It is hard not to think about religion while traveling through the beautiful state of Utah. It’s always there. For example, the beer you are buying in the grocery store or ordering at a restaurant to enjoy with your buffalo burger is 3.2. Mormons don’t drink alcohol so anyone drinking in Utah is getting a watered down drink.
I am a firm believer in freedom of religion. Everyone has the right to practice their religion, whatever that religion may be. But something that gets overlooked when people discuss this particular constitutional right is that freedom of religion also includes freedom from religion. We also have the right not to practice any religion at all. This doesn’t go over well in certain circles.
I lived in New Hampshire for thirty years. Surveys have shown that NH has the largest number of non-church goers in the country. 52% of NH residents consider themselves non-religious, so my lack of religion was not viewed as wrong or unusual. Most of my friends don’t practice religion either.
I wasn’t always a non-practitioner. My parents are devout Irish Catholics. I was baptized and made my First Communion. I vividly remember the time when I was fifteen and had to attend a religious retreat as a requirement for making my confirmation. It was the seventies, so during the retreat we attended guitar masses and sang Kumbaya and Cat Steven’s Morning Has Broken. We were divided into small groups and encouraged to bare our teenage souls to one another. An excruciating and painful experience at an age when one is just trying to be popular and fit in.
One night we all laid on the floor of a large, empty room and practiced relaxation techniques, tensing our faces, our shoulders, our stomach muscles, then relaxing, finally working our way down to our toes. Afterwards, one girl swore she felt herself levitating. I was too shy and socially awkward to ask her if she would give me a joint, because I was certain she must be “holding”. I really needed one to get to sleep that night in my creepy little room with just a single bed and a wooden chair.
Fortunately, and amazingly, one of the most popular girls in school, Joanne McKenna, was in the room across the hall. She normally never spoke to me in the halls of high school but we had just watched an evening movie about nuns somewhere in Europe who took a vow of silence. Upon entering the convent, never to return to the real world again, they had all their hair cut off before their wimples were placed on their heads. It freaked me out. I had a thing about bad haircuts back then. It scared Joanne, too. She asked if she could drag her mattress into my room. She didn’t want to sleep alone so we spent the night talking. I fell asleep dreaming of running with the popular crowd when I returned to school on Monday. That never happened, but Joanne did help me make it through that night in my lonely little nun’s bed.
The next day we were required to confess our sins. The confession was completely unorthodox. No traditional confessional booth; the dark little closet, the kneeler, and the window that slid open to reveal the priest sitting in darkness, waiting for you to share your sins and absolve you. “I fought with my brother and my sisters five times, I lied to my parents twice, and I took the Lord’s name in vain once, no twice.” I always worried if I was getting the numbers right. If I was lying while confessing, but the final line had me covered, “I am heartly sorry for these and all the sins of my past life.”
Instead of the traditional confessional we entered a room with the priest, and sat on wooden chairs facing each other. Our parish priest who was from Ireland and encouraged us to call him Father Tim. In his thick Irish brogue, he explained to me that my parents had baptized me but now, as an adult, it was my turn to accept the Catholic faith or reject it. I remember thinking, “I’m an adult? At fifteen? Groovy.” No one else was treating me like an adult. This was heady stuff.
Father Tim continued, “You shouldn’t make your confirmation if you don’t want to continue practicing Catholicism.”
I hesitated for just a second, thinking “this is awesome” but then reality set in. “Well, Father Tim, you know my Dad, right?” My father was a commentator at the five o’clock Saturday mass each week. “That would really not go over very well.”
“But Sheila dear,” he said with his lilting Irish accent, “as I just explained, this is your time to choose your faith.” We talked for a while longer. I explained my skepticism of religion as best a fifteen year old girl could. He listened. “So as you can see, if I really had a choice I wouldn’t make my confirmation. But if I don’t make my confirmation, where will I live?”
“I understand,” Father Tim replied. He made the sign of the cross, absolved me of my sins, and I made my confirmation.
After I was confirmed, and until I graduated from high school and left for college, I would ride my bike to the church each Sunday with a book in my backpack. I’d park my old blue Schwinn with the metal baskets over the back tire for the newspapers I delivered Monday through Saturday, in the bike rack at the church parking lot, then head to the stairs behind the Catholic elementary school to read my book. The church was two blocks from my house. My Dad knew I was a rebellious teenager and I didn’t want him to get suspicious about my church attendance, not that he would do anything terrible but I didn’t want to spend the rest of high school being grounded. I never attended the five o’clock mass on Saturdays. Except for weddings and funerals, I have not attended mass since I was confirmed.
Years later, I heard that Father Tim left the church to marry a divorcee and moved to Arizona. My parents have accepted the fact I do not attend church and that my children are not baptized. But apparently they are. When my daughters were young, they told me about a trip to a Catholic church in our town where Meme and Papa sprinkled water on their foreheads and prayers were whispered.
This does not bother me. I understand the deep emotions involved with religion. The traditions and customs that are a part of not just one’s spiritual life but one’s family life as well. The baptisms, the coming of age rituals from Bar Mitzvahs to confirmations and Quinceaneras. The weddings and the funerals.
So here I was, about a week ago, in Salt Lake City visiting the Mormon Temple, an impressive, amazing mecca to the idea of religion and faith. Years ago, when I was in Rome for three days, I chose to visit the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon. I dined at great street side trattorias and drank in bars. I did not visit the Vatican when in Rome but here I was, a former Catholic in Utah, visiting the Mormon version of the Vatican.
I enjoyed the architecture, the flowers, and the trees. It was a peaceful oasis and no one bothered us or tried to convert us, which was a relief because I know part of the Mormon faith is a belief in converting others. Young men in dark suits, white shirts, and ties would come to my door in New Hampshire each year with their pamphlets and their beliefs. I would politely turn them away. I know that lack of faith is seen to be deviant by many and they are not always tolerant of my heathen ways, but I would smile at these young men with shining faces and unshakable belief in the rightness of their faith and respectfully say “no thanks.”
Driving through Utah is an amazing experience. Everywhere you look there are breathtaking views. Pictures could never do it justice, you have to come out West and see it with your own eyes. I plan to return to Utah to visit the parks in the southern part of the state; Bryce, Arches, and Zion.
During our trip through the West, we crossed the Continental Divide numerous times. Visiting Yellowstone National Park, I got a very clear picture of how, over time, all this beauty came to be. Volcanic eruptions, tectonic forces, wind, glaciers, rivers, melting snow. I tend to agree with Emerson, that the divine can be found in nature. But if you believe in God, that’s okay, too. I recommend you come out West and visit Utah, where either God or the forces of nature painted an amazing landscape. I hope we can all agree on that. It is an amazing country we all share.
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ~ Henry David Thoreau