The Spiritual Buffet

I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and attended parochial school for eight years. We attended Mass most mornings; our first course each school day was casually dubbed “Religion”, during which we were instructed in the theology of our faith. “Why were we created?” I chanted, word perfect, as a six-year-old.  “We were created to know, love and serve God.”

I left the Catholic faith as a teenager, so I have no idea if the tenets of that religion are taught in the same way today as they once were. But in the 1960s, we children were instructed that only baptized Roman Catholics would actually make it into heaven after death.  That was it.  Nobody else got past the Pearly Gates.  Children who died before baptism, infants miscarried or stillborn, our nice little Protestant playmates down the street, the millions of other non-Catholic souls inhabiting the planet–if they weren’t a baptized Catholic, they weren’t getting in.  Instead, we were instructed, they’d be shuffled off to an unlikely realm dubbed “Limbo”.  There the soul would be perfectly happy – but God wouldn’t be there.  (The sheer hubris of claiming the existence of a dimension where an omnipresent divinity did not exist was never quite explained.)

Consequently, since only Roman Catholics were getting in the door for their interview with God, we good little Catholics needed to do our missionary utmost to make sure that everyone on the planet ended up Roman Catholic.  The world would be a Perfect Place if only that were so.

Young as I was (and leaving entirely aside a religious history that included the Inquisition, not to mention the as-then unrevealed existence of pedophile priests and Magdalene laundries), I still tended to doubt this very exclusionary view of goodness.  Sitting there on my hard wooden chair in elementary school, I secluded my uncertainties carefully within my own thoughts.  Why, I wondered, would we each have been given a brain and thereby the ability to question if we were not intended to use those attributes?  And if we all reached different conclusions, then didn’t that very individuality contribute to the magnificence of creation?

It would be decades before my viewpoint was confirmed, by no less a spiritual personage than the Dalai Lama himself. Sitting in an amphitheater, listening to him speak to an enthralled audience, I heard him explain what I had known all along: spiritual diversity existed because we humans were created as individuals.  We would not, he told us, eat at a restaurant that served only one dish; just so, spirituality had to serve all the inhabitants of the earth, in all their magnificent variances.  It had to come in many distinct varieties, flavors, temperatures, and seasonings.  It had to differ because we were each different.

Despite my rejection of Catholicism, I have no quarrel with my schooling in the faith, which gave me many gifts that I would not otherwise have (not the least of which is an exceptionally well-trained memory which can still chant the theological lessons learned 50-plus years ago). Nor indeed have I any dispute with any faith that does not promote cruelty or destruction,  or seek to bind individuals with the chains of  “one true way”.  I have no argument, either, with those who chose not to believe.  Atheism and agnosticism are also personal decisions, and every bit as valid as belief.

My adult self has fully come to accept what my child self, in innocence, already comprehended: that perhaps if we can all ever accept each other’s chosen paths as right and true, as good and whole and perfect for the person who maintains them, then this sad old world of ours might truly become, at last, a Perfect Place.

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