Faith and the Family: When Our Beliefs Differ
When loved ones challenge our deepest beliefs, is it even possible to agree to disagree?
My nephew joined me in church for the first time on Christmas Eve 19 years ago. During an episode of major depression, I’d found my way back to the Episcopal Church of my childhood, and I wanted to share with him the faith that had brought me such comfort—and what better way than through candlelight and carols? He asked so many questions—about the lamp hanging behind the altar, the priest’s gestures, the big shiny cup everyone drank from—that I shushed him, uncertain of how to make sense of the Eucharist to a four-year-old. A few days later, standing on his chair, he’d raised his sandwich overhead and broken it in two.
So when, at 16, he asked permission—by now, I’d become his legal guardian—to convert to Roman Catholicism, I wasn’t too surprised. When your primary parent practices liberal Episcopalianism, why not choose Catholicism as a step toward adulthood and individuation? Not the route most teenagers take, but hardly a fringe cult. If this marks the extent of adolescent rebellion, I told friends, bring it on! The Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions share so much, after all. And the rest? Surely we could agree to disagree.
And disagree we did. For he hadn’t chosen just Catholicism but the most conservative, ritualistic elements of the One True Church, as he called it. He hung crucifixes on his bedroom wall and wore clerical vestments to chant Latin in his bedroom. He quoted canon law to defend his views against the ordination of women (“priestesses”) and liberation theology (“not a real theology”). Shortly before he left for college, when I suggested that he keep condoms on hand, just in case, his nostrils flared. Did I really think he’d go against the teachings of his church? I reasoned, bristled, and more than once—usually after he defended the Inquisition—lost my temper. He baited me, yes, and the more opposition I showed, the farther to the extreme he ran. He’ll grow out of it, I told myself. Please.
And then he came home one winter break and announced plans to join a reactionary order in rural Italy. In the days to come, as we debated God’s will and the wisdom of dropping out of college, I came to see that, on one count, he had a valid point: I did have a knee-jerk reaction against the Catholic Church, at least his version of it. My distrust felt primal, as though in rejecting my ecumenical Christianity, he’d rejected me.
But maybe I could view the situation a wee bit less personally. Maybe my outrage came, in part, from trying to make him into an extension of myself. Maybe I wasn’t as accepting as I’d liked to think. I feared losing him, yes, but he hadn’t chosen the priesthood to irk me as much as to grasp at security and structure and father figures. I didn’t have to pay the airfare to Italy, but I could open my heart.
I thought of my friend Evelyn. When she met Paul, neither had a spiritual practice and then, after 18 years of shared secular life, Evelyn began exploring Zen Buddhism. At first, she kept “this new thing” to herself, but as her practice deepened—zazen, sangha, dharma talks, weeklong silent retreats—she wanted to talk about it. Paul’s responses—“Forgiveness? Good, you need it. You never forget a thing I do”—hardly opened the door to dialogue. But the more he saw that Zen hadn’t changed the woman he loved into someone else, the more tolerant he became. Now he tells her, “Go meditate. You’ll feel better.” When she shares an insight about nonattachment, he listens and then asks if she wants pasta for dinner.
I thought of another friend, too. Bullied as a boy by fundamentalist ministers, Earl had vowed never again to set foot in church—any church, even the one where the woman he was dating had invited him to a concert in which her children were performing. No way. And then he got to thinking. He loved her and had promised to care for her children as his own. His brother, who still walked the fire-and-brimstone path, suggested that Earl put aside old history and go. Earl went. Five years later, he still identifies as an atheist—an atheist, that is, who finds in the quiet of his wife’s church not an assault but a sanctuary.
Fast-forward three years. My nephew didn’t join the rural Italian seminary, but he’s stayed true to his traditionalist leanings, albeit in unexpected ways. On the advice of a sympathetic priest/mentor, he’s given up Latin for Slavonic. Russian Orthodoxy, you see, offers a more ornate, traditional liturgy than do our local guitar-strumming Catholic parishes.
The Russian church also follows a different calendar from that of the West, so Easter this year occurred during Orthodox Lent. As I shopped for vegan ingredients for the Great Fast, as well as for pork loin and eggs for the rest of us, I thought back to that Christmas Eve years ago and my nephew’s breaking his sandwich in two. I’d introduced him to religion, and he’d taken from it what he needed, just as I had. And while the outward appearances may differ, there’s no reason we can’t sit at the same table.