I was raised nominally Jewish in a mostly Catholic neighborhood. I fell in love with the trappings of Catholicism: my friends’ ashed foreheads, their pretty rosary beads. Most of all, it was Mary who got to me. My mother was ill most of my childhood, and I loved the idea of a mother in the sky looking out for me. We had a lovely book on Michaelangelo filled with large plates of the Pieta from every angle, and her beauty and sadness, her love for her child, filled me with a responsive, innocent child’s love. I went to church a few times with friends, but mostly, I just kept Mary in the back of my head as a benevolent protector. I don’t remember ever praying to her, just loving her with a passionate heart.
As I grew up, I learned about other gods, and went to other churches and temples; I always kept an open mind, and frustrated many a would-be spiritual mentor by listening very carefully to what they had to say, then passing on. I’ve attended every kind of service, from tongues-talking Evangelicals to earnest Jehovah’s Witness meetings to Wicca rites. What moves me are people, and the cultures and arts they create in their quest to define the world’s mysteries. I also studied science, and it became very natural to roughly assign experience in a Venn diagram where X was better understood through the lens of science and logic, and Y, through the lens of feeling and art, with quite a bit of overlap on a subject like my mother’s illness. I needed both science and feeling to cope — to understand clearly what was happening to my mother in her biology, and to grieve for it with art and music and human sympathy. I think of my love for Mary as my first faltering steps towards understanding the pain of being human. That’s why the perpetual war between religious and scientific thought, between deism and humanism, is so frustrating. The best of it all is rooted in the impulse to understand, and the worst of it in ego, fear, and shame — and if I have a religious fervor, it’s for those moments when the best wins out — whether because a theory brings sense or a song brings peace into the world where none was before.