Updated: Jul 25, 2022
When two guests of the ‘Living Our Beliefs’ podcast – Nathan Bakken (they/them) and Brendan Killian (he/his) – grew disillusioned with their Catholic faith, they began journeys of exploration. Both have learned lessons as they have augmented their Catholicism. Life’s messiness and challenges remain, but three key lessons emerged: honor identity and needs, expand on the core, and help each other.
Honor identity and needs
Both Nathan and Brendan have become comfortable in their identities, lifestyles and needs after struggling. Nathan revels in their messy gay and trans identity, bringing a lot of curiosity and compassion to spiritual and religious conversations. It wasn’t always the case. “The past me spent a lot of time being angry at the institutional Church, and that rage was really important.” Anger stemmed from the assumptions made about how to love, and not being asked about his needs. Since then, they have found their voice. “I'm centering my agency, and I'm centering the agency of those who I sit with, and I'm in community with.”
Brendan’s identity as an artist has been central all his life. Over time, he embraced the mysteries of artmaking and spirituality.
I think people struggle with faith because there's too much mystery. There [are] no definitive answers, and that's true with art to a great extent. The best thing I ever did on either front, whether it was spiritually or creatively, was to let go of needing those answers or creating the perfect piece.
Getting sober and shifting his focus inward led him to a whole new approach. Rather than worrying about what people will think, he prioritizes being present and vulnerable. It’s been a profound change and he’s grateful. He now has purpose – treating his art seriously, earning a modest living from it, and enjoying it tremendously. “I really do believe that it's what I'm meant to do, what God wants me to do.”
Expand on the core
Both engage in some practices based in their core ‘Catholic-ness’ such as lighting candles and sitting in church. As Nathan commented: “I light candles for myself and for loved ones, not necessarily to fix things, but to offer a spiritual witness or just to have that light, and that grounding presence.” Brendan maintains a similar daily practice.
Both enter Catholic churches, finding them soothing and grounding, and appreciate the beauty, though timing differs. For Nathan, Mass remains a beautiful spiritual experience. In contrast, Brendan feels that Mass takes him away from God. “I’m trying to make sure that it's empty and dark and quiet and that's what I need to access my Higher Power.” As an artist and someone raised attending Catholic churches, the visual beauty so familiar from childhood continues to enrich his spiritual practice.
Each of them has branched out from their Catholic base, finding spiritual nourishment and community. Nathan has added esoteric witchcraft, radical queer spirituality, and Basque Gaelic folk religion (see references below). “I've learned to feel and experience spiritual nourishment outside of the walls of that [Catholic] tradition.” Brendan made a similar comment – that community, not denomination of a church is what matters, a priority he didn’t see in Catholicism. “I am a big believer in God speaking to me through other people, and that [is] extremely valuable to me.”
Help each other
God is in the act of helping for both Nathan and Brendan. As Brendan noted: “Spirituality is nothing without good acts.” He supports others in recovery and is active in that community. Spirituality and sobriety are now so foundational to his life, that those topics come up in conversation quite naturally, and often inspire a deeper conversation with someone who’s struggling.
The way I look at it, our job is to present the opportunity [to talk] by just being there, being present. It's all about a willingness and an intention. In fact, I have a lot of friends that know enough about me to know that they can come to me if they need help.
Nathan trains spiritual directors at Still Harbor, an interfaith environment catering to trans and gay people. “It's just kind of holding space for them, navigating their life and their moral injury and having a less clinical atmosphere than therapy or pastoral counseling.” In the process, “rage gets integrated into wisdom.” Surely a healthy and healing process, however difficult.
The journeys have been long and will surely continue for both Nathan and Brendan. Through the challenges and building new practices, the various strains intertwined. Nathan weaves together spiritual direction and occult, while Brendan meshes painting, God and sobriety. Both have combined old and new ways to slow down, be more present, let go of the anxiety or at least have touch points to regain calm. Lessons that can enrich most any spiritual life.
· Basque Gaelic folk – Basque Paganism (website), Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition (book)
Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli