I walked to St. Boniface elementary school in the same plaid pleated skirt, leg warmers, and loafers every day. Not only did I dread the uniforms, but I feared the head principal, because the school mantra was right: She’s Mean, She’s Green, She’s Sister Charlene. This old burly woman carried a long handled wooden paddle (with holes) through the hallways to usurp her authority. The other nuns who taught classes and assisted with masses, were just as mean. When we were disobedient, they would make us put our knuckles over the edge of the desk and then whack them with a ruler. I quickly learned how to shut my mouth and do my work.
In addition to attending Wednesday morning mass, I was forced to go on Sundays too with the family. I spent 11 years trying to understand Catholicism. But, the services were so mundane and routine that I never truly found a place for religion in my heart. I didn’t believe many of the Biblical stories I was being taught. I also didn’t like the fact that their conservative ideologies did not align with my own socially liberal beliefs.
I pleaded with my mom to let me try public school once I was old enough to attend middle school and she agreed under one condition: I had to start going to HER church. My mom was a devout Christian who chose Eagle United Methodist Church as her place of worship. This denomination was a lot less orthodox than Catholicism, so I thought I would enjoy it more. However, the average member of the congregation had grey hair and drove an Oldsmobile. I clearly did not fit in with their old school traditions. I went quietly for the first few years and then I started begging not to go. Eventually I think she got tired of fighting that battle.
I became a cafeteria Christian (or as some say a C & E Christian: I attended on holidays). In college I tried out a southern Baptist Church with my roommate and found the one Catholic Church in all of the Piedmont Triad thinking maybe I should give it another shot, that I had matured in my religious thinking. After a few Sundays I realized that I was even more adamant about my opposition to Catholicism than I had been early on in my life.
After college I continued to explore various religious services. I attended a Jewish synagogue, participated in a traditional Hindu holiday of Holi, and experienced a meditation session with a practicing Buddhist. I read some scriptures from the Vedas, perused the “Quran for Dummies,” and explored the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Despite all of this research I still found myself questioning the existence of an omnipotent power and disbelieving any and all religious doctrines.
I believe this moderate ideology of agnosticism has led me to be a good candidate to teach an elective at Caesar Rodney High school called World Religions. For the past decade I have been facilitating discussions in diverse classroom environments that evolved around the 5 Majors (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism). I give my students an overview of the beliefs, rituals, and traditions of each of these affiliations. We watch video clips, analyze religious songs, and host guest speakers.
While I refrain from imposing any of my own ideologies on my students, I DO encourage them to share their beliefs with the class and to explore other elements of religiosity that might fit their lives. For instance, one of my favorite lessons to teach is the practice of meditation. I teach them how to relax, sit in lotus position, and control their breathing. We sit in silence, flex the muscles in our faces to simulate a form of tiger face meditation, and practice various yoga asanas (poses). While they enjoy these methods of mediation there is usually an overwhelming majority who prefer drawing on the mandalas.
In addition to teaching a religion class at the high school level I also wrote curriculum for a new elective at Wilmington University: SOC 411 (the Sociology of Religion). This seven week class includes topics such as phenomenology and the cultural impacts of religion on society. Students are required to research the five most predominant religions practiced around the world and to explore other affiliations of their choice.
Having spent the past two decades exploring numerous religions from an individual perspective and a teacher perspective has not changed my ideologies. I cannot rule out the existence of any higher being because some things cannot be described by science. But what has caused this stalemate in making a conclusion is that I don’t understand why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.
I would categorize myself in that “good” category. I am certainly not perfect, but I don’t lie, steal, or cheat. I have never bullied anyone nor taken advantage of a friend. I have volunteered at homeless shelters, “adopted” a teenage girl as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and built houses for Habitat for Humanity. Other than a speeding ticket I have never broken the law.
Despite all of these positive contributions to society, I have had some really tragic things happen in my life in the past few years. The first occurred in January of 2011 when I lost my dad to a massive heart attack. I will never be able to enjoy his repetitive stories over Thanksgiving dinner again or watch him interact with my nieces and nephews, whom he loved so much. It also breaks my heart that he will never get to walk me down the aisle.
In August of 2014 I lost my aunt Sue, who had baby-sat me for years before I entered school. She always cooked Sunday family dinners and enjoyed having all of the Briel’s sit around one table. She was a devout Catholic who lived for the church most of her life. She was the epitome of a compassionate person. But in the end a plethora of health issues took her life.
In addition to two deaths in my family in three years, I suffered a traumatic injury to my right knee. In May of 2015 I was at a CrossFit competition attempting a power clean (Olympic Lift) pr of 165#. I had hit 160# and then got greedy and wanted five more pounds in order to check it off my goal list. I looked at the clock and panicked; I had 40 seconds to make a good lift. I was not properly set and therefore not in a good position to catch the clean in a squat. My right knee landed wide in order to compensate and then it buckled. At that moment I had no idea how much my life would change.
In the past 17 months (through 5 surgeries and a life threatening infection) I have had a paradigm shift. I see things through new lenses (perspectives). Don’t get me wrong, there have been some major low points where I have felt resentful and angry about not being able to do what I used to do. My every day activities were altered because I couldn’t drive for several months and I had to learn to depend on others for so many things. As a type A personality this was not an easy task.
I really learned a lot about myself and discovered who my true friends were during this time period. I lost a few friends along the way because they were tired of hearing me talk about the injury. But, I have come to terms with this and have actually made some new friends, including my significant other: Jason. If I hadn’t been injured, then I would not have been volunteering at an event where he was competing. I don’t usually believe in predestination, but I definitely think that it was meant to be.
Jason met me at a time when I was not in great physical (I could barely walk without crutches) nor mental shape. The injury had taken a toll on my psyche. He was patient, sympathetic, and exuded characteristics of selflessness. It did not take long for me to fall in love with this guy. He has been my rock.
In addition to realizing how special my good friends are, meeting Jason, and discovering other small things about myself, I have also found a passion for something new: Yoga. I had practiced yoga on and off for years while training at CrossFit (simply for the mobility benefits), but I never truly liked it. Actually, I HATED being in downward dog and having all of that blood rush to my head while my arms were shaking. This was me:
During the last ten minutes of the hour long session, we would typically lie on the ground in corpse position (flat on our backs with arms and legs spread at 45 degree angles). We were supposed to enjoy a quiet, relaxing savasana, where you set your mind free and find a state of zen. However, I would find myself thinking about my growling stomach, the number of papers I had to grade, or the all of the other things that are constantly being added to my to-do list. I struggled letting all of these things go for that one hour period.
After a year long hiatus from Yoga (due to my injury), I decided to give it another try simply because it was one of the two things the doctor permitted as low impact physical therapy. The other was swimming and I HATE being in the pool. I have given both a valiant effort and ended up ditching the pool and discovering that I LOVE spending time on my mat! It was a way for me to finally get a physical workout (HOT yoga really makes you sweat) and to work on controlling my mind.
I started practicing 3-4 times per week at a studio called Higher Power Yoga. I found that I was learning more and more about myself each time I stretched out on my mat. Burning calories, building muscle, and accomplishing poses I didn’t think were possible were incentive to keep going. But, what I liked the most was that I was healing mentally more than I was physically.
I started to focus on the things I COULD do, rather than the things I could NOT do. I walked with a limp and couldn’t do normal exercise as I knew it before the injury. But other than that, I was still living…and breathing…and happy with my career, friends, and Jason. I started to put my life into perspective by looking at the struggles of others. I wasn’t diagnosed with cancer and given a six month life sentence like a local girl in our community. I wasn’t pregnant and then suddenly facing a miscarriage like a very good friend of mine. I wasn’t homeless and wondering where my next meal would come from like one of my students. I simply had some setbacks and proverbial obstacles to hurdle, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. In the end, the struggle has made me a better person.
My desire to continue practicing yoga has grown over the past few months, so much that I even registered for the 200 hour Teacher Training at Dimitra Yoga Studio in Lewes, Delaware. This intensive training will require me to attend weekend sessions once per month for seven months. I have already read the required materials and could not be more excited to embark on this new journey. I not only hope to learn about my own yoga practice, but I also want to be confident and competent enough to teach classes one day!
The Yoga studio is my church. Perhaps something will happen in my life to change my religious views one day, but for now I am content with my spirituality.