Brookline is a town of believers. Most of my friends were raised Jewish or Catholic and, while they are generally open-minded, their parents brought them up with a hearty appreciation for their spiritual traditions. I was raised Unitarian Universalist, so I spent a lot of my childhood peering in on everyone else’s religion with little sense of my role in mine.
This has left me with the occasional, mysterious desire to believe. Friends of mine prayed to an omnipresent God, while I clung halfheartedly to wishing on loose eyelashes and birthday candles. My parents’ efforts to raise me with a questing mind about spirituality seem to have backfired, leaving me with a curious, yet clinical, attitude towards religion. In my UU Sunday school classes, I spent years exploring the nature of the “Great Spirit.” I enjoyed the Indian funnel cake we ate while studying Krishna, and only felt a little conspicuous hollering “Amen” with the eight other white kids in my class when we visited the nearby African Methodist Episcopal church. In fact, you could barely tell I was a goy when I sang along at my friends’ Passover Seders and Chanukah dinners. These experiences helped me understand the diverse ways that humans explain and honor the mystical nature of the universe. But, I was left hopelessly secular. My impressionable mind failed to get swept up in the fact that the people around me were celebrating the spiritual, because I was so busy wondering how they could all be right if one contradicted another.
Maybe my Sunday school teachers hoped I would clear up this confusion on the Coming-of-Age spiritual retreat. True to our transcendentalist heritage, UU’s have the cruel tradition of abandoning fourteen-year-olds in the woods for five hours to solidify their personal spiritual philosophies. So I found myself shivering and damp under my poncho, in the driving rain at the edge of a pond one afternoon, wondering why God hadn’t given me a Torah portion to memorize so I could call it a day. They gave me a bottle of water, a piece of bread, and a notebook. “Think about what you’ve learned about existence,” they told me, “Look at the nature around you and consider the spirituality of the cycles of life.” Perhaps Thoreau would have taken the opportunity to do just that, but all I could think about was how numb my toes were and how in love I was with the boy pondering the great truths of life two clearings away.
My secular childhood left me searching for some kind of faith. But lately I am starting to believe that the beauty of spirituality is not simply the conclusion, but the search itself. I used to feel that, having been given no doctrine to accept as The Truth, nothing was mystical for me; a beautiful sunset was not a gift from God, but merely light from the sun being refracted through the smog of a distant city. My religious education teachers sought to teach me to wonder through many different lenses, but in doing so I thought they deprived me of any lens to call my own. I even resented the missed opportunity of rejecting the religion of my parents (an opportunity many of my friends have thoroughly enjoyed), because they didn’t impose one on me in the first place. I now realize that these teachers wanted to support my religious discovery, wherever it led me. In Sunday school, I was taught the value of seeking out my own truth, and perhaps that was the greatest spiritual lesson I’ve learned so far.
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