Unchurched?

Greetings! I wrote this post nearly nine months ago, but didn’t publish, because I wasn’t completely comfortable with it. As I sat down today to write a new blog post, I reviewed this and thought I should put it out there. In advance, I have included a prologue and epilogue which I wrote today. Also, I want to add that although I say things in jest here, I have nothing but the deepest respect and gratitude for everyone and everything I mention – all are kind, good, and deeply well-meaning.

Prologue

It is Sunday morning and normally I would be heading to church. Truth be told, I haven’t been for more than four Sundays. One reason is because those Sundays happened to be beautiful days and my only chance to be out in the sun and nature. The other reason is that I haven’t been feeling “it.” This is a cause of some consternation for me – while simultaneously I am allowing it to happen, trusting in the organic ebb and tide. The moments of transcendence that I experience during a service – where I feel my heart full to bursting, moving me to tears, have eluded me of late. I treasure those moments, and perhaps I am being unrealistic to think they should happen regularly. But those moments that I like to call breaking through that lace-like caul membrane to another plane, to God…they are remarkable. To be sure they don’t all happen in church. They happen in nature too. I think right now I’m am ever so slightly disenchanted with the inevitable “institutional” aspect of any body of people who gather together. So here goes:

Recently I discovered that I am unchurched. I didn’t get the memo. My family was consistently relaxed and open to our exploring and deciding for ourselves what we chose to be or not be. We were encouraged to visit all houses of worship if we wanted. Technically, we are Catholic and Protestant depending of what side of the family, but no one particularly staked their claim or identified themselves solely as one religion or another. That isn’t to say that they weren’t believers, I am certain most of them were. It merely wasn’t necessary for anyone to put a label on it.

As I have mentioned I went to prep school which had Anglo-Catholic or Church of England leanings, but nothing major — no teaching or study — just a period in between classes where we had prayers, hymns and school announcements. I identified myself as Catholic because I was baptized in a Catholic church, but my formal training into any religious institution ended there. About a year or so ago I started attending both an Episcopal and a Catholic church. I love them both for different reasons and I enjoy talking to the priests, nuns, rectors, and pastoral ministers. On one occasion I was talking to a nun whom I had gotten to know at the Catholic church. She’s a remarkable woman, strong, intelligent, funny, open and all around amazing. I can’t remember if I had a question about communion or how the conversation began, but she began asking me a series of questions. Was I baptized in the church? Yes. Did I go to Sunday school? No. Did I have first communion? No. Then there was something after that — I can’t remember, but I know the answer was no. 

I was then informed that I am unchurched, not really a Catholic.  Apparently baptism isn’t enough. And, if I wanted to be a Catholic I would have to start at the beginning and receive religious teaching. I was told that there is a class for adults, and if I was interested she’d put me on the list. I murmured some sort of acquiescence because why not? Might be interesting. But I felt a little unsettled. There was something about all this that didn’t quite add up for me. Some months passed and I received a phone call from a kind and ernest gentleman from the parish offering me the opportunity to join a catechism class that would meet once a week, for like forever, and then finish up around Easter. It actually was a scheduling problem for me and I told him I wasn’t sure. He was cool about it, said whenever I was ready…

I went back to the Episcopals where there are a lot of Catholics. I still attended the Catholic church, usually during the week. I observed that this particular parish is healthily well endowed. It is lush, big, active and prosperous. You can tell. The congregation is made up of “regular people” (now here is where I’m going to get into even more trouble). People who were born and raised and stayed in the same town all their lives. People who did very well by starting businesses that support the infrastructure of their town: construction, landscaping, oil delivery, car dealerships, etc. Somewhat different from the make up of the Episcopal church which is more effete, “liberal,” and diverse, and a whole lot more poor. All the snobby-sounding description aside, the parishioners of the Catholic church are solid. By that I mean, they don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. If you need help or reach out a hand – they are there. That is huge. On the other hand, the Episcopal parishioners, well I’m afraid to say they are lacking when it comes to needing support when things hit critical mass. That is less than optimal.

I do read books on theology, mystics, the deserts saints, etc., and I have received what I think is an clear impression that the message is love and inclusivity. So why all the mixed signals, or am I just not getting it? This is where I have left things, as is my wont, in Limbo shall we say. I’m not at Dante’s juncture of a dark wood where the way is lost. I feel fine right where I am. I’m comfortable with that, and I hope that for all of us that we feel good about where we are. I wish you all an enlightening exploration into….into whatever it is you want. It’s the curious interested mind that will enjoy the expansiveness of experience.

Epilogue

That is more or less where I left off writing. However, since then, I do feel that I am betwixt and between. I went to the Episcopal priest to discuss my “outlier” feeling, and the conversation was welcoming and loving, but I wasn’t sure what came of it – as nice as it was. A couple of months later, I went to see one of the Catholic priests, and I again received understanding, empathy, and stimulating dialogue. Until. Until I came to the point of mentioning that I was attending two churches, and two churches of “different faiths” (I don’t see the drastically dramatic difference between the two quite the way he did). Then, it was firmly suggested that, “I don’t belong anywhere until I make a commitment to one or the other.” I told this to a friend of mine who is smart and spiritual and she said, “So I guess you either wander aimlessly hither and thither, or you drink the Kool-Aid.” Funny and on point.

Right now I don’t know what to do. My genetic make-up demands rigor in such matters, but maybe over time I have come to realize that the delicacy of this particular “dilemma” requires a more gentle approach. If I stay open, present, and live inside my heart  – everything will fall into place.

Forgive me.

Clare Irwin

 

The House on the Hill

Last week I was getting books together for a friend who is ailing. I was in my office going through the bookcases, looking for things that might tempt her. Of course, I was distracted and started looking through the books; I found an old newspaper clipping of a book review, a five dollar bill, a note in someone’s hand I didn’t recognize, a bookmark from the Getty Museum – it’s curious what we leave behind. I came upon a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and I stopped to thumb through it. I haven’t read it in ages, saw the movie (and the BBC miniseries) long ago, but I was struck by the first lines, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It goes on to describe the narrator’s – the second Mrs. de Winter’s – dream of returning to her former home – a great house on the Cornish coast.

The dream sequence continues for several pages and I was riveted. It’s so well written and haunting and moody, but there was something more. I realized that I too have had a similar dream – of my old home where I grew up with my family. I would have the dream often, for years. As in Rebecca, I am on foot and it is twilight or dusk and the drive winds and winds until our home comes into view. In my dream sometimes the house is a combination of my family’s old home and my great grandmother’s wonderful stone house. Sometimes, I can walk in and pass through the rooms, other times all I can do is look through the windows. I am so thrilled to see it again, to recognize familiar things. Like the narrator, “I stood, my heart thumping in my breast, the strange prick of tears behind my eyes.” When I awaken, or the dream ends, I have an achy feeling in my heart, both elated and crestfallen.

I never mentioned the dream to anyone even though it occurred frequently. That is, until I was deeply involved in a romance of my own. I must have had the dream and it was weighing on me. The man, who was older than I and fairly intuitive about women, saw my distraction and prompted me to tell him. So I did. He listened carefully and intently. When I was done, he said, “You want to go back to the house on the hill.” He was right. The house, both of them in fact, were gone, yet the desire to return to the house on the hill remained. I do believe he understood, even though we were at that moment on another continent in another hemisphere, but I knew vaguely that there was a house on the hill for him as well. Entirely different, and not a house per se, but  a place and time no less powerful. If I had continued with this man I would have been a second Mrs. de Winter of a sort, and was keenly aware of living up to a memory of another woman who had died. The dream, the memory of my romance, the novel, images of my home and my great-grandmother’s were all shuffling through my mind. Then, I remembered that I had gone to a lecture at Princeton on The Odyssey and the speaker discussed the idea of the eternal returning – not just of Odysseus but of all life travelers. The need, the yearning, to come home. An ancient theme no doubt, it’s in Genesis as well, I think.

As I write this, I think of all us through those years: playing, running, throwing our bikes in the grass, catching fireflies — and the day ending as the lights would come on in the house. I can see my father in his study reading, my mother talking to one of our dogs or the cat while she readied dinner, one of my sisters at the piano, a thriving hive of activity and halcyon memory. Like Manderley ours is no longer, our Manderley is no more. Even so, as the narrator in Rebecca writes, “Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, not the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”

Clare Irwin

Pink Slip

I have a delightful friend who is 93 years young. I know it’s a corny expression, but it’s accurate. Annie is a gracious and truly kind person. I met her a few years ago at a function, and at first I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. That was my myopic error. Annie is funny, she’s still sexy, and she unabashedly loves men. But Annie is also a good friend and admirer of women — she finds good qualities in everyone. Maybe that’s what confused me.

We ran into each other a few months later, and we started talking. Her radiant smile and her beauty — which has not diminished – I found enchanting. Thus began a great friendship that continues to this day. Annie lived not too far from me. After her husband passed away she decided it was too much keeping up the place and living alone. So about a year ago, Annie moved into assisted living. It’s lovely and quite expensive — not gloomy. There are lawns, ponds, and walking trails. Annie has had some funny adventures navigating her way through this completely new experience. And of course, Annie, being Annie, has done so most successfully.

Annie has a busier social calendar than most people a quarter of her age, and she’s often off on day trips and adventures. And, she drives herself! On crazy scary giant-truck-infested highways! She’s gutsy. Since she no longer has the responsibility of taking care of a house and all, she has more time for reading. Not surprisingly, Annie likes romance novels, but the tamer ones. There’s a library where she lives and she regales me with plot summaries of what she’s reading. I enjoy her “reviews.” It’s a genre I am not greatly familiar, and I relish her excitement as she tells me about the latest tome.

Recently, she came upon a book that from the cover and title looked interesting. Now, I don’t know the book, but it really upset Annie – it was too raunchy and disrespectful — she didn’t like it at all. She felt it was corrupting and unworthy of reading. She was concerned for her fellow neighbors and staff laying eyes on it. Anything could happen! It had to go.

Annie ruminated on this on this for days – it was a project! First, she put it in the bottom of her garbage pail, but decided that wasn’t enough – someone could fish it out. Then she went to the dumpster of the facility and realized the same thing could happen there. So she did her best to rip it up and then scatter the book’s remains over various trash receptacles to insure that no one would be able to reassemble it. I found it funny her rigorous effort to save the world from a “dirty book,” and while she was telling me she started laughing too. To be sure, she is the most open-minded person, there is no Fahrenheit 451 aspect to her. The novel rattled her, and being a considerate person, she didn’t want anyone else unsettled.

Typical of Annie she made a quick recovery and continues to enjoy her less spicy romances – but with a watchful eye. Clare Irwin

N.b. As I am reviewing this I realize that the amazing David Sedaris wrote a hilarious essay on a similar experience. Much better and funnier than my post. You may find it in his book Naked entitled “Next of Kin.” Enjoy!

 

Adventures in Dog Walking

I started a blog post, on a completely different topic, over a week ago…to my chagrin I have yet to finish it. I’ve been busy and finding a block of time is not as easy as I thought. So, in the interim, I will rely on my trusted fallback topic — pets, and my trusted fallback source of information — my friend Will. As I have mentioned in previous posts, Will walks dogs in my beloved nearby coastal village. And, as I have also related before, this community is an affluent one, so not only do the people live well, so do the dogs. How nice for them, don’t you think? Will has one client who rescued a dog from Hurricane Katrina 10+ years ago, pretty neat.

Here are some of Will’s favorite dogs: Maverick (photo above), or Sir Maverick as Will refers to him, probably because he is a big Lab – over 125 lbs. Hard to tell from this photo how big he is, but what a sweetie! You’ve already met Frank (one of my favorites) in the post “Dogville,” and Freckles in the recent post “Cardinal Points.” Speaking of Freckles, Will and I were talking yesterday — he stopped by to see me, and he reached into his coat pocket for something and accidently pulled out this: What is this? Well it’s a fancy “poopy bag” from the pet store! Special baggies for the dog’s “business.” These cracked us up — first of all the hearts, like the dog cares! But also what do these cost? And you have to go to a special store to buy them…they are not just in the pet aisle at the supermarket! It’s all because we love them!

Here’s another sweetie pie that Will walks: his name is Dexter. He’s a little bit of an older fellow, and Will explained to me that he has a bit of a “backstory” too. Dexter had a herniated disk a couple of years ago, and sometimes his back legs give out and they go limp. Will says when that happens, “All you can do is be there for him emotionally and keep him still until his legs recover. And every time he greets me with his favorite toy: a purple octopus.” Adorable!

I think Will is really tuned into his clients. He’s like the intuitive Dog Whisperer. Another nice remark he made, “I love every dog I walk and I really know them, and they love me too.” Indeed, animals know who understands them. And loves them.

Clare Irwin