My friend Debra was born into a Roman Catholic family. She got baptized and confirmed and everything; sometimes she even confessed. But twenty years of reciting the same old liturgies gets pretty tiresome. By the time she turned 35, she only went to mass when her parents came to town.
As time passed, Debra began to fear that her life had lost its meaning. She felt empty, unfocused, aimless. So, one afternoon in the fall, she decided to go shopping for a new religion.
“I can buy any car I want. Why can’t I choose my faith the same way? There’s so many religions out there that my parents never even considered. Who’s to say the Pope’s guys have a monopoly on meaning?”
I was intrigued by Debra’s consumerist approach to finding a higher truth. An erratic Catholic myself, it suddenly occurred to me: “Maybe, despite all evidence to the contrary, God really does exist. Perhaps I’ve just been using the wrong long-distance service provider.” I decided to tag along with Debra and check out what the other guys had to say.
A week later, I agreed to meet Debra after work at an impressive Methodist cathedral on New York’s Fifth Avenue. I got there first, in the middle of a torrential downpour. As I waited outside, I read the Post and checked out the architecture, an obvious rip-off of Westminster Abbey. Prestigious address, though, and within walking distance of work.
Debra arrived. As we entered the church, an ominous sixtysomething minister urged his tiny flock: “Acknowledge your wretchedness!” He went on and on after that, but you know what they say about first impressions. Afterward, at the 84th Street Multiplex, Debra interrogated me, “So, whadja think?”
“My boss reminds me how wretched I am all day long,” I said. “I’m kind of hoping to forget about my wretchedness, not acknowledge it.”
Next Debra asked a Jewish friend, Paul, to escort us to Yom Kippur services at a synagogue on the Upper West Side. Famous for its outspoken left-wing rabbi, this Reform temple appealed to our political sensibilities, as well as being convenient to a number of excellent Chinese restaurants.
The day before, Paul called Debra to remind us to buy tickets to the service. “Tickets? What for?” Debra asked. Paul explained that Yom Kippur was an important day of worship, like a Rolling Stones concert. Accordingly, tickets were $50 each, actually a bargain if you thought about it.
We promised to buy Stones tickets the next time they were in town.
A few nights later, Debra and I were studying the Cliff Notes to the Koran over double cappuccinos at Starbucks. “Islam is pretty cool,” she said. “Listen to this: ‘Hell awaits the infidels.’” I agreed that any religion that allowed you to use the word “infidel” in everyday conversation was worth looking into.
We took the subway uptown to the recently-constructed postmodern mosque on East 96th Street. The gate was closed. Hours weren’t posted.
“How the hell did they get to be America’s fastest-growing religion without being open?” Debra sneered. “You don’t need a mosque, you know,” I said helpfully. “Wherever you are, you just pray five times a day facing Mecca.”
Later that night, Debra and I threw down half-priced margaritas with Tamara, a 30-year-old ex-Southern Baptist from Oregon. She’d become a Buddhist after seeing “The Last Emperor.”
Tamara tugged on a diamond earring. “My cat is like a little bodhisattva. He watches you to find out what object you love the most. Then he breaks it.”
“Eastern religions are too difficult,” Debra whispered to me. “I could never remember all those weird vocabulary words.”
I didn’t hear from Debra for a few weeks. She was too busy sorting through solicitation letters she’d received from the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Christian Scientists and Mormons. She even downloaded a tract on Taoism from the Web.
Then she called me at work, while I was in the middle of editing a trust indenture. “I’ve decided to become a Catholic!” she told me. “It’s familiar, I already know the prayers and the masses are only 45 minutes long.”
Debra had her second confirmation, at a hip, predominantly-gay parish in the West Village, in early December. The church was a modest post-Federalist building, but it was directly across the street from an express subway station. It was a beautiful ceremony, and Debra looked radiant in her puffy white dress. “I think it’s great that you’ve finally found what you’ve been looking for, just in time for Christmas,” I told her supportfully.
Debra looked at me quizzically. “Christmas? I’m doing Kwanzaa this year.”
(Ted Rall, a syndicated editorial cartoonist, is author of All the Rules Have Changed (Rip Off Press, 1995).)