When I was in my early twenties, I felt a certain “spiritual stirring”. I was a newlywed, at the time, and expecting my first child. I felt like I finally had some of the things I’d been longing for all my life – a husband, a home, the best paying job I’d had to that point (but it actually wasn’t well-paying at all). I would soon have a family of my own. In spite of this, I found myself fighting feelings of unhappiness and deep depression. I didn’t understand why. In hindsight, I now realize that these feelings had more to do with a chemical imbalance in my brain and a dysfunctional marriage than any kind of “spiritual” issue. Still, I wanted answers. I’m an analytical person by nature. I do research. I Google. I pull every issue into its minutia and evaluate each speck. So I set out to dissect the “spiritual.” Of course, Catholicism strongly discourages this type of shenanigans. Maybe it’s because I never attended parochial school or maybe it’s because I did attend the school of hard knocks. Either way I was just defiant enough to look beyond The Church and not care about the consequence to my immortal soul. I was open to any and all philosophical, religious, and spiritual orientations. I read books. I attended worship services. I had heart-to-heart conversations with devotees of many religions and spiritual persuasions. Although he was no longer a practicing Muslim, my husband at the time had been raised as one. I found the faith interesting and horribly misunderstood, but I felt no connection with it. Oddly, I identified most closely with an obscure faith called B’hai – in theory, anyway. Unfortunately, there was no B’hai presence in my community, and I never felt strongly enough to seek it elsewhere.
I was working as an assistant home coordinator at a group home for developmentally disabled adults during this time of “spiritual quest.” My co-workers were lovely, kind, and caring people. They seemed super happy. I wondered what made them so damn happy. So, one day I asked the happiest of these happy people – the only male direct care worker. The group home was his main gig, to pay the bills and support his adorable little family, but he was also a Pentecostal minister. I learned that nearly all my co-workers were “born again” Christians. I was somewhat familiar with this “born again” thing. My father was not Catholic, and although they didn’t necessarily raise him in the in the Baptist church, my grandparents considered themselves Southern Baptists. As were many men of his generation, my dad was the boss of our family, so my mother could offer no objection when I went to visit relatives in Tennessee during the summer with my grandparents and attended Baptist services or when I begged to go to Vacation Bible School at the Methodist church with the little neighbor girls. So here I was working in this warm, cozy, joyful place with a bunch of sweet happy Protestant folks that were high on Jesus. Of course, Pastor Happy was more than eager to lead another lamb to the foot of the cross. I was in pain, so I held his hands and prayed with him to have my soul saved. I sound bitter, don’t I? I’m really not. Pastor Happy was a truly beautiful human being and really did “walk the walk” of The Savior. He saw that I was suffering, and he wanted to help. I’ll admit being “born again” did help…for a while. I’ll tell you that there is nothing quite as intoxicating as having the “joy, joy, joy, joy down in your heart” when you’re surrounded by others who seem to have it in every square inch of their bodies. In the long run, though, I knew I was just faking it. It simply didn’t feel right or natural to me, and there were times that it actually felt quite strange– like the first time I heard someone “speaking in tongues.” That straight up freaked this Catholic out! I was raised to believe that when a person does something like that they need an exorcism not a microphone.
My stint as a full-blown born-again believer, complete with tax-exempt tithing to First Assembly Churches, the Christian Broadcast Network (Yup! That is Pat Robertson, folks), and Chuck Colson Ministries was short-lived. Look, I acknowledge the ridiculously of this period in the evolution of my belief system. Luckily, cynicism is not a quitter though. Like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, she builds slowly but gets louder and louder and LOUDER until she is heard. I abandoned my “new-found faith” almost as quickly as I had embraced it. Still, the yearning persisted.
It was about this time that I discovered the book Embraced By The Light by Betty Eadie. It’s Betty’s account of her near-death experience, and one of the most vivid detailed accounts of an NDE experience on record. I found it incredibly compelling. Betty describes her experience in great detail, but what struck me most was her discussion of how she learned that, before we are born, we are presented with a life and a mission, which we can accept or reject. We are made aware of every detail of said mission, every detail of the life, and the ultimate purpose of both. We can accept or refuse, without consequence. For some reason, the idea made perfect sense to me and resonated deeply. The ideas in that book stayed with me for years and years. Even after tragic events that would unfold far into the future, I never forgot them.
When my daughters were young, I resisted the urge to indoctrinate them in any religion. Their father wasn’t too keen on the idea either, and we hadn’t been married in the Catholic Church anyway. I didn’t feel compelled to have them baptized or to receive first communion or be confirmed – to receive any of the sacraments, as I had in spite of my family’s ultra-loose grasp on the faith. I arrived at my decision, though, mostly because I’d come to feel as though faith and spirituality are only meaningful when we find our own way to them rather than being dragged down a path. Most of the time, while the girls were growing up, I felt satisfied with that decision. It wasn’t until my oldest daughter hit a particularly difficult period in her development that I began to have doubts. She was a willful and rebellious teen. Somewhere in the back of my Catholic mind, I wondered if it was because of her Godless upbringing outside The Church and being raised by a Muslim father and agnostic stepfather. Catholics are taught that devotion to God and The Church is the key to a happy life. Maybe if recommitted myself to Catholicism and The Church, God would forgive my transgressions and fix my failures as a parent, even if I couldn’t erase my decision not to raise my children Catholic. I started going back to Mass every week. I prayed the Rosary every single morning and pleaded for the Blessed Mother’s intercession. It’s pretty ironic that, during a time when I was most devout, I should suffer one of the greatest losses a person can endure. My daughter was killed in a car accident. I remember devout Catholic friends, fulfilling their roll as “guardians of the faith” saying, “Give your pain to the Holy Mother. She understands more than anyone what it’s like to lose a child. She lost her only son.” It didn’t help. My daughter’s death reignited the cynicism that had been deposited in my heart and mind from every trauma I’d ever suffered. How could a merciful God strike such a blow to someone that had already been through so much, someone who was trying so hard to be a faithful servant? You needn’t cite scripture, my devout friends. I am familiar with the tale of Job. What can I say? I’m just no Job. Losing my child all but extinguished the compulsion I once felt to be a good, devoted, and obedient Christian.
It’s been many years now since the loss of my daughter and the spiritual crisis that followed. My feelings have softened…a bit. If pressed, I would still say that I consider myself “a believer.” I still love the beauty of The Mass and never fail to feel awestruck by its ancientness. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I still observe Lent. Why? Because I appreciate just how much such a small sacrifice or minor inconvenience can remind me of how good I really have it. I adore Pope Francis. I think he’s a good and compassionate man. In fact, I think that somewhere down deep within the heart of The Church, Christ and his message of kindness and compassion lives on. I still don’t regret having not raised my children as Catholics, though. I can’t imagine the additional pain and guilt my youngest daughter, who is gay, might’ve endured if she’d had to contend with the judgment and condemnation of a 2000-year-old institution in addition to that of society. These days I really couldn’t really label my spiritual beliefs as “Catholic” or “Protestant” or “Agnostic.” I will tell you that I believe in the connectedness of all human beings. I believe we are connected to one another. I believe we are connected to the natural world. And I do believe in a divine presence of some sort because I just find it so unlikely that the incredible beauty that exists in the world could occur randomly.
I have also come to believe that all of us are here, on this planet, for a reason – for a mission, one that we signed up for even before we were born. In our current physical form, that mission might be unknown to us. Still, we live it anyway, as we were destined to do. For some of us, the mission is short-lived. It is impactful all the same. What I know is this – a life is like a pebble. It strikes the water and creates ripples. Those ripples expand exponentially. They move things in the water. They cause pond-dwellers to jump or move. The movement of those life forms stirs the sediment on the pond floor, which, in turn, sets in motion more activity. We cannot know the full impact of a life, whether it is short or long. We can only trust that there is a bigger picture, like an expansive eco-system, of which one life is a small but important part.
I think faith is so much more than religion. It’s more than clinging, steadfastly, to the teachings of a certain belief system. It’s even more than believing without the benefit of seeing. Well, at least, I think it can be anyway. I think faith can be the best of being human. I think it can be seeing the divine in one another. I think faith could change the world if we didn’t equate it with religion. If we could only view faith as a fluid – taking the shape of its container – we’d be better off as a species. I will never be “anti-faith.” I still think “faith” is a good thing, a positive thing. Label me, if you must. But don’t label me with a religion. Label me as what I am – a faithful human. Namaste.
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