Questioning My Faith

Even in my most desperate moments, when I was ready to embrace religion, I still couldn’t figure out which one I belonged to.

“What religion are you?” my 14-year-old son, Seamus, asked me the other night, as we were driving home from an ice cream shop. His mother and I have been divorced since he was 6 months old. He’s grown up a strict Catholic, serving as an altar boy, going on a mission to Haiti, and now attending a Jesuit high school under his mom’s watchful Irish-Catholic eye.

“Buddhist,” I quipped in response to his question, as Moose Tracks dripped from our cones onto our fingers.

“Really?”

“Nah, I just have read a lot about it and done my share of meditation. So it’s the best answer I have at the moment.”

Seamus was satisfied enough with my answer to finish his cone. But his question stayed with me.

♦♦♦

The next morning I got up early and looked out my bathroom window. A cold front had come through overnight, and after days of soupy fog and humidity, the air had finally turned clear and cool. A full moon, shining a vibrant white over the Atlantic Ocean, hung perfectly in the frame of the window.

A couple hours later, I took Penny, our 4-month-old yellow lab, for a walk. She sniffed clumps of grass, chased small birds, and tried to lick a toddler who ambled by, while I thought more about Seamus’ question.

I was born a Quaker, 10th generation on my dad’s side, going all the way back to Timothy Matlack, who is said to have been the scribe who put the words to the Declaration of Independence on paper. But Timothy wasn’t much of a Quaker. He was kicked out of meetings for betting on cock fights, bear baiting (where, just for sport, you chain a bear to a stake and then unleash waves of dogs to attack it), and participating in the Revolutionary War, against the protests of his pacifist relatives.

My parents were hyper-intellectual hippies whose Quaker faith was more about protesting the Vietnam War than finding God. At least that’s how it seemed to me as a young child. While I respect what Quakers stand for, I don’t identify myself as a Quaker.

I am more of a Timothy type of Matlack. I became CFO of a big company, and then a venture capitalist, as my own form of rebellion against my do-good parents. In the process, I got myself into a heap of trouble participating in my own version of bear baiting—as a drunk with an proclivity for bad behavior. I eventually wound up on my knees, pleading for God’s—any god’s—intervention.

Even in my most desperate moments, when I was ready to embrace religion, I still couldn’t figure out which one I belonged to.

♦♦♦

But now I know.

I have Seamus, with whom I share a secret handshake ending in a father-son jumping chest bump. I also have a 5-year-old son, Cole, who climbs into bed with me before my eyes are even open and spews whole paragraphs about Batman without stopping for air. And I have a teenage daughter, Kerry, who, despite her shy temperament, performs in her school plays with so much ease and pleasure that she moves the audience to tears and laughter every time.

My wife, the most beautiful woman I know, tickles me when she thinks I am being arrogant and rubs my feet after particularly long days. I can ride my bike down the huge hill near our house and scream at the top of my lungs, not caring if anyone hears me. And some mornings, the moon appears in the frame of my window just for me.

This is what I am. I have no idea what you call it. But I believe in all of this. None of it is an accident. This is my religion.

♦ ♦ ♦

Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. If the program allowed the awarding of stars, I would decorate this page. Raised by a first generation Irish Catholic mom and a Protestant father with a long list of American war heroes, I received a Catholic education for 17 years, only to come to the end of it and decide: “Well, little of that makes sense to me.” I taught at a Quaker school, visited a variety of religious services, married a non-religious Jew, taught Lit classes in the deep South from the perspective of a Humanist, and raised two great open-minded kids.
    Along the way, I came to believe in the religion of goodness. It’s really just that simple, and you express it so beautifully here.

  2. Tom Matlack says:

    Thank you Suzanne. Of course my goodness is a day-to-day deal, but what I have come to cherish is the goodness of the world and the people around me. Cool that we have the Quaker background in common. It is one thing that helped me see that we all have an “inner light” of our own. No need to put a label on it or try to make it fit into someone else’s definition of the Devine.

  3. Stephen Siegel says:

    Great article Tom. I too fall into your category of “in – between, no name to it” religion. Raised a religious Jew, spending my time studying Buddhism and marrying a non practicing Christian converted to Jew- I believe my youngest daughter (who was 4 or 5 at the time) summed it up best. When asked by one of her friends who was confused by the christmas tree in our house ” So what are you guys, Jewish, Christian, what?” My daughter gave it some brief thought and said, “We’re just people, we celebrate everything.” If only the whole planet could answer the question that way.

  4. I love this.
    As I mentioned, my mother has a Quaker upbringing as well, and I am intrigued … similarly, more than a few readers of mine have told me they think the religion I seem to write from is Buddhism.
    I write a lot about faith, and what it is, and finding it, and all of the questions you allude to here.
    Have you read Devotion, by Dani Shapiro? It is a book about some of these questions and it moved me more than any single book in the last many years.

  5. Tom Matlack says:

    I will check out Devotion, Lindsey … and Stephen, you are more spiritual than you know, brother.

  6. David Wise says:

    “I also have a 14-year-old son, Cole, who climbs into bed with me.”
    Tom, I hate to correct you, but Cole is 5. Also, it says at the top of the piece that Seamus is 13 and in the bottom blurb it says he’s 14. Which is it? Shanti

  7. Tom Matlack says:

    Dave somehow the ages got scrambled in edit. We have now fixed. Thanks for the correction, as usual.

  8. Tom,

    Reminded me of something you wrote a few years ago.
    This is an important question. Too many people ask and just are satisfied with the answers they find in the news or at “schools”. Thanks for bringing it to light and making me think.

    I was raised (latino) Catholic. Now am labeled born again Christian, either for my political views or because I read the Bible and attend church on Sundays. I do believe in the God of the Bible and that creates lots of problems when anybody finds out. I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing.

    My favorite book on faith questioned is “The Curate’s Awakening” by MacDonald (re-edited by Phillips), where I met a memorable malformed man named Polwarth. I recommend the book for those who read the Bible even casually, but would recommend a pass for those who do not.

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful article.

  9. Tom Matlack says:

    Ramon been too long man. And I greatly admire you for your faith. To me the whole ball game is finding a path on this planet that works. And allows Grace to find its way into the heart. Mine has been a pretty unorthodox route, but I am sure just because I am a bit more twisted than the average Joe.

  10. Tom,

    Great article. Simple joys, like seeing the moon htrough my window, are the best.

    As an atheist, and as someone easily amused, the little things are what set me on my path from a Catholic upbringing to atheism. I was doing some research for a social studies paper in high school when I came across a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his nephew (click on my name for a link). In it he tells his nephew, when it comes to religion, to use his own reason, dismissing all bias, to come to his own decision about God. It was the following quote that sealed the deal, as it were, for me:

    “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.”

    I read that say should he find that there is no god to simply be good for goodness’ sake. More research, more reading, more “fixing my reason firmly in her seat,” and I came to atheism.

    I’m not trying to shake your faith, or potential lack thereof. Just think, be good, be just, and listen to Marcus Aurelius:

    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

    Thanks again for a great read.

    • Mark Good says:

      Great reply David.

    • This is a really beautiful response. I have also gone questing for a way to connect feeling awe, with a way to ritually express this gratitude at being alive. I have lived within a community of faith, and gotten the reward of community, too. It made me feel closer to other human beings. But right now, I don’t feel any reason to enter the temple. My church is yours, and Emily Dickinson’s: the cathedral of nature. I feel awe, and delight at being alive, and that is enough.

  11. Thanks for the insightful article.

    I myself am a Christian, however I respect atheists because they seem to use their intellect and collective reasoning more-so than most religious groups. At the same time, the atheist cannot live by “virtue” or “goodness” if these are just characterizations of our need to survive. If it’s all chance, why hold these values above any others? And what or who defines them? Without any definitive answer to what is good and just, we cannot expect to follow these ways. It’s not hard to argue that scope of what these words mean is as wide as possible, crossing into what most of us would call evil.

    Tom, what you seem to be describing is existentialism. Wikipedia – “the focus of philosophical thought should be to deal with the conditions of existence of the individual person and his or her emotions, actions, responsibilities, and thoughts.”

    It’s relatively new (18th century) but actually extremely popular in Western culture whether we give it a label it or not. Also, I think it’s important to identify that no matter what you believe, you stand somewhere. To believe that life is best lived as an existentialist or a pluralist, you must exclude other religious doctrines such as original sin, enlightenment, the caste system, and the thousands of other beliefs that invariably contradict.

    What I’m saying it’s we can’t afford to just sit back and say “we all call it different things but it’s kind of the same.” This itself is a huge faith assumption – that the whole truth is unknowable, or even that your vantage point is higher than every other organized religion.

    In my opinion, we MUST deal with the harder questions on the basis that they have enormous consequences for our lives. Jesus claims he is the ONLY way to God. This means he is and we are forced to take heed to what he says, or he’s not and all his other claims are unsubstantiated. Who wants to give his life to a liar or crazy person?

    My argument is we must account for much more than just our own feelings and experiences. While the truth may not be knowable in it’s entirety, I firmly believe that it’s entirely knowable. Even more, it’s absolutely crucial that we find it, or that it finds us. Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Take it or leave it, just don’t do it the injustice of pretending there’s a middle ground.

  12. Tom, you sound like a Unitarian Universalist. UUs are all about the big questions and not so hell-bent on the need for there to be one clear and supreme answer. It’s a religion without creed or doctrine, based instead on seven principles–roughly translated: Everybody matters; treat people right; ; everybody can search for truth/meaning; conscience and democratic process in everything; we’re all in this together–strive for peace; respect the web all existence/we are connected to it and it is us.

  13. Tom Matlack says:

    Of the options above I think I like Existentialism the most, because there is a basic element of dealing with existence which appeals to me. I guess I probably do shy away, personally, from believing in Jesus as THE path. Not that I judge anyone else for that, just that I find it useful as a metaphor but not in the literal sense (little secret, my family attends our neighborhood Episcopal Church which I greatly enjoy in part for the challenging and thoughtful sermons of our priest who I really like). None of what I have said is intended to mean that I don’t believe in God or the power of prayer. I have spent an awful lot of time on my knees asking for guidance and humility. Still it is in the love of my kids and wife that I feel the most Grace.

  14. “Have you been born again?” the Fundamentalist at the door asks the unsuspecting Catholic.

    Yes, they believe in Jesus. And yes, they try to live Christian lives. They probably have some vague awareness that Fundamentalists think being “born again” involves a religious experience or “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savoir.”

    The Catholic Church has always held, being “born of water and the Spirit” refers to baptism, and then it follows that being “born again” or “born from above” means being baptized.

    Clearly, the context implies that born of “water and the Spirit” refers to baptism. The Evangelist tells us that immediately after talking with Nicodemus, Jesus took his disciples into the wilderness where they baptized people (John 3:22).

  15. Tom,
    What a beautifully written piece on a complicated topic. But then it really is so simple, isn’t it?

    “It is in the love of my kids and wife that I feel the most Grace,” you said. AMEN to that!

    The religion of sticky kisses from my toothless 5 year old, and conversations with my 18 year old, and walks still holding hands with my 13 yo daughter and kisses from my husband when I’m not looking… those little things are the BIG things. And in that largesse lies the only religion that makes us deeply happy. Love.

    As for “religion” per se, my oldest had it all figured out when we traveled to see the Buddha on Lantau Island long ago when he was little. On a rickety bus filled with locals and chickens he cried out: “MOM! I figured it out! Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha must have been brothers. And God is their father. So we’re all related!”

  16. Tom Matlack says:

    thank you Gisela, so much to agree with here. On your oldest comment about the prophets being brothers please see my next column coming out on Saturday in which a born again Christian and I discuss further this topic of faith, narrow and broadly defined. Your boy is very wise indeed.

  17. Mark Good says:

    My faith comes from the same place Tom. Thanks for the article.

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  19. …and this is why they all say Love is a universal religion. Great post!

  20. Tom Brechlin says:

    I deal with adolescents who really have a hard time communicating in an assertive way. Aggressive, yes, assertive no. Part of “listening” skills is to hear what they’re saying, not how they’re saying it. Not judging the tone of the message but the message itself. We live in a society that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” …. So that may be where a lot of these guys come from but in this forum, they don’t get heard but instead are judged by the way the message comes across rather then the message itself. I remember the riots of the 60’s in Chicago. In fact My family didn’t live too far from them. I remember the anti-war marches and all the chants that were chanted. These were from people who felt strongly for what they were fighting for. I remember the bra burning and the women chanting. They were the squeaky wheels and guess what, they got the grease. Men have been shouting for years and no one is listening, why are comment aggressive? Maybe they have a better chance of being heard?

    When you post articles that prompt responses, “listen” to what they’re saying, not how they’re saying it. NOTE: I am not saying that the responses in this group are “adolescent” in nature but simply used as an example of the importance of “listening.”

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      THAT WAS NOT SUPPOSED TO GO HERE!! Darn!!! Can it please be removed, I cut and pasted the wrong response! I am sooo sorry for that.

  21. Tom Brechlin says:

    This is what was suppsed to be posted….

    Tom, I really liked reading your article and it brought up fond memories of my kids and the small things that are so special. Life goes by fast young man … I’m happy that you’re taking the time to savor these moments with your kids. I want to take a moment and talk about faith and will share a true story in another post.

    I’m a very devoted Catholic and am very active in my church, Through my years, there were times that I struggled with denominational issues but I look back and find that all these struggles mad me the man I am today. I didn’t blindly stay in my faith. That being said, “religion” is one thing, “faith” is another. Catholics are great when it comes to their knowledge of the religion/church but studies show that they suck when it comes to their spirituality. I totally believe in my faith but more importantly, have a relationship with God. It’s that relationship that makes me a better person, not my being a Catholic. A priest at a church I belonged to in Texas once said that it’s better that the Catholic church dwindles down to a population of 200 and have those devoted 200 connected spiritually to God then to have the millions that are Catholics by name only.

    As a Catholic, I have enjoyed experiencing several different denominations. In fact my Catholic kids attended a Methodist youth group until they got into high school. A couple of years ago I had a Muslim client whose parents were very engrained in their faith. I read up on the faith and made sure that the guy didn’t pull the wool over my eyes when it came to Ramadan.

    I have been where you are but where I am now is that what I have, all the joys that I’ve been given are blessing in my life. And no matter how you want to look at it, all the different experiences in faith that you’ve had, no matter what you believe in today, influenced you as to who you are today.

    Family is the greatest gift in the world and I thank you for realizing how great it is to be a dad.

  22. Tom Brechlin says:

    When my daughter was born, my life changed. I couldn’t believe the feeling I felt. Through the years, she was known as my “punkin.” I worked a lot back then but when I would get home, she and I had a routine. During the pre-school years, she would sit on my lap and we’d watch her favorite movie Marry Poppins. By the time the movie would get to the old lady on the church steps and sing “Feed The Birds”, she would be falling asleep and I would take her up to bed.. 20 years later, my dreaded moment came to fruition … she was getting married. My punking was grown up and leaving. I made it through the day without breaking down, even when I saw her in her wedding dress for the first time or when I gave her away at the alter, I managed not to fall apart.

    At the reception, The DJ announced the father daughter dance. My daughter and I went to the dance floor and the music started. It was “Feed The Birds.” She laid her head on my shoulder and said, “I remembered daddy … thank you, I love you.” Even as I write this I’m welling up.

    All those little moments that you may think are nothing, are in fact something. Cherish the moments with your family. Time goes by very fast and before you know it, the kids are grown. In my case, I have the most beautiful wife of 37 years. She is my soul mate and I’ve known her since I was 11 years old. Empty nesters now, we have a great life together. We live in a very old house and I have an open stair case where I have no less then 150 photos of various sizes of our life. Every night I take a moment an look at the blessings God has given me.

    Thank you again for your article.

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