Religion is a difficult topic for my family.
Death, depression, sickness, anger, pride and pain have followed us in our own ways, relentlessly forcing us to question what we believe and why. If you asked, not all of us could tell you why we believe what we do. Not all of us have found strength sitting in a church pew.
My father was raised Lutheran, my mother Roman Catholic and my brother and I attended mass and Catholic school for some time and completed all the necessary sacraments of initiation before reaching legal adulthood.
My Sunday church-going has lessened over the last few years, which raised some maternal concern. She only wanted “what’s best for me,” and once-weekly penance fell beneath that heading. So, she zealously encouraged me to return to mass. Her intentions are good, my mother; just sometimes, misguided.
For the first few years of college, I only went to services when I was home. It was only an hour, and it made her happy. After mass ended, it was like a family reunion with too many aunts and uncles, all wanting to kiss you and tell you “how big you’ve gotten.” Nothing had changed.
Last year, I went to lunch with my Mom. We caught up on each other’s lives, and all was well.
I forked one of the steamed dumplings into my mouth.
“So, when was the last time you went to church?”
The question was polite, but her posture was defensive. She didn’t meet my eyes as I looked up at her.
I swallowed roughly.
“Do you want to hear what I have to say, or do you want to scold me.” I answered, watching her twirl some noodles around her fork.
“Karly, I always want to hear what you have to say.”
She eyed me, expertly over her reading glasses.
I poked at my noodles, deciding how to begin.
She shakes her head.
“Okay, well what happens is, there’s a guy on a ship, and he’s sailing with his crew. There’s an albatross that just kind-of hangs out by the ship, and the mariner gets annoyed. So, he shoots it.”
She looks up, startled.
I hold up my hand, preventing an interruption.
“Now, because he kills the albatross, the ship gets stuck in the middle of the water with no wind anywhere. It gets really, really hot, and they start to fall apart because there’s no water or food, and as punishment, they hang the dead albatross around the mariner’s neck.”
“A few days later, Death shows up, sees what the mariner did and kills his entire crew. All the men on the boat fall down dead, and it’s his fault.”
“Now, at this point, he has completely given up. He wants nothing to do with the boat, the albatross or the crew. He wants to kill himself.”
I stop for a moment, taking a bite of my noodles.
“Come on! You can’t leave me hanging,” she exclaims.
I chew faster, nodding.
“Okay, okay. So, he’s sitting on the boat with a giant, rotting bird around his neck, surrounded by the dead bodies of his crew, and the sun starts to rise. He looks at the water and sees these water snakes swimming toward him.”
I push my food aside and lean over the table.
“These snakes, the ones he hated more than anything, are suddenly the most beautiful things he has ever seen.”
“He truly believes that they are good. He believes that everything around him is good because it was created that way. He believes nature was created in its creator’s image.
“All of nature is truly beautiful.
“Only then, does the albatross fall off his neck.”
I sit back and pull my noodles in front of me.
“And, the angels of the dead crew propel his boat to shore and he tells a wedding guest the same story to pay for his misdeeds.” I say, trying to finish with a note of levity.
She’s quiet, so I look up.
She’s wiping her eyes.
“Mom,” I say, apologetically.
“I don’t go to church” I explain, ” because I find beauty and peace and solace in being outside, and in words like this. I’ve learned more about right and wrong in books than I have in a pew, or on an altar, or in a confessional. I believe that there is a greater power, but I don’t need to know everything about it right now. I’m okay with that. I’m okay with figuring it out as I go.”
“Okay,” she said, taking my hand.