Growing up, I shared a very close relationship with both of my grandmothers, each of whom had a different approach to expressing her faith. My paternal grandmother was exposed to two religions in her family’s home: her father was Lutheran and her mother was Catholic. In her adult years, Grandma Batten practiced Catholicism. I remember her attending daily mass and saying the rosary devoutly. She was humble, and everyone was drawn to her for comfort. Perhaps it was her exposure to different religions as a child that led her to be more accepting of people. Or maybe it was just God’s grace.
My maternal grandmother was Canadian. She had a very difficult childhood, working on a farm at a young age. Her family did without many things, including church. Grandma Sarah believed in God, but she didn’t practice any formal religion. I had always known her to be very generous and a skilled baker. Even though she didn’t attend the local church, she showed her generosity by cooking and cleaning for the pastor – maybe that helped her feel connected to God. I remember her peeling apples for her homemade pies and singing while she worked. Unfortunately her songs often had a racial overtone. Even at my young age, those songs didn’t sit well in my heart. While I didn’t completely understand my feelings, this was my first exposure to intolerance.
As a child I could sense the ugliness of intolerance, but as a teenager, some of that sensitivity had dulled. I will never forget the Friday evening my mother dropped me off at a weekend retreat that she’d signed me up for called “The Happening.” Standing alone with my sleeping bag, not knowing a single soul, I was terrified, and angry that she had sent me there. In high school, the “coolness factor” was an important consideration in picking friends and social situations. The group at The Happening was not my group of choice. Mom reassured me that if I wasn’t enjoying myself after two hours, she would come back to pick me up. Well that weekend changed my life. One of the most significant takeaways from the retreat was the connection I felt with individuals who were totally different from me. By the end of the weekend, I was overwhelmed by a sense of love for these people whom two days earlier I may have labeled as “weird”. This was my first lesson in how wrong I could be if I judged a book by its cover.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been exploring my faith, searching deeply. My parents raised me in a very charismatic Catholic home. They were involved in our parish and very active in ministry. They taught us respect for the saints and we never missed mass on Sundays or on Holy Days of Obligation. Growing up this way certainly influenced the lens through which I now see the world. I’ve definitely experienced God’s love, mercy and grace. But there have also been times in my life when God seemed absent. This may have something to do with why I’ve always been eager to understand how my friends experience their faith, God, institutional religions and spirituality.
The most fulfilling moments for me have been spent in conversations of faith, especially exploring the meaning of life. As the levels of trust in my friendships have grown, I’ve been profoundly touched by the sharing of burdens and hurts that we’ve each carried. Many of us have been wounded, sometimes going back to childhood, by a parent, friend or spouse. Most of us have not escaped hardships such as illness, death, regrets, and career challenges. Often during these challenges, we’ve been embraced by our faith community; but in some cases, we have felt rejected. We’ve witnessed both moments of tolerance, and lack of tolerance, which have left an imprint on our view of the world and influenced our faith. The scope of pain, or sense of our rejection by church, God or even a loved one, has lasting effects.
I spent the first twenty years of my life in a relatively small Midwestern town. The few trips my family took to Wisconsin and Disney World didn’t prepare me for the bigger world. So at 22, when presented with a job opportunity in San Francisco, I knew my eyes were about to be opened. What great memories I have of exploring the streets of Chinatown, amazed by the architecture and overcome by the aroma of the authentic Chinese fare. I was eager to experience the cultural explosion of San Francisco. There I had the pleasure of working with men and woman who were living a lifestyle different than I had previously been exposed to. My colleagues were of every nationality, married, divorced, single and gay. Each individual taught me a something new about compassion, tolerance, kindness and liberation.
In my early thirties, my husband and I lived in downtown Chicago near Wrigley Field. Our next-door neighbors were a newly married Jewish couple. They shared their religious customs and rituals with us, and demonstrated a tradition and love of God alone that I hadn’t witnessed before. Through this friendship, I once again came to a deeper understanding of my own faith, this time, in its connection to Judaism.
Two months prior to my 40th birthday, my husband and I welcomed our fifth child. We were committed to passing along our shared faith to our children. Around this time, I decided to enroll in a program to study spiritual direction. I specifically sought out a general Christian program so that I could learn other perspectives from various streams of Christianity. For two years, I listened as Protestants, Catholics, Evangelicals, Reformed believers, and people of other faiths shared how they experienced God’s love during the most trying times of their life. This program was another eye-opener for me. While I had never been intolerant of other faiths, I may not have always afforded them the same respect that I gave my own. My adult faith continues to be formed, and this program humbled me yet again.
Recently, my husband and I were talking about how we can better nurture our children to have an attitude of love and tolerance towards each other, and the world in general. Teaching them about kindness is an on-going effort. They can remember the sharp feeling of disappointment when they were excluded from an outing by friends. We’ve also explained how it felt for us to receive a call when one of them was not behaving kindly at school or on the bus. An analogy that we repeat often for them is that when Dad travels on an airplane for his job, regardless of whom he sits next to, he treats that individual with kindness and respect.
Last month I became aware of the buzz surrounding the New York Times article about Pope Francis, by Lauri Goodstein, published on September 19, 2013. Goodstein quotes the pope in the final lines of the article, revealing what I believe to be the church’s view on tolerance:
“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. we must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” Since that article was published, I have heard many people expressing their joy of the pope’s desire to remain true to the faith tradition and yet expand the heart of the church to be more inclusive, accepting and loving.
These experiences, and people in my life have influenced how I view the world and my faith. Scripture also guides me, telling how Jesus Christ walked with the marginalized and about his acceptance of them. In the Gospel of Matthew 7:12 we hear, “So whatever you wish that others would do for you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” God’s truth isn’t fully revealed to me, and yet I appreciate the idea of treating people the same way I would want to be treated. I hold close the words of Grandma Batten, “Evangelize like a butterfly and not like a bee.” Because my desire is to bring people closer to Jesus Christ, her words are ones I strive to follow. I think she would agree that demonstrating love in church, communities, work and family is a good place to start.
This blog is based on the personal experiences and opinions of Peggy O’Flaherty. Any reproduction of the material in this blog may be used with written consent of the author by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Peggy O’Flaherty, is a certified spiritual director, public speaker, blog writer, wife and mother of five children. Her recent writing projects include “Who Is Listening?” and “Why Clean Your Garage?” She is the Founder & President of Creating Space, LLC., a ministry helping people enrich their faith. Follow Peggy at www.creatingspaceinyourlife.com.