I remember two things about my upbringing in the Anglican Church in the old Toronto of the forties and fifties.
First of all, I remember the warmth of life in the community of St. Albans parish. Many of the parishioners were postwar immigrants from England, including the portly and distinguished Col. Towers, one of the church wardens. I was a Wolf Cub and a boy chorister; I learned my music in the church choir. On a Sunday morning in spring, when the sun shone through the eastern window at the head of the sanctuary illuminating the stained-glass image of Jesus on his throne, and as the organ and choir soared into one of the beautiful Anglican anthems, I believed. There was a peace and tranquillity in that life that came, it seems to me now, from the English countryside where the anthems and many of the parishioners began. These memories and emotions are part of nostalgia for childhood, and part of a cultural and personal identity, like the smell of my mother's cooking.
The second thing I remember is how little my early religious training helped me as I grew older and began to confront the problems and decisions that maturity brings. At the age of eight or so I looked at pictures of the war in Europe, including what the soldiers who liberated Auschwitz found, and was horrified and mystified. Later I became aware of Hiroshima, and spent a year of my life at about the age of seventeen in fear of the possibility of nuclear annihilation before finally deciding that the worry was more of a problem for me than the unknowable danger of nuclear war. Nothing in the teachings I had received from the church even hinted that such problems existed, let alone gave any advice on how an adolescent was to think about a creation in which these things were possible.
Similarly, when sexual maturity and confidence finally arrived, I had to reconcile the delight and goodness it brought with the teachings of my church. The good parson who gave me confirmation instruction told us that our genitals were sacred and should only be used for the Lord's will, namely procreation. Although I remember the instruction, it had no effect on my experience as an adult person, and thus I now see it as foolish and inadequate.
The discovery that the church of my childhood appeared to have little understanding of the world that I was entering was a revelation to me. I do not hold the church accountable for being unable to explain successfully the problem of evil manifest in the Holocaust and Hiroshima or for failing to deal adequately with the problems of human sexuality. As the parent of two young girls, I struggle with the same issues in my conversations with them.
These experiences, however, led me to reject totally the claims of the Christian Church or any other human institution or person to absolute correctness of doctrine or authority. Such claims, based on revelation or anything else, seem arrogant and prideful. I believe that all human perceptions are relative and contingent, except the experience of love. We--all of us--see through a glass darkly.
The warmth of my experience of childhood in St. Albans parish was an experience of love, and it remains with me to this day. Love seems the central fact of human life, and the foundation of spirituality. I believe that all human beings understand this at least in part: religious creeds and theologies are human attempts to encounter love. All enunciations of this truth, whether in prayer or in a love song, are equally worthy of response.
The truth of human suffering remains a mystery. I can fathom the suffering of the innocents who were slaughtered in the camps, or in Bosnia, or wherever. Theirs is the terror of the deer caught in the mindless jaws of a hungry wolf. But the perpetrators--the camp guards, the Balkan soldiers drunk on plum brandy--are not wolves. What moves anyone to slaughter innocents? Could I, under the right circumstances, be the guard in the camp? I suspect the answer is yes. But why should this be? No one can answer these questions.
In recent years I have been attracted to certain Buddhist teachings. The Buddhist doctrine of renunciation, so often misunderstood, is meaningful to me. It sees pain and suffering in terms not of the sin of the perpetrator, but rather of the desire of the perpetrator's ego to dominate and reinforce itself. Suffering, viewed in this way, is the triumph of fear over love. The supreme act of love and compassion is to renounce one's ego and its desires. This does not mean that one renounces the world and abandons the striving for connection that love requires. It means, in Jesus' words, that one gives up one's life to gain it. Buddhist meditation is an attempt to achieve this difficult goal.
Some institution or community is necessary for social relationships, if not for religious communion. It is all very well to reject hierarchies and institutions and live for love, but how exactly is it done? How do I replace the Anglican parish that once was my community? This question is central in my adult life.
For me, it cannot be a community that makes absolute claims for its teachings or for my allegiance. It should be a community that is comfortable with confusion and ambiguity. Buddhist communities interest me. One can belong partially, contingently, blundering along at one's own speed. There is no creed and no catechism. One can be partially in or partially out.
I do not feel that I have renounced my Christian identity. I wear it differently now. Christmas especially is still a significant event in my life, arousing deep emotions that are more than nostalgia. The Christian Gospels are moving records of a community coming to grips with the questions that we all must face. But the truth of the Gospels is contingent for me, as all attempts at the spiritual journey must be.
I enjoy being present in houses of prayer. I love the sound of hymns, of chanting, and I warm to the peaceful, open look of the faces of people forgetting themselves. But when a guru or a preacher starts to define the conditions and rules of the journey of the spirit, everything changes for me and I look for a doorway.
Brian Metcalfe is a chartered accountant with a public accounting practice in Toronto. He is married with two children and has a PhD in English literature.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld