My church has no doors, windows, saints, statues, crosses, altars, pews, -- it's actually not a structure, building, not physical. It moves, goes with me in a kind of Hemingway "moveable feast". It and whatever you want to call "it": a higher power, the universe, God, my moral center, Spirit, conscience, compass, heart, the better part of me, -- is inside of me. Pretty handy since I don't have to go anywhere, do anything special to get in touch with the guidance and counseling that resides in my church. I quiet myself and listen.
Now I am not in the territory of 'God told me to invade that country', 'kill that person', 'harm that animal'. My church has the voice whispering in the ear, the figure sitting on your shoulder, but not the one with the tail and pitchfork. My church's precepts are: take care of yourself so you can help take care of others, don't hurt yourself and don't hurt others, use, learn and grow from everything, every experience that comes to you, pretty simple if not so easy.
"God will punish you". Words I grew up with: a nun banging a child's head against a marble wall for I don't know what. I mean, is there any reason for that? Another nun slapping my young cousin, refusing to listen to an explanation that she was late to class because her mom was seriously ill. (I kicked the nun in that case, a reflex action more or less but even at a very early age I couldn't fathom that slap was God's work and I knew my kick wasn't.)
The experience that broke the proverbial camel's back, trivial in retrospect but life changing nonetheless, took place one summer evening. A Catholic confesses in a little three-way booth with the priest in the middle and penitents on either side. Well giddy with excitement at a summer carnival in the country, I mistakenly opened the wrong door, the priest's door. I laughed at my mistake and closed the door quickly. I might have tried to step in and bumped the priest, I honestly don't remember. Well that merited like one hundred 'Our Father' prayers and another two hundred and fifty 'Hail Mary's'. When I went back to the pew to begin my penance even at this tender age I knew this punishment didn't fit the crime. My penance was designed to keep me in the church on my knees the whole Saturday night when everyone else was at the carnival and having fun. I put my rosary in my pocket and never looked back.
In college one of the requisite courses was Theology. I realized all the religions I studied, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and others were all based on the 'Golden Rule.' My dad, an agnostic at best, laughed at my aunts' going to church every Sunday and criticizing everyone on their return, in fact mostly all of the time but thinking themselves better than most based on their church attendance -- certainly not the 'Golden Rule' in anyone's book. I realized it was not what someone preached obviously but what someone practiced.
For a long time I didn't regard my church as sacrosanct. It was more or less a guiding light I would try to turn on and off at whim. I would hear sound advice then not follow it reasoning, well I can get out of it, or stop or change course, or the usual what the hell, why not? That line of thinking, of behavior, got me into some hairy places I always managed to get out of, bruised and battered but intact. I learned from those places and fate handed me a gift in time. I found someone who wrote about my church -- what I experienced, heard and tried to practice written down in neat little booklets. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. (I had met the Dalai Lama a year or so before, had tried to get to Benares but TB circumvented me, so to say I was searching for meaning would be an understatement.) Then more shock: I realized these writings, teachings, these confirmations were all around me in places, song, movies, theatre, poems, books, people's actions -- you name it. I just hadn't taken the time to look, to open my eyes to see them.
Friends thought I had joined a cult, a possibility that proved remote. Instead of followers religiously practicing the teachings, I found people the same as people anywhere, -- trying to do their best in the 'Golden Rule' department and falling short at times as most of us do but keeping that goal in our trajectory nonetheless. Most of all I found confirmation, a teacher who said: find your "church, God, Spirit, universe, higher power" inside of you, and in fact inside of everyone. Trust your experience, not what I say, anyone says, or what you read. Trust yourself, what you hear inside. Everyone hears if we choose to listen. This time I did.