Part II: Are You There God? It's Us, SPM Writers

The lingering smell of incense greeted us as we walked into Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on a moderately warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. I was accompanied by Leah LeMoine, a spunky, quirky and inquisitive partner who has an equal if not greater thirst for all things spiritual.

Sitting in the back pew with a view of the circular, blue stained glass window behind the altar, we began our spiritual journey in a denomination known for its progressivism and mystical tendencies. Also, this is the denomination I grew up in. I remember singing hymnals that reached the church ceiling and carefully carrying the candle as an altar boy at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bremerton, Wash. These events anchored my frenzied life as a kid, and it was my grandma that I tagged along with enthusiastically to service.

The organ cranks up and swirls through the cathedral as the liturgy begins. Everything about the service is strictly coordinated – from the selected readings, to the common prayers, which I mostly have memorized. This dimension of familiarity is especially endearing to me and I’m already mentally disorganized, so order and routine are comforting for me in a church service.

The friendly, Mr.Rogers-looking priest preached his sermon on a Jesus that reveals truth in ways that we can barely understand, and it’s this type of mystical representation of faith that I especially move towards.

Up until the Episcopal service, I hadn’t been attending a church full-time for a while, and I felt somewhat of a longing to belong to something bigger than myself. Even though the congregation was made up of people a lot older than me, I could definitely see myself attending an Episcopalian church again.

However, not all churches we visited celebrated mystery.

On a cloudy and cool Sunday morning we visited the strict, rectangular, brick and mortar Scientology building in central Phoenix, which off-the-bat should have warned us of its strict and sanitized spirituality. After walking in we were lead into the polished visitor’s room by a man in a clean, collared shirt, tie and an intense, soul-gazing stare.

We watched 45 minutes of video that celebrated the truly illustrious life of L. Ron Hubbard and broke down the science of the faith, which seemed molded in the pattern of infomercials – with testimonials and advertisements for Hubbard’s books at the end of every individual video.

The spirituality -- or better yet, the science of scientology as presented by the video -- revealed a faith that preached the superiority of the soul over the body and the idea that the spirit could be healed through a system called Dianetics.

Dianetics is a program of recovery facilitated by auditing that uncovers previous painful experiences as a means of healing the soul. The program itself was advertised in boxes mirroring board games in a neat display to the right of us. I could easily picture Hubbard sitting comfortably, with a grandfatherly grin in a leather chair in front of these, with a phone number along the bottom of the screen.

All the while, I felt like I was being pitched a product, and the merchandising didn’t help my feelings whatsoever.

After the video we were lead up the floor above us, by an elderly lady who was behind us for the latter part of our video, conspicuously watching us watching videos about Hubbard.

The service had about five other members in attendance beside us even though there were several cars parked outside. The room itself had an altar of sorts with a wooden podium, a humming fan and an energetic elderly man who read and interpreted the writings of Hubbard to us in sermon form.

Flanking the podium was a brown bust of Hubbard, old and weathered but with slick hair and an open mouth, which did not succeed to arouse reverence in me.

Due to curiosity (mixed with a need to go to the restroom) I left the room during the service and saw a couple rooms where people were doing what looked like homework in study rooms. I remember that the man who worked in the visitor’s room had told me that he graded the coursework of the members in an esteemed way, and I was seeing firsthand the faithful performing their religious duties. There is something about coursework and spirituality that puts me on edge a bit and diminishes the element of mystery that I look for in spiritual pursuits.

Overall, I got the impression that Scientology was an extended form of psychoanalysis; I have always looked at the mind in a more Buddhist way in the sense that it’s something that can be healed through transcendence mixed with confrontation, but not one exclusively.

Also, the degree to which they downplayed the significance of the body was troubling. In a lot of ways, I believe that we experience God through our bodies, at least that’s how I do, and Scientology’s emphasis on the spirit in a hierarchy above the body seemed to discredit sources of ecstatic experiences I’ve had in spirituality. Maybe the spirit and body can be seen as one?

One of the churches that emphasized the body as a means to experience the spirit, or God, was Church of the Nations – a Pentecostal church in downtown Phoenix. Walking into the huge amphitheater armed with fog machines, blaring melodies, and ecstatic praise, I wouldn’t have been prepared if I didn’t have a past with this type of spirituality.

By the time I was nine I’d memorized most of the major stories in the bible, and not just to get graham crackers in Sunday school, but because I was genuinely fascinated by the stories. That being said, I’ve always had an innate curiosity about religion.

My curiosity was piqued when as a young, uncouth 14-year-old and I was told at a Pentecostal summer camp that Jesus came to take my sins and he wanted a personal relationship with me. I performed the rite of passage in the evangelical world by going up to the altar, drenching the floor with tears, and repenting for all the garbage in my life – perceived and unperceived.

From then on, everything I did was branded by mainstream evangelical Christianity. I wore sly marketing schemes for conversion on my shirts in the spirit of “Jesus: Sweet Savior King of Kings;” went to all the prayers around the flagpole; lead all the bible studies and avoided all the wrong music.

But, after a while, all these approaches to faith were becoming dryly ritualistic and left me starving for God in a ravenous way. Reading the Bible, which was communicated as the portal into the divine, no longer inspired anything in me, and prayer seemed like a chore.

Everything in my heart agreed with the essential teachings of Jesus to love radically as a means to experience the kingdom of God, but after being exposed to other ideas through my own reading I started having doubts about the fundamentals of fundamentalism.

Since then, I’ve gradually disintegrated my attachments to fundamentalist Christianity and have tethered towards faith movements within the Christian circle that respect Christ’s teachings in a way that celebrates the mystery and beauty of all walks of faith.

But, I had experienced God in the experience of love, and saw my theology as revolving around the axis of sharing that with people.

That said, the familiar style of worship service was about an hour long, and it was nothing short of a rock concert in its scale and intensity. After being away from this type of religious experience for so long, it was a bit overwhelming and off-putting. Yet, I can understand and remember the feelings of exuberance that entails standing and singing in solidarity with hundreds of people at the top of my lungs and feeling the subsequent shivers crawl down my spine.

In those moments, I had felt God. However, that morning I did not feel God – I just felt upset.

Upset when, after the church had been worked up to a fever pitch, the pastor, with silver hair, a slick leather jacket and an even slicker tongue, declared that the drought was over and collected the offering plates. This, in my mind, automatically insinuated that the drought was over on the condition of the faithful’s ability to give in tithes and offerings.

Upset when the pastor said that it is a sin to not want to be great. I almost wanted to walk out at that point. I thought to myself, didn’t Jesus say, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”

But obviously this wasn’t an issue, and the pastor went on talking about being champions for Christ to intermittent cheers and applause throughout all in front of a 200-foot projector mirroring his movements.

Leaving the church, I realized just how far I had deviated from this type of expression.

Yet, there were more simplified forms of religious expression that we experienced on our journey. At both the Islamic Cultural Center of Tempe and the Beth Joseph Congregation of Greater Phoenix, we witnessed the ritualized prayers from the faithful and heard the sweet and lyrical music of the Hebrew and Arabic languages that danced around us during their prayers.

Though we didn’t join in the prayers ourselves, I felt connected to the sense of reverence and tradition embraced in them.

In talking to a youth teacher at the Islamic Cultural Center I was struck by the notion that he didn’t believe that only Muslims go to heaven, but that we only go to heaven by the mercy of God.

This sense of unknowing and humility left an impression on me, along with the sense of respect that Islam shows to their mothers, as I grew up with a single mother myself.

About halfway through our religious journey, Leah and I decided to take the path less traveled and attend a faux cult that sold merchandise at a bookstore downtown that I work at.

The cult is called the cult of the yellow sign and is loosely based off of the writings of Robert W. Chambers and H.P. Lovecraft, fiction writers from the early part of the 20th century who wrote in a similar vein as Edgar Allan Poe. The cult is more of a parody of other cults and we had to remember this when they told us that we had to be blindfolded upon entering the abandoned house for the interview.

I remember before going to the cult, Leah told me that no matter what we couldn’t be separated, and the first thing they told us before going into the house was that we would have to go in one at a time – so much for first impressions.

We were lead through the house by different people in a checkpoint-type system and sat down in front of a semi-circle of cult members whose faces were covered by black shawls of sorts. There were also cult members sitting behind us, but because there were so many bright lights, we couldn’t fully see them.

The interview consisted of the two main members answering with outrageous responses about their cult, such as the fact that they will die first when the world ends; there are rituals where people get eaten; and that they are both pro-choice and pro-abortion.

It was more of a stand-up improvisational -- stand-up about religion which offered a good break from the experiences we had so far.

Our spiritual quest culminated in a visit to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, a large brick church with an equally large net of spirituality as proof by a song selection that included Swahili and Latin along with a reading from the poet E.E. Cummings. The congregation was just as diverse and mirrored, a sort of urban hippie chic.

Instead of religious material throughout the sanctuary there was art plastered all over the walls.

Though Unitarian Universalist, the church has its historical roots in Christianity and it showed as the female pastor preached her Easter sermon about a Jesus who lived a life to prove that the divine spirit lives within all of us and died to prove that love lives beyond death.

This message, and not the typical message of Jesus coming to die for your sins, sat comfortably in my heart. I feel connected to a God that doesn’t need you to believe in anything but the power of love and the truth of the divine in us all.

Knowing that the Unitarian Universalist faith has roots in Judeo-Christianity only confirms my sense of connection with this branch of faith, and out of all the churches, I feel like this harmonizes with the mysticism and collectivism that I am drawn to.

Love is the doctrine of their congregation, and in a similar way, I feel like love is the doctrine and call of my spirit in its multi-faceted incantations.

Love is the answer for me.

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