Finding God in the land of the ‘Nones’
I traveled to Seattle a few weeks ago to give a parish retreat at St. Monica’s Church on Mercer Island. Long before I boarded the plane for my first visit to the Pacific Northwest, friends on both coasts warned me that I was headed to the land of the “Nones,” where people are spiritual but not religious, and maybe not even all that spiritual. What could I possibly offer out there in a city where God seems to be dead, or, at the very least, in hibernation?
Undaunted, I prepared my talk—Finding the Joy in Waiting—and embarked on the adventure of a new city and a new audience. I didn’t have a lot of time, but I’d decided that I’d try to squeeze in a few key must-see stops. Saturday morning, in predictable Seattle drizzle, I called an Uber, hopped into the car and immediately got into a conversation with my driver. Since she was picking me up at the church, she was curious about why I was there. We started covering some religious ground. She was Greek Orthodox, originally from Ethiopia. By the time I got out at Pike Place Market, teeming with fish and flower stalls, gift shops and coffee bars, I felt uplifted and abuzz with a palpable spiritual vibe.
Fueled with a cappuccino and a crumpet known as “The Life Changer,” I happened into a gift shop whose name intrigued me: The Raven’s Nest. I’m a sucker for anything having to do with ravens. I wandered around looking at Native American and Asian treasures. As I went to the counter to pay for a stone etched with a crow (not a Raven, but close enough), I started talking to the owner. She asked if the item I was buying was a gift. I said, no, it was for my own sacred space, and we were off. Next thing I knew, she was tucking her card into my bag and holding my hand. I felt like I had just received a blessing and could not help but smile as I practically floated along to the next vendor.
Throughout my short jaunt around Seattle, I felt a spiritual vibration all around me, even in the French restaurant where I sat at a table for one with my glass of rosé, people watching from my perch. A woman approached me to ask what kind of wine I was drinking because she liked the color — a first in my many years of eating out and drinking wine. We got to talking while I waited for my food and before she moved on, she knew about my retreat and I knew her husband had gone to Catholic school in San Diego. Spiritual connections everywhere, just waiting to be made. God isn’t in hibernation in the Pacific Northwest, He’s just wearing different clothes and drinking good coffee.
We hear a lot about the “nones” these days, a moniker that is not very friendly and is actually somewhat derogatory, but I would venture to guess that many of the “nones” out there are bubbling with God’s presence, just waiting for an invitation to engage in a conversation even if they are not ready for a conversion. The question is, are we ready to acknowledge that God is with our spiritual-but-not-religious brothers and sisters just as deeply and as unconditionally as He is with those of us who make it to church each Sunday?
As my Uber driver, Moses, shuttled me be back to St. Monica’s and we talked about everything from religion to restaurants, I felt blessed in a way I hadn’t for a long time. Grace poured over me, and I knew in that moment that Seattle had given me a great gift. The “nones” hold out that same gift to each one of us, if we’re willing to listen, to welcome and to find our common bond. Our similarities are stronger than our differences; we are one.
This column originally appeared in the Dec. 31, 2019, issue of Catholic New York.