BY MARY MALLOY
I was told I was born a sinner. Frankly, I would like to have earned the title on my own volition - and try I did.
I had a very strange religious upbringing. My family was Catholic, and in those days, there was no meat eaten on Fridays, masses were conducted in Latin, and I had to wear a white, lacy thing on my head when I entered the church. I attended Religious Instruction every Wednesday, and the worst part of that was confession - not because I had an overload of sins as a pre-teen (that would come later) but I had to make up things to say because, honestly, if I went into the priest (who was hidden behind a wooden, sliding door inside a solid wooden box) and said I had no sins, he would have thought I was lying.
"Forgive me, father, I have lied to my parents four times, and said a bad word three times, and thought bad thoughts two times, since my last confession..." And then I was given prayers to say, and that would be the end of it - until the next time. Whew, another week to sin again, or pretend I did -- a clean slate, as it were.
But at an even younger age, I had been introduced to the Pentecostal religion, through my sister, who realized that the Catholic Church was not her path. What a difference! They shouted, they cried, they raised their hands to the Lord and their voices in prayer - I wasn't even allowed to talk in my church, which of course produced many bouts of giggles during mass amongst us girls, to the nuns' chagrin.
My sister's church was so different, so vocal, so demonstrative, it was frightening and refreshing at the same time. But I felt they each wanted me to take their road to heaven. And they each claimed theirs was the right road.
Who was right? Who was the owner of the "real" God? Was I "cheating" by going to both churches? The Pentecosts wanted to save me, and the Catholics wanted to control me.
What did God want for me?
I don't believe everyone was made to congregate. I have never felt comfortable in any organized religion, maybe because I could see early on what it took to be a real Christian. No matter what religion, I saw too many people lighting candles, getting up at the crack of dawn, preaching to others, trying to save MY soul and their own - when their own behavior the rest of the week left a lot to be desired - hypocrites, as it were. Or, the truly pious, who thought the rest of us were going straight to hell. And describe it they did - fire, brimstone, and eternal agony. Not for me, for sure. No thank you!
I have my own relationship with God, and he knows what is in my heart. I don't have to tell a man in a wooden box, I don't have to have someone save my soul, I don't need rules and regulations that don't seem right to me. I need to be good, honest and loving toward my family, friends and even strangers - I am still working on tolerance and humility, those are tough ones.
That's fine for me, but what about my children, people ask? Don't they need a basis, a "starter" church, a religion on which to build their lives?
Yes, I thought about that, giving them a place to go, but where would that be? And how could I, as their mother, back it up if my heart wasn't in it? How could I teach them to just "go to church" if I didn't feel it was the right place for me?
But they know about God. They know right from wrong (practicing it is a different story.) They know they can attend whatever church they chose (or not) when they want to. They have been introduced to God through visiting nursing homes, through letting little bugs live, through caring for fallen or troubled friends, through compassion, understanding, tolerance.
And I have taught them to ignore those who say, "You don't go to church?" Tisk, tisk.
I always felt like I was a copping out when I said I was a spiritual person, but I know it's true. It was hard to convince others when I was younger, because, hey, what did I know? But at an early age, I had a gauge of what is right and wrong --not that I haven't stepped over the sin-line, but I knew it was wrong when I was wrong. A lot more than I can say for some.
There are so many people who judge me, who tisk-tisk that my children do not attend church regularly, or a least receive the required sacraments, just as they gossip and rumor about me and those like me --or rather, those UNLIKE themselves. Congregating has a sameness, a oneness, a security that I don't require. I think that difference scares some people. But it doesn't make me less of a person, or less of a Christian. And they are finding bad souls amongst the good lately in churches - surely exceptions, but it kind of takes the trust out of it for me. I almost have a feeling of "I told you so..."
This is not to say I don't believe in attending church -- I know it is God's house, I know that so many have renewed or kept their faith ongoing by being in the santuary and protection of their church. This is a wonderful choice for some.
I have always felt close to God, and felt he was watching over me. I also feel there is nothing for him to forgive in the church-going department, so I do not worry that anyone else needs to forgive me, either. Have I led a conventional life? Not always. Am I perfect? Ha, not by a long shot. Do I show God I am grateful for what I have? Every day. Well, some days I forget, but I never blame him when it goes wrong. I know there is an order to my life, a destiny that I don't have total control over.
My point is, attending church does not make one religious. Your personal relationship with God, your family and those around you does - and if I am wrong, he will forgive me (or not), just as he may forgive those who have judged me unfairly.
Mary Malloy is a published writer, having written humorous, ongoing columns in local newspapers including The East Rockaway Observer,The Five Towns Forum, Nassau Tribune, Nassau Community Newspaper Group, & Long Island Woman periodical. She recently married her childhood sweetheart and is the mother of five children, ages 12 to 30 --and the grandmother of a lively toddler name Thomas. She experiences every day life by coping, juggling and living on (and loving) Long Island, New York and sharing the humor and the ironies of life with others.