That wardrobe feeling

Recently, while researching some material about spirituality for what I hope will be my next book, I came across this piece that I wrote five years ago. I thought how relevant it is as Australian catholics are being invited to rev up for the 20/20 Plenary Council. I would be interested in your comments.

closet 3Do you know this feeling? Standing in front of an open wardrobe and deciding that everything is either too tight, out of date, too worn, too hot- or cool, just not right!

It’s a great image for spirituality as we mature in years and faith – that inner knowing that some practice, some tradition or long-held belief is not the right fit. Maybe it suited the younger you but the mature you wants something more, something that you can’t quite identify.

It reminds me of a story I copied from a website years ago:

During my adult years, I went to church for long periods of time. I still yearned for the sense of meaning and the feeling of belonging that the whisper had intimated-the mysterious presence, the felt connection to a larger reality-but the actual experience of what had been promised seemed to be absent. It did not meet my longing.

It wasn’t until my mid-forties that I mentioned my dilemma with the church to a colleague who’d once been a Dominican priest. He told me a story of a beautiful tree in the center of a garden, surrounded by a high stone wall. He likened the tree to a person searching for the sacred, and the wall, to the boundar¬ies defined by her religion. He concluded by saying:
“The tree needs to grow out of the garden. Its branches need room to expand and spread wide. They need to reach far outside the garden’s walls, for they cannot be contained by the walls’ limits. But the tree always remains rooted in the garden.”

His story helped to reconcile my hope and my grave disappointment in the religion of my childhood. I had done everything I could to stay within the garden’s walls, but letting my branches expand had become a mounting demand. Once more, I left the church but the church never left me. It remained inside like the tree’s roots in the garden, guiding me not so much morally (for my family had provided that structure), as in my human passage. Its stories and teachings gave direction in ever-deeper waters, reminding me how to navigate and integrate a life at every turn. I have been continuously fed by that heritage. Since early childhood, it has been my foundation and formed a large part of who I am. Like the tree’s branches, however, I had to seek far outside its walls before I could return and listen again-but this time, not with my ears.

Many people, but I suspect more women than men, experience a ‘But wait, there’s more’ feeling about the way they live out their faith. What to do about it as Sunday comes around once again? Sit in a pew and feel bored or even angry, change churches, give it up all together, settle for passivity – a what can I do about it approach, stay home and feel guilty?

Just like a favourite dress that has to be laid aside because it no longer fits our more mature shape, so too the way we express our faith and live out our God relationship changes over the years. I think that it’s important to trust our inner knowing that some faith practices are no longer life-giving, and may need to be laid aside with sadness, courage and a sliver of excitement.

   Judith     (judith@judithscully.com.au)

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Ginger cake

My decades old paste-in recipe book is a timeline of what families used to eat back in the days before Master Chef and Asian cooking. Flicking through it in a what will I cook foray, I came across a recipe for ginger cake, written on blue note paper in my mother’s elegant handwriting.

Not for the first time a childhood memory had snuck into my adult life and I wanted to roll back time and recapture whatever it was that I remembered.

I recall it as a Sunday night treat, gingery with a filling of whipped cream. So I assembled the ingredients and baked it, anticipating a return to my childhood delight. Either my memory was at fault or my taste buds are more sophisticated these days, but with the first bite I knew without a doubt that this cake definitely didn’t measure up to my expectations. The whipped cream was the best of it. The cake itself was heavy, verging on doughy and the ginger had no palpable zing.

Once again I was being reminded that childhood memories need to be explored from an adult perspective. As we get older we leave behind childish beliefs and perceptions, things like the tooth fairy, Father Christmas and how long summer used to be, and what God looks like.

stained-glass window

Someone has said that religious faith is like chicken pox – if you stay around it long enough you’ll catch it. The faith of ‘cradle catholics’ is usually piggybacked on to that of parents, grandparents and religious education teachers, especially in the primary school years. The inference being that faith, once ‘caught’ in childhood, sets one up for life. That seems to be the reasoning behind the Australian catholic focus on catholic schools.

Faith is a complex reality. There is religious faith – a formal set of beliefs, teachings and a moral code centered in the institutional Church. Then there is the living faith of people whose daily lives reflect the teachings of Jesus, the communities called ‘the faithful’. Lastly, there is the personal faith of each and every one of us, as we recognise and respond to the mysterious presence of God in our lives.

I believe it’s religiously healthy, even essential, to question the way early religious ‘conditioning’ sometimes substitutes religious practices and traditions for the deep truths implicit in doctrines such as resurrection, sacraments, prayer and scripture. The way children express their religious faith can be quite touching, but as they move through adolescence, into middle age and even beyond, it needs to be explored and appropriated in an adult way.

When this doesn’t happen, when religious education stops at First Communion and Confirmation, or never moves beyond the end of secondary school, then we risk becoming a Church of religiously illiterate Catholics.

This concerns me.

My experience in areas of adult religious education has shown me that people have within themselves the religious truths that will enrich their lives, but lack the language and the opportunity to talk about them from an adult perspective.

The Catholic Church in Australia needs to find ways that enable people to name, claim and proclaim the sacred in the ordinary of their lives ways that are more adult and family-friendly. There will need to be an increase in the number of lay people permitted to participate in the 2020 Australian Catholic Plenary Council, if this is to ever happen.

I have no doubt that my child-self enjoyed that ginger cake all those Sunday nights long ago, but along with my shape my food tastes have broadened and deepened over the years.

So has my faith.

Judith Scully (www.judithscully.com.au)