I've always grown up with a scramble of religion.
My father was raised ardently Catholic. But by the time I was born in 1975, my dad had all but abandoned Catholicism, the same way without warning one day, he had thrown his Purple Heart angrily into the trash. Then, after a while, he took them both back. My parents are like that. I'll never forget the time they bought a motorhome for us all to go on vacation together, only to find a new home for it a week later. Another time they did the same thing with a dog. Her name was Molly.
My mom was a nice friendly Protestant. When my sister Amie was born, she was baptized Catholic. When I was born three years later, though, my parents did not have a church. This meant I was just unsaved, pretty much wandering the earth to live in sin until one day my parents finally decided to join this one Lutheran church close to our house, and before you knew it, there I stood in line next to all the crying soaked babies, waiting to be baptized at the tender age of eight.
I was psyched. I loved belonging.
For the short while my family went to that church, I enjoyed the community and the stability and the coffeecake we got to eat at the end of services. The clearest cut memory I have, though, is of the Christmas Eve mass I was supposed to be the altar girl who lit the candles. The church was packed to overflowing, and when I reached the giant candles, my lighter wouldn't light. The entire church was watching me. And just to show what an anxiety-ridden disaster I was as a 13-year-old at the time, instead of just being like, "Hey, guess this isn't going to happen," I proceeded to break down in tears in front of the entire congregation. Everyone watched as I just stood there, staring at the unlit candles, not able to move and weeping without control.
The pastor later referred to me in his sermon: "And I think we all want to thank little Amanda who did such a good job trying to get the candles lit tonight." My dad, always one for a dark joke, comforted me by saying the pastor only mentioned three things in his sermon that night: Jesus, the Virgin Mary and little altar girl Amanda. I was humiliated, but I managed a laugh.
When that church went the way of the dog and the motorhome, I didn't mind it much, or maybe I did, but it didn't matter, it was over. Religion was mostly about coffeecake to me, anyway, and I was already nurturing a robust and private magical thinking relationship with God. One where I would write secret notes, like, "Will any boys ever like me?" and then stick them in my closet. I think my sister may have written the answer, "yes," or maybe I did, or maybe my parents did, but I remember finding the paper again, and it saying "yes." So right there: Proof of God. Right?
Then came Catholic school. My sister, several grades ahead of me, was yanked out of public high school mid-way through and put in a stricter environment at the same Catholic school my father attended growing up. Just to be safe, they stuck me there, too.
I did not know what the hell I was doing at that school called by most "Uni" in San Diego (and bearing alumni ranging from Cameron Crowe to Scott Peterson). I felt like I was in "Heathers." There were required religion courses which had about as much meaning as sports to me. I couldn't see how they had anything to do with my life, and so I painstakingly but dispassionately memorized dates and figures just as I might for a spelling bee. Actually, I probably had more of a spiritual connection with spelling come to think of it. I was really into spelling.
Perhaps my happiest religion class memory was the subversion of my "Prayer and Parables" course. All of the students were required to present various soul-crushing, Catholic guilt-inducing themes like "repentance" and "original sin" and "self-flagellation." Then it came my friend Francisco's turn, and he announced that his theme was going to be "happiness." When Francisco presented, wearing a top hat, he jumped onto the chairs of the classroom as "Singin' in the Rain" played "Clockwork Orange"-style and as his grand finale, he scribbled his motto on the chalkboard for everyone to see: "If it feels good, do it -- Francisco."
But most of the time at my Catholic (and very wealthy) high school, I just felt like I didn't belong. This was epitomized when at our school mass, the priest would say, "A reading from the Holy Gospel..." and everyone did that one thing where you put your thumb to your face in some special Catholic way, and I thought it was going to be to just the usual cross yourself move (which of course I knew) but once I realized what was happening, I would just cut my losses and do a smooth-move hair slick to the air. Oh yeah, I totally meant to do that.
College was fairly godless until I met the man who I was with from 1995 to 2005. He was a hard-core atheist. Nothing makes you obsess about God quite so much as being an atheist. At the time, I was still a hard-core I-don't-know-what. Wanna-be Christian, I guess.
Bless his heart, my ex hated religion so much he specifically had the minister take "God" out of our wedding vows in Vegas -- and "cleave" for good measure too. You know, just to be safe. Because it sounded religious.
It wasn't until I was getting divorced, still living with my husband, and a friend who I desperately wanted to network with at the time (she was a successful TV writer and I was trying to get into comedy) called me at work, and all I could do was sob into the phone, that I gave the whole idea of God another look. Out of desperation, I suppose, like most people turn to religion. The Santa Claus in the sky. With increasing frequency, I would pray in my magical realist way, the same way I had as a child. The majority of that time, however, was just spent drinking a lot, falling down on yachts and having blackout sex with rich guys.
I can tell you the exact timing of when I had my first real come-to-Jesus moment, though.
It was with my uncle who is not my uncle by blood because my dad is adopted and besides it was my granddad's second wife anyway -- these were the kids my granddad had with the waitress he left my dad's adopted mom for -- and my uncle is a very religious guy. I think he's even kind of like a known player. He has a successful series of articles for Christianity Today. He is very handsome. He is very tall. His name is Adam Stadtmiller. He follows me on Twitter. He lived in Australia and did ministry and surfing. My hardcore atheist ex-husband actually liked Adam when he met him at my sister's wedding which always really made me respect Adam more because my ex freaking hated zealots.
It was in 2006, Christmas-time, that I called Adam, begging for help, hoping for some kind of salvation.
It was the morning after the Carolines on Broadway holiday party. I had gotten blackout drunk obliterated. On the way home, I had the cab driver stop at McDonalds, which I'm guessing is where I left my wallet when I was shoving fries into my mouth because all I remember is the cab driver screaming at me for not being able to pay when he finally dropped me off at my doorstep in Park Slope. I think I also bought a Chunky bar. Oh my God, I must have left my wallet at the bodega where I bought the Chunky bar! Anyway, I might have made out with someone at the party, but I wasn't quite sure. I did email the guy the next day coyly trying to find out (1) if had I made out with him and (2) if he had stolen my wallet. I never did find out either.
I felt like a complete and utter mess. I hated myself and my life and my emptiness. When I scrolled through my phone looking for salvation, I asked myself: Will this person save me? Will this person? Will this person even answer? I saw my uncle's name. I called him. I told him what was happening. He asked me if I accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. I said I did. He said he would mail me a bible. He did.
And then I carried on getting drunk and blacking out and hating myself and my life.
But there was such a sweetness to the experience. There was love in it. There was human connection, and specifically human connection with something greater than humanity. It opened up a window. It was a fix. I felt better when I talked to Adam. I felt like I was redeemed. I felt like he was on the side of the good guys, and I liked being on the side of the good guys. Or trying to be, anyway.
Soon after, feeding right into my mystical talk to God and he'll find you a parking place complex, it was when the pseudo-spiritual book and movie "The Secret" had a gigantic press explosion. A few acquaintances of mine (and one very high-placed editor) told me to read it and see it. I did. Then, as if bolstered by the memory of God writing me back as a child that someday boys would in fact like me, I decided to try it out. "Let this person calling me be X," I would say for the delight and amusement of my roommates. It was X. Then I lost a scarf on the way back from the Park Slope Food Co-Op. "I will find my scarf, I will find my scarf, I will --" and there was my scarf.
Boom. My perfect magical realism God, finally. And endorsed by a sweat-lodge murderer and Oprah, to boot.
Up until "The Secret," I had always regarded life with "Anne of Green Gables" thinking. I loved those books as a kid, and the line that I related to the most was how she always anticipated the worst so that way she would never be disappointed. Yes! I totally got this. This was practically my life philosophy. But experimenting around with "The Secret" started to change my thinking that I could communicate with capitalized things like Spirit and The Universe and God. I remember trying it out on the way back from the Hamptons, my new "The Secret" party trick. "Let's make the intention that it will stop raining," I said as the other people in the car rolled their eyes. It stopped raining.
Of course, science can discount all of this. I know that. That's why I like atheists. It's why I like Richard Dawkins' most famous takedown of religion ever, which I could watch a million times and never get sick of.
But I just can't let go of my religion or my spirituality or my beloved magical realism God in the sky. The line that I always say, and I believe this is, "I like the idea of God as goodness. And if any of the things that I have explored are merely placebo effect, then I am grateful for that placebo effect."
This week I saw the Indian hugging saint Amma for the seventh time in seven years when she visited New York. I discovered Amma in 2007 when I did a story on gurus for the New York Post. That first time, I decided to get a hug from her on a lark and proceeded to walk around in a trance of joy, love and euphoria for hours. I had gotten religion.
When I wanted to share that she was visiting New York again this year (it's free to see her), someone pointed out on my Twitter timeline the problem with her and homosexuals being restricted from the group. I googled "Amma homosexuals." And that led me down a rabbit hole of guru destruction.
It was a bummer. Most gurus are very hatable but I really thought Amma was one of the good guys. And maybe she is. Or maybe she isn't. It's not for me to know.
The last few years I have seen Amma the energy I have felt has been less and less, but I do think that's partially because I am increasingly able to rely on the innate sense of love and worth in my own heart more and more. But I loved the principle of compassionate unconditional love and the millions that she gives to charities in India. Like I said, I don't know what is true about any of these things. But the most important thing -- the only thing -- I can say is that I'm not going to abandon that idea of the principle of goodness as God and finding that wherever I can. Even if it's in silly or embarrassing or very non-rational places.
I could go on and write thousands and thousands more words about becoming a reiki master, doing Siddha Yoga (that's the "Eat, Pray, Love" guru), flying to see Brian Weiss in person, chanting "nam myoho renge kyo" or the 12 different Doreen Virtue angel apps on my phone, and maybe I will if that interests anyone, but all I can stand by as a bottom line on all of this is goodness. And that's what prayer is to me: trying to channel goodness. The rest of it is just my magical realism party tricks. I know that, and I'm okay with that.
If anything, of all the critiques and takedowns and endorsements I've read, I probably align myself the most with the mythology of Joseph Campbell and his take on religion.
"God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought," Campbell says. "It's as simple as that."
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.