I was brought up Catholic. Period. I wore the frilly white dress and promised to give myself to Jesus when I was eight years old. I sat in a scary confessional booth in the dark, confessing my sins of eating too much candy and taking the Lord’s name in vain. I did 10 hail Mary’s and started again the next week.
All through my youth, and into college, I went to Mass and I learned all about the creeds and the prayers. I studied the bible, I learned and mostly believed the reasons behind the rituals. When I was young, I found a lot of comfort and sense in it all. I was also perpetually scared that I was a sinner and I was going someplace dark and scary.
There are of course , all the jokes about “Catholic Guilt” which are sadly not jokes, but harsh realities. Having married a man who knew nothing about the Catholic Church or about growing up in an Italian /Irish/American family, he is to this day puzzled why I even utter the words, “I feel kind of guilty”. Apparently, people who grew up in Holland and participated in Dutch Reformist religion did not have such guilt shoveled upon them. Nor does he understand the concept of the hell and brimstone that I was exposed to. He never had to go to confession with sweaty palms or to worry about dropping the body of Christ and potentially damning himself on a daily basis. He finds it all a bit weird.
Let me say this, before anyone gets offended, I totally respect my family and friends who still give their hearts to the Church and who are heavily involved with it’s message. I get it. I also have the same respect for my friends who are Jewish, Muslim, Islamic, Protestant, Wiccan and so on and so on.
Like many people of my generation, perhaps, I fell out of love with the Catholic Church a long time ago. It started off selfish and slow. There was college, theology classes which had me questioning things, and Sundays where I would rather be in the mountains hiking or canoeing than inside a church. Then there was the fact that my brother “came out” and I realized that not only was he “unacceptable” but also that they had “special programs” for people “like him” to try and convert them into being UNGAY.
Needless to say, I found this very upsetting and highly ridiculous. I think the final nail in the coffin for me was all of the scandal that happened in Boston at the turn of this century. I could no longer believe in this institution that had so many rigid rules and judgements, yet was protecting monsters. I just could not find the love any longer.
For many decades, I have felt a bit adrift. I have found myself a visitor of many different religious groups, fascinated by all but belonging to none. I was a bit of a religious “peeping Tom”. Nothing made sense to me so completely that I could commit. I kept thinking about how religion causes most of the pain , most of the war, and most of the misunderstandings in this world. I kept thinking how people who commit to one, often think that their way is the “ONLY ONE” and how this causes them to become blinded or to put judgement upon others. I tried, maybe not hard enough, but my heart was not in it. I could not find my way back to any church or any one religion.
Having always been an addict of anything that takes me to the woods, or the mountains, or the ocean, I began to feel that maybe Nature was my religion. Maybe, my prayers could just come from the heart and be given up fully under the sky or beneath the trees, and that would be enough? Maybe if I lived by the basics of “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” I could fulfill my need to give something to “God” or the “powers that be”.
In the hundreds of hikes I have done and in the thousands of hours I’ve been blessed to be outdoors, in the quiet beauty of nature, not once have I ever failed to take a moment and Thank the “powers that be” for allowing me that very moment. Not once have I failed to stop and think about how I can be kinder, or better and how I can give back for having been given the gift of one more day on this earth. Each time, I find myself stopping and feeling the power that surrounds me. The power of those who have passed from this world, the power of nature, and the power of Karma. So, as I got older I realized, it was okay for me, as myself, not to be part of a “church” or an organized religion. I decided to accept Nature as my church and basic kindness, gratitude, and consideration as my religion.
And now, I find myself in Japan, in the middle of a very big and very bustling city. Yet, I find that at every corner there is a place of nature, in the form of a shrine. A pocket of Peace and tranquility. I will be honest, the first time I walked up to one of these Shrines, I felt tears in my eyes and I felt a strong sense of love in my gut. I felt respectful and awestruck. And I had no idea why. So, I went home and I began to research the Shinto Religion and I realized that low and behold, it’s basic principals were in line with what I have been practicing for decades. And more beautiful to me, is the importance of combining religion with a heavy dose of respect and love for nature.
Yes, I get it, I’m not Japanese. And , yes, I realize I am not a practitioner of this religion …not officially. However, in my short time here, I have been invited more than once to come and to pray with total strangers. Strangers who speak not a word of my language. I have had people share their knowledge with me about the rituals and the meanings behind them, with pure love and without judgement. Not to convert me, but to inform me. To simply share with a stranger. I have been allowed to not feel ashamed if I want to try a ritual, and I may not get it right.
Below, you can read some basic Beliefs held by the Shinto religion. I find it amazing that Japan is a country with barely any crime. People leave their purses unattended while they go pick up a coffee. Cell phones and wallets are immediately returned to the owner should they drop them on the metro. And, Japan has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. Call me crazy, but there is something to be said for taking to heart the simple nature of what you read next:
“Those who are sincere will naturally tend to behave in ways that cohere with the great, official ethical traditions of the world’s religion. Sincere people don’t steal from others, or lie to them, or try to murder them. Sincere people do not do things that undermine the fabric of society or bring harm to the community or family. Sincerity is the grounding of all ethical thought and behavior, in this view. Even were the religion to have long lists of dos and don’ts in its archives, only those with sincerity in their hearts will be prompted to live the rules.
This is partly what is meant by the phrase kannagara-no-michi which, in the ethical context, refers to the idea that virtue is inseparable from the rest of life, especially life lived in harmony with the natural world (enlivened by kami, or the gods). Beauty, truth, goodness, morality – these are all connected, inseparable from each other. Those who live life with the perspective outlined above – with an aesthetic sensitivity, an emotional sensibility toward the world, and with a sincere heart will behave morally almost naturally”.
It is said, “one must try to see with the heart into the natural beauty and goodness of all things”. Now that is something I can get behind and try and incorporate into my daily life, how about you?