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Meaning Creation in Religious and Spiritual Cultures:
A Biographical Cross-Analysis of Catholicism and the New Age
Volume 15, 2002.
The purpose of this study is to examine religious and spiritual cultures by understanding how two sisters interpret and create meaning in their Catholic and New Age subcultures. I accomplish this through the use of the biographical method. In other words, in this study, I assess the themes and turning points that were present in regard to meaning creation and interpretation in these women's particular life histories. Therefore, the research question that drives this study is, "How do two sisters create and interpret meaning in Catholic and New Age cultures?"
Humans have always been fascinated by imagining what might lie beyond the physical
world (Ducasse, 1953, p. 8). For thousands of years, many have pondered what
happens to us when we depart this life. As a result, diverse philosophies on
this topic have emerged over the centuries, and many of these have manifested
in the form of organized religion. Religious beliefs are an integral part of
human existence (Ducasse, 1953, p. 10). It is well agreed upon that religion,
in some form, exists (p. 7). Therefore, religion of one kind or another seems
to be a nearly universal feature of humankind (Blackstone, 1963, p. vii).
However, contrary to what some may think, defining "religion" is
not an easy task. The word is used in a variety of ways; it is applied to rituals,
organizations, doctrines, beliefs, and feelings as well as to the large-scale
traditions such as Christianity or Buddhism (Clouser, 1991, p. 9). King (1968)
offers this definition of religion: "a thrust toward and response to the
Ultimate" (p. 361). This definition is useful because it has no ties to
any particular denomination. Different religions believe in different philosophies,
so it is necessary to keep in mind that the terms "religion" and the
"ultimate" can mean various things to many different people.
As a result, it is my contention in this study that different types of religions and spiritualities become their own individual "cultures." In other words, people who have the same religious or spiritual beliefs usually gravitate to each other to worship or discuss spiritual issues. Therefore, the argument I will be presenting here is that people who follow the Catholic Church and the New Age Movement form their own "communities" or "cultures." From these cultures, I argue that the members simultaneously co-create and co-interpret the messages that are prevalent in their religious or spiritual communities.
Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine religious and spiritual cultures by understanding how two sisters interpret and create meaning in their Catholic and New Age subcultures. I accomplish this through the use of the biographical method. In other words, in this study, I assess the themes and turning points that were present in regard to meaning creation and interpretation in these women's particular life histories. Therefore, the research question that drives this study is, "How do two sisters create and interpret meaning in Catholic and New Age cultures?"
RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL CULTURES
When the word "culture" comes to mind, most of us think in terms of nationality. However, there is much more to the term than meets the eye. Within dominant cultures, there is what often is called "subcultures." These subcultures are the type with which I am dealing when I discuss the Catholic and New Age cultures.
Brummett (1994) attempts to define the word "culture." He argues
that throughout history, the term "culture" has been a central concept
that has had many variations in definitions (p. 18). In fact, Ray Williams (1976)
writes, "Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the
English language" (p. 76), and Goldschmidt (1955) states, "the term
`culture' has divergent and vague connotations" (p. 279). Wuthnow (1987)
agrees by saying that culture is complex because it is not simply "out
there," like an object that can be approached without any need for interpretation
(p. 12). Rather, it is an abstract concept that can take on numerous definitions.
Brummett argues that there are both elitist and popular meanings of the term.
The elitist version refers to culture as "the very best," or "the
finest, most refined experiences that society or nation has to offer."
He states this definition is often referred to as "high culture" (p.
However, I am concerned with the popular variation of the term "culture"
in this study. Williams (1977) defines this version of culture as our "whole
ways of life" (p. 17). Brummett (1994) expands on Williams' definition
by arguing that culture is a connectedness among artifacts that are systematically
related (p. 20). While this is a very broad definition, it serves my purposes
better than the first because it incorporates more possibilities into the definition.
There has been quite a variety of research done on subcultures. Some examples
of topics include: the CB radio culture, computer users, fathers,
youths, rap music, and organizations (see Dannefer and Poushinsky, 1977; Marsiglio,
1993; Pfaffenberger, 1988; Blair, 1993; Baxter & Goldsmith, 1990; Sackmann,
1992; Mumby, 1987; Foeman & Pressley, 1987; Esonwa, 1992). Many of these
studies have found that these groups of people develop their own distinct values
and ways of ordering their world.
The Catholic Church has also been studied as a type of subculture. For example, Wallace (1993) examines the social construction of a new leadership role for women in the Catholic Church, more specifically, of Catholic women pastors. The major portion of the study utilizes key concepts of Berger & Luckmann's (1967) social construction of reality theory in an analysis of the collaborative leadership style of women pastors in twenty priests less parishes scattered throughout the United States.
Jablonski (1980) examines the rhetorical problems and strategies of the American
Bishops in promoting radical change in the Roman Catholic Church. She suggests
that useful distinctions may be drawn between insurgent rhetoric and the rhetoric
of establishment campaigns for change. Finally, Foss (1983) performs an argumentative
analysis of the birth control debate in the Catholic Church.
In summary, many different types of cultures have been the objects of scholarly investigation. As this literature suggests, it is important to study a variety of different subcultures. However, not much research has been done on New Age cultures, and thus, this is a void in the research that needs to be filled. Identifying and studying atypical versions of culture such as this can reveal interesting insights into particular norms of groups that make up these cultures.
Much of the biographical research is conducted by using the life history as a critical text. While in my study I construct the biographies myself through interviews and journals, some researchers use existing material to analyze lives. Either way, however, in examining the text, the studies take a particular perspective on the peoples life. For example, like my study, some address religious issues (see, for example, Moseley, 2001). A good number of biographical studies examine womens lives (Hoffert, 2001; Polkey, 2000; Szadzuik, 1999; Turner, 1997; Yousef, 1999). Some look at a particular issue or group of people such as romantic subjectivity, politics or journalists (Polkey, 2000; Steiner, 1996; Yousef, 1999), while others examine more broad issues. For example, one common area is the meaning of gender or the meaning of being a woman (Colasurdo, 1997; Hoffert, 2001). Another popular area of study is the culture, ritual, teaching, or tradition of a woman (Turner, 1997; Szadziuk, 1999). Many of these also focus on a particular racial group such as Native Americans or Hispanics.
Although there is biographical research that has been done in the past, it is still a rarity in communication. Historians, sociologists, or theologians conducted many of these studies. Thus, it is time that communication scholars begin to contribute to our knowledge base using this method.
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF REALITY
There are many vehicles a scholar could choose to study cultural meanings. However, Berger & Luckmann's (1967) social construction of reality theory provides and excellent framework from which to understand how people construct their reality through shared meaning. According to Schweder & Miller (1985), the social construction of reality theory suggests that meaning and understanding are generated and maintained by communicating within social and cultural groups (p. 41). Berger & Luckmann argue that the only way people can interpret and understand reality is through symbolic expression.
According to Berger & Luckmann, reality is not simply "there" as an external object, but is constructed by the subject. In other words, the world in which people live is of their own making, and this world is made with symbols. However, socially constructed meanings have impacts--how we judge and comprehend people in our social realities has implications on how we live our lives (Trenholm, 1991). According to Gergen (1982), how we construct our realities has an impact on our everyday lives including how we interact, react, and understand our world.
The individuals in this study are two sisters, Patricia Canavan, and Marie
Sheridan, who grew up as strong Catholics. Patricia is 65 years old, and between
the ages of 19 and 24, she was a nun. She married three months after she left
the convent and had three children. During the time she was raising her children,
Patricia and her husband taught Sunday school and were every active in the Catholic
Church. Over the years, she began to grow away from the Church; her sister-in-law
introduced her to New Age ideas about twenty years ago. However, it was not
until about 1989 that she really began her "spiritual quest" into
the "New Age."
The other subject is Marie, a 61-year woman who has practiced Catholicism faithfully throughout her life. Although she grew up in the same household as Patricia, they have very different outlooks on life. Marie raised her children to be very strong and practicing Catholics; they regularly used Catholic practices in their everyday lives, such a saying the Rosary on a daily basis.
The primary data collection strategy I used for this study was journaling, which consisted of four parts. The first step included a sketch of a brief life history. Next, I asked them to address certain spiritual issues that arose in their lives and contributed to their development. Third, they wrote about the major ideas in both Catholicism (for both) and in New Age teachings (for one) that make the most sense to them. Finally, the former nun wrote about any past lives she thinks she remembers, as well as her ESP or chPatriciaelling abilities, and the Catholic discussed what her involvement in the Catholic Church means to her.
The next step of data collection consisted of in-depth interviews. Raymond
(1979) favors the "unstructured" interview, employing open-ended questions
because it "maximizes discovery and description" (p. 16). Interviewing
allows researchers to access people's ideas, thoughts and memories in their
own words rather than in the words of the researcher (Reinharz, 1992, p. 18).
In addition, Reinharz argues, "for a woman to be understood in a social
research project, it may be necessary for her to be interviewed by a woman"
As I mentioned above, I asked the former nun about what Catholic ideas and
messages used to make sense to her and why they ceased to do so. In addition,
I also inquired into what New Age ideas are most attractive to her as well as
which ones she uses in her everyday life. As for her sister, I concentrated
on the symbols and narratives in Catholicism that reinforces her faith. The
interviewing helped clarify information they presented in their journals.
In addition to interviewing these two subjects, I observed conversations between
them about Catholic and New Age messages. I asked them to interact and comment
on one another's belief systems. By studying their interaction, it helped me
to understand how they create and interpret not only their own beliefs, but
also the beliefs of each other. Finally, I interviewed family members, such
as their brothers and children, to get further information on how they believe
these two sisters interpret and create religious and spiritual messages.
This data was recorded in two ways. First, the journals were written directly
by these individuals. Once the journals were complete, I asked them to turn
them over to me. Second, the interviews were recorded on audiotape and then
transcribed by me at a later date. Once I had all the data collected and transcribed,
I searched for themes in these people's lives.
The final component of data "collection" had an "ethnographic"
flavor. In other words, I relied on my memories of "New Age" seminars
I have attended with Patricia, the Catholic Masses I went to as a child, as
well as the religious experiences I have had with Marie (such as attending church
with her and being present when her family says the Rosary). Some of the "New
Age" seminars also included a past-life regression in which I was able
to be present.
As I present Patricia and Marie's biographies, I will argue that their religious/spiritual lives can be analyzed as narratives. First, I contend that Patricia's life is a "Quest Story." In other words, it is evident that throughout her life, she has been on a journey to find a form of spirituality that is most satisfying to her. On the other hand, Marie's life is an "Anchor Story." Her Catholicism has been a stabilizing force in her life, and thus, her religion has become her "anchor."Patricia Canavan: "The Quest Story"
Patricia Canavan was born on September 18, 1936, in Detroit, Michigan. Her
stepfather was a Chicago fireman, and their family was rather poor. Growing
up in this family was difficult at times. Her parents argued often, and she
was not very close to her stepfather. One recollection of the messages she received
during childhood about religious social reality was that her stepfather told
his children: "If you're going to be anything, be a Catholic." Both
Patricia and Marie received this same message. Thus, their religious realities
were similar as children. For example, both regularly went to daily Mass alone,
and both believed in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Another important recollection of her childhood spirituality was "God the Father." She stated,
It was very important that God created me and knew what I was doing every minute of the day and knew how many hairs I had on my head. It was very important to me that He loved me, that somebody loved me...
Attempting to understand why this was the case would only be speculation. However,
since Patricia felt that she did not have a loving relationship with her stepfather,
perhaps she needed to feel another form of a father's love in her life. Thus,
"God the Father" became the closest thing to a real father's love.
It is evident from Patricia's life that her religious and spiritual reality
changed quite drastically. Even at an early age, Patricia was re-defining Catholic
social reality while creating her own subjective reality; she was more interested
in God and the meaning of life than she was in the rules of the Catholic Church.
For example, a major turning point in Patricia's childhood was when she took
her First Communion. The nun at the Church said that the children could absolutely
not eat anything after midnight. Patricia goes on to say, "The morning
of my First Communion my mother said, `have a bowl of oatmeal.' And so I made
a value judgment, and it didn't bother my conscience. So I had already rejected
something that the sister said we absolutely could not do. My mother said `eat
the oatmeal,' so I ate the oatmeal. That was a major turning point for me."
Thus, she realized that "rules can be broken; rules are not of high value."
As a result, she began a slow process of turning her attention away from the
Catholic rules (and with that, part of the social reality) and more toward philosophical
questions such as the meaning of life and God. This was the beginning of her
During Patricia's teenage years, she went alone to Mass each morning. She would
walk to church and then to school. She was always telling God that she loved
Him, and she was genuinely thankful for all of the good things she had. She
also had a very strong interest in the Mystical Body of Christ. This is a concept
that has been left behind by the Catholic Church, but basically, it said that
we are all part of Christ's Mystical Body, and what we do (good or bad) affects
Although for most of her childhood she accepted many of the Church's teachings,
Patricia still had problems with some of the messages and rules. Even so, she
entered the convent in 1955, after one year of college at Marquette University
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From the moment she got there, she was told that if
she had any thoughts of leaving, it was the Devil tempting her and she should
pray for perseverance. At some level, Patricia resented or even rejected this
message. In addition, she also ignored many of the rules set forth in the convent.
For instance, although it was prohibited, she bathed every night, let her hair
grow, and read books frequently. Thus, Patricia was restless within the Catholic
culture's social reality during this period of her life. This restlessness aided
her in continuing her quest.
In 1960, Patricia left the convent and got married. From this point on, she
began to explore new possibilities and new cultures. At this point, her quest
continued, and she began to reject the Catholic social reality even more. For
example, after their marriage, she and her husband George explored reincarnation
in their conversation, and her eventual acceptance of reincarnation was a pivotal
stage. Thus, her subjective reality continued to change. This is evident in
George's recollection: "Back in 1960, when I first met Patricia, she was
newly out of the convent and about as church-oriented as one could be. She was
very, very, Catholic, and she believed everything the Church said." However,
he also said that once they started talking about philosophy, Patricia started
to move away from the "intensive Catholicism."
George further explains, "Talking about religion, I think, was one of
the ways we used to communicate with each other ... we also read a book called
The Ultimate Frontier, a book about reincarnation, and it made sense to both
of us, going from one level to another." Patricia agrees, "He believed
in astrology. He was also open to reincarnation. He really opened the door for
me quite a bit; he listened and we talked a lot."
Therefore, this time in Patricia's life was very pivotal in constructing her
reality. She had gone from being a very religious child, to being a nun, and
by this time, she was using conversations with George to explore other possible
realities. Since Patricia was in a supportive culture, she was able to question
and challenge some of her beliefs and formulate new ones. While she may have
been questioning things intrapersonally as a child, at this point in her life,
she now had the opportunity to converse with others. These discussions allowed
for the sharing of subjective realities that led to the changing of hers.
During the late 1960s, Patricia was introduced to yet another cultural reality
when she attended graduate school at DePaul University. She went there to earn
a Master's degree in philosophy. Patricia remembers that during this time, this
university was (as she describes) "on the cutting edge." For a person
rooted in Catholic social reality, the concepts she learned here, such as "think
for yourself," were very "new" to her. Although she had already
been doing much thinking on her own and with George, to do it with "scholarly
blessing" was quite a change. Thus, the culture of graduate school introduced
her to a new reality; it challenged her to do great "mental gymnastics."
This reality was certainly at odds with her Catholic reality. As a result, her
From the time Patricia began law school in 1974 until her mother's serious
illness in 1982, God was far from her mind. However, during her mother's illness,
she began to "revisit" the God of her childhood in the Catholic Church.
Before she knew it, she was back into the habit of attending church every day.
She described this church-going phase as a strengthening experience. Although
she had returned to the Church, she went to Mass merely because she desired
to go, not because she felt obligated to because of an order from the Church.
After her mother's death in 1984, Patricia felt alone and very sad. She had
a very difficult time with the death, and as a result, continued to attend church.
However, while at first she described it as a "strengthening experience,"
after awhile, she found nothing but emptiness in the Church. In fact, the Church
was becoming meaningless to her. Patricia recalls, "I thought to myself,
`what am I doing this for? It isn't really giving me anything; in fact, it's
making me feel badly.' So I stopped going to Mass which was another turning
point for me."
At this point, Patricia's subjective reality consisted of a combination of
Catholic social reality and her own conclusions she derived by re-thinking that
reality. Patricia claims that her "leap" to New Age ideas came through
conversations with others. For example, her sister-in-law, Nancy, was one of
the first people to provide a forum for discussion of the New Age social reality.
Patricia recalls, "[interacting with Nancy] opened up a whole new world
for me, a whole new avenue." Nancy and Patricia talked about spiritual
issues such as "creating our own reality," reincarnation, and karma.
Patricia says, "Nancy talked about reincarnation as if you would talk about
what kind of cookies did you bake."
In addition to Nancy, Patricia also talked to her daughters. She recalls, "Ann
[her daughter] and I used to sit and talk by the hour about major metaphysical
things." Although Patricia claims that conversations with Ann had a major
impact on her spirituality, Ann disagrees. She says, "I don't think I got
her to this point. She's way beyond anything we used to talk about ... Where
I thought it was conversational, she was clearly searching for something."
One of the things that attracted Patricia to New Age concepts was that she
was in charge of her own spiritual growth and development, not the Pope or some
bishop or priest. For example, within the concept of reincarnation, the individual
is allowed to make any choices they want in a particular incarnation. The person
must face the consequences, but these consequences are imposed by your soul,
not by anyone else. She liked this personal responsibility.
Thus, Patricia's process of re-defining her subjective reality continued when
this new social reality began to permeate her subjective reality. This led her
to joining a spiritual/metaphysical group, The Association for Research and
Enlightenment (A.R.E.), as well as attending spiritual seminars. With the introduction
to a completely new social reality, her subjective reality changed quite drastically.
Every day, she was reading more about reincarnation and other New Age concepts and becoming more fascinated by them. To Patricia, these ideas made so much more sense than Catholic reality's explanation of how the "universe" works. She claims, "The idea of reincarnation and learning from a lifetime that we messed up just makes so much sense to me." Two seminar leaders/authors whose ideas helped her construct her reality were Jess Stern and Dick Sutphen. Both of these men research past-life relationships, and as a result of reading these books, the concept of reincarnation made even more sense to her. The books helped her examine the relationships she had in her life and, as a result, she came to understand the karmic ties she had to these people. In addition, she came to believe that reincarnation does not take place in linear time, as we know it. To illustrate an important aspect of reincarnation, she quoted a passage in Sutphen's book:
Each level is a different period of historic time. You are one or more people on each level [each level equals an incarnation in a different period of history] Each move on the chess board will affect all of the other levels (Sutphen, 1978, p. 40).
Currently, Patricia's main focus of her spirituality is in the intellectual
challenge of trying to understand the concept of "God." She says,
"it absolutely fascinates me what God is." Currently, Patricia's idea
of God is completely different than it was a child. Now she believes that God
is energy; He is "All That Is." In addition, she thinks there is nothing
but God; I am God, you are God, she is God, everyone is God. In other words,
she uses the term "God" as meaning the "collective unconscious."
We are all pure energy and are all connected at some level.
Her brother Mike states, "I think Patricia is in the process of searching
for something, a meaning." Patricia agrees, and she also believes this
is a primary message of New Age spirituality: we are all a "work of art
in progress." Moreover, she goes on to say, "Everybody's path [in
the New Age Movement] is different, and it probably should be different. We
are all in the process [of developing spiritually]; it's not that we have to
reach a particular end."
Patricia's final thought on her spirituality is this: "I don't think the
New Age Movement is a set of answers. I think the New Age Movement is a process,
and I think it is a learning process. It is different for everybody." A
perfect way to summarize Patricia's spiritual journey came from the words of
her brother Mike, "I think she's a real `searcher.' She's trying to find
herself and where she stands with her God. That search, I think, is just beginning."
Marie Sheridan: "The Anchor Story"
Marie Sheridan was born on October 7, 1940. Four years younger than Patricia,
she has one older and four younger brothers. Marie and Patricia have different
biological fathers, but Marie recalls some of the same difficulties and hardships
growing up in the same family as Patricia did.
While Patricia has been on a spiritual "quest" for most of her life,
Marie has found comfort in stability and tradition. Although both were presented
with the same Catholic social reality as children, they interpreted it differently
and, thus, created different subjective realities. Marie's subjective reality
is more similar to the Catholic social reality. The following quotation by Marie's
brother Jim illustrates this point: "She [Marie] tends to accept teachings
of the Church which she believes were handed down by Christ ... Marie is more
traditional ... " Thus, it is much more difficult to distinguish between
subjective and social reality for Marie. This is the core of her anchor.
Marie's brother Mike explains that, as a child, she was "a good little
Catholic girl." He states, "Marie was the typical little Catholic
girl: prim, proper, and pretty much a conservative Catholic as we grew up."
Brother John adds, "She has always been religious, deeply religious, almost
to the extreme."
As a result, Marie's religious reality has not changed as drastically as Patricia's,
but it still has changed slightly. Like Patricia, she was a very religious child.
However, the way she retells her childhood stories is different than the way
Patricia retells hers; Marie goes into more detail than Patricia. While Patricia
was consumed with God and the meaning of life as a child, Marie was more concerned
with the rules, Mary, confession, Lent, and Easter.
When Marie speaks of her religious reality, she usually speaks in terms of
rules and guidelines for behavior. In addition, most of what she speaks of has
not been modified or changed very much from the Catholic social reality. The
following quotation by Marie demonstrates this point: "I somehow had the
attitude that I alone knew what the Catholic Church believes, and I am the one,
you know, me and the Pope ... "
In Patricia's biography, I recounted how she talked about her First Communion;
Marie's recollection is very different. The way they tell these stories demonstrates
how their emphases on the same experience was different. Marie remembers what
dress she wore, how she walked down the aisle, memorizing answers to questions,
and the songs she sang. Whereas Patricia remembered that she broke a rule (by
eating oatmeal), Marie has different memories of the same Church experience.
She wanted to feel special for her First Communion because, according to the
Church, this is a significant event in the life of a child.
In addition to making her First Communion and attending Church every Sunday,
Marie also went to confession regularly as a child. She claims that she always
has thought that confession was "very good." She continues speaking
about the meaning of confession: Confession is always a very emotional
experience ... any time I go, no matter what I have to say, I start crying ...
If you've done something wrong, if you've gone against the way God wants you
to be, it may hurt others. I mean, like if you throw a pebble into the water,
the little waves go out and out. Everything you do influences somebody. There's
no such thing as a private sin. This is almost exactly the same way the
Church explains the importance of confession to its members; it mandates going
to confession so one will not go to Hell.
During her junior high years, Marie began attending daily Mass alone. She woke
unaided each morning at 6:00 a.m. to get to church for the 6:25 Mass. She was
always a morning person, and she felt compelled by something inside to go to
Mass every day. Marie says that church became a haven for her. Joe, her husband
adds, "I think the Church has helped her with her self-image. It gave her
stability. She was not a happy child, and she never felt like she fit into any
certain social group. As a result, even if attending alone, church gave her
an acceptance and an escape."
During the month of May, which was dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus,
she would make a little altar in her bedroom. Marie remembers, "I would
go up into the room that was off the big bedroom, the little bedroom, you know.
I made and altar and decorated it. It was just part of life. And it was wonderful."
The altar to Mary consisted of a statue of Mary, and she decorated it with pretty
material, artificial flowers, and anything else that pleased her at the moment.
When she would be unhappy, she would go to her little shrine to Mary and kneel
down, pray, and cry for relief.
Although she was a deeply religious child, Marie claims there were periods
of her life when religion "took a back seat," particularly when she
was a young adult. She still followed the "rules," which composed
her anchor, but she says she was more concerned with "looking for her place
in life" than in her religious development. Religion really did not enter
into her life much beyond what she felt was an "obligation." Being
Catholic was merely "what she was;" it was her anchor, and she did
not question anything about her religion or even think about it much during
In 1967, Marie got married. She and her husband, Joe, argued constantly about
religion. In fact, she recalls their first argument, "I remember getting
out of bed to get the Bible to prove my point. Joe and I argued a lot about
religion. I don't know what we argued about because he would come on so strong
that he `knew.' He would say, `This is what Catholics believe.' And I'd say,
`Hey, guy, I've been a Catholic all my life [Joe used to be Lutheran]; I know
what I believe."
Marie and Joe have differing interpretations of Catholic social reality. Although
now they are both Catholics, Marie sees major differences in the Catholic and
Lutheran cultures. Joe, on the other hand, does not. For example, Joe states
that he thinks the differences between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran
Church are merely "window dressing." Marie, on the other hand, sees
major differences between the two religions. Hence, from one very similar social
reality, Marie and Joe have constructed very different subjective realities
about the Catholic culture.
Marie had four children. Her third child, Michael, was born with a degenerative
muscular disease for which there was no known cure. Marie talks about life after
Michael was born: "Michael used to suffer horrendously, but I think I helped
him when he would have problems. He had this machine that helped him to breathe.
He would suck on the machine and it would force air into his lungs. Every morning
he would have terrible headaches, and they never knew why. So I would press
on his head, and tell him to breathe and everything. And I would tell him, `Michael,
think of Jesus on the cross. Remember the crown of thorns and how his head hurt.
Michael, offer up your sufferings, tell Jesus that you're helping him to wear
his thorns.' And Michael's whole life was offering up his sufferings."
Marie recalls one time when Michael was in the hospital and had a major setback.
She reached the point where she could just not handle it anymore. "It completely
crushed me, and I started crying so Joe took me outside. I said to him, `Let's
pray for Michael.' It was a beautiful thing; we joined hands and we prayed:
`Dear Lord, help our son.'" Marie and Joe had never really prayed together
before, but they joined hands and begged God to help their son. She says it
was quite an experience that is almost beyond explanation.
Marie's brothers all agree that her religion became her anchor after Michael's birth. For example, Mike (her brother) says, "I think that a lot of her religious beliefs were strengthened because of her son Michael ... She had to have a real belief in God and the faith because of her son. She felt that was necessary." Brother John adds, "It seemed like after Michael was born, she was a lot more religious, to me anyway." Finally, Jim adds, "I think that she prayed a lot that her son would be healed. She had the faith that carried her through." Marie agrees that her Catholicism gave her strength when it came to dealing with Michael.
Although her brothers interpreted that she had a stronger anchor because of
Michael, Marie says that she thinks she realizes during the "bad times"
how much she needs God. She actually believes she has very little faith during
these bad times because she worries often. She wishes she could be a lot more
trusting in God; she wishes her anchor was more firmly implanted at times. I
think this illustrates that Marie does not always feel constant about her religious
reality; she has her ups and downs. In other words, her subjective reality is
not fixed; it is an ongoing process. Nevertheless, she has never lost the sense
of her Catholicism.
Michael passed away on July 11, 1985, at the age of thirteen. Marie recalls
his passing, "He died in the early morning hours. He could barely breathe.
So I propped him up on pillows and everything, then I laid down next to him
and within a half hour, he was dead. When he died, he was so relaxed, and he
looked so beautiful." Since his passing, Marie believes she was "visited"
by Michael's soul three times. She recalls, "I was in church and I saw
a silhouette of a man and this light was radiating up. I believe I saw Michael
as he appeared before God for the first time."
Although her religion has been strong most of her life, there have been slight
changes in her anchor. For example, Catholic symbols that have had particular
importance to her throughout her life have changed in meaning. As a child, Mary
was of the utmost importance; she built an altar and prayed to her every day.
In addition, Lent and the Stations of the Cross were also extremely important
events in Marie's childhood. However, now her main concern is God. She admits
that today she does not pay attention as much to Mary, and she does not sacrifice
during Lent like she did as a child.
Marie admits that she is not even aware of how or why Mary or Lent is not as
important to her anymore. Thus, sometimes Marie does not consciously know how
her subjective realities have changed over the course of her life, but there
is evidence that her reality has changed somewhat. Nevertheless, her anchor
never came uprooted. Marie's subjective spiritual reality has changed the most
in recent years. For example, her brother Mike says, "I'm starting to see
the `cracks in the armor.'" In other words, he thinks that Marie is becoming
more of a "liberal" Catholic. I think her husband Joe explains it
best: " ... I guess we've both changed. She has changed in the sense that
she now reads a lot about religion, religious books ... Twenty years ago, she
didn't read about religion; she was more interested in the symbolism."
What Joe meant by that is that he sees Marie as becoming more "intellectual"
(meaning she is actively reading and thinking about religious ideas) and less
rule-oriented. Now Marie reads books about (as Joe defined it): "how to
be a better Catholic." But unlike Patricia, Joe thinks Marie is not interested
in changing her Catholicism, but rather more interested in "better defining
it." However, religion is still her anchor; she still pays close attention
I think Joe also makes a valid point when he observes that both Patricia and
Marie are searchers; they merely search in different ways. While Patricia is
on a quest for a different reality, Marie searches for a stronger anchor. However,
her belief systems still have been fluid an changing. The Catholic messages
and ideas that are most important to her have changed. Moreover, Joe argues
that her religion has become more "cerebral" and less rule-oriented.
Although Marie considers herself to be a strong Catholic, the emphasis she places
on certain aspects of her spirituality have changed as her subjective reality
Finally, while Patricia found being culturally bound to one religious community
constricting, Marie finds it comforting. She likes the way the Catholic culture
provides its members with guidelines for living. This is her anchor. In fact,
she wishes that the Church were even more specific about behavioral guidelines.
Marie's religion is part of who she is, and she would never think to change
it. Catholicism has been central to her life and has helped her through some
trying times. Thus, Marie's religious life represents an "anchor."
This anchor, or her religion, has been a stabilizing influence during the course
of her lifetime.
Marie gains strength and stability from God and the Catholic Church. In fact,
she likened her religion to food: "I would be weak if I did not eat food,
and I would be weak spiritually if I did not receive spiritual food like the
Eucharist." This food metaphor represents a strong anchor. None of us could
survive without food; Marie could not survive without her "spiritual food,"
or her religion.
ANALYSIS: THE "PACKAGING" OF SOCIAL REALITY
These biographies demonstrate how Patricia and Marie constructed their reality
through communication. From interpersonal interactions and reading, to belonging
to more formalized organizations, both have socially constructed their reality.
I think this is evident in both their biographies.
At first glance, the reader of these biographies might draw the conclusion
that Patricia and Marie's belief systems are currently very different. I know;
that is what I initially believed myself. For example, while they both began
their lives with similar views, Patricia now believes in reincarnation and a
"Collective Unconscious," and Marie still follows Catholic teachings;
these appear to be vastly different perspectives. However, after much thought
and analysis of these biographies, I conclude that although Patricia and Marie's
lives can be viewed as "quest" and "anchor" stories, many
of the core concepts of their realities are actually not that different at all.
In fact, in some cases, they are almost exactly the same. This is because the
Catholic and New Age cultures "package" similar messages differently,
and each woman has responded to the "packaging" they prefer most.
Patricia says she discovered similarities between Catholic and New Age concepts
as she tried to cope with the new spiritual concepts in her life. She admits
that she began to blend Catholicism with these New Age ideas. However, Patricia
admits: "The way New Age ideas are presented to me make so much more sense."
For example, recall that the "Mystical Body of Christ" was very important to Patricia as a child. Although Patricia says that the
Catholic Church has essentially left it behind, it basically said that we are
all part of Christ's Mystical Body, and what we do (good or bad) affects everyone
else. Patricia explains, ... That concept of `We're all Christ,' and if
I harm somebody, I'm only harming myself, too, because I'm part of his. And
I believe there is no separation between you and me. I mean it looks like it
physically, but there really isn't.
This is basically the same idea that Patricia believes in now; God is energy,
and He is All That Is. In other words, she believes that there is only "God."
This word "God" is now just a term for the "collective unconscious."
She believes that we are all pure energy and that we are all connected at some
level. Catholics call it the Mystical Body; now she calls it "consciousness."
She lives this belief by thinking that if she hurts somebody, she is really
hurting herself. Patricia believes that when she dies, she will "feel"
the pain she inflicted on others. Therefore, she is really hurting the whole
rather than just this other person.
Marie also speaks of this concept; she, too, believes that we are all one.
Recall the quote from Marie's biography in which she talks about throwing a
pebble into the water. She says, "Everything you do influences somebody."
Therefore, Marie said she tries to be a positive influence in all areas of life.
Another New Age concept that is similar to a Catholic belief is that of reincarnation
and Purgatory. Patricia explained that she made the transition from Catholicism
to reincarnation very easily. What Catholics call Purgatory, she calls reincarnation.
It is essentially the same concept, just slightly different. She explains, "
... it's the concept that `you're not quite there [perfect enough to be allowed
into Heaven] yet.'" According to the Catholic culture, Purgatory is a "place"
where souls "wait" until they are worthy enough to enter Heaven. Reincarnation,
essentially, serves the same function. Although reincarnation is not exactly
a "place," it is still "punishment" or a way of delaying
the ultimate goal: being with God, All That Is, or the Collective Unconscious.
I would also liken karma to confession. According to the Catholic culture,
we all possess original sin. Original sin is the concept that all humans are
being "punished" for the actions of Adam and Eve. In order to rid
ourselves of original sin, we must be baptized and live according to God's laws,
which also includes going to confession. Marie explains confession this way:
"You go to another person [a priest] and say, `I have done something wrong.'
... But I have my faults and I want to confess them."
Similarly, karma is also a way of ridding yourself of "sin." For
instance, if I do something bad to you [a sin] in this life, I would have to
"come back" in another incarnation so I could "rid" myself
of that negative karma. Thus, negative karma equals sin. While confession is
the way Catholics prefer to get rid of their sins, people who belong to the
New Age culture prefer to think they will rid themselves of sin by living another
incarnation and doing it "better" that time.
Another similar idea that I want to point out is the concept of "no time."
Patricia believes in this concept, as does Marie. Patricia's first introduction
to the New Age version of time came from a book about reincarnation. The author
likens the concept to a multi-leveled chessboard. Simply stated, reincarnation
does not take place in time, because there is no such thing a time. Instead,
we are all living each incarnation at this very moment; these lives did not
"happen" hundreds or thousands of years ago because they are "happening"
now. Marie also illustrates her belief in this concept when she talks about
how she told her son Michael to offer his sufferings to Jesus on the cross.
She says, "I believe outside the world, there is no time. Everything is
now. Everything is present. That is why I think right now, Jesus is suffering
on the cross."
As I have discussed, some of the Catholic and New Age concepts are really not
that different after all. However, how they are "packaged" rhetorically,
or the emphasis they place on certain concepts can be key in people's acceptance
of the social reality. For example, I think the most important difference in
the "packaging" for Patricia has been how the New Age culture emphasizes
individual responsibility (of reincarnation/karma), no structure (no rules or
formal organization in the New Age Movement), and process.
Therefore, while Patricia and Marie have constructed their subjective realities
differently, we can see from this analysis how the two sisters are not actually
in as much opposition to each other as they first appear. They actually agree
on many of the fundamental concepts of spirituality; sometimes the agreement
is merely not recognized by some people. However, I do think this agreement
is recognized by Patricia, but only because she has been immersed in both the
Catholic and New Age culture.
So why do Patricia and Marie think they are so different in their spirituality?
I argue it all comes down to communication. How and idea is presented to someone,
the rhetorical strategies used, the certain aspects that are emphasized (such
as personal responsibility, structure, and process), and thus, the "packaging"
of a message, influences whether a person finds that reality believable. Because
each person brings a different set of experiences to any given communication
situation, these experiences influence how people perceive a message.
IMPLICATIONS AND SUGGESTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
Although much can be learned about communication from this study, I would like
to see more biographical studies on how communication has affected individuals'
spiritual development. However, the method could also be used in other areas
of communication as well. For example, it seems particularly well suited to
interpersonal communication. The researcher could use life histories to explain
how certain relationships develop over time.
The value of the biographical case study to communication should not be underestimated.
I think this method has the potential to be on the "cutting edge"
of qualitative/interpretive research. I would encourage any communication scholar
to use this method in future studies where it would be applicable. I think Becker
(1978) makes an excellent point: "The life history, more than any other
technique except perhaps participant observation, can give meaning to the overworked
notion of process. Sociologists like to speak of `ongoing processes' and the
like, but their methods usually prevent them from seeing the processes they
talk about so glibly." (p. 293).
Finally, I think future spiritual biographies will help us understand that perhaps the religions of the world are not as different as they appear. All try to provide some sort of explanation of what happens to us when we die. Sutphen (1989) sums it up well: "Like any other movement, whether religious, political, economic, or philosophical, the New Age is ultimately based upon a group of assumptions about the place of humanity in the cosmos." (p. 16). This is also the ultimate goal of Catholicism (King, 1968, p. 31). So where lies the difference in the religions of the world? It lies in communication.
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