by Rose-Anne Clermont
- Germany -
While children around the world are taught that God loves all people, even the most pious of nations repress homosexuals; marginalize and abuse women; neglect the rights of children and wage war on fellow human beings often because of their different beliefs, races and ethnicities.
As I write this, devout Jews and Muslims—encouraged by their religious leaders and imbalanced politics—continue to kill each other in The Middle East. American politicians who identify themselves as Christian and insert “God bless America” in every speech pass legislation that slashes funds to educate America’s children while pumping money into a war that kills children in Iraq. Chinese police, some of whom may very well be Buddhists, continue daily to club Tibetan monks and nuns protesting abuses of human rights.
The image of those two visionaries from different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds marching side by side remained present in my mind as I began to prepare Part VII of A Current between Shores. While no religion is immune to hypocrisy and fanaticism, virtually every religion has brought some degree of goodness and tranquility to the citizens of the world. Speaking to Renée (a devout Catholic) and Barbara (a follower of Anthroposophy), who both still see the purity of their faiths, it became clear to me again that there is far more that unites people than what we’re taught divides us; namely, a current of humanity that flows between every shore on the earth.
Part VII: On Religion (Belief amongst Difficult Truths)
How important was religion in your upbringing?
Barbara: “During the Nazi era, Anthroposophy was forbidden and our place of worship, The Christian Community, had been shut down. So on Sundays, my mother took us up to my father’s study and read us “The Sun’s Light,” a Waldorf school saying. And we often got visits from Tante Franze, a pastor from the Christian Community who had been thrown into jail by the Nazis, along with the Eurhythmy teacher and several pastors from the Christian Community. But after Tante Franze was released, she came to visit us (and other families) in the afternoons. She then stayed for supper and talked to my parents long after we had gone to bed. She taught us about Jesus’ miracles and read us sayings that I later recognized when my kids went to Waldorf schools. I’m still grateful for what she taught us. It wasn’t until later that I realized that what she was doing was illegal.”
Renée: “Religion was very important. When I was younger, I went to Catholic school. And at home, we prayed [together] every morning and every night and, of course we went to church every Sunday. But I have to say, I was embarrassed when we went to church and told people sitting in our pews to move. We had to pay monthly fees (a couple dollars) for a set pew and if someone was in your spot, maybe someone who couldn’t pay for the fee, you just told them to move over or go sit somewhere else.”
What kinds of religious rituals were most important in your family?
Renée: “We observed Easter from Thursday to Sunday. We didn’t eat meat during those four days and on Good Friday we fasted until 3pm, when we went to church and then came back and had a feast. Christmas was a real social holiday. On Christmas Eve we would eat a festive bouillon and once my Tante Maillote got really drunk and started dancing and talking loud. As kids we thought that was so funny.”
Do you remember when you started believing in your faith actively and not just following what you’d been told to believe?
Barbara: “We children never questioned our parents or our prayers. I remember when my mother allowed me to visit my grandmother every second week and I was allowed to attend the children’s service in the Protestant church. There was a pastor, a wonderful man who was very good with children, who told us all about the Old Testament, about Moses and the Flight of the Jews. Teaching the Old Testament in Nazi Germany was forbidden, but he did it anyway and I remember how those stories made me think more about religion. We weren’t Catholic and we weren’t Protestant, but listening to the stories from The Old Testament, which I later found in And God Spoke – a book the Gestapo had left behind or maybe hadn’t seen when they raided our house—my beliefs became more rounded.”
Renée: “I never remember asking questions about my faith, but I do remember thinking when we were kicked out of Catholic school after my father died, that nuns were supposed to be more charitable, so I was shocked when they treated us like that. But I was still able to separate my religion from what the nuns did to us. The only time I remember staying away from the church was when my kids were young and my husband didn’t want to go to church with me. But, of course, I still prayed.”
What role did religion play in the way you brought up your children?
Barbara: “I always tried to incorporate Anthroposophy and God as I raised my children. They all went to Waldorf Schools. I was happy that my husband and I agreed on this and that we both came from Anthroposophic backgrounds. I don’t think I could have been with a man who came from another spiritual background. He had gone to Waldorf schools as a child. I couldn’t, of course, because in the GDR we had to go to Marxist schools.”Renée: “I tried to raise my kids the way my mother raised us: baptism, first communion, confirmation. I took them to church every Sunday (without my husband). But in the States, I found that I couldn’t do exactly what I wanted to do. For example, I wanted to put my children in Catholic school, but my husband didn’t support that.”
Has your religion/spiritual belief changed with the times, since you were a child? Can religion evolve with the times? Should it?
Renée: “Yes, in some ways, the religion itself has changed. For example, priests tell us today that if you miss mass on Sunday and go one day during the week to replace it, it’s ok. When I was a child, we learned that if we missed mass, it was a mortal sin.
“But more than anything, I have changed. I used to think Catholicism was the best religion and that if you weren’t Catholic you were missing out on something. But I don’t think that any more. My faith hasn’t changed, but I do see things in a broader sense. Everyone has his own religion and his own way to worship, but there is one God.
“I also always thought that if I was a good Catholic, bad things, like my husband dying in a car accident, couldn’t happen. A friend once told me, “Your prayers can protect you.” My husband wasn’t religious but he was a good, decent man. I don’t think just because he didn’t pray that he died in an accident.”Barbara: “Times have changed tremendously. There are few people who live consistently [in their faith]. I think it’s important that we try to live in a way that Dr. Steiner (founder of Anthroposophy) imagined and that young people need to internalize more strongly what he meant. I don’t think we can expect Waldorf schools to change and turn themselves around to fit to the way life is today. It’s up to people to practice Anthroposophy in their lives. When Waldorf schools grow so large and are not led [and taught] by people who are Anthroposophs or are not familiar with Anthroposophy, then there are a lot of spin-off products.”
What have been your personal thoughts on the controversies surrounding the Catholic Church/Anthroposophy and Waldorf Schools? How do you think your religious representatives have handled the bad press?
Renée: “I was really very disappointed in those priests who [sexually] abused children; children who trusted them because they were priests. But in my mind, I have always looked at priests as human beings, who are capable of committing sins and who have their own weaknesses. But what I think is even worse are the archbishops who, instead of getting rid of these priests, move them from one church to the other.
“Still, I’m able to separate the bad priests from the good ones.”
Barbara: “It does anger me that people are often critical without understanding anything about Anthroposophy and Waldorf Schools. In our town, the Protestants (and Catholics) were very against Waldorf schools. We even had the reputation that our schools were “the special education schools” of the rich. Now, even public schools are adopting some aspects of Waldorf education because they realize that children don’t learn effectively in a cookie cutter system.”
Is there a difference between religion and spirituality?
Renée: “For a long time, I didn’t realize there was a difference. I remember being at a religious class for parents and a woman said that when she wanted to be close to God and didn’t want to go to church, she would go into her garden and look at the flowers and the nature that God created.
“At first I couldn’t believe she was serious and thought, ‘Doesn’t she realize it’s a sin not to go to church?’ But I’m becoming less critical. I personally need to go to church and have that structure. But now I think, ‘If that’s how you want to live your life, so be it.’ I now believe there are many ways for different people to be near God.”Barbara: “There was never really a difference for me, you see, because my parents were reformists—for example, we ran around naked through the garden. So I couldn’t understand that some religions thought of this as a sin. Our religion was a part of our life.
“It wasn’t until recently that my son (your husband) began to express his doubts with churches but [he] still believed that God existed. This was new for me, but I could understand it.”
Many members of religious communities sin, although they are supposed to be representing good Christian/Muslim/Jewish values. How do you regard this?
Barbara: “So many [leaders] refer to God and start one war after the next. The way people now behave in politics is a bit like a child’s rhyme we have here, ‘If you won’t be my brother, then I’ll smash your head in.’ It unsettles me and leads me to believe that people still have a ways to go to develop themselves as human beings; to perhaps become better people in the next life.”
Renée: “When I see the US policy toward Israel and then the US trying to negotiate peace in The Middle East, it makes no sense. I don’t think there will ever be peace there, because there is no topic more emotional than religion. What’s coming out is not coming from their heads. All religions say that no matter what the person is, you’re supposed to love your brother. But people don’t really think like that. In Haiti, I see people stealing and abusing the country. But I still pray and do my part, live the way I’m supposed to live. I can’t take on the priests and I can’t take on the governments. Those people will eventually have to answer to God.”
- In Part VIII of this series, Renée and Barbara share their thoughts on the process of growing older. Previously in Part I, they described growing up in dictatorships and their impressions of democracy, in Part II, both women explored their struggles with poverty, in Part III, they shared how important education was in their lives, in Part IV they relive the difficult decision to leave home, in Part V, they share their thoughts on womanhood and marriage and in Part VI, they contemplate their roles as mothers. - Ed.
About the Author
Rose-Anne Clermont was born in New York City and first lived in Germany on a Fulbright grant from 1998-1999. She holds a Liberal Arts Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She has contributed to Spiegel Online, The International Herald Tribune and, in German, to Die Zeit. She currently lives in Berlin with her husband and three sons.
A Current between Shores, appearing on The WIP as a nine-part series, was conceived as "parallel histories from different worlds." In it Rose-Anne explores the lives and remarkably similar experiences of two of the women closest to her, Renée Clermont, her Haitian mother and Barbara Kemter, her German mother-in-law. Both had their lives transformed under brutal dictatorships more than 50 years ago. Coincidentally, both became nurses and lived to build new lives, raising their children in different worlds from the ones in which they grew up. Now they are grandmothers to shared children. As Rose-Anne says, "They are teachers and keepers of similar histories that we dare not forget."