I’m pretty vague about my religious persuasions because, generally, I don’t see why it’s anyone’s business. But for the sake of what I’m writing about today, I’ll give you a quick rundown: I was baptized Catholic, raised vaguely Unitarian Universalist by a man who runs a Buddhist mediation center and a woman with strong but private religious beliefs, practiced Wicca from about age 11-17, was generally agnostic through college (so unique, I know), started re-exploring Paganism and Druidry after graduation, and finally began attending UU services here in Nashville in conjunction with a couple Pagan circles I consistently join for holidays and full moons. I don’t consider myself a Christian – nor do I have any interest in being converted, so please don’t waste any precious time you might spend with loved ones or passion projects attempting to help me find Jesus. I found him, we met, nice guy, not my type.
This past Sunday morning when I arrived bleary-eyed to sing with the choir, I didn’t notice our music minister was wearing a collar. In general, UU minsters don’t wear uniforms, and they definitely don’t wear the classic black button-down and white collar combo. It wasn’t until after we had finished rehearsing that I realized he wasn’t in his normal suit. I was instantly overwhelmed by flashbacks of excruciatingly long Easter masses and the even more awkward Easter brunches that always followed them. (If you want to really ruin my life, I’m absolutely terrified of people in those mascot-style costumes; point being, the Easter Bunny was no friend of mine.) His uniform made me feel so odd, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him about the sudden wardrobe update. Somehow the question felt like it would be as clumsy as asking a woman if she’s pregnant.
I don’t have any negative feelings about Catholic priests. If anything, Catholicism is such a part of my culture and my family that I deeply respect them. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed my exploration into Druidry, is the structural similarities between ritual and mass. The flow and curvature of a Catholic service – even as the Christmas and Easter church-goers that we were when I was a kid – is familiar and comforting. There is a sense that billions before me said the same words, raised the same prayers, and shared the same sorrows. 2000 years of the human search for connection with something greater lives, virtually unchanged, in the mass. At the same time, the actual spirituality does nothing for me. So I’m torn between having a pretty solid grasp and respect for the ritual but no emotional response to the content
.With all of that in mind, I was uncomfortable; but once the service started, the outfit made more sense. The music minister (a former Franciscan brother) gave the sermon and the theme was confession. Confession is pretty foreign concept in Unitarian Universalism; as the reverend mentioned in his sermon, we often think we’re a faith that is already forgiven. I understand many struggle with Catholicism’s use of shame and guilt as motivators, and I think the definition of confessable sins is a bit broad. But there have been moments where I wished I could sit in a booth, confess my faults, and be given a simple way to atone for them. And I do think that there are some benefits to having a little bit of shame. While I don’t believe in anything like original sin, I do think that we as humans can only briefly pause to be proud of our accomplishments before quickly resuming our journey towards a better, kinder way of being.
The content of the homily spoke to me deeply. There’s immense power in acknowledging our wrongdoings and seeking to make amends. But what rang truer to me was the sense that someone was finally speaking to my experience. It was like hearing my native tongue for the first time in years.
When the closing hymn began, something felt strangely familiar about it, although I’d never heard the words before. The notes at the bottom of the page explained why: it was poem set to a traditional Irish melody, a melody that I’ve played countless times before.
This is the point that I stated to cry.
I made a confession to myself in that moment: I left my community behind when I moved to Tennessee, and there is part of me that deeply regrets it. Shadows of the smiling faces and rowdy Monday nights at the Green Briar full of the deafening, meditative hum of pipes and fiddles and whistles, the steady pounding of drums, flashed into my blurry vision.
I don’t think I will ever be Catholic again, but it is part of my culture. Until I moved to Nashville, I had never heard anyone use the term “papist” outside of history book, nor had I heard anyone earnestly accuse said “papists” of not being Christians (which – seeing as they’re down with the whole Jesus thing – they definitely are). I’ve found a wonderful Irish session here, but it’s less frequent and – for me – lacks the unbridled joy that poured out in that Boston pub. The people who know me, who speak my truths, are 1200 miles away and – even three years into this journey – it tears at my heart.
Last year, I stood around an open grave with a few close family members in the freezing wind of New York, listening to priest none of us had met before speak about a man whose face he had never seen. He said the same words he said over anyone he interred, the same words 1.2 billion other people will have said over their graves in countless languages. In that moment, huddled together and struggling to cry through the cold, I felt the shades of my ancestors and the billion others before me that stood around the final, inglorious hole in the ground we all end in and found comfort in the same prayers. It was the same feeling I had the first time I stood in a circle around a bonfire with the Druids and called out to the stars and the gods of my ancestors. All around me, within me, above me were the echoes of all those human beings that came before, staring up at the sky and searching for the tiniest glimpse of divinity.
In those moments, when the weight of a billion souls pressed in on me, I felt stronger and more certain of myself than at any other point in my life. I am the sum of all of them and one day I will be one of those echoes, standing at the elbow of my descendants, urging them forward. Sitting around a long pub table every week and losing myself in ecstatic music making, smelling the sea air, watching people move to the rhythm of the seasons and tides – the sense of those who came before me was ever-present, not just limited to brief glimpses during one sermon or a lone ritual.
There’s also a deep sense of unwelcomeness here that I can’t quite shake. During my childhood, a little more than half of my classmates would arrive to school with the telltale smudges on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. My Jewish friends would complain about not being able to have bread around Passover. And now I live in a place where accusing people I hold dear – who hold their faith dear – of not being Christian isn’t a recipe for instant social repercussions. I had never heard anyone seriously use the term “towel-heads” to refer someone who practices Islam before, while at the same time I’ve met more lovely, funny, warm Muslims in Nashville than anywhere I’ve ever lived.
I’m not saying that everyone in Nashville is bigoted, by any means. The vast majority of people are friendly and accepting. But the culture here doesn’t outright reject those kinds of judgements – particularly the religious based ones – the way it seemed to, at least in my community, back home. That makes be incredibly uncomfortable. My family emigrated to this country to leave behind a history of religious persecution, and now I’m paying taxes in a place that doesn’t seem nearly as horrified by terms like “papist” and “towel-head” as it should. I’m paying taxes in a state that’s trying to pass anti-LGBTQ legislation and bills that change the state constitution to read that power comes from God (capital G included) not the state.
So what’s the point of all this rambling, all inspired by one man’s fashion statement? I need to get back to my people. One could argue that I should stay here and fight to make a more equitable society in Tennessee. But, at the risk of sounding selfish, I’d like to live somewhere that feeds my spirit, and – even if Nashville suddenly became a totally welcoming liberal utopia – it’s not where my culture is. All that said, I’m working on a two year plan to get back in some way, shape, or form to Massachusetts. I feel lighter just knowing that I’m going home someday.
Confession really is good for the soul.