This question would haunt me for many months after the ghouls and zombies disappeared from my neighborhood. I knew that if I pried off the lid to this Pandora’s Box I would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unanswered questions about my own faith, and my personal struggle to find a spiritual home.
In my childhood, practicing religion was a means to access a community of other new immigrants, with similar life experiences. We all gathered in the same place every Friday evening, fumbled through the complicated prayers we were supposed to recite and breathed a collective sigh of relief when the service was over and we could socialize. My parents alternately boasted about the kids and exchanged gossip with their friends—but the net effect was that they felt a part of something bigger than themselves. On the way home, they often criticized religious doctrine and anyone who professed to actually believe in it. But that didn’t stop them from coming back week after week.
Having a spiritual community also freed us to celebrate other quasi-religious holidays. My parents didn’t try to resist Santa or the Tooth Fairy because they felt secure that Santa was no match for everything we did and gained from our faith community. For most of my childhood, I attended Friday night service along with Saturday morning religious classes, evening rehearsals for dance performances and impromptu after-school gatherings. Our faith community kept me busy, focused, and out of trouble. Santa merely kept me amused for a day or two.
But after I grew up and moved out, I decided that my parents’ religious choices were rife with compromises that I couldn’t accept. I wanted to find a faith in which I liked more than the social hour. I wanted to believe in the precepts, savor the time for prayer and meditation, and do more than gossip after the service. In my twenties, I floated through ashrams and progressive Christian churches and then settled into the Quaker community in New York City. I loved sitting inside the silent, beautiful Friendship House north of Union Square; being able to sit quietly and reflect on your week was an indulgence that few New Yorkers could afford. But during the social hour I felt like a misfit—I was so different from the other Quakers. Instead of the easy conversation my parents enjoyed after service, I found myself gulping down a cup of tea and slipping out the door before anyone could ask who I was.
After that, I entered a spiritual desert of sorts. Giving birth and raising Ayla quenched my thirst for faith. Between my work with homeless youth and my life as a mother, I found a rich spiritual home, at home. But around the time when local shops were mounting Halloween displays, I entered into a conflict with an intimate friend and my thirst grew yet again.
Normally, I side-step or deflect conflict because I’ve learned that even when you win a fight, you wind up losing more than you gain. But in this particular case, I took the bait that was dangled in front of me. I felt that I had been treated unjustly; I believed that it was important to fight this fight. The conflict was post-modern, that is to say, we fought primarily via email and voicemail. Every week for the past year, I’ve turned on my computer to find an angry or threatening email in my Inbox. I would read the message, reflect on it for a few minutes or a few days and then respond in kind, that is, with a degree of anger commensurate with what I received. I won some concessions, lost others and many, many months later, I’m not sure that I’ve gained anything at all.
What has been most disheartening is that I lost sight of some of my hard-earned values in the process of fighting: It obscured my ability to see the goodness in my opponent. I also conveniently forgot all about the redemptive power of forgiveness. I erroneously decided that I was justified in my anger and allowed it to take a huge toll on my serenity. And I completely disregarded my belief that it is not my job to bring justice upon another person, no matter how badly they behaved.
For almost a year, whenever I said this person’s name, I recalled only the horrible, hurtful things he had done. I left no room for him to do or say anything positive. When you close the door on another person, you also block your own escape route. Just as Santa was appearing in store windows this fall, I realized that I was trapped in this conflict and that there was no easy way out.
When you’re backed into a corner, you lose your freedom of movement but you also gain some perspective. You cannot help but see your life from a new angle when you’re scrunched up in the corner, sitting helplessly on the floor. When I peered out at my life, I saw many good things—a strong network of family and friends, a meaningful job, a healthy home environment. But there were a few missing pieces—one of which was the connection to a spiritual community.
Just last week I realized that I’ve been craving a space in which to explore my core values—which revolve around the primacy of love, forgiveness and service—with a community of like-minded individuals. I wonder whether I would have fought as long and as hard had I been part of a spiritual community; perhaps I would have realized the futility of the fight or been inspired to find other ways for dealing with this conflict.
However imperfect, my parents did have a place to go every Friday night in which they were subtly reminded of what matters most. No matter how good my intentions, I simply forget to dialogue about spirituality at the dinner table and the topic perpetually takes a backseat to the day's headlines in conversation with family and friends. Instead of trying to do it on my own, I feel ready to join a community that convenes people for the purpose of deepening their faith, even if it involves making some compromises along the way. Not just for me, but to help Ayla explore the great mysteries, and universal truths, of life.
Although I haven’t made a decision about “which one” and “how often”, I feel oddly reassured, as though my load has already become lighter. Last night, as I was nursing Ayla to sleep, I felt goosebumps rise and spread across my flesh, and a few seconds later I realized that I was ready to forgive my friend, and myself, for all the hurtful things we’ve said and done.
In the past week, minor ideas and feelings that I've had for years just came together, like a flock of birds finding each other in the sky and silently becoming an entity capable of surviving the long flight south. Now I am ready to forgive, heal and move on with my life. As I look back on the past week, I wonder if it is the result of trying to live an honest and examined life--or perhaps it is even simpler...perhaps it is just a matter of having faith.