This I Believe: Janet Urbanowicz (2001)

As meaningful as I’ve always found our “This I Believe” programs, I’ll admit to feeling some reluctance to tell my own story – not because there’s anything especially difficult for me to tell, but because it has been a relatively quiet inner journey, in contrast to the dramatic, sometimes truly heroic stories that I’ve felt honored to hear from others here.  With that said, I’ll continue.  I do know from long experience that there’s a listening here for all our stories, whether they’re eventful or more ordinary.

Essentially, my journey has taken me from a very full experience of Roman Catholicism in my early years, through a period of doubt, disbelief, and spiritual dissatisfaction, and then happily into Unitarian Universalism, where I’ve been for about 27 years.

My experience of Roman Catholicism was not what you might expect.  Unlike many others who have left that church, I somehow missed the harsher aspects of Catholicism.  I’ve sometimes wondered about why that was; were those aspects not there in my case, or did they simply not take?  (For the most part, I think, they were not there.)  At any rate, I was surprisingly happy in my Catholic childhood – though it seems to me almost medieval, looking back on it.  I grew up with devoutly religious parents, attended Catholic school through the ninth grade, taught by nuns in dark habits, and began every school day as well as Sunday by attending Mass.  Yet, surprising as it may sound, the terms “recovering Catholic” and “Catholic guilt”, so meaningful to many, have little or no resonance for me.

One important reason for this, I believe, is that I had kind and loving parents.  (They were ordinary people, but they were loving and wise and full of good humor, and never concerned with depravity or sin.)  I have a theory, in fact, that a child’s perception of God may well be based on his or her perception of parents, perhaps in our culture, of fathers in particular.  I believe mine was.  Because I felt very close to my father and experienced him as loving, giving, and unpunishing, that’s how I saw God.

I also perceived my parents as tolerant.  My father had close friends who were Protestant.  I never heard him express disdain for their religion.  To the contrary, I know he actually told one or two priests with whom he was friendly that Catholic clergy might do well to elevate their standards of preaching to the level of Protestant ministers.  Obviously, he’d heard a few.  I had Protestant friends too, children who lived in the neighborhood.  I don’t remember ever believing that they would not go to heaven as easily as I.  If anything like that were ever suggested (it could have been; I don’t remember), I discounted it as surely having some other explanation.

I also attribute my untroubled experience to the Franciscan nuns who were my grade school teachers.  I remember them fondly as happy women and good teachers.  And believe me, from my experience in kindergarten at another school, I knew a dour teacher when I saw one.  In contrast, let me describe Sister Alicia, our music teacher who led us in assemblies and in one of my favorite first and second grade activities; Rhythm Band – with its castanets and tambourines and tingling triangles, I loved it.  Sister Alicia, who would literally sweep into the assembly hall like Loretta Young, smiling broadly, lift her woolen skirt, as if it were a ball gown, to sit down at the piano, fling back her veil like long, silky tresses, and begin playing a lively rendition of the “American Patrol March” as we filed in.  She did this again, and again, and again, and I never ceased to find it thrilling.

Even with loving parents and teachers, all of them devoted to the Catholic church, I began to doubt and grow restless in the church.  In college, my doubts intensified, along with my opposition to some of the church’s teachings.  The women’s movement, too, made me more and more aware of patriarchy, as reflected both in the clergy and in our image of God.  Had I not wanted to hurt my parents, I think I would have left the church much earlier than I did.  Eventually, to lead an authentic life, I did have to hurt them.  They never held it against me.

One effect of my reasonably happy Catholic childhood, however, is that I experienced losing my faith as a loss, a real loss (rather than a liberation).  I still had religious yearnings, but no world view to accommodate them or community in which to give them expression.  And a lot of what I was reading at the time, as an English major, was the literature of alienation.  It felt to me as if the meaning had gone out of everything – and that what I was left with was an absurd, random universe that was depressing, and profoundly disturbing.  If the phrase “recovering Catholic” had no resonance for me, the phrase “dark night of the soul” certainly did.

As I’ve done in absolutely every upset or “crisis’ in my life, I turned to reading in search of meaning.  For a long time there was something urgent and desperate in my reading – as if I believed that somewhere on page 347 of some history of philosophy, it would suddenly all be revealed to me.  And poor Victor, seemingly the least likely of gurus; in the early years of our marriage, I would sometimes follow him about the apartment, like some haunted, demented creature, imploring him to talk about or even tell me “the meaning of it all”.  I remember he turned to me once, and said with great exasperation, “I don’t know; do you get it, I don’t know.”  (He said later he would have been flattered by this if he had felt up to it.”)

For several years, I had a very hard time living without answers.

Interestingly, given how I used to harass him about life’s meaning, it was Victor who brought me to Unitarianism, suggesting more than once that we try the Unitarian Fellowship in Ames, Iowa, where we then lived.  I knew little about Unitarianism.  I wasn’t especially eager to go.  I certainly did not expect what happened.

It was like suddenly finding your own people.  And it was suddenly coming upon a spiritual home, a spiritual community.  I remember how right it felt to be there and how comforted and inspired I felt among all these people who identified themselves as religious seekers.  I instantly knew I had found what I needed – and no one was more surprised than Victor, except perhaps me, at the suddenness of my knowing.  (It turned out the answer wasn’t on page 347; it was at 1015 N. Hyland.)

All the things we found in that Unitarian community – all the spiritual seeking, the open minds and warm, open hearts, the laughter, and drama, and music, and celebration, and good food, and social concern, and religious education for our children, all of that we’ve found here – and more.

We’ve now been Unitarians for twenty-seven years.  When I consider what it has been for me over the years to live in this religious community, something else does come to mind – it’s a realization that has come gradually but that has grown stronger and stronger over the years – that we’re not only living in the questions; we’re actually living the meaning, we’re living the answers.  I believe that our connections with family and friends and church community and broader community and nature and world are deep and profound and meaningful and infinitely rewarding.  I believe we help to create the meaning in our commitments, and in our work and in our personal challenges; I also believe we simply experience it, are caught up in it.  That’s why it’s so important to be conscious, and alert, and present, as Victoria so often eloquently reminds us.  It’s possible to miss it.

I don’t have to look far for challenges to this belief – to dark and disturbing world happenings, to hardships and stark tragedies in people’s lives that can make me despair or call out to me to do far more for the world than I’m doing.  I know people have been destroyed; I also know that people in the most extreme of circumstances have expressed faith and hope, and even joy in their lives.

Over the years, I’ve also come to have a sense of life’s mysteries.  Four times in my life, I’ve had experiences that have felt more deeply spiritual and resonant and mysterious.  Three had to do with death.  I always knew that there would be sadness around death, along with pain, and depression – but I never knew there could also be beauty.  One of the last images I have of my father, when he was ill with cancer, is of him gazing out over a field of winter wheat that he had planted, and that my brother and Victor harvested after his death.  His gaze, as I watched him and as he turned toward me was sad, yes, but also so vast and so radiant with joy that he seemed almost luminous.  When I asked Victor later if he’d ever seen that in my father during that last year, he answered emphatically, “You couldn’t miss it.”  As sad as that moment was for me, it was also profoundly beautiful, and mysterious.  It was a gift that, knowingly or unknowingly, my father gave to me in his dying.

There have been other gifts of the spirit over the years, happily in less extreme circumstances – from my family, my friends, and from this very beloved church community.  I truly feel a fullness.  Thank you.