what was so bloody obvious to me. Chalk that one up to my father’s training; he had unintentionally given me to tools to understand them better than they understood themselves, but that’s for a different story than this one.

My dad continued his religious haranguing, becoming ever worse with each passing year, while my mom drifted further and further from the Christian church. Now she is a Christian Scientist, though she doesn’t quite follow all the precepts of their religion anymore than she followed her previous one. When I was sixteen my father and I got into one final argument, finally, disgusted with him, I gave him the one argument that he could not disprove: I told him I was God and defied him to prove me wrong. He couldn’t. Just goes to show what too much religious training can teach you – all the arguments and counter-arguments, how to twist the words to say what you want them to say. I kept coming up with a ‘logical’ or ‘right’ answer to each objection he tried to throw my way. The truth is: it can’t be proved. Nor could I prove you aren’t a god. Or a frog. Or anything else. (Not that I told him that.) Ever since he hasn’t argued religion with me; perhaps I argued too well. he loves their rules for women, relegating them to subservience.

If you haven’t gathered this by now: I’ve been steeped deep in a variety of religions. I don’t talk religion with most folks – I don’t because I don’t want to shake them, nor do I need the support of their belief to maintain my faith in mine. I shook a few deeply devout religious persons in their faith a few times, and the last major time was a Pentecostal priest – using the same book he was using to try to convince me to convince him otherwise. So many religious folks don’t read their religious tracts, or if they do, they tend to interpret things to suit themselves or their compatriots, or the society they were raised in — but that’s okay. As long as they are happy with their beliefs, I am happy to leave them alone, and as long as they don’t attempt to convert me, I don’t attempt to ‘convert’ them. After all, happiness and helping others is what it’s all about (in part) according to my own brand of religion, which encompasses a bit of all religions – and none of them. And after seeing what I did to that priest; how unhappy it made him for a long time afterwards, I decided it was better NOT to muck with people’s beliefs, not with what makes them happy. So I keep my mouth shut on a lot of things, especially when the Jehovah’s witnesses come by. (I used to try to convert them, but after shaking a few of them, I quit – unless they get too persistent. And they don’t come by much anymore now, anyway.)

I know there are going to be a few of you who may be tempted to ‘convert’ me to one thing or another. All I can say is: Don’t. I belong to the my own church – membership, one, and my church is everywhere I go, though I am comfortable in any religious establishment, from a synagogue to a Baptist revival; a Wicca gathering to a Catholic conference. My belief incorporates the beliefs of many systems, having distilled what I see as the truth in all. Most has been discarded. I won’t go into the reasons why: I don’t want to affect your religion, not at all. If you want to get some idea of what I believe, just pour ALL the world’s religions, both ancient and new, into a big old blender, mix it well, and see what floats to the top. After all, as you can see – that’s what was done to me – and I’m happy with my own ‘way’ – as I am hoping you are with yours.

(and a ‘post-note’ added here – from 2012. “This” was written back somewhere in June, 2009, if not a little bit earlier.

I found my “own” religion – putting it all together during my trip last year. It’s a different religion than ‘this one’ or ‘that’ – kind of a combination of everything; it harmoniously agrees with all that’s been said while admitting most of the religions are ‘wrong’.  After all, while perhaps “dictated by God” they were written by man, one of the most fallible of beings.  But there is truth in there.  You just have to know how to look.  But . . . after walking for three days, my feet glued to my shoes with blood; after apparently being given some drug without knowing it (this was while in Puerto Rico) – while held captive and losing 35 pounds . . . well, it all makes sense to me: all the science I’ve learned, coupled with the physics; the evidence and the knowledge we can’t see over 90% of what’s “out there” helps . . . it all made sense. To the nth degree.  And it still does when I look down into the heart of it . . . remember what I’ve ‘seen’ . . .

To me, anyway.

And if you were to ask me what my religion is I’d have to say either “all” or “none”.  I don’t push anything.  I don’t push it because it really doesn’t matter what you believe.  But if you want to be happier, I would say: believe in something, my friend.)

(A piece of artwork we did in the past, symbolizing our love for others in our open hand – symbolizing freedom of choice, and never the need to forgive.  And yes – those sharp spikes can cause some pain . . .)