Spiritual search leads some to customize their journey

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The Repository, Jan. 19, 2003
By DAVID LEWELLEN, Repository staff writer

Some people, unsatisfied with traditional teachings but needing to express their spirituality, pick elements from different faiths or their own experiences until they have essentially made a customized religion.

“My spiritual life is not bound by any sect, denomination, religion or way of thinking,” says Christopher Hewitt of Canton. “My experience of God doesn’t separate me from people.”

Hewitt said that “if you go into Borders, I’m under New Age,” although he doesn’t like the term. “I was raised in a traditional church atmosphere, and practiced by obligation. I didn’t hate it. I just felt like more could be offered, and I had a strong yearning for that more.”

Mary Strickland was raised Catholic in Canton, but it didn’t match her sense of spirituality. “I wasn’t satisfied with the way Catholicism was taught to me,” she said. Even as a teenager, she found Hinduism intriguing, and as an adult, that is what she considers herself. “I felt aligned with Hindu philosophy. It teaches that all spiritual paths are potential routes to the truth.”

Hewitt’s life-changing experience came when he was 30 and training to be a drug and alcohol counselor. “I did not know how to have a healthy relationship with myself, with others or with God,” he said. “The principles of these 12-step programs offered me something I had found no place else. €¦ It was an understanding of God and a manner of living that seemed so much more attainable and personal.”

The 12-step program believes in “a higher power” and offers guides for living, but Hewitt says it’s not a religion. “It’s a manner of living. It embodies certain principles and suggestions,” but it has no doctrine.

Just as Hewitt’s work helped him find guidance, so did Marilena Pavi’s. The North Canton yoga instructor was born and raised in Italy, and spent 13 years of her childhood in a convent orphanage. For better or for worse, it would be hard to be raised more Catholic.

It was not a nurturing environment, to say the least, and “the teaching of God was more of a fearful God, strike you down, unforgiving.”

In the early ’60s, yoga seemed exotic and dangerous, which was part of what attracted her to it. She married an American soldier, moved to Canton, and “began to study yoga seriously.” Gradually she made the transition from student to teacher, and found spiritual as well as physical benefits.

She also visited Sancta Clara Monastery, to purge her childhood fear of convents, and began to attend church there. But “I felt that putting God in that context didn’t allow me enough freedom. €¦ I didn’t feel the need to beat my chest and say I’m a sinner.” However, even now “I go there and sit and meditate. I love the feeling it gives.”

A possible drawback of do-it-yourself religion is not having fellow believers for sharing and support. But Strickland attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. “Unitarianism is very much like Hinduism” in its acceptance of all faiths, she said, “but more rational, less ritualistic. €¦ It gives my daughter a broader background for her own spiritual journey.”

She added, “I feel a strong connection with Jesus Christ, and honor him as the deity I was raised with. I believe his teachings are very, very profound. €¦ (But) I believe the Christianity that came out of these concepts doesn’t really reflect what Jesus taught.”

Hewitt belongs to two study groups “that resemble spiritual services. We discuss and share with each other.” And he still goes to church sometimes.

“I believe all roads lead to heaven,” Hewitt said. “It’s just a matter of how long it takes to get there.” But his faith is not a license to behave however he likes: “There are things I feel accountable to. Truth, honesty, authenticity. €¦ I have never been more ethical. I have never desired more to be accountable or virtuous.”

Pavi said, “I realized that for me God is in you, outside of you, in every cell of your body; you need to live it.” And for herself, “I have lived previously; I’m probably going to live again; it’s the way we live our days here that matters. €¦ I respect all religions. I think in different paths, they all get to the same goal.”

And yoga is a flexible philosophy. “If people are Catholic or Jewish, yoga will only help them to be stronger in their beliefs,” Pavi said. “I don’t expect them to follow anything. I teach that it is universal.”

Most people, of course, follow pre-existing faiths that they were raised in. That is a choice that spiritual seekers respect; they just say it didn’t work for them.

Striking out alone, Hewitt said, “is very difficult. It causes you to confront some very painful consequences. €¦ I struggle daily with it; is it Chris Hewitt explaining honesty, or is it what honesty is?”

Leaving the church he was raised in, “I felt I was doing something wrong,” he said. “I had to have faith that I could trust my inner guidance, what some people call the Holy Spirit.”

“The faith in God that I had as a small child is probably the same faith as now,” Strickland said. “But I couldn’t maintain it through Christianity. I had to find something credible, a system that fit into other things I learned about the universe.”

“It’s hard to leave what you grew up with. You’re so conditioned and threatened,” she continued. “If you’re raised to believe something’s true, it takes a really strong act of will to deny it, going in the face of the whole community, probably.” But, she said, “It really turns out to be not that bad.” In any case, “one of my meditation teachers said he could see Catholicism in my aura. €¦ There’s something that’s going to remain forever.”

Leaving the Catholic church was hard for Pavi, too. “I’ll always have a bit of guilt; I’ll always have questions,” she said. “But I think that if we have a loving God, if we do the things that are right, feed people when they’re hungry, give peace when they’re angry — I have nothing to fear. €¦ I believe in God not because of salvation, but because I look at his creations. If it would end when I die, I would still feel that I lived.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday January 19, 2003.
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