Why don't I go to church anymore?
When I was a kid, I thought that the priest at my church was Jesus. He was all dressed up on stage, spotlight on him, and everybody else was talking about Jesus all the time so it just made sense in my little brain.
I went on to learn that his real name was Jerry, and that Jesus had lived two thousand years ago.
And in my church upbringing, I came to cherish Christian teachings and feel a strong connection to the spirit behind those words and works of Christ. I became an altar server, got confirmed in the church and even read verses from the big red book on the altar for the congregation to listen.
Some of the people who knew me best thought I’d grow up to become a priest or a monk of some sort. And I totally entertained those notions. My devotion to a spiritual path was real and the church was my primary framework for understanding it. It felt like I had a spiritual calling. I loved to engage in conversation and contemplation on all manner of spiritual or religious topics - from the afterlife to the concept of grace.
And I was also gay.
I struggled to grapple with that reality for a few years. I did not know how to reconcile my queerness with my religiosity, especially while the social cues surrounding me only encouraged shame or ignorance about homosexual attraction. That was until I had an unexpected transcendent experience while I was sitting on a park bench.
I was 15 at the time and well tired of spending days and nights struggling to merely feel ‘ok’ in my own skin. Something in me must have been ready to snap, because even with minimal experience in meditation, my whole being seemed ready to spontaneously break out of that rut like a crab shedding its battle-hardened shell.
There I was, sitting in the sun on a warm May day - sober as could be - relaxed and with nowhere to go. And somehow, through the course of gradually entering a deep contemplative place within myself, I spontaneously felt at one with the whole universe. When I closed my eyes, I perceived the infinity of space and time within me. I realized my smallness in the vastness of life, and a deep peace came over me.
The thought came to me that if there was an intelligence and consciousness grand enough to conceive of the vastness of our material universe, that my own existence and my own sense of identity - whether sexual or otherwise - could only ever be wholly supported and loved by that grander sense of universal self. I remembered that Christ’s primary teaching was to know love in all its fullness. So, I thought, I’d be doing a disservice if I did not love myself.
The night after that experience, this new self-love afforded me the deepest sleep I’d had in years. I felt in touch with a sense of potential that I had no idea was there before. It sustained me just enough until I came out more fully to my friends and family 3 years later.
After coming out and moving away to college, I encountered so much new information and had experiences and insights that challenged my sense of self-awareness. Late nights discussing life philosophy, hours spent studying subjects like anthropology and modern literature, and parties that seemed to go on forever were my new jam.
It was positively enlightening and mind-expanding to gain some new perspective on life. But I found myself becoming unanchored when it came to my values, my goals, my sense of community and even what brought me joy.
I went into a deep depression for months that tested every fiber of my being.
My way out of depression was in surrendering to the idea that I needed to rebuild myself as a person. And in that tough process I grew more compassionate and more curious about how I could be of service to the needs of the world. My personal sense of spiritual grounding strengthened again. But the need to tie that to a sense of religiousness, or identification with a particular sect or faith, had become obsolete.
I felt freer, more able to explore the possibilities of life. I felt more able to connect with any person with complete openness, whether religious or not. I felt able to wrestle with philosophical, ethical and scientific questions without feeling weighed down by the sense of obligation to adhere to religious opinions that I had no way of defending or verifying.
And yet, to this day, I feel a strong connection with what I perceive to be the underlying core messages and teachings of all the major religious and spiritual traditions: that love is the greatest force in the universe, that there is value in surrendering to the mystery of life, and that we are all called to grow together in unity and peace as a human family.
I do still crave spiritual community, and I find great value in gathering for group meditations and prayers when I get the chance to join with others who are willing to do those things in a spirit of openness and non-judgment.
I draw inspiration from sacred texts and I welcome mystical experiences, which I can’t process by pure rational thinking and which allow me to feel a deep sense of wonder and awe.
I may not have turned out to be a priest of a religious order, but as a meditation teacher, I have come to have a knack for guiding non-religious meditations and prayers for groups of all kinds - helping others access wonder and peace within themselves.
When I allow myself the thought that my heart and my mind cannot be bound by the limits of my physical body or my physical surroundings, I remember that my spirituality cannot be defined by my presence in a building on any particular day of the week. It was actually in church that I learned that it was not enough for a spiritual seeker to just show up on Sundays. But that it was better to show up as a compassionate person each day and each moment of life. That is the real calling and ministry for me.
The universe is my church.
And in this grand cathedral of nature, the stars are the rafters. Trees are the columns. Flowers and the faces of friends are the stained glass windows. And the sounds of the wind and the waves are the voice of spirit intoning wisdom.
Letting go of my religion brought me closer to God.