Leave it to me to do the heaviest topic on my blog days first. I guess I’m a sucker for a challenge.
Since this is my very first blog post, I’d like to give you the courtesy of talking a little bit (or a lot a bit, depending on how this goes) about my religious background.
But before that, I’d like to reiterate what I ask for on my Spiritual Sundays posts: that this be a forum full of respectful discussion and comments. It takes a lot of guts for me to talk about something so personal, and I’d like to think that the blog followers I attract are people who are good people in the world. I know that in reality that may not be humanly possible, but a girl can dream, can’t she? Okay, carrying on…
My Religious Background:
About five years ago, I started describing myself as a “rebel Catholic.” Before my parents got married, my mother was a devout Catholic, and my father was a different religion. Since the wedding was a traditional Catholic one, my father quickly and only-too-happily converted. So as a child, I was raised Catholic: I was baptized, had my first communion (beforehand, I did my first and only confession. Being only eight years old at the time, the only thing I could think to confess was lying about my little brother being the one who accidentally broke a coffee cup. Deep, I know.), went to Mass every Sunday. I owned (and still own) a rosary. I said my Hail Marys. I could probably tell you the (old school—but we’ll get more into that later) Order of Mass (as in, when to sit, stand, and kneel) in my sleep.
Even though I went to public school, as luck would have it, all my friends just happened to also be Catholic. At least, all my friends who felt comfortable enough to share their religious beliefs with me. So when holidays came up and they asked me to go to church with them, I went, and of course the routine was familiar. And so I went blissfully and naively along in my religious journey.
Then came a day my junior year in high school when I learned something I didn’t know before. Sitting at the lunch table, someone asked the group what our weekend plans were. Ironically, I think it was the Friday before Easter weekend, or Good Friday for all you folks in-the-know out there. I told her I was most likely going to Mass on Sunday. Specifically those words. I remember her nose scrunching up a bit, and her head tilting to the side. “Mass? Huh. You must be Catholic.” She said it with a hint of criticism in her voice.
At once I felt self-conscious. But then the curious and sassy, defensive part of me came out: “Yeah, I’m Catholic. Is there something wrong with that?”
“Well…I don’t know.”
Then my friend, bless her (pardon the expression), came to my rescue: “You don’t know? What’s the big deal? Why, what religion are you?”
“But what kind of Christian?” My friend asked.
Now, I realize that this could’ve sparked a whole new debate, but I quickly interrupted: “Wait, what? There are different kinds of Christians?”
The girl looked flabbergasted. “Of course there are. Where have you been?”
“Well, I thought everyone who believed in God are Christians.” (I’d like to put an aside here, that I wasn’t so completely out of touch with the world that I didn’t know there were different religions/non-religions. I was well aware of the existence of atheism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Rastafarianism, Bahai, and on and on and on…)
“Well, sort of.”
“Sort of? What does that mean?” I thought it was pretty cut and dry: you believed in God, you were Christian. You didn’t believe in God, you weren’t Christian. I was completely confused. This whole time I thought that Catholicism was Christianity. The fact that there were different ways to be a Christian had never crossed my mind.
She remained quiet, not wanting to start a commotion.
I pressed on: “I’m confused. I thought all Christians went to Mass?”
“Well, no. Only Catholics go to Mass. Other Christians go to service.”
Service? Hm. I’d never heard that phrase before.
I remember going home and telling my mother about the conversation. She looked amused and a bit concerned that I hadn’t yet learned about the denominations, but I told her it was just something that hadn’t ever come up before. She just shrugged her shoulders and didn’t go more into anything. She admitted she didn’t know much about other denominations since Catholicism was really all she knew, and that if I wanted to learn about the other denominations, I’d have to ask someone else.
Being that I was 16 and had other homework and social obligations to attend to, I decided to not take on that research project. Miraculously, the subject of religion only came up once more during my high school experience. It was when my best friend moved away, and per our rules that we set forth for letter-writing to do a back and forth version of 20 Questions, he asked, “Do you believe in God, and if so, do you think he’s out to get you?” For the life of me, I can’t remember how I answered that.
Freshman year of college came around, and as irony would have it, the “Mass” conversation happened again. This time around, I got a smirk from a Baptist girl who lived on my dormitory floor. As I was a little older, and I was feeling a bit more experimental because I thought college was the perfect time to figure out who you were, I actually got the nerve to say, “Well, I’m looking for a bible study to join around here. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Actually, yes! I’m going to bible study tonight and you’re welcome to come with me.”
That bible study was one of the most emotionally traumatic experiences I went through in college. Since I was a little homesick, missing my friends from high school, and a single girl who never had a serious boyfriend, I came into the bible study already feeling emotionally fragile. But I went there with an open mind and heart, fully wanting bible study to be a good experience where I could get spiritual support from the community. At the end of the bible study, which admittedly was fine until that point, the pastor opened up the floor for any questions we had. In a small, timid voice, I asked, “Is it wrong to ask God for love?” It was such a hard question to ask, to admit that I was selfish enough to ask God for such a thing.
The pastor was quick to answer with a question of his own: “Have you taken Jesus Christ into your heart as your Lord and Savior?”
I paused. I had never been asked that question before. It was really never something I’d thought about. I knew what I believed according to the Apostle’s Creed, but I didn’t know about this whole taking Jesus into my heart thing. It sounded a little hokey to me. And what did that have to do with asking God for love?
I must’ve thought a little too long, because then the pastor said, “Well, if you have to pause to answer, then obviously you haven’t. Until you can say for certain and without pause that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, none of your prayers will be answered.”
I was shocked. And also very, very hurt. It took every ounce of pride to keep my head high and walk out of that bible study. Once I reached the privacy of my dorm room, I burst into tears. Here I had very vulnerably revealed a piece of my heart, only to be completely made a fool of. Suffice it to say, I never went back to that bible study.
Eventually I found the Catholic student group on campus and fell back into my familiar routine. I was so scarred by my one attempt to try a different denomination that I didn’t dare want to do it again.
(**Author’s note: Though it sounds like I have something against Baptists, I genuinely don’t. I just unfortunately had really bad experiences with them in college. I actually have since made many Baptist friends who have proved to me that, as I always believed, there are “bad seeds” in every religion or non-religion. It’s the PEOPLE, not the BELIEF, that are crazy. But more on that later.)
As freshman year went on, I befriended a girl a couple years older than me from my floor (though she was also Baptist, she wasn’t the same girl who invited me to the bible study). We actually ended up becoming really close, and we’d spend a lot of time together talking about life, eating lunch together, watching movies, and walking all around our small college town. Eventually she invited me to attend church with her. Since by then I respected and trusted her, I agreed to give it a try. Again, I went with an open mind and heart. Though it was a different format than Mass(they brought bibles to service and took notes, so it felt more like a class than worship), I generally received the same message. I really enjoyed myself and continued to go several times. In turn, I invited my friend to go to Mass with me, and likewise, she agreed to go. Like me, she was a little taken aback at first by the different format, but she also quite enjoyed herself. I participated in some of her church’s activities and really thought this experience was really helping to broaden my horizons.
One day as we were walking back from the grocery store (I didn’t have the luxury of a car back in my college days), the conversation took on a serious turn. “Violet, you know you’ve become quite a dear friend to me.”
I was flattered. “Aw, thank you. You’ve become quite a dear friend to me, too.”
She paused for a bit. Whatever she wanted to say, I could tell it was hard for to do. I smiled at her encouragingly. “When I pass away, I really look forward to seeing all my loved ones there.”
Immediately, I was concerned. Was she dying? “Me too,” I replied.
“The reason I bring this up is because I’m sad for you. You see, even though you’ve been going to my church, you’re still going to your church, too. Do you still call yourself a Catholic?”
“For all intents and purposes, yes. That’s what I associate most with, and what I feel most comfortable with. So yes.”
She sighed, looking completely torn apart. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
I braced myself for what she was about to say. It didn’t sound like this conversation was going well.
“I’ve been sad these last few weeks because I know you won’t be going to heaven.”
“What?!? What are you talking about?”
“Even though you are a wonderful person, you’re not a true Christian. And I know that if you’re not a Christian, you don’t go to heaven. It’s not my rule, it’s just the truth. That’s just how it is.” She looked at me with sad eyes.
I was infuriated, to say the least. I couldn’t even begin to form a response to what she was insinuating. Who was she to tell me whether or not I was going to heaven? I opened and closed my mouth a few times, but nothing but squeaks came out.
“I don’t know what to say. Are you serious?”
“I would never joke about something like this.”
Extremely hurt and angry, I took off running, never once looking back at her. Our friendship, if we even had one left, was never the same after that.
By my sophomore year, I had established a small but close-knit group of friends. One of the guys in my group invited me to attend a bible study group with him. A girl in the same group of friends, who was a Catholic wrestling with her skepticism about religion, reassured me by saying that it was a very low-key, nonjudgmental, accepting group that she enjoyed going to. Once again, I gave it a try. The setup was two pastors of different denominations (one Presbyterian, one Lutheran, if you must know) took turns discussing passages in the bible. Afterwards, we would have go into further discussion over dinner. It was a format that I ended up enjoying very much. The group consisted of people of all different faiths, and true to what the girl told me, it really was low-key, nonjudgmental, and accepting. It turned out to be the bible study I most enjoyed going to (even though I really enjoyed the Catholic bible studies, too), and the friends I made from that group remain my friends to this day. I learned so much about the bible and was able to look at it from different angles. More importantly, though, I found a community where I was accepted for who I was. And even though our faiths were all different, one belief united us all: that we should treat one another the way we wanted to be treated. That, in my humble opinion, is what church should be.
I ended up being the pianist for the Lutheran church that one of the pastors worked at, and it didn’t matter that I still identified myself as Catholic. The people in the congregation neither cared nor knew that I wasn’t a Lutheran. It simply didn’t matter. My mother was a bit puzzled by that decision. She wondered why I didn’t apply to be the pianist at the Catholic church, and I replied simply that they weren’t hiring. I didn’t let her press that issue further.
I graduated college relatively unscathed and moved back about an hour north of my hometown. During the times I had a Sunday off, I still attended Mass at the local church, but it was sporadic. Sometimes I had a Sunday off and decided to do something else. I became somewhat of what people call a Christmas Catholic, only going when the mood striked me.
I married my college boyfriend (who just so happened to attend my favorite bible study group). It wasn’t a traditional Catholic ceremony like my parents had. That’s because my husband wasn’t (and isn’t) Catholic. The best way to describe his faith is that he’s spiritual, but not necessarily religious. It’s something he’s still figuring out himself, which remains to be just fine with me. I could tell my mother was a little disappointed about that fact, but I, stubborn person that I am, wasn’t about to do anything about it. The important thing was that we respected each other’s beliefs.
We had two ceremonies: one at the courthouse to make it legal, then the bigger ceremony with the whole shebang—white dress, wedding cake, and all. The bigger ceremony was performed by a dear friend of ours, though he wasn’t ordained. There was a touch of religion in the ceremony, but overall it was pretty respectful of all faiths. There was no talk about the union being good in God’s eyes, or God being the head of the household, or anything like that. And frankly, that’s the way we wanted it. While I fully respect those who do keep God at the center of their lives and marriages, it was something I couldn’t bring myself to force him into believing when he didn’t fully believe it. Some couples mark a mutual belief in God the most important thing when looking for a life partner. For us, the most important thing was to keep the promises we set forth on the day we married–that we’d love each other all the days of our lives, that we’d respect each other, and that we would support each other through good times and bad. In my opinion, neither belief is wrong. They’re just different. And that’s okay.
What I Gave Up For Lent:
So flash forward to present-day. Still largely relating to Catholicism—mostly because it’s familiar and comfortable, not necessarily because it’s the best religion/denomination to follow—I ventured upon this year’s Lenten observance. Lent is another creature in and of itself. I don’t recall my mother, devout as she is, ever doing the whole traditional Catholic Lenten observance in our household. We had meat all throughout Lent, and she never asked what we were going to give up. In fact, the only Lenten observance I remember as a child was when a Lenten weekend at my best friend’s house and we ate a vegetarian diet for every meal every day except for Sunday.
It wasn’t really until college until I even gave the practice of giving something up for Lent any thought. I was hearing Catholics around me, and even non-Catholics who were curious about the act of giving something up for 40 days, share what they were giving up with each other, so I thought I’d give it a try. Without going into too much detail, there were Lents that I gave up candy, coffee, and meat. My suffering was indeed felt. One year recently my mother finally called to ask me if I was giving anything up. I think that year I didn’t give anything up, but she told me she gave up shopping.
This year, I wanted to keep what I gave up private for personal reasons. Until today.
What I gave up for Lent 2012 was my adherence to any one belief, in favor of more sharply defining what exactly it is that I believe in, and also to explore other beliefs to see if it better fit my own dogma.
As I lived more of my adult life, my religious practices became more lax. As mentioned before, I didn’t go to church every single Sunday. My ritual of doing a daily evening prayer (of the “Now I lay me down to sleep” variety), which I remember doing every night without fail for as long as I remember, started to become more random. I didn’t pray as much as I used to.
I also started to form my own opinions about certain aspects of Catholicism, which is why I then started to call myself a “rebel Catholic.” I may get some heat for this, even be called a poor excuse for a Catholic, but here it is: I don’t believe in the Virgin birth. I don’t believe that the Earth is only a couple thousand years old. I believe in dinosaurs. I am pro-choice. I am a supporter of the LGBT community. I have friends of all faiths. Some of my best friends are atheist and I don’t look at them like they’re crazy for not believing in God. We just respectfully agree to disagree.
Yet, when it comes down to it, I still believe in God. If ever there comes a day where someone holds a gun to my head (knock on wood that it never actually happens!), and I am asked if I’m a Christian, I will most certainly profess my faith, even if that means my death. To me, it’s the equivalent of a proud gay person being asked if they are gay. They are gay, and I’m a believer. It just IS. There’s no changing it, that’s just how we are. We’re not going to pretend to be something we’re not.
When life gets hard, I turn to prayer and take comfort in God’s healing power. I look around at the beauty that surrounds us in nature and the miracle of life and think to myself that there’s no way something so complex didn’t have the hand of a supreme being when it was being created. As funny as it sounds, it’s the most logical explanation to me that God exists.
So with this dichotomy in mind, I went into the Lenten season. I told only my husband about what I was giving up. In a well-meaning and sweet gesture, he bought me one of those “holy candles” with a prayer written on one side and Jesus on the other. He told me that he hoped it would help me with my prayer and my religious exploration. I appreciated his show of support, but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.
During this time, I found myself unabashedly leaving more religious quotes and status updates on my Facebook profile. I found myself praying more. After experiencing a lot of loss this year, I lit a remembrance candle at Mass and knelt in prayer at the altar—something I’d previously been afraid to do. All of these acts made my heart lighter.
When a friend of mine invited me to go with her to church, I eagerly agreed when normally I’d politely turn her down. I didn’t really know what to expect, but from what I knew of her, I expected it to be somewhat of what I call a “stereotypical” church service.
Boy, was I in for a surprise! Now, I’m not sure if it’s true for all Foursquare churches, but this one was unlike any other church I’d ever been to. Upon entering, I felt as if I were transported to another church universe. I felt more like I was going to a dome or stadium rock concert than what I have come to know as church. There were video cameras rolling to record the whole thing, the seating was very much reminiscent of a maximum capacity university lecture hall, the room’s lights were turned off and blue lasers put on a show in the background, and a movie screen served as background with which to magnify the worship band. There were amplifiers aplenty and the notes coming from the bass guitar reverberated throughout my entire body. I had to yell to be heard, and I had a feeling my ears would be ringing when service was over.
The congregation was quite loud and outspoken, and quite proud and encouraged to be so. They were louder even than what I would imagine the most spirited stereotypical Southern Baptist church would be. (**Side note: I’ve always, always wanted to attend a stereotypical Southern Baptist service, complete with gospel choir and gray-haired ladies running up and down the aisles with their hands in the air. There is such genuine energy and celebration in this scene that I know I wouldn’t be able to help myself from being swept up in it. Alas, my one opportunity to do so in college was taken away from me because I was scheduled to work that day.)
Needless to say, I experienced a bit of a sensory overload, especially when they closed their eyes and reached their hands up high when they sang worship songs. The emotion and devotion in this crowd was extremely tangible, that’s to be sure.
I took it all in and remained open-minded when normally I would be cringing and running for the door. I reminded myself of my goal for Lent, and I focused on that night’s Word. I also reminded myself that even though it was a different way of worshipping, they were still worshipping the same thing I was: the existence of God. With that in mind, I began to relax and enjoy myself. I even sang along to some of the songs. I couldn’t, however, bring myself to raising my hand in the air, except for when we did a collective prayer for a group of people who had come to the front of the room. That just wasn’t my style, though I understood the meaning behind the gesture.
I remained open-minded until the pastor went into an “our church is better than their church”-type monologue. He referred to churches who were quiet, the ones who had a “script” and a time to do certain things at certain times as “dead churches.” I was immediately turned off by that, because he was doing everything but specifically naming my own church.
I took offense to this, because in all my years of being a Catholic, and with all the different Catholic churches I’ve gone to (I’ve gone to a lot…I was an army brat growing up), I have never, ever heard the priest do an “our church is better than their church” rant. My experience with the church was very much a “This is who we are. Take it or leave it” mentality. Never once did they claim to be better than others. Never once did express other churches as inferior. Now, I can’t say this for every single Catholic church in the world, but I will say that I count myself very lucky in that regard that I didn’t experience that type of superior vibe. I’ve been raised to believe that it’s not my job as a mere human being to decide who’s better than someone else. That is God’s job, and if I remember correctly, this guy’s purpose is to love the world as he did his only son.
But I digress. (Also, I’d like to note here that my first inclination was correct about my friend. Apparently she came from a “dead church” background, too, but she wanted to be supportive of her friend who went to that church. “And isn’t it ironic…don’t cha think?” 🙂 )
I came away from that experience thinking that it was an enjoyable albeit different one (save for the “dead church” remark), but I also came to the conclusion that it simply wasn’t the type of church for me.
I celebrated the rest of Lenten season with not much more fanfare, just a lot more reflection and trying to define my beliefs.
Easter Sunday rolled around, and I had slept in because I had stayed up all night (until 2:30 am, setting up this blog, if you must know). I fully intended on attending Easter Mass all week, but now that it had actually come, I felt I wouldn’t be able to make it without coffee. Just when I resolved to not go, trusty hubby comes in and asks me if I’m going.
“Nah. I’m too tired.”
“What? This is like the finish line for you. You should go.”
“Why does it matter so much to you?”
“Because I know it means a lot to you.”
I let that sink in a little bit. He was absolutely right. It was the end of Lent and I wanted to celebrate. Plus, I wanted to get some great Easter pictures in so I could check it off my “pictures to take” list. So off I went.
I got there about 10 minutes late (gasp!), and there was a crowd outside the open door because the church was understandably full. I took in the scene around me, admiring the cute pastel floral dresses on the little girls. The smell of lilies and daffodils met my nose, and I opened my ears to hear the gospel reading. I tuned in just as he was talking about the miracle of finding the tomb empty and wondered if that story was something I truly believed in. To be honest, I’m not sure if I do. But I do believe in miracles, so the possibility still remains.
Eventually I did find seating, and I was able to fully take in the Easter decorations. I admired the crosses and the stained glass windows with a dove at the top. I listened to the priest giving his sermon, and the words really spoke to me, considering what I’d given up for Lent. It went something like this:
“Easter is the perfect time to celebrate a new day, a fresh start. It’s the time to take the blessings you’ve been given by God and to do something with them to help spread goodness and love in the world.”
Such simple words, but such profound ones. At once, I realized what the core of my religious beliefs were: to take what I’ve been given by God and to make the world a better place with them. Once I realized that, the rest didn’t matter to me. It didn’t matter which denomination I was, it didn’t matter that some of my beliefs didn’t quite match up with what the Catholic church is “supposed” to believe. It also didn’t matter that I believed in God. And, like always, it wasn’t my plan to have others believe what I believe. The most important thing to me was to love with all I have, and to do the best I can possibly do with what I’ve been given. In an ironic way, by giving up a strict adherence to any belief and being more open-minded, I ended up strengthening what I didn’t realized I believed in so strongly. Overall, I think Lent was a success.
So even though Spiritual Sundays don’t come with a corresponding checklist, I’d still like to provide a checkmark for completing my Lent goal. Because, I think I was largely successful in at least exploring what religion means to me, and going further into defining my own religious beliefs.
Here’s to hoping you find your own something wonderful to believe in,