I celebrated a milestone birthday this week with a lavish party surrounded by family, colleagues, neighbors, and lifelong friends. And topped if off with a day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom with two 3-year-olds! It was the “best-ever” birthday!
In the months leading up to the celebrations, I picked up once again a book called Living Mission Interculturally: Faith, Culture, and the Renewal of Praxis (2015) by Professor of Theology and Culture Anthony J. Gittins, CSSp. While it is written primarily for women and men living in intercultural religious communities, it is applicable to all intercultural groups who live, work, or worship together. Gittins focuses on the influence of culture on spirituality. He explains that “it is critically important to acknowledge that there are many legitimate cultural and personal expressions of Christian spirituality and to realize that these will create challenges when, as an intercultural community, we gather to discuss litrugy, prayer, ritual, music, dance, language, silence, privacy, conformity, and so on.”
In Chapter 5, Gittins focuses on four major cultural variables that shape our faith and spirituality: 1) social location and social geography, 2) embodiment or body tolerance, 3) health and sickness, and 4) time and space. Each variable is addressed in a series of 7 to 12 questions. Because in preparing for the birthday event, I had been focused on my own pictorial history, the questions on culture seemed a good way to reflect on what had shaped my spirituality at this stage of my journey. Rather than list the questions, I would like to share my “answers” and let you infer the questions. I encourage you to answer the questions for yourselves. I think you will find it a useful reflection. I will address the four variables in four separate posts.
First Cultural Variable: Social Location and Social Geography
I was born in a city in the Connecticut River Valley. At the time, it was an industrial city with a system of canals that flowed near the manufacturing sites. The city is surrounded by a mountain range that includes Mt. Holyoke and Mt. Tom. The ocean is about 100 miles away. Living in the city allowed me to walk to the places I needed to be: church, school, community swimming pool, part-time jobs, shopping, and friends’ homes. Mountains were for picnicking and hiking; oceans were for family Sunday outings and vacations. I had little experience or connection to the river other than crossing its many bridges.
I was raised in modest economic circumstances. I believed we were middle class; however, by today’s economic standards, it was probably lower middle class. My parents voted Democratic, though they were not actively political. My family were regular churchgoers at the nearby Roman Catholic Church. We did not discuss religion at home, but we did celebrate major feast days.
As a child and a teenager, I thought my world was “big”, because it included more than one ward (neighborhood). I crossed railroad tracks and canals on my walks in the city. My explorations were limited to car trips with family to the ocean. I recall one extended trip to Canada to visit the famous churches, e.g., St. Anne de Beaupré. When I was 14 years old, my father took me to New York City for a Muscular Dystrophy convention. My mother and I took the train to New York a few times for shopping and for the 1964 World’s Fair. I was 30 years old before I took a trip by airplane.
I didn’t really notice the sky, stars, and distant horizons until I moved to the Midwest U. S. in 1977: first Indiana, then Ohio, then Illinois. In 1989, I made my way back to the East Coast: New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Until 2008, I lived in temperate climates with four disctint seasons. Now, I live in a semi-tropical climate where it is warm and sunny most of the year.
Growing up, my world was bounded by the city’s political divisions. I lived in what others said was the less-favored Ward 1 below the 2nd-level canal. I attended the French Catholic Church, though not the French Mass. I graduated from French Catholic schools. Once I left for graduate school in 1977, my world expanded to national boundaries. It was only in 1983 when I traveled to Botswana that my boundaries extended to Europe and Africa. Beginning in 2000, my job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took me to countries around the world.
What was my image of God? God was in the woodlands, in the mountains, and at the seashore. I was probably calling God “He” at that time, but not “Father”. I did not pray to Jesus because in my mind the name “Jesus” was always “Baby Jesus”. Jesus never grew up for me. When I prayed, I called on “God”. God was provident, compassionate, and a source of healing. Even so, as a child, I could not ask for miracles of healing for my brother and later my sister, who both had muscular dystrophy. I did not believe that God – or any of the saints or soon-to-be saints – would cure them.
I suppose for me God was democratic, on the side of the “have-nots” and of middle-class people like my family. From the age of about eight, I believed that if Catholics thought they were the one, true Church, everyone else must believe their own church was the true one, else why would they belong to it? The sky and stars and an everlasting heaven were more frightening to me than mysterious and awesome and comforting.
Now, at age 70, I can say that my worldview is quite expansive. My state and national boundaries have dissolved. My membership is in all of Creation and in all peoples of the world. I consider myself patriotic, but my country is not my first allegiance. Answering the questions about my geographic and social origins has led me to some interesting reflections about my faith and how I express it today. I hope that in answering the questions for yourself you might uncover even more interesting insights.