Salt and Seed
Religious but Not Spiritual
It was Memorial Sunday this weekend, so naturally I wore my white pencil skirt to church. Memorial Day weekend is the seasonal debut of the white section of my wardrobe: I only wear white skirts and shorts between Memorial Day and Labor Day, except for select "winter whites" that I'll wear in January and February. It's an entirely self-imposed rule, arbitrary and very limiting, observed by almost nobody else in my circles, of dubious provenance and doubtful utility. And it makes me ridiculously happy to observe it every year between May and September.
The whites rule is only one of several sumptuary regulations that I enjoy keeping. I have seasonal rules for when I wear tall boots and when I wear peep-toe pumps; policies for what I won't wear to weddings and what I will wear to business meetings. It bothers me not one whit if other people ignore or flout these rules, and I don't care if they notice or approve of my compliance. It's an entirely private pleasure to know and master these byways of custom.
Nor are clothes the only province of my affinity for folkways. I enjoy knowing and keeping traditional rules of housekeeping. For instance: I do my laundry on Monday, my grocery shopping on Thursday, and my baking on Saturday. I like to observe rules of formal etiquette, though I fail often in this realm. Most of all I love customary foodways. While on my mission in Portugal, I learned that fried fish should be served with rice, while boiled fish should be served with potatoes. This struck me as a wonderful rule to live by, and I have never deviated.
Certain holiday foods are compulsory in my kitchen: black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, soda bread on St Patrick's Day, flag cake on the Fourth of July, and on and on. On Thanksgiving I labor lovingly over my traditional homemade feast, rarely deviating from the menu and recipes I gathered early in my married life. I really do think there are two kinds of people in the world: those who take pleasure in observing the traditional Thanksgiving menu, and those who take pleasure in disregarding it. No question into which category I fall.
Religious traditions are the mother lode of traditional folkways. My own tradition, arising as it does from Puritan roots in New England, lacks its own calendar of religious festivals and holidays, so it's no surprise that I borrow liberally from other traditions: Fat Tuesday, Lent, Passover, Hanukkah, Advent. These borrowings are made greedily but with a bad conscience, for I know that without an undergirding spiritual connection and communal history my versions of these festivals are only an outward shell—some would say a profane mockery—of a true observance. I am the bane of the prophets: Amos said, "I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me"; Christ would recognize me straightaway as a whited sepulcher; Paul would observe that I exploit the forms of godliness but deny the power thereof. They are right about me.
Nevertheless, there is something about observing the "forms of godliness"—and the more workaday "forms of community"—that creates for me a deep sense of well-being in the world. I am religious but not spiritual. This inversion of the clichéd formula "spiritual but not religious" is by now a cliché itself. It even has its own spoof in The Onion! But it is true: I am drawn to the structure and beauty of religious tradition and cultural folkways, but I lack a strong spiritual sensibility or intuition.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.