Returning To God On My Own Terms
When religion and spirituality come up in conversation, I tend to quickly dismiss myself from the room. Along with politics, religion is one of those few topics I refuse to speak out about. I don’t know many of the tenets of religions other than my own, and in my little experience, those conversations only end up in angry side glances and snarky remarks harking back to the failed debate. I have a general policy of not speaking about things I don’t know about. But what I didn’t know- was what exactly what my religion was, what spirituality meant to me. I was raised Catholic. I was baptized, and I had my First Communion, but it stopped there. Both my parents are Catholic, but not the ardent, Sunday-best kind of Catholics. When I was a child, we went to church as a family on the so-called important days—Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, and maybe once or twice in between. Both my parents went when they felt like it, usually when there was familial strife or when they were worried about me being so far away from them when I attended college. I suppose you could call us ‘convenient Catholics’.
I grew up separately from my parents’ faith. They never really imposed their beliefs on me, which I am thankful for. But the Catholic Church was all I knew, and sometimes I felt…stuck with it.
I attended Catechism when I was in middle school, went on retreats. The whole nine yards. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but I took away some lessons. On a basic level, Jesus loves all his children, God is wrathful but merciful, avoid the deadly sins, and you should do your damn hardest to be a good person—whatever that meant. Of course it meant being a good person in the Catholic Church’s eyes, which is slightly different than just having a good and sturdy set of morals. I couldn’t reconcile how I felt about certain issues with the Church’s tenets.
I supported gay marriage and abortion rights, even at that young and tender age, just because I knew I believed in love and choice more than I believed in the Good Word.
Did I feel like some sort of heretic? Absolutely. Was that going to change? Absolutely not. I believed, at the time, that God and Jesus and every celestial being in between loved and supported me nonetheless because of my love and support for others.
I grew out of my faith somewhere in middle school and the beginning of high school. I coasted through most of my time in school. I woke up, attended, went home, did my homework, ate in between, and repeated the same routine, day after day. I didn’t really have many friends. And so I wasn’t sad, but I wasn’t happy either. But I felt my soul corrode under that routine, under a mundane and meaningless existence with no purpose and no excitement. I started craving something more. ‘More’ meant many things too: sometimes it was love, sometimes it was a great career in the future, and other times is was as simple as not having to eat lunch alone the next day. Mostly, it was just simple and unadulterated happiness.. Whatever that meant. And that was the biggest problem: I didn’t know what joy, even momentary joy, felt like.
So I started going to church after school. I sat somewhere in the back pews until I felt better about myself, which on some days took a while. Time seemed to pass so slowly. I stared up at the crucifix, almost trying to stare Jesus down into helping me, in whatever capacity He saw fit. I imagined that he opened his eyes and stared right back at me, as if in response to and in recognition of my pain. I cried sometimes—but for no particular reason—just because I was deeply unhappy. I got on my knees and begged for a light at the end of the tunnel.
The light was college—or so it seemed at the time. There are very few times a person gets to reinvent him or herself. College is one of them. I could be a different person there. I would have friends, I would go out to parties, I would maybe even nab myself a boyfriend or two. I imagined my life so differently than it was at the time. And it ended up being very different, but I still struggled with how my faith was supposed to evolve with the momentous changes that were going on in my life.
When I struggled with a bad breakup and subsequent PTSD my first two years of college, I turned to the Catholic Church again, but this time more ardently than ever before. I didn’t just go to church on random whims; I went to mass every Sunday. I went to confession at least once a month. I consulted a priest for spiritual guidance. But as much as I wanted to throw myself into my religion, I couldn’t. I hated mass. I broke out into cold sweats being around that many people. I was so used to my faith being a person matter that I didn’t want to share God with others, as if He couldn’t hear my prayers because everyone else was singing and chanting and praying too. The priests I sought comfort from were not helpful. They had nothing to say about the strains of the tumultuous relationship I was in. In some ways, they looked at me sideways because they expected me to speak about my intent of marriage, and I never brought it up. I didn’t understand confession. How did saying one prayer a couple of times wipe my soul clean of sin? The only thing I did that still provided some comfort was going to church alone, sitting in the back pews and speaking candidly to God from the bottom of my heart. And I kept going, because it seemed to work like a spell. I thought that if I said a certain prayer to a certain saint, it was a magic formula to getting what I wanted the most: some peace for my soul.
I didn’t work out that way, needless to say. And while I knew it wouldn’t work out that way, that there was no magic spell I could use on God to help me, I was so let down by my faith that I stopped going to church altogether. I felt helpless and so sorry for myself that I was a pathetic mess, and I knew it. I still prayed though. I prayed constantly, in my own way: I prayed when I was on the bus. I prayed when on my coffee and cigarette breaks. I prayed while I was working. Of course, my version of praying was no longer about getting down on my knees, but simply speaking to God. God had morphed into this faceless entity I spoke to about my problems and woes. He heard about my joys too, but those were few and far between. I didn’t see why I should share my God with others, because in my mind he was in my head only for me. My God understood me and looked after me. I imagined him hugging me and providing the comfort I so desperately needed, the comfort no one else was able to provide. I found the greatest comfort in a more personal relationship with Him. It was no one’s place to tell me what I had to believe in to be part of His flock. It was no one’s place to tell me how to pray or how to speak to him. And it was no one’s place to tell me that I couldn’t speak to him directly. My God just listened to me.
I took a class on the Buddhism one semester in college. Over the course of that semester I incorporated the parts of the Buddhist faith that appealed to me into my own faith and spirituality. At its very foundation, I believed in karma. If you did good things, good things would come back to you. I needed to believe that. I needed to believe that some good was in store for me, after all the bad that I had been through that I thought I didn’t entirely deserve. After all, I tried my best to be good to others. Above all, I had so much love to give, and I didn’t know how loving one person made me a bad person.
I also needed to believe that there was more to me than just this one life. This one seemed so bleak that I couldn’t believe that this—this was it. It could get better, but it was already tainted by what seemed to be a lifetime of emotional ups and downs. The possibility of past and future lives made sense to me because I needed the comfort that maybe, in the next life, I would be rewarded for the good I’ve done, and I would be offered relief from the burdens I have carries so far in this life.
When I sought comfort from the priests, they all told me the same thing: “God has a plan, it’s all in God’s plan.” That, to me, wasn’t very comforting. The thought that my life was in someone else’s hands, even if it was God, was scary. They made it seem like I had no choice in my life, that everything was regulated by this anonymous celestial being that wasn’t just planning out my life, but everyone else’s too. God seemed so…impersonal. Like He was a babysitter for seven billion people, and more.
As my life stabilized a little more, I figured out what kind of spiritual person I was. Granted, I made my God to be what I wanted Him to be to suit my emotional needs. He is just. He is kind. He listens to me, and loves me unconditionally, regardless of how I honor Him or how I choose to speak to Him. He gives me tools and choices and chances to succeed and to be happy, so that I can say that I gave myself this happiness and not that it was given to me. My God is proud of me because I try to make good choices and to be a good person not in His name, but in the name of love. And isn’t that what God essentially is? Isn’t God, whatever He is, whoever and wherever He is, the face of love?