“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”. (A prayer my grandmother taught me when I was about three years old, to be followed by the names of people I wanted God to “bless”.)
My people were not religious.
By “My people”, I mean the people who raised me- largely my maternal grandparents, Hal and Faye Coffey. I am told that my father, whom I never knew, was a devout Catholic, and my mother, who became a part of my life when I was a little older, became a Catholic when she married my second step-father. For awhile, what proved to be a half-hearted effort was made to convert (or at least introduce) me to Catholicism, but it failed to take. (Actually, that’s not entirely true. I was deeply impressed by the theatricality of the Catholic Mass- the old, “real” Mass, that is, with the “bell, book and candle”, and the Latin chanting and the incense and, especially, the guy up there in the blazingly white outfit, running the show. I suspect this led to a misbegotten first career as an actor, and a later stint as a middling Pagan Priest. Got to wear the robes, and everything!) But, I digress.
I spent my first ten years or so, in a home in which religion was simply absent. My people were not anti-religious; they were just areligious- the subject never came up. This is puzzling for several reasons. First, my grandparents both came from areas that could certainly be considered part of the “Bible Belt”: Alabama (on my grandmother’s side), and then the Oklahoma panhandle, before they married and came North to Nebraska early in the 20th Century. I visited that part of Oklahoma, several years ago and, honestly, if I had to live in such a brutally inhospitable land (speaking of the environment, not the people), I would, I’m sure, be a deeply devout believer in some kind of Deity, if only to give myself any edge I could.
Second, I’ve been told that my grandfather, several times removed, was a Methodist Circuit riding Preacher. This, of course, can work to either insure reverence on the part of descendants, or to insure it’s absence. Who knows? (Parenthetically, I’m also told- by my mother, just before her death- that I have a full-blood Cherokee back there; gender unknown. Since the Cherokee were centered around Alabama, before they were force-marched to Okalahoma, via the “Trail of Tears”, I’ll always wonder about that connection, and if it’s the reason my Grandmother’s family- the “Webbs” came West. My mother didn’t know, and she almost didn’t tell me at all. She said it had been the “family secret” all of her life, a shameful thing. She was still ashamed when she told me, which saddens me. Societal change almost caught up with her.)
So, yes; religion was oddly absent from a family that might have been expected to, at least, be “socially religious”- dressing up for church on Sundays, with a church supper and singing after, under the trees. I say “absent”, but that’s not entirely true. I have faint memories of some kind of “Grace” being said, before Sunday dinner (usually fried chicken- the best I have tasted, to this day), and my grandmother did teach me a little prayer to say, before I went to sleep, each night. I’ve quoted some of it, above. I feel her love whenever I say it, as I occasionally do, blessing her name.
That’s about it, though, and I have a few theories (absent access to anyone older than myself; somehow it’s come to be that there are very few people older than myself) about why that might have been.
First, my grandparents were survivors of the worst financial depression in American history. As I mentioned, they had left the land in Oklahoma before it turned to dust, but, starting in 1929, nearly everyone suffered to some extent. I gather they survived by dint of hard work- in fact, I might say that hard work, to the exclusion of almost everything else, was their religion. To work was to survive. Born in 1936, long before the coming of World War II changed everything, I learned quickly that work was more important, took precedent over absolutely everything else. It was a painful lesson that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to overcome.
Second- and I know this is reaching- my grandparents’ roots were in Scotland and Ireland. I don’t know when, or under what circumstances, they left (speaking here of my Mother’s side; my recently-found sister, Mary, can tell you every move our father’s side- also from Scotland- made, and when), but, somehow I doubt if the move was impulsive. More likely they were driven by desperation and despair; we do not leave the land of our birth idly. It’s well known that simply being a Celt will give one a spavined attitude about Deity, and I doubt my forebears were exceptions to the rule, whatever their professed religion at the time.
In any case, it seems my grandparents (or their parents; impossible to tell), somewhere along the line, jettisoned whatever faith they may have had in a benevolent deity and, lacking an acceptable alternative, just dropped the whole thing. Whether it was a gradual letting-go or a moment of epiphany, followed by a spiritual “Thud”, I have no way of knowing at this remove. but they never took it up again. My grandfather’s funeral was held under the auspices of the Benevolent Order of Elks, and my grandmother’s, I’m told, was similarly secular.
So. Given all of the above, it is a wonder to me- although perhaps it shouldn’t be- that I have spent my entire life searching for that which is “worshipful”. (The origins of the word “Worship” mean, “of worth”, or, “That which is worthy”.) The search has led me through some strange and wonderful places. For many years, as an actor and director, I worshiped at the altar of Dionysus- a sometimes fun, but always unpredictable god. I’ve worshiped Mommon, like most of us, and I’ve danced with Goddesses and their consorts, but, always, I’ve been looking for The Thing that “believers” of all stripes say they have- though I’m more inclined to believe those who say they have it sometimes, and that, imperfectly.
These are thoughts that lead me into realms of speculation that may call for another entry. For now, I’ve said what I set out to say about the curious (to me) lack of religious observance in my childhood. I need to think more about how this lack, in some way, led me to a lifetime of questioning. If I have any more to say about it, I’ll do a follow-up.
For now, thank you for reading this. I’m always interested in your feedback and questions. Remember, as Ram Dass once said, “We’re all just walking each other home”.
Happy Trails to you, and be well. -Buff