by: Shiloh Whatley
In the name of the father, the son and the…..
“My country is the world and my religion is to do good” – Thomas Paine
I am not a religious man. This should not be interpreted to mean that I have a lack of Faith however, for of that I have plenty. It merely indicates that I prefer to not belong to any team.
Don’t get me wrong. I was force-fed Catholicism at an early age so I’m familiar with its feel. Was raised on the crushing guilt that comes with being a Catholic despite the weekly absolution of my sins. I did it all. I wore the outfits and said the prayers, sang the songs and went through the motions. It’s so much a part of me now that I could easily put it back “on” like the donning of a suit. But it never felt right. Like a wool sweater shrunk too small. Or a turtle neck a bit too snug around the neck, all itchy and tight.
During my religious “education” I would spend long Sunday mornings at St. Andrew’s struggling through mass. Or weekly evenings in CCD1 learning how to pray, how to say the “words”, how to obtain forgiveness, and how to fit in. But when I came home all those teachings would diminish, would tumble away the further we drove from church. And with any luck, by the time my mother pulled our faded blue station wagon into our gravel driveway, I could no longer feel its effects2.
Finally home, I would launch myself from the backseat of the car, tugging at my necktie as I ran, tearing off my wool sweater to expose my AC/DC t-shirt underneath. And as I crossed the threshold of our front door I would toss my sweater to lay crumpled on the bench, and kick my Oxfords that too tightly pinched at my toes into the corner by the coat rack so loudly that it sounded like I was bowling the perfect strike. And all the while I was writhing and twisting as I shed my layers in an attempt to feel more like ”me”.
Oftentimes when I arrived at home there was one layer that I could not shed. One part that followed me for hours on end. It was a black cloud of frustration that I wore like crown, sometimes barely able to fit in the front door of my house. It was my anger that I didn’t have any say in becoming a Catholic, and my jealousy towards my father as he greeted me when I returned home.
It didn’t matter if it was a warm summer afternoon, or a dark and cold winter evening, there my father would always be, elatedly awaiting our arrival home. He always looked comfortable and relaxed, maybe he had the Hornets game on, or possibly the paper was in his hand, the crossword half-done and a five letter word for shovel circling around his head. Or maybe he was laid-out on the recliner in the living room, slippered feet up, a pair of gray sweatpants complimenting his favorite flannel, and a half-drank Amstel Light on the table besides him, tiny beads of condensation running occasionally down its sides as he listened softly to talk radio.
My father you see is an Agnostic3 or possibly a Theist, I’m not sure, it’s hard to tell. He’s a close guarded man and does not speak freely of these topics, but he most certainly is not religious. And when my sisters and I were away at mass or CCD or some cookie-cutter religious event, my father stayed home. That was simply how it was. That was my father’s time. His hour or two here and there scattered throughout the week to be alone and I was envious of it.
The role my father played in my being raised a Catholic was trivial. Outside of throwing on the occasional suit and posing for the requisite family picture whenever his children passed a milestone, he barely cared. No, the push for a religious upbringing was my mothers, stemming from a proud Eastern European heritage and steeped in tradition and complacency.
To be honest I’ve never heard my father utter a single word about God or Religion or Jesus or Faith in all the years I’ve known him. Even when the people he’s truly loved have passed, his silence on these matters was deafening. His relationship with religion can be described as barely registering, like the flatline on an EKG machine or a calm day at the San Andreas Fault. There just wasn’t anything going on.
Religion and my father parted ways years ago, right around the time he married my mother. They shook hands and donned their caps, each of them heading off on their separate ways. But what I have to tell you about that fact is this: my father is a brave man. A heroic man. A man who had to choose between religion and family at an early age. A man who before I was born chose the new family he was creating with my mother over the people he’d known since birth. Over the parents who raised him. Over the brothers and sisters he grew up with.
For you see, my fathers family are a group of people who exist at the extremes of faith. They have woven their religion so deeply into their lives that they reject those who do not share their beliefs. My dad’s father and mother, his brothers and sisters, their husbands and wives and all their children went this route. Choosing to find salvation in the fervent teachings of a man who founded a church in an old bowling alley. But my father did not conform. Did not go the way of his siblings. It simply wasn’t for him, he didn’t buy into these teachings and for that he paid a heavy price.
I believe now that this is why my father rejects religion. Why he brushes it aside. He’s a brilliant man, the smartest one I know and his decisions aren’t made lightly. He considers all. I suspect he sees religion as a personal matter. Something between him and God. Religion took his parents and siblings from him and forced him to make a choice. So choose he did. He decided to create his own religion and call it Family, and made my mother and sisters and I its congregation. And he devoted his life to it. His actions became his sermons. Our family vacations to Disney World and his coaching of our basketball and soccer teams and the late nights helping us to finish our science projects his teachings. And his belief in the power of family over the power of a religion-based God was his credo.
I respect that. You have too right? If he hadn’t called bogus on the pastor who was reeling in his siblings and who had already hooked his parents, and hadn’t made the difficult choices he had to make, I’d be living a totally different life today. I would have been married in my teens. I would have been swaddled with kids by my twenties. I would have never gone to college. I would not be sitting here writing this essay to you today. Most likely I would right now be sitting in….church.
Without my knowing it, I’ve followed in my fathers footsteps. It took me awhile to find my way, to discover my path and crystalize my beliefs. But because of my father I’ve taken on a more simplified approach to religion. I always knew Catholicism and organized beliefs weren’t for me. I knew it wasn’t the right fit, that I no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t square it away with what I felt. And even though my father may not have been the most open man, the most vocal about his feelings or beliefs on God, I understand now why he chose his path. The whole while I was being force fed religion I was learning what it actually means to love and believe in something greater than yourself by my old man.
For I believe in a higher power, an omnipresent force. But I just believe it resides in all of us, in that quiet place within our hearts, existing on a deeper level with no need for one religion to claim ownership. There’s no need to go through the motions, the routines of religion, sing the songs, wear the clothes, and say the words to be saved. My father taught me that being saved begins within and whether he knows it or not for that I am grateful.
- Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the religious teaching program of the Catholic Church. These classes are taught to school age children to learn the basic doctrines of their faith. [↩]
- My relationship with God was like the Law of the Inverse of a Square. The intensity of His pull was inversely proportional to my distance from His church. [↩]
- A good friend of mine has a theory that we’re all Agnostic, but we just haven’t realized it or come to terms with it yet. [↩]