“Does one actually need to convert to secular Judaism?” That, from my friend Bonnie after I asked her if I should convert, having discovered I am part Jewish, but was raised Catholic. The funny part is that her question was sincere. She suggested that we make a series of dinner reservations instead.
Still, at the center of my question was a real quandary. I was raised with the order of ritual. The most obvious things were the big holidays and holy days that organized the year. Less obvious were the ones my family celebrated, like blessings of animals and food. There were also rogation days – most easily understood by observant Jews, a sort of Sukkot – but rarely observed by Catholics today.
There were also symbols that marked life events. The first suit for communion. The slap on the face for confirmation. The tonsure for vows. Rosaries, scapulars, breviaries, reliquaries.
If I converted to humanism, would I get a Ken doll?
I have told the story many times of day my conversion to humanism was finalized. Friends were joining Paul and me a fancy holiday luncheon at our home one day. I love to set a beautiful table for guests. It is a practice I have been doing since I was five. For some, it likely was a tip-off that I would be gay. For me, in retrospect, it was an indicator of my mother’s Jewish heritage. When we had absolutely nothing, no money to celebrate a holiday or give gifts, my mother set a table like royalty were coming. I helped. So, on that day with Paul, I ironed the linens, arranged the crystal, and combined fruit and flowers as decoration.
As we cooked, Paul asked me, “What DO you believe in, actually?” He pointed out that he dreaded the beginning of a meal when I would say a prayer out of habit, a prayer that he believed was a lie. We went on, “Do you believe in a ‘Heavenly Father’? Are you really thanking someone besides me for the food?”
It was my Damascus.
An hour later, our friends surrounded the table, when I reached for Paul’s hand and looked each person in the eye as I said, “Thanks for being here. You are good friends.” It was congruent with my belief and thus the order that I had been seeking all along.
Sometimes in the years leading up to that meal, I would still take communion when I visited with family members at some celebration. After that meal, I would not do so again. I converted from thanking a heavenly father to thanking my friends, from taking communion to making community, from the lord’s table to my own, from next to you in a pew to next to you on a couch.
I converted from praying to doing. That shift was really the act of courage, honesty, vulnerability, and humility that has made all the difference. Instead of saying, “I will pray for you” (roughly translated as, “I will put a bean behind a telephone poll and wait for a beanstalk to grow so a giant can save you”), I started saying, “As I figure out how better to respond, I am free to listen to you right now.”
The icons of religion were replaced by the very useful images of psychological and sociological theories that I keep in my head all of the time. Where I once stored pieties, I now hold Sternberg’s Model of Love and Prochaska’s Stages of Change Theory.
The summer after that luncheon I planned a trip to New Mexico, going alone. I arranged a two week stay in a hermitage in the desert. I took no books and no watch. I knew no one in New Mexico and made no plans to meet anyone either. The day I left, I asked Paul to shave my head.
I was free.
I encourage people to read my friend Tom’s blog, One Whole Life. This week we have both been writing about our move toward freedom and exodus from religion. Though I am 25 years his senior, Tom’s friendship has prompted me to consider more aspects of my life and to re-evaluate parts of it. Instead of praying for each other, we have become important to each other instead.