A religion of kindness

Had you asked me before –prior to this pandemic– if I’d ever blog about religion, I am certain I would have answered no, without hesitation. Way back then it simply wouldn’t have been something to pop to the top of my writing topics of the moment. Too private. And, prior to the pandemic, I was certain I would be blogging less, instead devoting any writing time to that next project (oh my, what in the world is that, I still ask myself?)

Yet, each day now I am distracted, and after focusing the needed attention for my day job, I simply need release. Oddly, writing blogs serves that type of simple release for me, even in time of distraction. Today, mid-way through Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (from my bathroom shelf, in case you read my previous blog Tips for reading in the bathtub (or how not to get electrocuted)) I reached the chapter “Age of Faith” and it must have set my creative brain spinning. For religion? What a topic! A source of beauty and hope for many – yet causing pain and strife for others. If someone were to ask me if I am religious, I would pause…perhaps for a long, long time. Depending on my mood I might answer, “I think of myself as spiritual.” Or, I might say, “it depends.” In these difficult times when I am in fact so much of the time attempting to comfort Mom, I have found myself saying things to her like: “I think Dad’s spirit is with you always” (yes, I’ve never not believed this) and “perhaps you’ll see him after you die?” (hmm, yes, no, maybe, I don’t think so, but I want to think so?) to which the last time I said this Mom retorted quickly, “I don’t think so.”

The theme of religion certainly jumps from the pages of My Music Man, my great-great-great-grandmother enough of a believer to leave her life in the civilized east coast of America at 21 to sail to the Wild West, praying to convert others, particularly Native Americans. My great-great-grandfather: a Methodist minister. All of my great-grandparents and grandparents active in their various faiths: Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal.

My brothers and I were baptized at St. Marks Episcopal Church within a block from my birthplace hospital in Northwest Portland, although I was never confirmed. All I remember of that church from my childhood, is one vague moment in the nursery, although later I visited the church to view the stained glass window placed in memory of a relative (see photo below). My childhood church was the much more liberal Christ Episcopal Church in Lake Oswego, commuting from our home in Wilsonville. My biggest keepsakes from that time is my eternal love for church hymns along with more modern songs of praise, as I sang for a number of years in the junior choir. And the memory of one of our priests who “looked like Jesus” and was kind and protective, it seemed to me, of all people no matter what they looked like or who they loved.

Early in my teenhood we were introduced to the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.), a new-age movement, perhaps unusual in those early 1970s days. This group looked to the teachings of Edgar Cayce: our mom joined a meditation and healing group, and our whole family (sans Dad) attended summer camp where we played, meditated, were introduced to other world religions, and I had a seer who told me about my past lives. I am certain this introduction as a pre-teen fully informed who I am today, regardless of whether I “believe” or not.

One of my most difficult religious-related moments was when I was in the 7th grade living in LaGrande. As a new kid I was still trying to figure out how to make friends, and a girl who I thought could be a bestie insisted I join her at her church camp. Two things I remember: playing capture the flag, which really was fun, especially since one of the boys I had a crush on was playing. And the thing that caused great fear: As we sat on bunk beds in a cabin with a leader reading out of the Bible, for whatever reason the topic of reincarnation came up and I was told it was the work of the devil, and its believers would go to hell. I was quite upset, didn’t understand the hows or whys, but never attended that church again. A few years later my best friend Karen and I spent an entire weekend at our Illahee Beach House poring over a book as we explored beliefs and practices of the world religions. We both decided as 15-year-olds –she having been raised Catholic – that our religion or spiritual belief was a delicate mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and that of Native Americans.

When our daughters were young, we chose Unity World Healing Center as our family church, my parents leaving their then rarely attended Episcopal church to now join granddaughters, daughter and son-in-law in what felt right for all of us. Our kids learned to celebrate the “common spiritual thread living in all hearts,” rejoiced in beautiful music, and committed to help others. It was a beautiful recipe for our family unit. (Except dad really didn’t like the Welcome Song that asked you to shake hands with or hug the people next to you, and instead he’d look at me and roll his eyes. I loved teasing him about that!)

So where does that leave me today? I look out my window into the rainy skies of the afternoon, dark clouds drifting by, fir trees dripping, and I pray for goodness in our world. I pray for peaceful relief for Mom, and others. I hope for us as a people to somehow take care of our earth and each other. I suspect my beliefs today are not much different than they were when I was twelve or six. Whether that is spirituality inspired by religion, who is to say? It is this belief, certainly, that caused me to scribe these few sentences in the letter my character Annie in Beyond the Ripples shares in her letter that Ernest finds in the bottle:

“So I hope that if you find this you are a happy person. Because everyone deserves to be happy. At Church they say you deserve to be happy if you believe in Christ but I think everyone deserves to be happy no matter what they believe in. It only seems right. I mean as long as they are a good person. Then they should be happy.”

Beyond the Ripples, “Annie’s Letter”

And although I’d express that a bit different today, I can see my twelve-year-old self believing exactly that. Today I simply might substitute the word “kind” for “good.” That’s it! My religion is the Religion of Kindness, a phrase frequently shared by the Dalai Lama. And with that, on this gray Sunday: Cheers to Kindness for All.

From the book, Sacred Myths: Stories of World Religions written by Marilyn McFarlane, 1996, published by my aunt and a gift to our family by Mom when our daughters were young.
Stained glass window at St. Marks Parish, Portland, placed in memory of great-great-aunt Dorothy Gill Montgomery’s son, Hugh. Dorothy was one of five daughters of of J.K. Gill, and we called her Dobbie. She and her sister Georgia had married brothers, William and Hugh Montgomery.

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