Rectory to St. Bernard's Church

It’s been a long time since I’ve darkened the door to a church of any sort, not because I have a problem with organized religion, but because I prefer to organize my religion elsewhere.

Clairvaux Center with thistle

When I visit my family in Ohio, I go to Mass to be agreeable, and for old time’s sake. But in New England, I’ve never properly belonged to any given church. When I first landed in Malden, Massachusetts, I briefly prayed with the Universalists, then my ex-husband and I found a temporary home with the local Lutherans. But by the time we’d moved to Beacon Hill, then Cambridge, then Randolph, and thence to New Hampshire, I’d given up trying to find a Christian church where I felt at home.

Along the way, I did more than my fair share of church-shopping, partly to find a doctrine that matched my own ragtag assortment of beliefs, and partly to find a community that felt like home. Ultimately, though, the fit was never quite right. Liberal congregations weren’t serious enough about scripture study; evangelical congregations took the Bible seriously but clashed with my ecumenical inklings. When you’re Catholic girl turned born-again Buddhist, it’s difficult to find a spiritual community where your whole self can be at home. The Catholics don’t know what to do about your Bible-thumping, and the Protestants can’t quite fathom your fondness for ritualistic smells and bells. When you’re a Catholic girl turned born-again Buddhist, you get used to feeling like a freak wherever you pray.


In my case, I began practicing Zen meditation and ultimately found a spiritual home in my Zen school because people who sit quietly tend not to quibble over theology: in my experience, Zennies breathe no differently than Christians do, arguments arising only when someone opens her or his mouth to speak. I belong to a Zen school because I believe practicing with others is somehow different–stronger, richer, more challenging–than simply practicing alone. Although I have no argument with folks who deem themselves “spiritual, not religious,” whenever I hear someone declare they’re against organized religion, I wonder whether they’re against other organized pursuits: do they prefer undifferentiated sound to music, for instance, or anarchy to community?

Years ago I heard Janisse Ray read an essay about a Vermont contra dance she’d attended, and her description of dancers, young and old, swirling to the same songs sounded like heaven to me, or Nirvana, or whatever name you prefer for blissful communion. Communing with God on your own in nature–the place where “spiritual, but not religious” types insist God is properly found–is fine and good, but what about the other folks you leave behind when seeking God in a solitary spot? Sometimes God is found in and among people; sometimes God is found in the people you like, and more often God is found, I think, in the people who challenge and exasperate. Although I’ve never darkened the door of any church in Keene, I like to think I often find God striding the sidewalks there, not hidden away from people both churched and churchless.