When I was around eight, I kept bugging my mother to take me to church. Something was driving me. I wanted to go so badly. My mother was a (lapsed) (Northern) Baptist and my father was a (lapsed) Catholic. Since I was closer to my mother, and she was less lapsed than my dad, eventually I started going to the Baptist church.
My Baptist upbringing was not at all like what most people describe as a Baptist upbringing. Although our church didn’t allow alcohol on the premises, my mother and many of her church friends drank elsewhere. Our pastor once described being served sherry at a little old lady’s home and rather than offend her, he drank it, even though he himself was a teetotaler. Dancing was fine. No hellfire-and-brimstone sermons were ever preached in our church.
As a kid, I took for granted that God existed and, like many other things from childhood, things seemed simple on that front. On the other hand, for various reasons I kept becoming convinced I was bound for hell. So that was fun…sort of.
My mother had gone to the same church as a teenager and a lot of the adults were her friends from that era; a lot of the kids went to school with me. It’s one of the few places in life I’ve actually felt comfortable and part of a group, for the most part. I sang in the adult choir even though I was still a kid, because I was advanced for my age and a good solid second soprano. For several years, the pastor’s daughter was my best friend — until she became pretty and popular and I, not so much. Then her father left the ministry and so that edgy dynamic disappeared.
Throughout my childhood, though, I was wistful that it hadn’t been my dad taking me to church. I was absolutely fascinated by the world of my Catholic friends — rosary beads, nuns, statues, missals, crucifixes, Fathers. I appropriated a 1960s St. Josephs Missal that my dad had, which had belonged to one his aunts. (I still have it. Such illustrations!) I read and re-read The Song of Bernadette when I was around nine, amazed that there were actual photographs of saints — and I did consider all the saints to be saints, somehow, even if I was totally unclear on the concept of what “praying to the saints” meant. I had the usual Protestant misconception about that. I always knew I didn’t want to get married in our blond-wood sanctuary with grey vinyl padded pews, frosted glass windows, and one lone, unadorned cross over the baptismal font in the back of what we called an altar, although there was no actual altar there. I figured I probably would, though, if I ever did get married.
And then I went to college. A Catholic college, actually. For the first time I was taught by nuns — though none of them wore habits — and it was there that I totally lost my faith. I had never considered all the obvious questions about creation, other faiths, contradictions…things that cause some people to lose their faith and things that people who keep it need to grapple with. I also discovered politics, and in the volatile mid-to-late 80s that was often about the right to choose and feminism in general.
That left me in an emotional whirlpool. If there was no God, then there was nothing after death, and my lifelong terror of death was justified, because it meant I would cease to exist, and that also rendered life meaningless to me, since no matter what I or anyone did, we would just be extinguished when we died. On the other hand, those conservative Christians were absolutely wacko … so … (My apologies to any conservative Christians who may read this, although I doubt any conservative Christians will.)
I made one last-ditch effort to save my belief by taking to the chaplain and deciding to become Catholic. When he told me how you had to go through RCIA and then be presented to the bishop — a process totally foreign to non-liturgical-Protestant me — I fled from that. And into total unbelief, and anger at the people who believed and were using that belief to keep the United States back, even as I mourned not having faith in an afterlife.
And I stayed in this conflict whirlpool until I was around 28.
I was on a plane to Alaska reading about the Romanovs. There was quite a lot about the Russian Orthodox Church, and I knew Alaska was a bastion of Russian Orthodoxy, but while visiting my then-boyfriend there wasn’t really a chance to find one, especially as he lived in a semi-rural community and this was just before the Internet was a part of everyone’s phone.
I came home, did some research to assuage my curiosity, and found that, yes indeed, they mean it when they say Orthodox. What was a pro-choice feminist thinking? (Oh, but the Liturgy!)
During my research, I felt myself drawn to the Episcopal Church. Anglican! Liturgical! Not (for the most part) right-wing! I wondered why I was so interested in religion all of a sudden — to soothe my fear of death? Give life meaning? Give me back the ritual I hadn’t had since I aged out of Rainbow? Or was it actually the promptings of spirit?
From 1996 until 2012, and then with one more last hurrah in 2013, I tried like anything to believe. I joined the Episcopal Church in 1996 and was married in a Very Very High Church wedding in a beautiful Episcopal church in Berkeley in 1997. (We had a female priest, but we had incense and stupendous music and the Eucharist.) In 2002, as that marriage was exploding all around my head, I joined the Catholic Church — RCIA and all. (In a not-beautiful parish that wouldn’t know High Churchery if it hit it in the head, but it was dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes and the people were lovely.)
I eventually ended up in a very conservative parish where I wore a mantilla and where they didn’t sing any of the really ridiculous Oregon Catholic Press/David Haas music; offered confession in actual kneeling, anonymous confessionals before every Mass; and actually had the Latin Mass before Pope Benedict made it more easily accessible. I was trying desperately, by clinging to things — my missal, Latin, my mantilla, my rosary, my Divine Mercy chaplet, everything — to force myself to believe. I even looked into Orthodoxy again — I actually agree with them about things like the filioque and some other issues to do with soteriology, if you take the fundamental premises of Christianity as given.
I left that parish the day the priest compared Obama to Hitler. You’ve just Godwinned me out of God, I thought. I had pushed aside all of my philosophical difficulties, simply not thinking about them — because really, my social and political beliefs were simply not reconcilable — but that was too much. The fact that they thought Masons were evil plotters, when as a Rainbow Girl I’d been surrounded by hundreds of benign Masons who couldn’t plot their way out of a paper bag? Oh well. The fact that they thought yoga as practiced in American yoga studios was malevolent and spiritual-but-not-in-a-good-way, when I’d taken yoga classes, knew that wasn’t true, and also knew that just about every person I knew who did yoga was pretty unspiritual? OK, whatever. Praying for the “pro-life” cause every week? Sigh, yes, I knew this was what I was signing up for being Catholic. The edict against any sex outside of marriage and even civil unions for gay folks? Ditto. But the Hitler comparison was just the last straw.
I went back to the Episcopal Church, but I felt half-hearted about it. I wanted to want it, I wanted to believe, I wanted to have an anchor and some hope, but last year I could no longer keep trying.
I just don’t believe in the core Christian teachings.
I want to.
I wish I did.
I wish that I did and that there was a way to reconcile what I know and believe about life with having faith, but I don’t and I can’t.
Still fascinated by religion, I read a lot about people of faith, and essays and memoirs by them. I miss liturgy — structure and ritual — and I miss the practice of study that having scriptures invites. (I know, I should just join Eastern Star now that they admit Majority Rainbow Girls who aren’t related to Masons and get my ritual fix, and go back to school for the study. Actually and unfortunately, I wouldn’t fit in with the Eastern Star women anymore either, alas. I would love, love, love to go to graduate school, but that’s a whole other issue to tangle with.)
It does feel good, though, to give up. The struggle and tension between things I knew to be true (and things I suspected to be true) and things I was willing myself to believe were true was painful and exhausting, and letting it snap and fly away was like taking off too-tight shoes after a long day of walking.
I don’t consider myself an atheist, but an agnostic. I don’t think the Christian story is true, but I am not discounting that a) I could be wrong or b) there may indeed be a God, or something we might as well call God. And in all honesty, I hope there is, because simply ceasing to exist at the moment of death is, to me, even worse than the thought of being fundamentally alone in the universe while I’m alive.
In some ways I feel like I wasted nearly twenty years trying to force myself into a mold I cannot fit in. But there’s no point in ruefulness. It was interesting, if nothing else. And maybe someday I will find something I believe and a niche into which I can fit. We shall see.
Has nothing to do with religion and is considerably shorter!
My job. Oh God, my job. For three years I loved it, and then a rotation happened and they sent me out to talk to strangers all day, right? And honestly, it’s been pretty awful. There are days that are okay, and individual interactions that are nice, but overall, I’m tired and miserable and I am counting the days until I get rotated back.
If only I knew when that was…I have joked (okay, “joked”) that at least when you go to prison they tell you how long your sentence is. If I knew when my blessed release from this assignment was coming I could count down the days. I do at least know every day is one day closer to whenever that is. It’s been six months. Six months of my indeterminate sentence completed.
A day came several months ago where everything came to a head. Not going into details, but I knew that if I didn’t think of a solution, I was going to either get fired (not an easy thing to do with my employer, thankfully) or come home and do something rash.
In the end, I combined two approaches. One was suggested by a friend who hates/is as bad at customer service as I do/am: When she had to do this sort of thing, she pretended she was playing a role. It was a movie or a play, and she was simply playing the part of The Employee. To the extent that this doesn’t work, I…simply don’t care anymore. My mantra is “OK. Whatever.” A member gets mad or agitated? OK, whatever. Someone yells at me? OK, whatever. I get asked to do something I, with every fiber of my being, don’t want to do? OK, whatever. Nothing matters. Whatever. I’ll just do it, accept it, take it, because it doesn’t matter — whatever comes next is bound to be unpleasant, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
I do my best and don’t generally screw much up, but I have ceased to care what happens. I don’t even cringe away from all the things I have to do that I am so bad at — the talking to strangers all day, the endless patience I have to project when I am the least patient person on the planet. I liken it to the way when drunk drivers get in accidents, they’re not the ones who get hurt because they’re all floppy and relaxed. I am floppy and relaxed in the face of this rotation, in the face of all the strangers I have to deal with, in the face of all the terrifying stuff they ask me to do.
I also take a lot of anti-anxiety meds, but without Playacting and Not Caring, it wouldn’t be enough.
And it feels so much better. I’m still exhausted at the end of every day, but less so — I don’t have to go to bed at 7:30 PM anymore. I still get depressed and full of dread on Sunday nights, but I apply Oh Well Whatever and it eases a bit. I still will go buy a bottle of real Champagne and drink it all myself when I finally get rotated back into the back, but I think I can survive until then. Floppy. Relaxed.
As the old Ashleigh Brilliant postcard says: “I feel much better now that I’ve given up hope.”
Sounds very dreary, but I think of it more as just backfloating down the river of this assignment, not fighting the current, and waiting for it to be over.
So two struggles let go. I wonder if this will give me more emotional energy for other things!