This is the hardest thing I’ve ever forced myself to commit to paper, because as flippant as I am, I don’t enjoy talking about my own emotions. I keep an obvious line drawn in the sand when it comes to things that are close to my heart. I don’t like to tell people about things that I’ve spent years considering. Sometimes it’s painful just to process that a decision needs to be made, never mind the making of it. And often when I’ve tried to have this discussion with the people who are close to me, they override me. “Do you or don’t you?” “What’s to think about?” “You’re smarter than that.” “You’re going to hell, you know.” It’s almost as if my decision rewrites their own self-definition in some inimitable way.
I am, of course, talking about Faith. Yes, with a capital F.
I am what you would call a lapsed Catholic. I haven’t been to Mass by choice in four-and-a-half years. I’ve been struggling with my faith and my feelings on the Church for fourteen years, ever since they handed us a prettily wrapped package and said it represented the gift of our virginity that we were never to open outside the bounds of marriage. We would wreck the beauty of it, and thus, of ourselves. Ever the overthinker, I realized at thirteen that on some level, these people whose job it was to teach me about being a decent human being wrapped up my value based on what was or wasn’t between my legs. I knew I was more than that, but didn’t know how to vocalize it.
I almost immediately began to chafe at more of the Church’s teachings. In the past 20 years, the Catholic Church has become infinitely more right wing, and entirely too focused on what goes on behind people’s bedroom doors. It has not been focused enough on the important things, like truly loving your neighbor regardless of what they do. It has hidden people who harmed children from the law, thinking it should only have to answer to a higher power, and not the courts of men. And I began to realize that social justice and humanity had nothing to do with a higher power. That you could want to care for the others around you without needing to believe.
Which, really, just left the afterlife issue. What happens after this? If I stop believing, do I burn in some eternal pit of flames? I realized two things very quickly. First, the God I believed in for so long doesn’t do that. The God I believed in recognized good intent and good deeds. And second, it didn’t matter to me what comes after this. Because in the end, I don’t know, and I can’t control it. I can control this life, this self, this person. I can control my reactions to what the world throws at me. I can love and be loved and do the right thing and I don’t require a heavenly reward to do it. Being kind, righteous, and just is its own reward. Because God or not, I was given this life, and it’s the only one that I have any choices in. Is there life after death? Or is this it? Is belief in an afterlife just a carrot-and-stick maneuver to make us behave now? If all that’s after this is nothing, I was and am at peace with it. It’s all right.
And with those two thoughts mastered, I resolved never to believe again.
I wish it were so easy. I stand here now, still a little lost, and wondering if I should return. When forced to attend Mass to make my mother happy, I feel a pull. The rituals of my childhood feel like a breath of fresh air, and I can’t stop praying, even though I’ve tried. I pray for help to get through my loneliness, I send up a quick thought when a friend isn’t doing well, for the strength to be there for them and not just to walk away in fear, I hold my breath and throw all the goodwill I have after every screaming ambulance I see, “God, please make that person safe and keep their family strong.” My fingers itch every time I see a rosary, as I imagine my fingers slipping over the beads, in the most meditative form of prayer we Catholics know. Hail Mary, full of grace…
I ache to believe.
But belief might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Like I said, believers don’t want to understand agnosticism, and so many non-believers don’t want to hear of your struggles. People can be so dismissive. “You’re a smart girl. You know that none of that is true.” I don’t, of course, neither do you. That’s why it’s called “faith” instead of “science.” In the last few weeks, I’ve realized I want to go back to the good parts of those feelings: the community, the pride of place, the comfort of knowing. I know it will never be the same. I know that this time around, I have to make a choice, not just go along with it, in childlike obedience.
Faith as an adult is infinitely harder than faith as a child.
I’ve never worn my beliefs on my sleeve, and I’ve often held in contempt those who do. The person who ends every status update with, “Feeling blessed by my amazing life!” gets nothing but an eye roll from me. It’s one thing to feel blessed, it’s another to use blessedness as a status symbol. I will always tell off those who pray outside Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics and call them the self-righteous loudmouths that they are. Jesus never told you to discipline another in his name, only to use your time to benefit your fellow man. I will always notice the hypocrisy of the table of young married couples next to me, praying before they eat, but practically harassing the waitstaff and leaving a negligible tip or a religious tract. Faith, or the appearance of faith, comes before humanity for so many, and I don’t ever want to be aligned with that.
On the other end of the scale, I don’t want to lose my non-believing friends. I know so many who are not only dismissive of religion, but seem to despise it. I worry that as soon as some of them read this, I’ll be confronted with arguments, with pain, with, “How can you be part of something that’s caused so much harm?” “How can you believe in fairy stories?” I don’t want them to think I’ve given up on exploring the world, that I’ll become one of those crazy people who dismisses science. I don’t want them to hate me or to sneer at me. For those I know whom religion has deeply harmed, I don’t want them to feel betrayed. I don’t want anyone to think I’m less intelligent, or that I’m blind to the past. I don’t want to lose anyone because of this.
I’m walking a fine line, and I feel like I’m going to lose no matter what.
One never says, “I’m a lapsed Episcopalian,” or, “I’m a lapsed Unitarian.” We only really say “lapsed Catholic” because to be Catholic is more than just to engage in a religious belief, it’s a cultural community. No matter where you go, the structure is always the same, the rituals are always the same. The readings are always the same. Sitting in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela and hearing the story of “Adan y Eva” was comforting to me when I was so homesick I was eating peanut butter out of a jar while I cried. I knew in six hours my parents would be listening to the same reading in Genesis, that in this moment, in this way, I was connected to a billion people. In many ways, I will never stop being Catholic, it’s truly cradle to grave. (And we have a Mass for all of it.) Even when I absolutely decided I’d had enough with religion, I still described myself as Catholic. Because I just am, regardless of where my belief lies.
I am making a cautious return. The Church seems to be at a crossroads, and I want to be there for the long hoped for turning point. Pope Francis’ proclamation of, “Who am I to judge?” sent tremors throughout the world. I know that the doctrine didn’t change, but those five words mean more than anything that’s happened in the last 500 years. A Church that recognizes that it’s job is not to perform the work of an Inquisitor is one that I want to be part of. A Church that recognizes what it’s done wrong and owns up to its faults is one that I want to see. When it comes to the politics of it all, I want to be part of this sea change.
But the question remains, “Can I believe that there is some unseen force out there, caring for the Universe? Can I believe that a god/mortal being died in a gruesome and cruel way to save me from sin that I had no part in committing?” And a voice whispers, “Why not?” Why can’t it be that way? Because it’s incredible? Because I don’t know for sure? Many things are incredible, but none have ever caused me to stop searching for truth. Which brings me to the real heart of the matter: Am I, a person who needs to touch it, read about it, understand everything from all sides, am I comfortable never really knowing?
Probably not. But Thomas questioned and doubted, and was he not beloved?