The Reality of Religion: Finding My Congregation

This weekend, I was lucky to have a friend come meet me in Edinburgh, Scotland. I always enjoy both the company and the help planning what to do and eat and how to get there.

She suggested that we go to a Sunday church service because she likes both the ceremony and the meditative quality. I agreed because there is a certain pageantry to it that I appreciate, and it makes a difference to experience a space in its intended use rather than just passing through as a tourist.

We met for coffee beforehand at The Milkman (where I tried my first oat milk latte in consideration of her urging to start a dairy-free lifestyle for my skin) and then we walked over to St. Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile. Ushers at the entry kept people from entering except those attending the service, and we slipped in and found seats.

In the minutes leading up to the 11:30 service starting, I took a brief video of the organ playing and a few photos of the stained glass and gothic arches overhead. Then I muted my phone and committed to quietly sitting, watching, and thinking until the service ended.

St. Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland (image credits: mine)

In the space between watching their rites and listening to the readings & sermon, my mind wandered. I reflected back on the foundations that made this foreign service familiar, and I thought about the places I’ve seen and things I’ve learned since I last spent regular time at church.

I grew up attending First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. My earliest memories are of elementary activities in my Sunday School classes, meeting my parents in their Sunday School room & scoping out the leftover donut situation, and finding ways to skip services in favor of holing up in the church library to read (one book included the tome that was Katharine Hepburn’s autobiography).

Christmas is still inextricably linked with singing carols in our sanctuary; for the last one, we would light individual white candles down the rows and turn out the lights to sing Silent Night in candlelit darkness before quietly processing out. The message of Jesus Christ as a savior never spoke to me, but the pageantry did.

Even as a teenager, unable to explain why I felt skeptical of and uncomfortable with the evangelical mission and us/them boundaries of Christianity, I felt drawn to the rituals, the history and symbolism, the communal experience.

Community and tradition are two of the most fundamental human needs, and religion provides us with both. It is no wonder that every culture has created one, that people of all walks of life find themselves devoted to a deity.

In college, freed from my mother’s requirement that I attend church weekly (which I fulfilled by being a member of our handbell and youth choirs, safely avoiding most religious services and teenage social events), I thought my relationship with religion was over.

However, I found myself studying art history, and nothing has funded more notable visual media and architecture throughout human history than religion. So I studied the Greek pantheon of gods, Christian theology and iconography, Buddhist sculptures and symbols.

I went to Italy and learned (in Italian) about the medieval and Renaissance art and architecture of Siena. After college, I moved to Morocco and found strange comfort in the calls to prayer that echoed through my days and the ornate architecture that paid tribute to the beauty of Allah without human form.

When I visit someone who is religious and they invite me to join a service, I try to say yes. So I’ve found myself at Catholic mass in Siena, Eastern Orthodox service in Seattle. I have been fortunate to time visits to Notre Dame in Paris and the Sheikh Zayad mosque in Abu Dhabi during ceremonies and prayers.

Thanks to my wandering life and curious mind, I have been to churches and cathedrals, temples, and mosques around the world — Brazil, Bulgaria, France, Spain, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Japan, and beyond.

I see life and travel as constant endeavors to learn. I seek out new places and experiences, though many aren’t actually or initially of particular interest to me — but they’re opportunities to gain awareness and understanding.

I go to museums and performances. I study the histories of different people and places. I read the news. I think about the role religion has played in our lives, for better and for worse, for all of human history.

Reverend Calum I MacLeod gave the sermon in an eloquent Scottish brogue, noting first that we are approaching a time of anniversaries:

He then went on to speak more about the ‘priesthood of all believers’ that is a foundational element of the Protestant faith (which was particularly relevant as that day’s service was to ordain new elders into their church).

Another preacher led the prayer, first asking God to be with victims in the Caribbean and Florida, then Bangladesh and Burma, the Middle East, those affected by 9/11, and then to all those dead and gone. Then to Christians, apart from all those others, the brotherhood of believers in Jesus Christ.

My attention flowed between their message, picking up tidbits like the etymology of Presbyterian (from ecclesiastical Latin for presbytery: a body of church elders), and thinking about the complexities of Christianity.

I am open to experiences, be it a Scottish church service, a Cambodian shadow puppet performance, or a Croatian nightclub. But dance doesn’t compel anyone to crusade, to colonize, or to kill.

Ultimately, no matter how drawn in I can be by the pageantry of the service, the power of choral music, or the poetry of readings & sermons, I can’t ignore the reality of religion.

The prayers and pledges turn to ash in my mouth; I cannot speak words that have been used to justify countless inhumane acts across the ages.

I have wished for something to replace religion for me, a community and ceremony that is separate from any omnipotent being or divine claim to anyone or anything or anywhere.

During this service, my mind landed upon a small realization: I have long been a member of the congregation of education.

Everything I have done has been in pursuit of learning, and I find consolation in the written word, a well-told story, a new ability, a connection to another person. My unintentional mission has been, for far longer than I realized, to acquire knowledge & skills and to pass them on. No wonder the sanctuary I love best has been the classroom.

Katherine works remotely while she travels the world — on the road since June 2014. If you liked this piece, please give it some *claps* below & share. Thank you!

Want more? Follow me on Medium and sign up for my mailing list.