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Excerpted from The New American Spirituality: A Seeker's Guide by Elizabeth Lesser. Copyright 1999 by Elizabeth Lesser. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.

"I recently heard a great writer say that an essential element in the life of a writer is to have been an outsider in childhood, to have been given the 'gift' of not belonging."

Elizabeth Lesser, The New American Spirituality, Part 4

I recently heard a great writer say that an essential element in the life of a writer is to have been an outsider in childhood, to have been given the "gift" of not belonging. This man's gift had been a father whose job kept the family moving from one Irish town to another. Not having a hometown fueled his longing to belong to a community and made him an acute observer of people. My own childhood predicament of not belonging to any formal religious institution or distinct ethnic group awakened in me an intense yearning to understand the mysterious nature of life. I was given no explanations, no answers to such basic questions as Where do we come from? and Where do we go when we die? In the absence of any shared spiritual ritual, I had no model of individuals searching together, fulfilling their own destinies while being in relationships and community. With no prescribed beliefs, I set out at an early age to create my own.

My town was a curious mix of Italian Catholics, middle- and upper-class Protestants, a few Jewish and African American families, and Unitarians--people like my family, only they had decided to belong to something. We were maddeningly none of the above. I longed for conformity, and not only of the religious kind. This was America in the fifties and sixties. I wanted my school lunch to look like the other kids' lunches: sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off, orange slices in little plastic bags. But my mother packed me hunks of homemade bread and hard-boiled eggs. This and other similarly unfair acts made me covet normality. Barbie dolls were out--they were not anatomically correct. Television and movies were strictly limited. I dreamed of my family piling into the station wagon, going to church, and then coming home and sitting together in the family room, watching The Ed Sullivan Show. But we didn't belong to a church, nor did we have a family room, or even a TV.

My best friend in the neighborhood was from an Italian Catholic family that most definitely had a family room. They went to Mass at Saint Patrick's church every Sunday, to religious instruction on Fridays, and, best of all, to High Mass at Christmas and Easter and to the mysterious service on Ash Wednesday. After her First Communion, to which she wore white gloves and a hat, she could kneel at the main altar and eat the little wafer, the body of Christ, and drink the wine, his blood, and then tell her dark secrets to a priest behind a black curtain. I wanted to belong to this religion.

For a while I went to Mass with my friend's family, and once, risking the ridicule of my sisters, received the thumbprint of the priest on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. I loved the drama and ritual and the Latin words and music that filled Saint Patrick's. I fantasized becoming a nun, marrying Jesus, belonging to something mysterious and grand. But, since I wasn't Catholic, I understood that I was only a visitor and therefore doomed to hell. Perhaps there was some other doorway in for me.

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