“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
On a recent exercise that went viral, I was asked to list the books that were most influential in my life. I was surprised to see how often the Bible was listed as number one. I capitalized Bible out of respect for the Roman Catholic traditions of my upbringing; and most likely, out of my sense of guilt for having abandoned the same.
For me, it was not an arbitrary change of heart regarding organized religion. I thought long and hard about it. I was one of the few children in my parochial elementary school that actually considered a life devoted to faith. I applied to Villa Maria Academy, in suburban Philadelphia, while still in the 7th grade. I was certain, at that point in my life, that I was destined to be a nun, maybe even of the cloistered variety. (My husband still laughs about that one.)
I had my share of stories regarding the teaching nuns of my childhood; the IHM, Immaculate Heart of Mary order; with the stark, dark blue garments accented only by a crisp white cardboard -like piece that shielded the forehead and defied any visible evidence of hair. They wore two pieces of gold, a wedding band which reflected their marriage to Christ, and a long chain necklace supporting a large, seemingly heavy crucifix.
Some of them were a bit cruel. I have memories of my aging piano teacher, Sister Gertrude Mary, who would crack a small ruler across the knuckles if you made too many mistakes. I left her for a private piano teacher outside of school, and Sister G. tore my father a new one, telling him he would burn in hell for his decision to take me out of the program. Really.
There was one rather large nun who was our principal for my years there. It was rumored that she had a hook outside her 8th grade classroom where she would hang students who were unruly; behavior unruly in the 1960’s would be laughable today. I remember a conversation that my dad would have years later, with a fellow student-teacher of mine, when he said he was grateful for our Catholic school education in that it taught us about respect. She responded ” there is a big difference between respect and fear”. Touche, Linda P ; you left him speechless!
But for every one that was mean or fear-inducing, there was another who was kind beyond words. For me, that was Sister Brian Maureen, my second grade teacher, and the human being who was more of an angel to me than a teacher. She entered my life at just the right time, after a shocking spring and summer that almost destroyed my family. Death, nervous breakdown, psychiatric commitment, shock therapy, abandonment, psychological and emotional abuse were some of the then- unnamed things experienced at age 6 1/2. Sister Brian was not told directly; she just recognized that the child who left school prematurely at the end of 1st grade was not the same one who returned for 2nd.
She was the one who came to my rescue, and for that, I am forever changed and grateful. She retired to the same Villa that I had sought admission to years before. I should say that I was accepted at that academy based on academics, but the scholarship money went to another. So, it was out of the question for me. Was not meant to be.
The beginning of my exodus from Catholicism started in college, when I enrolled in a Comparative Religions course and my eyes were opened. I was strangely drawn to eastern religious philosophy, mostly Buddhism. In 1974, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was published, further reinforcing my attitudes and belief system.
We were married in a Catholic Mass ceremony, mostly for the benefit of our parents. I really did have a hard time going back; and except for a few life events, never did. Out of a sense of obligation, our own children were baptized and stayed with the Church until they were old enough to think and choose for themselves. They chose to be agnostic, even atheistic. They, like my husband and I, were blessed with intellectual curiosity that may have led to the modern tendency that favors science over religion. They believe more in the laws of Karma, cause and effect. Not sure they share my interest in reincarnation; can’t convince them that this is just too much energy to not be shared over many lifetimes. Our table conversations can become intense, but never boring. I’m proud of the adults they have become; I may burn in hell for it, Sister Gertrude, but I remain proud.
I had a hard time in the survey of influential literature to limit myself to just the 10 best. My first choice might have been “The Little Prince”, simple yet powerful. Most certainly, Pirsig’s “Zen” ranks in the top 3.