Ash Wednesday came early this year. It was supposed to be about preparation, about consecration, about moving toward Easter, toward resurrection and renewal. It offers us a chance to break through the distractions that keep us from living the basic Easter message of love, of living in wonder rather than doubt. For some people, it is about fasting, to symbolize both solidarity with the hungry and the hunger for God.
I started reading Anne Lamott’s Small Victories: Improbable Moments of Grace a day after Good Friday. The day was “Black Saturday,” a day of mourning for Catholics. It’s that in-between time after the death of Jesus and his resurrection the following day.
The day before, I was still finishing up my post on Ed Catmull’s book and my mom casually asked if I still went to church. I didn’t have a better answer than “I’m not practicing” so that’s what I said. Dammit. That was a lie, followed by Catholic guilt.
For a long time I considered myself an atheist, not believing in God/dess or a higher power. I always questioned his/her/their existence, having witnessed a lot of suffering as I grew up. As I got older I became agnostic and eventually, I turned to Buddhism, finding its teachings and practices a much more suitable fit for the person I want to be. For the person I try to be, instead of feeling bad that I hadn’t followed my parents’ religious footsteps.
I was learning the secrets of life: that you could become the woman you’d dared to dream of being, but to do so you were going to have to fall in love with your own crazy, ruined self.
I’m always asked if what my “coming out story” is, that process of letting loved ones know about your queer identity and/or sexuality because I didn’t have to — my parents just knew. But when it comes to faith and spirituality matters, I feel the need to come out to them as a Buddhist. I’m not sure how they will take this considering they sent me to Catholic school for 12 years, the church is an integral part of their lives and being Catholic was a core part of their identities.
Even though Lamott and I have different perspectives and practices on faith, I found myself agreeing to a lot of what she wrote.
We children were witness to the total presence of how how our parents wanted the world to see them. We helped them maintain this image, because if anyone outside the family could see who they really were deep down, the whole system, the ship of your family, might sink. We held our breath to give the ship buoyancy. We were little air tanks.
And I was one testy little air tank, defiant of Catholicism and any organized religion at 15.
It may have been a sign from Buddha, God, or the universe, or whatever entity that suddenly lets you see but this book spoke to me on a level that made me understood faith, finally. I know nothing about being a born again Christians other than the fact that they are the “other” (something I learned while growing up) but Lamott took me there, showed me through her own experiences.
Small Victories is filled with many lessons, so universal, that even my once atheist self could agree on.
When you are on the knife’s edge — when nobody knows exactly what is going to happen next, only that it will be worse — you take in today.
Life back in the Philippines consisted of church visits, novenas, praying the rosary to my mother (and not understanding why), no school during Holy Week, a big party on Easter. Oh, and lots of seafood on Good Friday. It wasn’t until I read the first quote above that I understood why people fasted.
I guess it’s different when the religion you grew up with is forced on you, instead of seeing and experiencing its beauty. I went to church every Sunday and there wasn’t a single time that I felt like I was moved by a church service.
So I’m thankful for this book, for Lamott, for her honesty, for her vulnerability, for her courage, for her darn good writing. I’m seeing the beauty of faith from a more intimate level, as she takes the reader from her perceptions, thoughts and decisions when presented with something as tender as a walk in the woods with a friend who’s dying from cancer, to a car ride punctuated by the GPS mishaps and calls that keep interrupting it.
That in spite of the craziness of our lives, the heartaches, the disappointments, the unmet expectations, we can always turn to the spiritual beauty and hope afforded by faith, by grace.
The reason I never give up hope is that everything is so basically hopeless. Hopelessness underscores everything — the deep sadness and fear at the center of life, the holes in the hearts of our families, the animal confusion within us, the madness of King George.
A week earlier I was tasked to order some pastries from a Filipino nurse at work and she asked me to meet her at her church. I walked into the United Methodist Church in Daly City in my hoodie, sweats and slides. Standard uniform. There was a man who stood by the entrance and when I asked for the pastry lady he told me to wait for her inside and enjoy some warm bread.
Was this secretly a bakery? What kind of other pastry did they sell inside that I could possibly gobble up at the minute?
Inside were the nondescript pews and about five people with their backs turned to me. At the front was a man in a white shirt, presumably the pastor. I sat down in the back and wondered where the bread was, still looking around. I felt a little embarrassed with what I was wearing, specially after seeing how dressed up everyone else was.
There was a warmth with the way the pastor spoke, as he dropped bits of knowledge like crumbs on a kitchen floor. He made a toasty remark about Trump, and pointed out that when you don’t know who you are, you will go with whoever’s the loudest. He asked: do you know where your faith lies?
It wasn’t after listening for a few minutes — after giving up looking for the breakfast table, after getting over my outfit — that I realized what bread the man by the entrance was referring to.
I brought the pastries to a conference held in San Francisco that day, still thinking about the pastor and Lamott and faith. How moments of grace seem to creep up in the most unexpected ways, in the most unlikely corners.
…we are a world in grief, and it is at once intolerable and a great opportunity. I’m pretty sure that only by experiencing that ocean of sadness in a naked and immediate way do we come to be healed — which is to say, we come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.