COMMON SONGS // elspeth

I have never been religious in the traditional sense. My grandfather, my mom's dad,  was an episcopal priest. My father didn't attend church growing up, and by the time he married my mother she'd had enough church for one life. And so I was baptized, and I went to services around the holidays a few times with my grandmother when she came to visit, but otherwise, I never had much experience with organized religion.

This has never bothered me. I have plenty of faith. The marriage between my parents cemented my belief in love early on. Their shared passion is birds, one it turns out I don't wholeheartedly share. But it meant I spent much of my childhood trailing behind them looking for rare species alongside my sister in the woods, on a beach, or in a canoe. Their love for each other and being together outside instilled in me a deep faith in the outdoors, in the logic and wisdom of natural systems. It taught me to emulate and honor truth, and I try and hope to do the same for my girls.

But recently, I've been thinking about religion. I've been wondering if in the celebration of secularization we've jumbled something crucial, if something important has been lost. I'm not necessarily imagining a return to church; as someone who's hardly ever been, I'm not sure what that even means. But from the outside, there are pieces that appeal.

There is value, I think, in gathering regularly. To putting our communities and their needs before our own, to singing loudly and learning, by repetition, common songs. To shuttering commerce on an agreed-upon day and giving everyone a chance to rest with the people we love. To bringing the old and young together; to wondering about common good. 

There's a group trying to do this in cities all over the world called Sunday Assembly. The founders say they wanted to create something like church, but open to anyone, of any belief, who wants to live better, help often, and wonder more. Assembly-goers sing, listen to talks and musical performances and readings, eat donuts and drink coffee afterward, and get together on other days to volunteer. For a lot of reasons, it's appealing.

We have five churches in our tiny town, all Christian, and most fairly old. One is known for its concerts, and another for the community suppers it runs in the lean season from October to May. 

Last week we went to one of the Methodist Church dinners. I couldn't tell you the first thing about being Methodist—I'm not sure if they have a minister or a priest, I have no idea if they sing during services, and I don't know what the collective feeling is on what happens after death. Sally convinced us to go; we helped cook one of the dinners once, a few months ago, and she remembered vividly the desserts and the after-dinner play time with friends. 

The place was packed when we arrived. Our friend Teresa was washing dishes. Three other people we know from town waved us over to their table, motioning us to grab plates and sit down. We got in line and heaped them with sausages and peppers and potato salad and coleslaw. The kids sat scattered, where they fit next to other adults, and I spent most of dinner getting to know a man I'd initially squabbled with over the seating arrangement. I discovered I liked him, that he is a passionate birdwatcher and biologist and soft-spoken and kind. I lost Sally at one point and discovered her upstairs in the nursery with a friend, funneling stolen chocolate milk.

Going transformed my day. I hadn't really wanted to get the kids dressed and out of the house again, but Sally had insisted. Alex came toward the end, when he got out of work just as things were wrapping up. It didn't matter that he was late; he still got fed. We were sent off with leftovers, and we put money in the jar because we could.

But you can't buy that kind of supper. Open and free to the community, it offers something no restaurant can. It's a place to be together, without judgement or prerequisites. And while I realize that has not always been the reality of religion, I think it has often been the goal. And I think the goal, however it's realized, still stands.

To that end, there's an interesting intersection happening right now between the Pope and environmental leaders. In September, Pope Francis said that to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against God, and implored Catholics to confess their environmental sins. "The world's poor," he said, "though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact." Last month, leading world scientists traveled to the Vatican to discuss how to save the natural world, with organizers stating that “the living fabric of the world, which we enjoyed in Genesis, Chapter II to protect, is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring.”

There are no easy answers. But it's a conversation we need urgently to be having, and I respect any leader who's willing to brave the truth, open up the conversation, and take a stand.

I'll be back soon, hopefully with a big pot of kale soup. 


Cathie Ragovin said...

Thank you for this. You echo my sentiments so powerfully...... and you write so beautifully.
Cathie Ragovin

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I grew up going to the Methodist church in Falmouth because it was across the street. What I remember is a lovely chapel full of plants that was always humid and warm. We had scout meetings there also.
A friend in Maine has discovered what they call the "UU" church, Unitarian Universalist. They have sing alongs once a week and I agree with you it is good just for people to get together. We have our Taoist Tai Chi dinner this Tuesday, and that is a good community to belong to also.
I agree with you that community is something churches can create even for those who are not religious.

Alexandra said...

Hi Elspeth,

Thank you so much for this post.

Hope all is well,
Ali Shaker

Elspeth said...

Thank you all for your kind words. I'm glad to hear it resonated with others. Sharyn, your experience sounds so lovely! I've heard there's a great UU church in Brewster...maybe a field trip one day.

Liz said...

Elspeth, you have written so many beautiful posts here over the years,but I think this is one of the best ever. So fun to see the picture of Biee. Papa and I love you so much and are so proud of you!!! xoxo, Mama

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