Guide for the Perplexed

There’s a great moment in the not-so-great movie Skinwalkers in which the hero, Jimmy Chee, is a Navajo cop who’s also exploring his spiritual traditions.  At one point a sarcastic young tough guy pokes his head out a car window and yells at Jimmy, “He’s a cop! He’s a medicine man! He’s confuuuused.”  Then he cackles and peels out of there.  (I’m heartbroken that I can’t find a youtube link, because the delivery is hilarious and I laugh every time I even think about it.)

That’s what I think of when I try to summarize my religious stuff.  I’m definitely not unique in this, since confusion is a pretty natural reaction to religious matters.  But some people are only confused by one religion while others feel confused by two or three or several or all of them.  I grew up in a mixed marriage, Catholic and Protestant. Yes, this is still technically only one religion, but let me list some aggravating factors:

  1. My father’s side, Protestant, was really Protestant, by which I mean Irish.  When my dad was a kid, his father discouraged him from playing with Catholic kids.  Orange Order, the whole deal.  My dad overcame that programming, obviously, but continued to give Catholicism a lot of side-eye as an institution.
  2. That side also died out by the time I was born.  I never knew any of those relatives.
  3. My mom’s side, Catholic, is really Catholic.  Several relatives belong or belonged to religious orders, and are still active in Catholic education.
  4. I went to Catholic schools for most of my childhood and adolescence.
  5. But my dad was very active in the Anglican church and had even intended to seek ordination.  He didn’t end up doing that, but he did get a theology degree and was a lay reader.

So my parents raised me in the Anglican church, but I was marinating in this very Catholic milieu.  Some people would shrug this off and focus on the bigger picture, but not me.  When I was a teenager I already wanted to attend the Catholic church instead, but my father (see above re: the side-eye) wouldn’t support me.  I did anyway when I went away to university and was formally received into the Church, and my dad got over it.

All that being said, other things were going on in my spiritual life at the same time.  I was fascinated by Judaism.  There weren’t a lot of outlets for me to explore that–I lived in the farthest corner of Eastern Ontario, a place whose demographics were mostly Scottish, Irish, and French, with a lot of New Canadians of South Asian origin.  The Jewish community was vanishingly small, its living members probably outnumbered by the graves in the little Jewish cemetery that adjoined the gentile one outside of town.  Instead I read books by Chaim Potok and Amos Oz and Yehudah Amichai, Jewish authors who wrote with very self-consciously Biblical styles.  However, before that, when I was a small child my father taught math at a yeshiva in Ottawa.  I attended a seder with my parents and was allowed to hide the afikomen, I heard my dad tell stories from work about the rabbis and the yeshiva boys, and otherwise got exposed to more Jewish stuff than I would have normally.  At one point (probably after hearing one too many “King of the Jews” references at church), I was confused enough to ask my mother, “Are we Jewish?”  I remember being disappointed by the answer.

Sed contra est, although I thought pretty hard about Judaism and conversion often as a teenager and a young adult, I felt like I wasn’t able to give up Catholic beliefs and practices.  I like icons, I like statues.  I love the saints, and my relationship with Our Lady is complicated but (I think) valuable to me.  Graven images seem to do me a lot of spiritual good.  In fact, before I went ahead with joining the Catholic Church, I spent some time exploring paganism.  This turned out to be too much graven-images for me, though: I still like learning about it and seeing what other people get out of it, but for me, it didn’t really take me anywhere.

I continued to read a lot about Jewish spirituality.  I took a course in university on rabbinical literature that introduced me to the Talmud, which I really loved.  I read a lot about the modern state of Israel and learned a tiny amount of Hebrew.  One of my Jewish friends said to me once, “It’s almost too bad you seem so happy as a Catholic, because you’d make a great Jew.”

Nevertheless, I wasn’t actually that happy.  The Church hurts the ones who love her.  That’s not a bug, necessarily: I still believe that suffering and spiritual challenge are how you move forward, and confronting the Church as a believer is tough.  It should be tough.  My issue was being gay.  After struggling hard for awhile, as a gesture of good faith, I decided to try doing things the Church’s way.  I remained celibate for about six years.  I finally stopped for the following reasons:

  1. After trying for six years to absorb the Church’s teaching, I still didn’t believe it myself, and I couldn’t in good conscience see myself proclaiming it to other gay people as the truth.  I knew that I would feel terrible about myself if I did.
  2. The Church says the teaching is based partly on Natural Law, which means that anyone (regardless of faith) should be able to perceive it as true.  I think this is pretty plainly not the case, and I refuse to accept widespread bigotry as evidence of God’s will.
  3. The way Scripture talks about the forbidden sex acts, I thought that the clearer and more useful interpretation is to read them as forbidding male-on-male rape, abuse, and sacred prostitution.
  4. “By their fruits you shall know them”: when I look at Catholics who push for anti-gay interpretations, I see at best people who are refusing to listen to others.  The best examples of that side are still heavily invested in denying what gay people actually say about their lives.  We all know what the worst look like, and to be honest, most of the people arguing tilt toward the worst, not the best.  I’m not expecting everyone to be perfect in order for their position to be true.  But I would expect that knowing the higher spiritual truth leads you to treat people better.  I felt ashamed that I was keeping company with people who argued like that.  I winced when I read their arguments, and yes, that includes the people who use nicer language and pretend to understand our struggles.

So that’s about where I stand with that.  But that’s not what made me think about leaving.  The Church’s decisions/mistakes in worldly matters are serious, but they’re not what the Church is all about.  Catholicism has done worse and survived worse.  I don’t even need to give examples, although I’ll mention the Cadaver Trial because, Cadaver Trial.  Also, while I like that Conservative Judaism mostly agrees with me about homosexuality, it’s a side benefit more than anything; what’s more important is that I have a lot of respect for the way in which Judaism resolves this sort of dispute, where multiple opinions get a chance to tussle with each other.

I moved back to Ottawa, and in the big city I found that I could now stoke my love for Judaism with the finest fuel: the food.  The Loblaws by Baseline station has a huge kosher section, and as soon as I got here I started doing most of my grocery shopping there.  Not a big deal in itself.  When I was in university I had an Israeli roommate who was an animal rights advocate, and since we were both philosophy majors, we had a lot of conversations about the ethics of meat.  Her recommendation was, roughly, “If you agree with me about this stuff but you don’t want to give up meat completely, you should eat kosher meat, because they at least try to limit the animal’s suffering.”  So I did that.

But as I started to immerse myself in Jewish food culture, still continuing to read about the religion (and to like what I was reading), I started to think about doing more.  Challah in the bakery section! I would think. But challah’s for Shabbos.

Well, what if I tried keeping Shabbos?

If I did want to ask a rabbi about converting, I thought, I’d want to be sure first that I can even keep all these commandments.  Could I handle keeping even most of the rules about Shabbos?  Could I keep a kosher diet all the time?

So I tried it.  I knew gentiles aren’t supposed to keep Shabbos unless and until they become Jews, but then I wasn’t really in danger of keeping the rules perfectly anyway–I still used the computer and wrote and called my mother on the very first night I tried.  But I cleaned my apartment, bought challah and kosher wine, unscrewed the refrigerator bulb, put an aluminum foil blech on the stove, put out a tablecloth and candles, recited some of the blessings, ate, read me some Old Testament, and slept.  And I liked it.

I still try to keep Shabbos–one week I forgot completely until the sun had gone down, another week I didn’t get the apartment cleaned in time, but mostly I make an effort for Friday nights.  I also keep a fuzzy sort of kosher: I’ve cut pork/shellfish/etc. out of my diet completely, I don’t eat meat and dairy in the same meal, I look for the kosher symbol on packaged food. I don’t separate utensils because I can’t afford another set (university lifestyle continues, but I would kasher my kitchen if I could afford more dishes), and I do eat from restaurants.

So that is roughly where I’m coming from.  This blog is a place to put my thoughts while I’m sorting things out.


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