Yesterday, during my explanation of my “faith journey,” I butchered my attempt to speak aloud an inscription I found in a grotto connected to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Windthorst, Texas. Despite botching the pronunciation, the words seemed right to me:
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.
Translated into English:
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
My fascination with a religious monument I found in a tiny town in a deeply rural Texas landscape still surprises me. I look back at what I wrote on August 1, 2013 and I contemplate what I found so captivating about that Latin phrase. My investigation at the time revealed that the plea in Latin is commonly found in Catholic environments. Though I do not share the religious beliefs of the Catholics responsible for placing the inscription in the grotto, I inexplicably felt a connection with them—without knowing who they were and whether they were still alive. The inscription is part of an outdoor shrine paid for with money sent home by 64 Windthorst, Texas military service members during World War II. All 64 service members returned home.
I visited the shrine in July 2013, during a time when my vehement distaste for all things religious was near its peak. Yet I found something about that place and those words captivating. As I skimmed old blog posts, dating back to as early as 2005, I came to the realization that I more than occasionally exposed cracks in the thick veneer of my religion- mocking attitudes. Though I continued to find all manner of reasons to mock religion as the expression of wishes and fantasies, the genuine tenderness and gratitude I sometimes encountered in religious contexts sometimes impressed me. Even in light of the fact that religious expressions almost always drew upon a deep-seated belief in a “higher power,” the depth of belief was at once moving and embarrassing. Moving because religious expressions seemed to arise from deep and genuine human emotions; embarrassing because those deep human emotions were, in my view, drawn out under false pretenses.
Over time, though, I’ve come to be far more tolerant and accepting of religion. It finally sunk in that my “certainty” that a “higher power” does not exist is no more believable than is others’ certainty that a “higher power” does, indeed, exist. Stalemate. But it need not be a tense, potentially violent stalemate. It can be a civil disagreement. But we both have to agree to the terms: gentleness, willingness to listen, replacement (for a time, at least) of certainty with willingness to accept uncertainty.
I said yesterday I describe myself as a agnatheist. Despite my considerable confidence that religion is simply medieval mythology brought to modern times, I acknowledge the possibility that I am wrong. I cannot use science to prove a negative, so I have to either accept my beliefs or not. But more importantly, it doesn’t matter whether one’s positions on matters religious legitimately can be defended. What matters are the people involved (or not) in matters religious. One ought not to judge a person solely on the basis of his or her beliefs. Beliefs, of course, have to play a part. But they need not be (and should not be) the sole determinants of one’s decision to be friendly with and, possibly, to become friends with, someone whose beliefs differ from one’s own.
My thoughts are wandering all over this morning. That’s not unusual, though. It is just the way my brain attempts to work.