It was very important to my Great Grandparents that I be baptized Episcopalian in their church. Not religious herself, my mother acquiesced with, “What could it hurt?” As a little girl, I was dropped off at my Great Grandparents’ house most Sundays and would participate in a set of rituals that I still hold dear to me 30 years later. From watching Great Grandma Agnes put on her clip earrings to smelling the exhaust coming from the garage as Great Grandpa Tom “warmed” up the car 20 minutes prior to departure, these memories are all part of the ritual I associate with wonderful years of being nestled between my two oldest living relatives, making our way to their Episcopal Church in Northwest Portland.
At 8 years old, I adored the Sunday spectacle. The beautiful stained glass, swelling music pouring out of the rafters, choir members accompanying the magnificently huge pipe organ, and gorgeous bouquets and candles everywhere filled me with importance and pomp for simply being present. I loved the sounds intermingled with the smell of incense swinging down the aisle, the fathers and deacons in their braided-gold robes, and the well-groomed attendants who passed the large copper collection plates. Agnes was the most important part of this ritual for me, and not just for the chalky pink and white peppermints she would dispense at 10 minute intervals to prevent boredom. She was a constant observer and participant. In her perfectly matched outfits, she offered running commentary on wardrobe selections as other members made their way up for communion. This was her religion; this was how Agnes defined her faith. She sang the loudest, took the largest gulp of wine, and taught me that personal and spiritual beliefs are whatever we want them to be.
Leaving the Episcopal Church
My time in the Episcopal Church came to an end the day Tom fell asleep at the wheel, and my mother, understandably shaken, no longer allowed me to participate. Valuing their own safety, Tom and Agnes would attend infrequently after that, though they faithfully mailed their $2 offering every week. My mother would sometimes take Agnes to church after Tom’s passing, but, somehow, it just wasn’t the same, and we stopped going altogether eventually. Over the years, I tried to revisit my roots, making an effort to attend services, but the message didn’t reach me anymore. Without Agnes there by my side to help me find what I was looking for, I kept searching for the words that spoke to me as an adult.
When I eventually married a man with no religious leanings, we set off to explore Japan together, in search of…something. There, we fell in love with the hopefulness of Buddhism. We traveled the country, visiting hundreds of temples, languishing in the antiquity of it all, learning the rituals of clasping hands at altars and the art of bowing deeply before images of Buddha. We found something there that spoke to both of us, and, returning home, joined a local Buddhist temple.
Somewhere in Between
I carry those Episcopalian rituals with me as I study Buddhism. The songs are different, as are the chants and sayings, but the feeling of ritual is the same. Though I definitely call myself a Buddhist now, my Episcopalian roots are present, and I believe they provide me with a deeper experience as I say, “Namu Amida Butsu.” To me, religion is as much about the ritual of participation as it is about the message we are receiving. There are times that I feel like “I’m not worthy-but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.” Other times, however, I definitely know that “I am a link in Amida’s golden chain of love that stretches around the world.” Experiencing both paths has illuminated the fact that religion, however we define it, can be a very gray area. It’s the ritual we take with us into our daily lives, that truly brings meaning to these shared experiences, and I carry a little piece of Agnes and Tom’s world with me, no matter where I find my faith.