Monday, June 8, 2020

A Little Girl Remembers Church and A Woman's Life

As a little girl I wore a hat and white gloves to church. Everyone dressed up for church in those days. There was my dad in suit and tie, his Phi Beta Kappa key tucked into his vest pocket. My mother in stockings and heels, a skirt and silk blouse, held my hand as we walked into the cool sanctuary.

Sometimes on special occasions like Palm Sunday or Easter, my grandparents came out from Germantown, along with my Aunt Edna. She lived with them and years later, after her parents died and her schizophrenia spun out of control, she ended up in Norristown State Hospital. Edna had lovely pale-yellow hair, and she wore velvet roses pinned to her coat lapels and rhinestone bracelets on her skinny wrists. She led a tragic life. She was my first experience in questioning whether or not there is a God. 

My grandparents were Lutherans, but in my family, my parents became Episcopalians and so did I. This sounds like a mere recounting, but in a way, it makes me realize how my family always went to church, not that we were devout Christians, rather, Christians by birth and by routine passed down from generation to generation. 

We went to church not questioning the patriarchy or the liturgy, the Our Father, never the Our Mother. It wasn’t until later—much later when I was in my mid-thirties and had two small children and was teaching Sunday School with my husband that I became acutely aware of the politics that run through a congregation. It was at an Episcopal church that the controversy centered around disapproval of the ordination of women—and, of course, homosexuality and ordaining gay priests and marrying same sex couples. But politics in church often went deeper than the controversial issues of the day. I felt it at all levels, right down to the sermons. I remember one male priest preaching about a woman’s place being in the kitchen, baking apple pie. He and his wife had four boys and I wondered who those boys would grow up to be, would they respect women with a father like that and a mother who allowed that message. 

When it comes to politics, gender and race, people’s views are stubborn. Change must come from within. No arguing, persuasion, facts or information alter how a person feels. No sensitivity training is the answer, for, as one priest told me, they tried that in the inner city and it doesn't work. Biases are like intricate wrought iron, intractable and unyielding. Communities often remain insular. 

It wasn’t until I was in my late forties that I began to ponder the value of church. Not the message of the Gospels, certainly not that, but the institution that was the church and the people who ran the various congregations—both ministry and lay people. A lot of this converged at a time when as a widowed woman and a writer, I began noticing women in the clergy shying away from words like “empowerment” and “feminism”—as one woman priest told me—they were "buzz words". It made me wonder how I might keep my faith and attending church compatible. It was tricky because I felt I needed a community and practicing Christianity solo felt like climbing a very narrow passageway to nowhere. I’m Christian. Not Buddhist. Gazing at a blade of grass and seeing in it the eternal, doesn’t work for me. 

I couldn’t talk to the priests that their message that bringing up feminism and misogyny were best left unspoken, discourteous to others of a different mindset. I have always listened to others. I ran a writing group for ten years and the importance of listening with an open heart to another’s story is sacred to me. My feeling that I should remain almost voiceless, out of decorum and courtesy, left me bewildered. I tried to separate the priests from their sermons, focus on a universal message ...  the least among us must come first, the here and now is merely passing ... keep your sights on the eternal. 

Once again, in church we face times of political turmoil
. Who is on this side politically? Who is on that side? How much do we say? How much is left unsaid? As I write this, I have come to believe that my own spiritual journey must focus on learning more about the Gospels, as well as giving back to the church through teaching and writing, as well as monetary donations, both here and internationally. I admit I’m struggling with the American Protestant Church. The work lay and religious people are doing with children in Africa inspires me and gives me hope.

I remain faithful to the teachings of love and renewal, to my own instincts of what is right and wrong. I attend church, virtually. When church reopens its physical doors, I will once again try and be there in mind and spirit. I remember that little girl, holding her mother's hand as they walked into a sanctuary of people and prayer. I remember the wife and mother teaching Sunday School. I remember the widow, who one day stumbled inside a church and saw sunlight shining on the altar through stained glass windows and stopped questioning why, as much as how. I remind myself that maybe church needs me, as much as I need it, now more than ever.


Susan G. Weidener said...

Kathy Pooler, for some reason, your comment wouldn't publish, so I am copying it here:

Dear Susan,you really struck a chord in me with this reflection. It took me back to my own childhood memories of dressing up in a frilly dress, complete with patent leather shoes and white gloves and hat as I held my mother’s hand while we walked into church. She of course was all decked out in high heels, a dress and hat. My father was not Catholic but decided to convert as he felt left out. It was a turning point for us as a family. I too have questioned my faith and still have a hard time with some of the rules but over the years and through many challenges have grown in my faith. I have missed attending Mass but have attended virtually during the pandemic. As far as writing about my faith, yes it is uppermost on my mind and is interspersed throughout most of my writings.i see it as the foundation for the hope that has carried me through many rough times. My faith —a personal relationship with the God of my understanding—brings me serenity and joy. Thank you for helping me connect with my own spiritual journey.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Kathy, I remember well that powerful scene you wrote in "Just the Way He Walked" about the power of prayer and your subsequent healing journey from a deadly cancer. You are one of the lucky ones that your faith gives you serenity and you can set yourself apart from the church as an institution of patriarchal hierarchy. I have not been so lucky.

Sherrey Meyer said...

Susan, here again our lives as children in church are somewhat parallel. Sundays were on the calendar and only one thing was happening that morning--Sunday school and church. Mama cooked before we left for church so that when we got home family dinner would be ready to eat. Our afternoon activity might be a ride (daddy loved to drive), a stop in the park to feed the ducks and swing and slide, and then another stop for ice cream. Happy memories.

Then like you I grew up and realized the politics and differences of opinion that exist even among those who call themselves Christians. I married outside my family's denomination and found myself in a belief system that put women to a lower level. We weren't allowed to teach or participate in the service. It was a shock to me, a young woman whose mother taught Sunday School for 20 plus years. And this was at the same time we were facing race riots after Martin Luther King's assassination. So many questions. About religion, God, myself.

Thanks for taking me back to my spiritual journey as a young woman, wife, and mother. Today I'm still filled with questions about how things like the murder in Minneapolis can be happening. We cannot, as a country or society, seem to grab hold of the right solution to these errors in judgment.

Thanks for being you, Susan. I appreciate your friendship.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Beautifully said, Sherrey and I hope you're going to incorporate some of this in your memoir because it resonates and your voice comes through beautifully. You jostled my memories of my mother cooking Sunday dinner, usually a lamb or pot roast, and my father heading into his study on Sunday afternoons to listen to the opera on his radio. As for the fact that the mainstream churches have been patriarchal and their message to women can undermine our journeys of empowerment, I thank you for validating that here.

Marilyn said...

Susan, your thoughts on church and religion struck a chord with me. I grew up in a devout Catholic family; no one questioned the priests or the nuns or anything that they told us.

It wasn’t until I went away to college and had non Catholic friends that I began to question my faith. I recognized the hypocrisy of priests, who cannot marry, counselling couples about to marry. I could understand the church’s opposition to abortion, but the ban on birth control made no sense. God created homosexuals. Why couldn’t they love whomever they wanted? Why couldn’t women be priests? I realized that God didn’t make up any of these silly rules. Men did.

I first rebelled against the hierarchy of the Church as an institution. Later I began to question whether God existed at all.
Much later in life, I sought out books that spoke of a gentler, universal spirituality that encompassed the compelling messages of many religions, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhism: Love one another. Don’t lie or cheat. Be kind. Take care of those who need you. While I do think that the community aspect of a shared faith is valuable and indeed vital for some, I have found solace in these deep spiritual truths, and prefer this to the constraints of organized religion.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Dear Marilyn, Thank you for sharing your spiritual journey. So many good questions you asked along the way; the same questions I often asked myself. For me, I still trust in the community of church to inspire me and although I have had problems with church hierarchies, I have found no alternative to worshiping surrounded by others in our Episcopal churches. Even when I was in England and New Zealand, I sought out church services on a Sunday morning. Like I said, and call it conceit, the church is lucky that people like me still want to come to their sanctuaries, considering some of their mismanagement, although I suppose it is all well-intentioned mismanagement because we all believe in the power of the Resurrection.

Recently, I began taking a Bible study involving Paul's letter to the Philippians where it has been explained to me how Paul tried to create a hierarchy of deacons and bishops to spread the Word in Jewish Mediterranean lands and elsewhere. Organizational hierarchies seem unavoidable, even in the early days right after Christ died. So I continue on my journey ...

Sylvia Montgomery Shaw said...

Dear Susan,
I love the description of your spiritual journey and the responses you motivated. You probably don't know it, but my dad was a priest in the Orthodox Christian Church. By the time he was teaching at Valley Forge, he had switched from being a full time priest to being head of the language department and doing chapel services once a week for Orthodox cadets (who attended his service before the official one at the academy's chapel. Double dose).
So I grew up Eastern Orthodox, while my mother and her Mexican family were Roman Catholic. Later, my dad made it his mission to explore different religions with his children, teaching us to find God in all of them, Christian and non-Christian. I've come to believe that we need different religions if we are to spiritually nourish a wide diversity of needs. Institutions are always going to be flawed, because human beings are flawed. But if we focus on what is at the core--and in our case that would be the Gospels, above all else--then we can thrive. If nothing else, the very imperfections of institutional religion challenges us and affords us the opportunity to develop forgiveness and to seek the good in the midst of the flawed.
Many years ago I came across Swedenborg's fascinating book, Heaven and its wonders and Hell. I've read most of his works since then. His ideas resonate for me with my ecumenical background: that there is marriage after death; that people who love each other find one another again; that there are many different heavens (not just one size fits all); that angels are people who once lived on earth; and that heavenly joy consists in a wonderful blend of leisure and WORK. I love the concept of meaningful work that helps others.

BTW, I read your memoir, In a Heart Beat, and your novel, and loved them both.
Sylvia Montgomery Shaw

Susan G. Weidener said...

Sylvia, How wonderful to read what you wrote here and reconnect about our spiritual journeys after all these years. I remember your dad well; in fact, I think my dad said he hired your dad when he was dean of the Academy and it was one of the best decisions he ever made. I also remember well our summer in Mexico and your mother and your sister and your brother. Many memories of being with your family and how kind they were to me.

You speak so beautifully of how humans and institutions are flawed, but the Gospels eternal in helping us deal with the imperfections of the living. I hope and pray that you are right that I may one day see John again. He was the love of my life. Thank you for reading my books. Since you are an author, too, your words are most appreciated that you enjoyed them. With gratitude, Susan