When Tash asked whether I’d like to join her at a Bahá’í Faith devotional on Saturday, I paused. The word “devotional” is tricky. It hearkens the forced internment of my Catholic upbringing.
At age six, it occurred to me that I saw the world differently than my fellow parishoners at St. Raphael’s. When we sang during mass, they seemed moved; when Fr. Jack gave a sermon, they appeared inspired, like they intended to carry those lessons with them into the world during the coming week. No matter how hard I tried to find meaning at church, I was left cold. It troubled me, actually.
I wanted to feel what my mother felt instead of what I felt. Each Sunday, I listened to the same readings and recited the same prayers as she did, shyly dreading the moment when we would have to shake hands with those seated around us and say, “Peace be with you.” My mother seemed happy when I looked up at her during these rituals. I wondered when I would feel the same.
While interesting as metaphors, the parables didn’t seem different from the Greek and Roman myths we studied in school, which I knew were devised to teach life lessons. I couldn’t see how Biblical stories were any more factual than those of Zeus or Diana. While I could accept that a wise philosopher named Jesus shared insightful teachings, the notion that actually he rose from the dead or turned water into wine seemed preposterous.
Do grown-ups really believe this, I wondered, or is it like Santa Claus where they just pretend until we figure it out, too?
I waited for someone to acknowledge that our religion was a tall tale, but the wink I searched for to indicate our collective deception never came. It wasn’t until I attended class for my first communion around age eight that I realized they weren’t the liars — I was. And it wasn’t just that I was a liar; I had to be a liar.
When my mother picked me up from catechism on Wednesday nights, I tried to reveal my disbelief in little ways, testing the water, but it upset her. I had been baptized, I would receive communion and later I would be confirmed. End of story. When she watched me with keen concern, I felt like an undercover agent waiting for a mob boss to discover my wire.
So, I learned to lie.
I played the role of a girl who enjoyed mass; the maple donuts they served afterwards helped. I sang songs, I held hands while reciting the Our Father and I sat quietly without squirming or turning around, which pleased my mother. When it was my turn, I read passages from the Bible in catechism, pretending that I was reading a sonnet in English class. When called on, I concocted heartfelt responses about what Jesus meant to me, to my teacher’s delight. I listened politely as my classmates shared how they desperately wished they could be better people, more like him. I mean, like Him.
I had to remind myself that Him was supposed to be capitalized in the papers we wrote. I dreaded my teacher or classmates uncovering my secret when I didn’t refer to Him with natural reverence.
That’s how I skated through the sacrament of communion and years of church-going, bored but unharmed. A crucifix hung from my bedroom wall. My mother gave me a prayer book with pearl covers that she cherished as a child. Occasionally, I’d wear her rosary as a necklace because the lavender glass beads were pretty. I took on the lie as well as I could, begrudging the weight of its mantle sometimes.
After my mom died, I completed more coursework and was confirmed, which was the last time I went to church as a Catholic. Something in me needed to finish what my mom had started, even if I didn’t believe in it. I took her middle name, Kay, as my confirmation name. I suppose that’s a type of devotion, but like all others before it, it left a sour sense of what being devoted meant.
Devotion was a decision made for me by someone else. Devotion meant knowing one thing deep down inside while pretending to believe another. Devotion meant not being able to question the world without fear of being punished or disappointing someone I loved. Devotion felt like being trapped.
For years thereafter, I lived outside of the world of devotion altogether — or what I had known devotion to be. I shrugged when people mentioned finding solace in God at times of death or despair, offering to pray for me, always spelling God with an upper case G. To some, I suggested that it wasn’t faith but desperation that drove them to religion, but mostly, I let such thoughts wash over me. Live and let live… and keep your copies of The Watchtower off of my porch, please.
When Tash described what she and her friends called a devotional, I felt interested rather than repelled. Even with a religious studies minor in college, I had never heard of the Bahá’í Faith; that alone intrigued me. Plus, Tash is so practical and matter-of-fact; any religion that she belonged to would have to be equally as self-directed.
We waited at the Argyle platform to board the L, catching a drag queen’s impromptu performance of “Single Ladies [Put a Ring on It].” It was hot and muggy even at 11 am. We hopped off at Addison and walked down a residential street that reminded me of Boston: three-story brick-walk-ups, leafy street trees, dappled shade on the sidewalks.
I had pictured us headed for a community hall. I was surprised when we walked into the courtyard of a brick apartment building instead. Adele and Brian’s home smelled of heavenly weekend brunch: fluffy pancakes, eggs, potatoes and fruit. Ten of us gathered around their living room table with plates of food perched on our knees, talking about travel and rugby, the concert we heard in Millennium Park and writing. Emily was an opera singer and her mother, Elizabeth, was an Aussie by way of many years in Nashville. Jeanine had a warm, sweet smile and unruly dark hair that reminded me of my own. Jake, the youngest, was headed to Italy soon; we traded notes.
As the new person, they asked me enough questions to make me feel both shy and flattered. An hour into it, without a hint of religion or god, I wondered whether someone might be tempted to ask about my faith, even though Tash had mentioned prior to our visit that I wasn’t attending the devotional as a seeker. What surprised me was that, while they were clearly people who believed in something, their faith wasn’t about kneeling, robes or sins, but about spiritual discovery and community — not through prescriptive ceremony, but their relationships with each other and the freeness with which they shared their thoughts.
They didn’t seem inhibited by observers –me and a young female photographer documenting a day in the life of one of the members– peering into their spiritual practice. From the outside, it seemed to me that the very tenets of their beliefs –that life is a constant evolution of reflection and examination balanced with charity and justice– made it an open conversation that invited people to come and go as they felt moved, without judgment. Like the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette that I would see on my birthday, all were welcome.
After Brian cleared our plates and passed out books, we began the devotional, a free-form open mic that consisted of readings and songs. I watched the Bahá’ís close their eyes in between, letting the words sink in and giving the next person space to share something. Rather than reading in the order of the circle, each of them spoke when inspired, their texts ranging from traditional and modern spiritual passages to poems by Rumi. When it was her turn, Emily filled the small living room with a sonorous tremolo; with her eyes closed, she couldn’t see how everyone melted at the sound of her song.
Listening to each of their voices gently break the silence was nothing short of tender. It was like being in the last pew of a small chapel, hearing private thoughts that were typically reserved for the ears of holy people. Their intimate and self-directed celebration of faith was the opposite of both my Catholic and Jewish heritage. As they went around the room, I wondered what I might share if I had come prepared to read. My enthusiasm nearly moved me to grab the Rumi text and say a poem aloud during a long pause.
Sitting in that silence, I considered how digital journals and physical notebooks have become my records of introspection and discovery, playgrounds for ruminating over events and relationships and examining my role in the world. Am I a kind person? A good niece or cousin? A loving friend? A thoughtful co-worker? How do I make the world better? Where do I fall short? What am I afraid of? What else do I have to learn?
My private writing has become a physical extension of my innermost thoughts and ultimately serves as the genesis for what I write about publicly. Those quiet invocations give life to essays and poems meant for sharing. My weekly blog posts, often finished on Sundays, are homilies and my Jack Straw readings are prayers sung aloud.
This year, I’ve discovered that spoken words are the crux of it. To transform my writing into sound, like the texts and cantos at the Bahá’í devotional, has been life-changing. In writing and reading, I seek to connect. Never before have I desired to share my innermost thoughts while standing in front of strangers, yet today I regularly find myself in small rooms with crowds of new faces, looking to move them with stories of my experience.
Occasionally, I feel like I’m in a confessional of my own.
What keeps me from feeling naked are nods and laughs and snorts from the audience. They mark what we have in common as human beings, all of us searching for ourselves and struggling to define what we believe in, stumbling into unlucky circumstances that call upon our resources and encountering moments of tender beauty in cities far from home.
In the silence following Brian’s reading, I realized that the exuberation I feel when writing and reading is a mirror of my mother’s expression during mass and Jeanine’s smile during Emily’s song. It’s the sign of connection to a greater source.
Without knowing it, writing has brought me to a place of unmasked spiritual observance.
The sun was shining as Tash and I left, the optimism of heartfelt songs and readings still hovering above us. As we discussed our plans for the rest of the afternoon, I liked the fact that, from now on, the word devotion would take on an entirely new meaning in my mind.