I live in Letchworth, the World’s First Garden City. Population 33,600. Founded in 1903, the town is also known for its religious freedom and spiritual diversity. Over the course of its one hundred and eighteen year history, it has welcomed Anglican, Catholic, Liberal Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Congregationalist, Pentecostalist, Theosophist, Spiritualist and Quaker. Today there are also Buddhist and Sikh temples and an Islamic Society.
My husband was raised in a Catholic family near Chicago and, for 9 years in the 1990s, he lived as a Zen Buddhist monk in rural Kentucky and in Korea. When people say to him: ‘Dan, you’re Buddhist, what’s your opinion on – – -?’, his response is invariably: ‘I am not a Buddhist. I was raised Catholic, I am a practicing Catholic and my life has been informed by Buddhism’. I was curious as to why he, of all people, should say such a thing. So, one day, I asked him and he told me the following story.
In 1981, he was living and serving in a Jesuit parish in Detroit when a young woman wrote with a request to be released from her Catholicism so she could become a Jehovah’s Witness. The Jesuits replied that they had no authority to grant such a request. She had been born into the Catholic faith and if she wished to follow a new religion then that was entirely up to her; they, however, had no power either to authorise or forbid such a thing. I suppose it’s a bit like wanting to divorce your parents. You can choose to turn your back on them and align yourself with another couple you like better, but you can’t separate from them because they are, and will always remain, an innate part of your genetic history. As the Eagles song goes: You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.
My own legacy is Catholic and Baptist. My grandfather attended the seminary in Ireland and my grandmother became an evangelical Christian. I wasn’t raised in either faith because my father didn’t want me to get ‘all mixed up about religion’ the way he had been as a child. Dan’s story of the Jesuits in Detroit leaves me feeling oddly comforted. Although I have tried, over the years, to re-trace and re-connect with my grandfather’s Catholicism, I have, to date, been unsuccessful. It is consoling therefore, to know that some part of me is and will always remain Catholic. Whether I embrace it or reject it, makes no difference. I am both free to do as I wish and am forever linked to the religions I have inherited from my ancestors.