I’ve always said that I didn’t want to write memoir. “Write what you know” is a common bit of advice tossed at new writers, but I prefer the adage, “Write what you love,” and from an early age, what I loved was space ships, robots, dinosaurs, elves and fairies (and dwarves and hobbits), and church. So my fiction has revolved around the things I love, which haven’t changed a great deal since I first learned to write the alphabet, and so has my poetry. I am not planning on writing any novels about, say, tortured mother-daughter relationships, or child prodigies growing up in white blue-collar families in the 1970s and ’80s, or any poetry about my father’s work-roughened hands and the big symbolic trucks he drove while my mother sat on the couch and watched soap operas. Other writers are tending those acres, I’m sure.
But I turned fifty this year, and turning fifty tends to inspire a certain amount of looking back as well as looking forward (and seeing what, if anything, one has to look forward to). What does interest me as I look back, what seems worth sharing, is the meandering path of my involvement with religion. From the first time I was let loose in the neighborhood library, say, around eight years old, to the present day, religion has been one of the things I find most interesting. Not just my own religion, but all religion, all religions. So this is the first of an occasional, unscheduled post looking back at me and religion.
My mother sent me to church when I was about six years old. What one can deduce from this is that she did not go to church herself, and take her daughters with her; she sent me, in the company of my older sister, already a teenager and chafing to get out of the Sunday church requirement. She thought that a religious education was in some way important, but she did not herself have any religious practice. Over the years my mother supported the church I went to in many ways, including financially, but one thing she never did was go to a service. To this day, I’m not entirely sure why that was the case.
My sister, eleven years my senior, had gone to a Lutheran church and been confirmed there. I went with her for a year or two, until she rebelled and stopped going. In that time, I spent most of my time in the Sunday school and very little of it in the actual Sunday service, but the important thing is that I wanted to join the choir and was permitted to do so. I was actually at least a year younger than the minimum age; I think they must have accepted me because I could not only carry a tune, but read the words of the hymns proficiently. I was a very precocious reader, years ahead of grade level.
When my sister stopped going to church (and concentrated on dating, and then got married), I think there was a year or two when I didn’t attend. Then my mother made the acquaintance of a neighbor, an elderly single woman named Miss Johnson, who went to the nearby Episcopal church. When I say “nearby”, I mean half a block away, across our street, up to the corner, across that street, and there you go, but my mother insisted that someone walk me there. So for I don’t know how many years, I met Miss Johnson at our front door every Sunday and walked that short distance in her company.
Miss Johnson’s church, the Church of the Advent, was the little high-church parish that was going to form my notions of religion, of Christianity, of what Episcopalians are and do, pretty much permanently. Unlike a lot of pagans, my childhood exposure to religion didn’t leave me with baggage I was eager to drop. I had my share of emotional drama at church over the years, but 99% of it had to do with being an oddball who found it hard to fit in socially and was often unsure that people liked me. Looking back, I’m pretty sure they did like me, even if they didn’t necessarily understand me. They were my peeps, though, and they cared.
It was not a church where I heard a lot of messages about women, or sexuality, or homosexuality being evil. Our rector rarely preached, and I’m quite certain that he was himself homosexual, in a quiet and reclusive sort of way. It was not a church where the pastor told you who to vote for, or shamed women for how they dressed. Except for the actual Sunday liturgy, which we called Mass as Catholics do, everything in the parish was done or organized by women. Father and some men and boys as acolytes celebrated Mass; women and girls sang in the choir, ran the Sunday school, organized bazaars and suppers as fundraisers, typed up and copied the weekly service leaflet, not to mention maintaining the cleanliness and order of the altar and its furnishings and all the vestments. It was an environment in which women had real power and the men mostly showed up and did what their wives told them to do. We had a rule that boys could not sing in the choir and girls could not be acolytes–a strange rule for an Episcopal church, but as a child, I was not unhappy with this division of labor. I joined the choir as soon as I could prevail on my mother to let me and remained active in it for over ten years.
It was a church in which singing was deeply important, choir was deeply important, and I was exposed to a hymnal which was a compendium of Western musical tradition from plainsong up to the early 20th century. It was a church in which the language of the prayers and the Bible was sixteenth-century English, the language of Shakespeare, of King James I, of intimacy through extreme formality. It was a church with silk vestments, with clouds of incense, with stained-glass windows, with chanting. It was a church where I learned that music, poetry, and stories are important parts of religion, and so are theatre and dressing up. It went hand in hand with the actual theatre in my life, as amateur theatre was my mother’s hobby. I was singing and dancing in musical reviews at the same age that I was singing the Great Litany in procession at church, high on clouds of frankincense.
Deep down, my criterion for religion has always been, can you do it better than my childhood church? Can you do it better than the Book of Common Prayer and C.S. Lewis, better than frankincense and plainsong, better than damask chasubles and cassocks and surplices? Can you do better than a tradition that gave us Donne and Herbert, Tallis and Byrd, Charles Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers? It hasn’t been easy to find a religious identity where the answer to that was yes, but I’ll keep you apprised.