Losing My Way, Making My Way, And Finding My Way
I grew up in a Catholic family. My very soul was infused with religion. To what extent, you may ask? I felt intrinsically connected to the Virgin Mary. I prayed numerous times every single day. Additionally, I collected rosaries and prayed them every day (I still have about fifty). I owned several prayer books, assisting me in my quest to turn to God with everything that happened to, around, and inside me; I read the Bible front to back a few more times than is normal and, for a time, carried a “pocket version” around with me in case I ever doubted that the entire course of the universe happened precisely as prescribed in God’s Divine Will.
For a few years of my development as a young adult, I was an altar server and a class aid, teaching religion to second graders. These two commitments (lasting a few years each) and other volunteer services put me in some parish setting a few times every week (about five lifetimes ago, I even received a 2014 special award for good and faithful service to the church community). However, by the end of my tenure as a faithful servant, I wasn’t even sure I believed in what I was telling my second graders- they were precious, they were innocent, they overflowed with life and promise and hope, and a few of them even reminded me of what my mirrors used to reveal.
We are all brothers and sisters in God. Then why do I feel so alone?
God is slow to anger, rich in kindness, and ever-merciful to his people. Then why do I feel like I’m taking just as much wrath as the Ancient Egyptians- plagues, the death of the firstborn, drowning, natural disasters and more, oh my!- and being abandoned? The more time passed and the more life I experienced, the less devout I became with my faith.
It’s not that I questioned what I had been taught my entire childhood. More like it all just slipped away from me. I was working to believe in myself, and somewhere along the line, I realized I was no longer sure I believed in the God (one entity in three figures) and the saints and angels I had always prayed to for help.
As a child, I felt God guiding me and protected me, but as life progressed, all I could think was that God, Mary, all the saints, and even the angels had abandoned me. It was like I was in love but the object of my devoted adoration forgot I existed for a few years. I remember my mom teaching me that every human has an angel- a guardian angel- and that there is only one set of footprints in the sand, no matter what. No matter what.
When the sand burned my feet with every step I didn’t feel like God chose to lift me up and carry me- He threw me in the ocean, dumping me to the waves like the toxic waste. I didn’t know if I was the sea animal or the plastic bag, but I must have been a mermaid with a broken heart because I was only aware of myself drowning. My miraculous medal, my cross, they floated away- like the faith they represented. I was alone and, so lonely I felt my faith had parted ways with me, I parted ways with the faith. I didn’t look back, except for a few hundred times.
Eventually, not going to church became just as much a bedrock of my weekend routine as attending mass had been. It wasn’t long before I let it slip my mind that we weren’t in our pew at our mass time anymore. In truth, it had been awhile. I came to terms with leaving the church community that I had been one of the main arms supporting because I didn’t run, I took steps back. I was sick, I was tired, I was so tired, I was sick again, I was still sick, I was already tired, I was a bit busy, I was quite busy, I was stressed, eh too tired call me in fifteen minutes thirty like just another five maybe or wait no- we missed it. I had excuses to get out of it. I know now that any excuse is valid if it serves. Being tired or sick would not have stopped me unless I wanted them to and I knew it. Once I was searching for reasons to avoid my “second home”, I had an arsenal.
You get the point- my faith was strong. It wasn’t as strong as I thought, because turns out it wasn’t strong at all. I stepped away from what I’d believed.
I still have problems with certain “religious issues”. Devout Catholics preach God’s love then depart from what I believe God would want. Gay marriage degrades the institution of marriage, even when straight couples being abusive towards each other, committing adultery, and using marriage as a tool for power or money is all fine. I don’t reject love and I don’t think God would create- because He creates all things in His image- anyone if he didn’t love them exactly as they are. It bothers me to hear “God hates gays”- no He doesn’t, you do. So there’s that. Also, abstinence is the only acceptable way at all, no questions asked, end of discussion. I would rather hear people encourage abstinence and still educate about safe sex. It’s not the Devil’s work, but it should always be safe. Finally, I don’t think abortion is a black and white issue.
See what I mean? There are things about modern religious ideas that I disagree or take issue with. It doesn’t sit well with me that God (and Christianity) is used as a mask for purposes that God Himself couldn’t agree with. Does He love everyone or just a certain group of people who follow His rules and his people’s? The church is separate from politics in my mind, but conservative ideology is not the same as the Bible. (Men who hide behind the Bible while keeping children in cages for weeks are inexcusable; I’m confident God will eventually gather them to Himself and let those responsible for their torment suffer at the hands of justice. Still not so confident that He will give them peace and stability or at least some healing in life, but this is not a psychological essay.)
A few months ago, I was researching other sects of the Christian faith. Catholic, while dominant, is not the sole survivor of history. Specifically, I was looking into Lutheran and Methodist beliefs. I was… comforted. Partially.
Does this feel more like me? Is this the right thing? If I put it into words, would it be this? Am I “found” or still “lost”?
You may feel deja vu unless you didn’t read the first thousand words and picked up right around here. Basically, I found things about Protestant beliefs that seemed very much aligned with my beliefs. I also found things that didn’t sit well with me. (Orthodox Christianity is- you guessed it- partially right on, and partially way off.) Religion is so personal I don’t know how clear faiths emerged with enough devout followers to gain momentum. I think my relationship with God is my business; it’s for Him to determine and me to define if I choose. Religion, for me now, is a very private thing as well. I don’t really like to talk about my faith, but maybe that’s because it’s still a gray area to me. My sins and my grace aren’t matters that really need to be for public consumption; they’re only for prayer, and they’re for me to have on my soul like a cloak.
Back up? Alright… so… I must be God’s tree. I experienced “winter” in faith, so to speak, where my soul felt bare and dead. I felt spring come. It didn’t blossom inside me, it didn’t even grow. It was just there. It came in waves, at different levels of strength. I remember “oh it’s there” and I remember it being all I could think of- somewhere along the lines of “there is nothing in existence but the souls of two mortal women and Jesus”. I sat in a hospital room, holding a dying woman’s hand as it grew cold and lost color. I imagined her soul slipping away more than I felt it, but I know I felt something come as it was going. Something Divine entered the room, filling the air and coming to nestle between me and everyone else. It was on the inside. It was divine, it was holy, it felt miraculous, and it was everything I’ve hoped Jesus would be.
Out of One God in three beings, I saw no faces. No forms, no nothing. I could only sense what was in the room. It was spiritual, but not mystical. It was definite. The Holy Spirit, I suppose might be how some characterize what I felt with us that day, but He revealed Himself to me as Jesus Christ. He wasn’t there to save me but in a way… suffice it to say I can’t claim He did nothing for me that day. He, just as priests always said He does and would do for everyone, collected her soul piece by piece and lead her away. To the Heaven I’ve really always believed in, that’s where I choose to believe my late Grammy is now.
Feeling my God in that room, knowing what I sensed was happening, brought me back to a place of faith.
Where am I now? Grammy’s death left me a life spent praying (a reasonable amount this time). My rosaries mean as much to me as they ever have. The big question you may have: did I return to weekly masses? The big answer you’ve been waiting for: nope. If you were to ask me about religion, I’d declare myself a Catholic (just a version of the kind I used to be deeply annoyed by, back before hypocrisy was cool). And, though the word “Catholicism” still feels so personal to me that it’s a vine intertwined with my identity, I don’t practice the religion the way I used to. Today, I am a religious person in my own way, with my own mind, and my own relationship with the Divine. Just as I really think everyone is.
Brief Thoughts: What Felt So Right Until It Felt So Wrong
I stopped going to church a couple years ago, and now it feels like my heart is aching for God, even if I know, interact with, and love Him in a different way than before. Even if God is a woman, even if God is nonbinary.
When I think about it now, I really don’t know how to feel. I think a part of me is sorely missing the days of my life that were dedicated to serving my church. And why wouldn’t that part of me be lost and confused, wondering why limbs were amputated when there was no injury? I used to pray upwards of ten times daily. I strongly considered becoming a nun for several years, I devoted countless hours of my life to being an altar server and I did it with pride. Looking back on the life I have lived, for as long as I can remember and still to this day, Catholicism has been an intrinsic part of my identity. Not even Christianity- as I have looked into recommitting to the faith with a different branch- specifically Catholicism. Nothing fits quite the same way, like a dress that is a little too big or a little too small when you know that same dress is on the racks fitting flawlessly on you for so many years and ditto for millions of others- if only you could just find it, call it back home to you again. I’m no longer full of faith. I certainly don’t teach it to small children anymore. I remember it so clearly it was most likely just an hour ago that I lead those little darlings in prayer and I felt something rising from the group that was definitely and distinctively greater than humanity itself. I remember the pride I felt when all my kids loved me and the loved Jesus as I loved them and I loved Jesus. I recall with distinct clarity so sharp it would slice through my heart in a moment what it was like- I adored every moment with such a satisfying passion- when I read Bible stories to those kids each year. Listen to this, see how glorious our God is, see what incredible things God has enabled our people to do if we follow and fill our hearts with love! It was so full-filling it made me understand what it is to have your heart swell when you’ve touched a life. Looking back on it in this moment, I wonder if all of that was a dream that carried me through those beautiful years and wrapped them in the gold embroidery that adorns what is truly special, if not always what is truly priceless. I taught those kids about having love in their hearts until I had all the love ripped from my heart. It burned me that I had given so much to the church and in my hour stretching into months upon months of most desperate need, I received none of that love in return. It felt like letting a guest into my home, bringing them into the very center of my family, and having them turn their back on me when I was no longer an idyllic picture of a good Catholic. Imagine it- opening your arms for a heavily burdened soul and when yours becomes burdened seeing only that very person’s back. Because, my God, did that ever hurt me. The pain simmers today, I think, deep in a place long buried. It doesn’t feel right to go back.
Voice 1 in my mind urges reconciliation with my lost love of the faith and Voice 2 strikes the notion. Not yet. Then when, the enigmatically virtuous Voice 1 would like to know. Wouldn’t we all? Silence on the set.
Thank you for reading. I hope there was meaning for you in this personal essay on my journey with religion. This is the first time I’ve ever written about it here on Medium. I encourage you to leave me some thoughts or commentary.
For the one minute version of my narrative on coming of age, check out this poem: https://medium.com/@briannarduffin/grown-96740c16900f
Or hang out with some other poetry: