It's a gorgeous Sunday in late spring. I'm decked out in an extravagantly frilly white dress, white bobby socks, white patent-leather shoes and a tiny white purse just big enough to fit a pocket-sized prayer book. My mom is struggling to pin a child-size crown and veil to my short hair and having some trouble, but I am patient and serene. Today is my First Communion, and although at seven years old I don't fully grasp what the event means, I know it is "holy" and I will get presents later.
Here's a rundown on what a First Communion is for those of you unfamiliar with Catholicism, but I'll be honest, I had to google 'first communion' so don't judge me for my lack of knowledge:
First Communion is a Catholic rite of passage that occurs at age seven. It is the first time you get to go eat the airy wafer that is served to parishioners towards the end of Mass (the Sunday service). This is the only fun part of Mass, because you get to stand up, move to the front of the church in a long procession while checking out who's there and what they're wearing. When you get to the front of the line an old guy with stale breath and a grumpy/bored face holds up a thin, round wafer, also called the Eucharist (I looked that up), in front of your face, bores his eyes into yours and asks, "Body of Christ?" to which you reply, "Amen". If you are young and hip, you receive the wafer in your hand and feed it to yourself as you stroll back to your pew, full of the heavenly spirit. If you are old, you open your mouth, stick out your tongue, and allow the old man to place the wafer on it. I thought the latter option was gross when I was seven and I find it repulsive now, especially in the age of Coronavirus.
Anyway, seven years old was decided to be the Age of Reason some time ago, so as long as you were baptized as a baby, did your First Confession (that's a whole other story), and attended special classes called CCD (no idea what the letters stand for), you got to eat this piece of bread, which Catholics believe IS THE BODY OF JESUS CHRIST. I'm serious. I looked it up. From Wikipedia: "Catholics and some Protestants believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist" . There is also wine involved, but only the old guys get to drink the wine in Catholicism.
This is probably where my confusion around religion began. Catholicism baffles me now, a few decades later, so I can't imagine I understood anything about it when I was seven. Especially since after I had my 1st Communion I only attended Mass a handful of times again.
*Writing about the last of the Niyamas, Ishvara Pranidhana, has been a bit of a slog. It's taken me months to finish these last two posts. I've had to dig deep and begin processing old memories and feelings about my relationship with 'god'--things I haven't cared to think about in many years. It's easier not to think about abstract, controversial things but that's why I embarked on this journey in the first place, to live a more examined and fuller existence. To think about hard things and examine uncomfortable thoughts/feelings. And I am.
Week 4 challenged me to wake up and "let God in" every morning. I am tasked, for one week anyway, to "believe in something that is greater than you and let your actions, mind and heart line up with that greatness". And since I had nothing to lose, I tried it out. Several times throughout the days I said, "Hey, God. Hello. Come into me, please." And I think it might actually be working. I think I'm slowly starting to understand and accept what 'god' can be for me.
I have purposely not given much thought to my relationship with a higher power in many years, not since I was 13 or 14 years old. At times in my 20s/30s I was agnostic, but eventually ended up as a non-believer and didn't have any interest in further examining that non-belief. My history with god and religion in various forms of Christianity left a sour taste on my tongue and eventually a mild disdain for adherents.
Here's the short story: I was a Catholic until about age 8 because it was important to my grandmother that I make my First Communion, probably so that I wouldn't go to hell, I'm guessing. Then I was sent to private school that was associated with an Evangelical Baptist church and I was pressured/shamed into becoming a Christian, which involved following a very specifically scripted conversation with Jesus Christ, until I was about 13/14 years old, when I left that school and left religion behind. The conclusions I drew from my experience with Christianity were that it was full of hypocrisy and shaming. So much of the teachings and rules didn't make logical sense, and I couldn't buy into a god who scrutinized and negatively judged everything I did. Not only did I distance myself from any further contact with religion after I finally left the private school, but I also viewed believers as just a little bit foolish. Not proud of that last part and I can honestly say that I don't still judge ultra-believers in that way anymore. Mostly.
The biggest hurdle I've had in the last year and a half of living by the Yamas and Niyamas is that they are grounded in god, written for holy men who have devoted their lives to reaching Samadhi, a state of oneness with the Divine. In order for me to fully inhabit the qualities of the Y & N, I have to buy into the existence of something 'Divine', however I conceptualize it to be.
I've put in the work to disavow myself from the 'god' that was shoved down my throat in my formative years, but I hadn't felt the need to replace that concept with one of my own. And to be honest, I was still resistant to doing so at the beginning of this month. The differences in my life when believing in god or not are minimal; really only the guilt, obligation, and arbitrary rules are absent in my heretical existence, and I like it that way. But I had failed to see that my divine doesn't have to involve any of those negative aspects; my divine can be anything I want it to be, and I can feel genuinely good about having it in my life.
In a totally unexpected twist, it turns out I can create my own god, in much the same way I was always taught that god created me.
What a revelation.
So I'm working on not only "letting god in", but also constructing the god that I want to invite into my being and share my body, mind, and self with. As I grow to accept the yogic belief that god is in every one of us and every thing, I am relaxing into the belief that I can design what that god is for me, whatever I am comfortable with ascribing the label 'divine' to.
Instead of feeling small and sinful in the shadow of God's perfection, I can feel powerful and buoyed by believing that I am made of a slice of divinity, that I'm capable of so much more than I give myself credit for, or more than if I continued to think I was acting alone. Maybe this is why people choose to believe in god and hold onto that faith so resolutely, because they feel stronger and not alone when they have god on their side. Maybe it's just semantics. I don't know. This god stuff is complicated.
* * *
I was on a run last week thinking about what I'll do next with my life, professionally. I don't think I'll be able to return to my industry (yoga/fitness) the way I was before, nor is there longevity in the jobs I was doing (too physically demanding). I keep thinking about turning this Yamas & Niyamas project into a book, but also keep thinking that there's no way that I could do it well enough to be viable. On that same run I was rolling over ideas of god. And it kind of hit me that if I was in fact a tiny piece of the divine--had god in me--then really my potential for greatness, or just minor success as a niche author, is limitless. If god is pure potential and possibility, and that's what's in me, then I am also pure potentiality and could totally become a best-selling author. I went on to fantasize about being interviewed by Oprah on my experience of living by the Y & N, and then shot myself back to earth with some punishing hill repeats.
But the seed is planted and I'm letting it grow.
I don't think I'm at the point right now where I can surrender to god completely, as Ishvara Pranidhana would have me do, because it sounds too much like "asking Jesus Christ to come into my life to be my savior". But I do think I can yield to my own idea of divinity and join forces with it to maybe see more potential greatness in myself. But even as I write that I understand that I'm making it all about me, when it's supposed to be all about god. Ugh. So much work to do still.
The point and path of the Yamas & Niyamas is to prepare oneself for unification with god (yoga=yoke=union). And as shocked as I am to be writing these words, I think they just might work to that end after all. I am much closer to being close to the divine, if not fully yoked with it, than I was eighteen months ago. This was not my intention in starting this project; I just needed something to keep me busy and engaged with life at a time when I felt so under-stimulated by it. I had no desire to become more religious, or to figure out what god meant to me, or to have any relationship with god at all. I was just bored. And yet, it worked: after doing all the things that yogis should do to get closer to god, I am in fact, closer to god.
So now what?
Now I begin again. I go back to the first Yama, Ahimsa, and dig deeper for a second round.