Lucy’s been taking me to church. It’s foreign for me to utter these words, as I’m not a religious person. Historically, I’ve erred on the side of rejecting religion altogether. Yet, somehow, my 21 month-old-daughter has coaxed me inside the Catholic Church that sits quietly next to the playground here in San Juan. It is beautiful in its simplicity. Tall cathedral ceilings, exposed wooden beams, and arched windows beckon you inside, giving you respite from the sun’s scorching rays. Once inside, Lucy inherently knows to speak in hushed tones and to walk instead of run. She climbs the pews as she would the jungle gym just outside in the neighboring park and balances precariously on the kneelers, turning them into balance beams and mythical horses. Intellectually, I suspect that her interest in this space stems more from fun than faith, but I still envy her comfort in a place in which I feel such unease.
And she doesn’t just take me to church. She’s also been feeding Jesus. About four years ago, a developer in our little fishing village, erected what is purported to be the world’s second largest statue of Jesus. You can see it from almost anywhere in town, including from our dining room table. As is customary with toddlers, when Lucy points, we name the object. In this case, it was Jesus. Over time, Lucy began looking for Jesus at meal times and offering up her food to be shared. With each meal, I found myself regularly encouraging Lucy to continue feeding Jesus. The irony of it all was not lost on me…
The daughter of a lapsed Catholic and a reform Jew, I was raised celebrating Christnukkah and was never really sure if I should expect Elijah or the Easter bunny to show up at our Passover Seders. My parents exposed my sister and me to traditions from both Judaism and Catholicism, but never forced either religion upon us. We didn’t attend Hebrew school or Sunday school, although I was always secretly jealous of the kids who got to leave school early on Tuesdays for church school. And if I happened to sleepover at Colleen’s house on a Saturday night, I inevitably ended up at church on a Sunday morning (the surplus of Apple Jacks at the Deacon’s house totally made up for the hour and a half spent on hard wooden benches).
I spent much of my childhood surrounded by a welcoming Jewish community, too. My dad sat on the board for the local Jewish Community Center. My mom worked for the Jewish Federation. I attended preschool and summer camps at the JCC. We blessed our bug juice at snack time. I manned a booth at the annual Purim Festival, daring kids to knock Esther’s Block Off while eating hamantaschen. I wondered allowed why “this night was different than all other nights.” I could recite the HaMotzi from memory. I noshed, I schlepped, I kvetched all with chutzpah, but was constantly reminded by Jews and Catholics alike that I wasn’t a “real” Jew because my mother wasn’t Jewish…even though my Catholic mom cooked the meanest latkes in town.
Growing up, I was inexplicably uncomfortable with religion. As a kid, I was suspicious of God, likening him more to a peeping Tom than to a spiritual figure. The fact that I couldn’t see or touch or hear him made the notion of him even less believable to me.
When I shared my uncertainty about religion with my Catholic grandfather, he assured me that I had nothing to worry about, as long as I lived my life according to the Ten Commandments. But I desperately coveted my neighbor’s Barbie Playhouse, so I figured that I was already screwed. The first time I read the bible was for a freshman lit class in undergrad and even though disguised on the syllabus as historical reading, I struggled with what was between the pages. In lieu of prayer, when requested, I sent “love and light” because prayer suggested faith and faith suggested religion and I didn’t believe myself to be religious. I researched Atheism, but ultimately found comfort in Agnosticism – accepting that I may never know the unknown.
The issue of religion emerged early in my relationship with Justin when he was tapped to be godfather to his nephew. I struggled with how to reconcile my own disbelief in God with Justin’s inherent faith in the very same thing. When we moved in together (unmarried, I might add), he innocently suggested that we hang a crucifix over our bed, which sent me into a tailspin of protests and doubt. We ultimately compromised on a hand painted cross in lieu of a crucifix, but I worried that I was asking Justin to compromise on more than just a wall hanging.
Together, Justin and I traveled to the UK, Spain, and South America. Inevitably, every itinerary included a visit to a historical cathedral, chapel, or temple. Unexpectedly, every visit brought me to tears. Over time and miles, Justin learned to let me enter a church at my own pace and leave me to linger as long as I needed. I left a trail of tears from Barcelona to Buenos Aires.
Life challenged our disparate beliefs over and over again. We had long talks about religion and spirituality both with each other and with others before getting married. We encouraged each other, listened to each other, and often disagreed. We created a wedding ceremony that included scripture and literature drawing on traditions from both Judaism and Catholicism. We invented our own Pre-Cana under the guidance of an Oblate priest who would later marry us outdoors, under a chuppah. We read from Luke, recited the Prayer of St. Francis and the sign of peace. We shared the seven blessings, stomped the glass, and danced the horah. We practiced these rituals, not out of obligation, but in honor of our roots and our families. And more importantly out of respect for our own exploration and future together.
And part of that future came 3 years later in the form of Lucinda (meaning light). We are blessed with a daughter who, without hesitation, without complications by history, politics, ethnicity, gender or anything else, feeds Jesus. She may not know what that means. She may never embrace religion of any kind. She may make a choice that differs from my own. But for now, though I still struggle to define my own beliefs, my 21-month-old daughter effortlessly draws me to church.