Credo by Teresa Amabile
My name is Teresa Amabile, I’ve been a member of this congregation for two years, and here is my Credo – what I believe. It’s not based in one set of doctrines or teachings, though it’s been influenced by many teachings. Instead, this is what I believe in the sense of the original Greek and Latin roots of the word, which is “to give one’s heart to.”
So, here is what I “give my heart to,” now, at this time in my life: A belief that we are all one – we in this congregation, we in this American society, we in the global community of all peoples, we creatures on earth – one with all living things, one with all things, the sea and the stars and the farthest reaches of the universe. I believe that we individual souls are each part of one great communal soul, that the suffering of one or the cruel deed of one diminishes all, that the joy of one or the kind deed of one nourishes all. I believe in a great force of goodness and love that underlies all of creation, a creative force that, when we enact goodness, we are all moving toward. I believe that that force is God. I believe in God.
That’s a lot. So, let me clarify, by sharing a bit about my faith journey - a journey that continues and, I hope, will continue, for the rest of my life.
I do not believe in the God whom I fervently embraced as a child, growing up in a large, devoutly Catholic, Italian-American family in Buffalo. That God, as we learned from the nuns who taught us in St. Joseph’s elementary school, was a holy trinity: God the Father, an old man with a white beard somewhere up in the sky; his only son, Jesus Christ, born to a virgin 2,000 years ago, who died for our sins and rose again bodily 3 days later, who will judge everyone who ever lived, sending us to heaven or hell at the end of the world; and the holy spirit, who occasionally appeared as a dove, who would somehow fill our souls at confirmation, and whose other jobs were mysteriously unspecified. And the way we could best please God, and save our souls, was to believe every doctrine, and follow every rule handed down by the hierarchy of the one true religion, the Catholic Church.
I believed and tried my best to follow that, all the way through 16 years of Catholic education. Sure, my practice of praying before the statues in my bedroom fell away, my understanding of Catholic theology became more nuanced, and my fear of disobeying the church hierarchy dissipated – but I still believed.
Until I didn’t. My faith just evaporated in the couple of years after I left college. Maybe this was because I began learning and working in more secular contexts. Maybe it was because, once I’d rejected the Church’s oppressive restrictions concerning contraception and abortion, I felt that none of it made sense any more. Whatever the reasons, by the time I had my daughter Christene, when I was 30, I knew that I was only going through – and taking her through – the motions of Catholicism, and only to please her grandparents.
I know that some of my friends in this Society are former Catholics, having either drifted away long ago, or been driven away by the Church’s small-minded teachings about homosexuality or the heinous behavior of so many in the hierarchy
of the church. But here’s the thing: I’m not a former Catholic. I’m an actively practicing Catholic. Yes, I reject many dogmas, teachings, and other aspects of the institutional church but, to me, church is a community of people – not an institution. I do go to Mass most weekends – though, now, only online. I have really missed receiving the Eucharist during the pandemic, because it’s a time when I often have deep spiritual experiences. And I pray each morning and evening, adapting an especially beautiful part of the Mass: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, who gave us this day in which to live and move and have our being.”
So, you might be wondering: What bizarre twists did her journey take, to bring her from where she was at age 30, to here?”
Well, I’ve had two profound conversion experiences, the first, in my late 40s. For years, I’d been feeling not only boredom and restlessness at Mass, but also a deep yearning, a longing. I knew it wasn’t a longing for a new life partner. By then I’d found my wonderful Steve, the dear Jewish atheist who’s been my husband for nearly 31 years. Because Christene was about to go off to college, I wrestled with the question of continuing any form of religious practice on my own. “Do whatever feels right to you,” Steve said, predictably, annoyingly, “I’ll support you in whatever you decide to do.”
On December 24th that year, after a particularly disappointing Christmas Eve Mass, I apologized to Steve, who always accompanied us at Christmas. “Honey, I’m so sorry for dragging you to this church today. The music was awful, the readers were poor, and that priest’s hellfire-and-brimstone sermon was horrible – especially for the ‘Family Mass.’”
“Yeah,” he replied, “it was pretty bad. But, you know, I think that other Catholic church in town is having a midnight Mass tonight. Wanna go? We can have dinner, relax at home for the evening, then get there at 11:30 for the carols beforehand.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “I’d love to do that with you.” Well, from the moment we entered that church, I was swept away: We received warm greetings from many people (definitely unlike your typical Catholic church!). The music was magnificent, the whole congregation sang, the space was beautiful, and the sermon from the pastor offered fresh perspectives on what the birth and life of Jesus could mean for us, as we live to serve this suffering world today.
That night, I felt that a sacred spirit – a holy spirit – was showering grace upon me. I wanted to give my heart to it. I was beginning to believe. I joined that parish and never looked back to the old Catholicism of my childhood. I embraced this new brand of Catholicism, which is still quite unusual (especially, I’ve found, out here in western Massachusetts): marked by a liberation theology preaching justice for the poor and marginalized, a bias toward action in social justice, a warm, welcoming inclusiveness, and a deeply sincere questioning of church authority.
My second conversion experience happened right here, with you, in the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. We’d been exposed through friends to Unitarian Universalism, a bit, before we moved to Amherst. We’d attended a funeral and a few Sunday services, and we learned from our friend Toni how much her congregation had meant to her whole family while her daughters were growing up, and during her husband’s terminal illness and its aftermath. As we were contemplating the move to Amherst, Steve asked me if I’d consider joining a UU church with him. I was dumbfounded, almost speechless, because he’d never shown the slightest interest in organized religion. But I managed to say Yes, I’d love to do that, as long as he didn’t expect me to stop being a Catholic. No problem, he said.
From our very first visits to Sunday services here, we felt at home. You welcomed us with smiles and friendly chatter and – thank goodness! – you wore nametags! You remembered us and were genuinely interested in us. The music and the choir were magnificent. Janet’s eloquent, heartfelt sermons touched us, giving us a lot to discuss later. The talks from lay people were inspiring, making it clear that this congregation focuses squarely on social justice. The day we learned that, just a few months earlier, the Society had taken an undocumented immigrant into Sanctuary, creating a home for her in the basement, and guarding her safety there, we were blown away. We decided that this is where we belong. And we have tried to belong, tried to contribute to the Society, its people, and its projects, just a small part of what we gain every week from Sunday services, our small group discussions, the religious ed programs we’ve participated in, and our growing friendships with you.
I’m proud to tell people I’m both a Catholic and a Unitarian Universalist. The more I learn about Unitarian Universalism and its grounding, the greater the compatibility I see between its 7 principles and what, to me, is the best and truest core of Christianity: the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. During these two-plus years at USNF, I have felt showered with grace by the holy spirit, as much as I felt it that Christmas Eve 25 years ago. I still believe in God, and I believe in a holy trinity. But now, for me, that trinity is three manifestations of the ineffable Divine force: the divine creator; the divine humanity that was so clearly manifest in Jesus and his teachings; and the divine spirit that lives within each human person, calling us to bring about the kingdom of heaven on this earth.