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A tale of two religious lives

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Wednesday, August 16th, 2006 — No one would have considered Betty Erlin and John Duryea the perfect dinner partners. They marched to distinctly different beats.

Yet the coincidence of these two people dying within a few days of each other this past July -- and the even greater coincidence that their separate memorial services would be planned for this September -- suggest the possibility that we might see their separate lives as parts of the same whole.

In this case, the "whole" is the role of religion in our lives, a subject often misunderstood and misused.

Duryea was our pastor at the Stanford Newman Center in the 1970s. He was a man ahead of his time who opened the doors and windows of our Roman Catholic faith. Because of him, we learned to search, challenge, take responsibility for, and ultimately cherish our beliefs as the indelible core of who we were as Christians. He baptized our son John and forged the way for many young people to seek their own authentic faith.

Erlin was our next-door neighbor and godmother of our son Michael. She was a character, without any inhibitions. Her license plate read: BOOGIMA. So she was. She brought her music class to Walter Hays Elementary School. She had the students in the palm of her hand with her piano playing, shuckin' and jivin,' and "gibberish."

If Duryea was instrumental in opening our minds in search of an adult faith, Erlin supplied the counterpart. From her we learned that living a life of faith meant laying down our differences and opening our hearts to the world.

Duryea and Erlin both lived out of a strong faith. But both also experienced their personal demons -- and sought refuge in the God they believed was large enough to contain them.

Fr. Duryea, as we knew him, had a vision of church that reached beyond traditional boundaries of rules and prohibitions, a religion that gave primacy to an informed individual conscience. He shared his appreciation for the simple life and the beauty of nature, particularly as manifested in the John Muir world of the high Sierra.

And then he fell in love ... with Eve. (I selfishly wondered about the temptress who had stolen this man from us!) Many were shocked and even angry the morning he preached his last homily at St. Ann's Chapel and told us about his decision. Love and marriage would not deny him his priesthood, which he believed was his calling for life. As much as he wrestled with his conscience, he believed in a God who supported his decision -- which made headlines nationally.

We struggled with our own doubts about the demands of faith and commitment. Our utopian vision of freedom and openness suffered growing pains. In the end, Duryea's decision and our response must be matters of personal conscience, often the most demanding taskmaster of all.

Like Duryea, Erlin was born and raised Roman Catholic. Unlike him, she was not one to test the boundaries of her Church. Her devotion was strong and simple. If she questioned her God, it was not over complicated philosophical arguments. She had her own problems.

During the years that we were next-door neighbors, Erlin suffered on and off from bouts of emotional illness. Plagued by the abnormal, she craved normalcy. The structure and predictability of traditional religion supported her life and helped to silence her mental demons.

"This, too, shall pass," was the mantra that got her through many hard times.

Two people, one religion, and no real similarity in outward practices. Yet both were examples of what it means to live with faith: To believe that life is a blessing to be treasured and shared, and to know that no matter how terrifying our demons we are not alone.

Duryea, a gentle firebrand, taught that faith needed to be alive and responsive to the demands of conscience. He resisted institutional norms even when he knew he would pay a price. He found healing in his "beloved mountains," friends and family.

Erlin wasn't much for arguments or resistance but whipped up her signature custard on a moment's notice for anything from a headache to a death in the family. Every kid on the block knew where her candy-jar was -- and that they were all welcome any time. She had no patience for grudges or self-pity. Her kitchen and her heart were big enough for everyone.

In this age of right and left, good and evil, right and wrong, it is good to remember that we each bring a distinct personality to our beliefs. Maybe Fr. Duryea and Boogima are a match made in heaven. They could be enjoying that great banquet in the sky even as we continue to forge our beliefs within the context of our fractured world.

In the end, what more can we ask of faith, or religion, or even of God than to open our eyes to the beauty in the world and to help us find a way through the rough spots in our lives.