All Is Not Lost
I grew up Catholic… the Roman kind. Now that I live in England, I realize this isn’t as common as I had once thought. For a long time, it was the only way I understood morality. The motivation for an atheist to be good was baffling. I mean, if you weren’t worried about God striking you down or throwing you in hell for misbehaving, why else would you be good? My world was Catholic; a life without religion was incomprehensible.
My family did all the things good Catholics did: mass on Sunday, Catholic school, prayers as a family before supper, and prayers before bedtime. I never heard my parents swear.
We were active parishioners, the kind that volunteered a lot and was quietly annoyed on the big holidays when the holiday-timers took up all the seats at church. My parents were active in the school, the scouts, and volunteered to do things like work at the summer festival (complete with carnival rides, corn roast, a dunk tank, and a meat raffle). They worked the rummage sale, Bingo, and their share of the Lenten fish fry’s.
I hated when my parents “worked Bingo”. They always came home late reeking of smoke. Not because they smoked, but because they were stuck in a gymnasium full of crazed, Bingo stampers who chain-smoked all evening.
We all looked forward to the Fish Fry. It was just as good as going out to eat, even if it was just fish and chips served via the school lunch line.
School days were as Catholic as they could be. They started with prayers announced over the PA system: an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be. Then we said The Pledge of Alliance like every other kid. We went to mass mid-week according to the liturgical calendar. Lent, in particular, was always tough.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday — which is a day of fasting, broke at suppertime by our family, with an outing to McDonald’s for a Fillet-O-Fish sandwich. A mass was held in the middle of the school day where the priest did his best to smudge a sooty cross into our foreheads. The ashes inevitably fell into our eyes and we would walk away fluttering them whilst simultaneously trying to appear reverent.
When we got back into the pew, we’d whisper to our friends: “What does mine look like?!” Rarely, it looked like a cross. More commonly it looked like a fingerprint. We all knew better than to touch it.
Lent seemed to go on forever. We had to “give something up” to remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross — like swearing, arguing, or chocolate. There was no use in being clever about it and choosing something you hated, like broccoli. Everyone always asked — including our parents — what you gave up for Lent. We were also tortured with hours of Hail Marys during The Stations of The Cross prayer service. It was always at the end of the day when we were tired, hungry and desperate to go home.
Typically, religion class in school was Catholic class. (I never learned about any other religion as a kid.) It aimed to prep us for important life events like our First Confession (held behind a heavy, velour curtain, in a dark little room, to reconcile our sins with the priest who was hiding behind a metal screen. I cried. It was terrifying.) and, our First Communion (to which I got to wear a pretty, white dress with matching lacy gloves).
It was hoped that when we were mature enough to decide to live life as Catholic adults (sometime during high school), we would be “confirmed” in a ceremony with family, friends, and God as witnesses. I graduated knowing I had more time to think about it and was thrilled after nine years to finally go to a public school. I had been with the same damn kids for all those years and we were all so sick of each other, even the parents were sick of each other. I looked forward to wearing jeans to school.
In high school, I didn’t take the confirmation question lightly. I knew that at the very least, answering it was important to my family, especially to my parents. But, it was clear that the answer should be my own — what did I choose? Did I want to be Catholic?
I made new friends in high school and somehow found my way into a non-denominational church which seemed to take out the hocus-pocus (literally!) and simply focused on the Bible. I liked how different it was from Catholic church. It was a fresh experience compared to the ancient traditions of a Catholic mass. My brain was alive with deliberate contemplation during modern theatricals that included rock music, storytelling through dance, plays, and PowerPoint presentations.
Bible study was brilliant. There were opportunities for discussion about what the Word of God meant in a modern world and for a modern teenager. I had a Bible at home which I had looked at a few times. Bibles in a Catholic world are rarely read outside of church or away from a podium. They are holy things. At the new church, everyone carried a Bible around with them. They were well used, covered in post-its and highlighter, with notes scribbled down the margins. I respected and admired the concerted effort to exploring its pages.
Conversely, the social norms were more rigid than I was used to. People were very disapproving of swearing and drinking alcohol, even the wine for Communion was Welch’s Grape Juice. Its congregation distanced themselves from people who didn’t live the same way they did — I suppose we all do this in some way. They didn’t believe necessarily that people were “bad”, but rather that the devil was obviously working through them. Some people were as strict as avoiding music with swear words.
I really got into Christian music. Amy Grant and Whitney Houston were obvious choices; others were new to me like Kirk Franklin (gospel music) and Jars of Clay (Christian rock). These sorts of tracks kept me feeling uplifted throughout the week. I was high on Jesus.
It was exhilarating to live like this but eventually, I found the social pressures were too intense and out of sorts with other things I loved — like my family and things I just didn’t think were actually sins, like having a beer at a baseball game. My mind constantly raced with moral dilemmas needing to be solved. Trying to rationalize my way through them was exhausting and I recognized thankfully, that this new kind of Christianity was making me feel bad about myself. Religion and friends shouldn’t do that.
For example, it became too difficult to hold the belief that people who weren’t “saved” would be tortured in an eternal, fiery inferno. Being saved meant proclaiming that one has “accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour”. Some people can tell you the date they were “saved”. It’s a big deal.
There was always a quiet part of the Sunday service when people would kneel at the altar to pray for whatever was burdening them that week. There were always a few people crying, sometimes sobbing. It was emotionally draining to contemplate salvation in that intense kind of way. I spent a lot of time anxiously praying then for my Catholic family — who, I got the impression, were not the sort of Christians they expected past the pearly gates.
I suppose I wanted to clarify all the information I had been taking in and had a conversation with the youth leader one Wednesday evening. She knew how much my heart must be aching given the difficult position I must be in, with a Catholic family and all. She came from a Catholic family too. She recommended I keep praying for them and that I encouraged them to join me on Sunday, so they could get to know God in a different-sort-of-way. This conversation caused great consternation. My parents are devout Catholics. They weren’t going to come to this church service any more than the youth leader was going to go to a Catholic one.
It was fortuitous that it was soon time to head off to university. Coincidentally, the university was a Jesuit (Catholic) one. My parents were thrilled. Theology was a part of the core curriculum and I looked forward to more religious study from both an intellectual and historical perspective.
We had a brilliant theology teacher. He introduced himself and began talking about the core reading material for the class. “You’ll need a Bible,” he said holding up his floppy-covered copy. “For all you Catholics in the class, that’s the book you got for your First Communion that’s still gathering dust on your shelf. It will come in use after all. If you’re Lutheran, please bring duct tape, you’ll need to slap another piece on its spine to keep it from falling apart this semester.”
We discussed the importance of religious symbols. I became fixated with the realization that crucifixion on a cross was a typical method for torturing and killing convicted criminals in Jesus’ day, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was killed at some other point in time or by some other method, would we have a different golden symbol hanging behind the altar: a golden noose, a golden gun, a golden euthanasia syringe, or a golden electric chair hat?
Another theology class I took was called “The Life of Dorothy Day”. Dorothy Day lived a life of voluntary poverty which may have seemed admirable but was probably self-inflicted penance following an overwhelming amount of guilt from having an abortion. Class got interesting when we started talking about saints and how saints are made. Yes, made.
If you want to become a saint, you’ll have to perform miracles both when you are alive and whilst you are dead. You didn’t think that you’d get to relax in the after-life, did you? If you want saint-hood, you’ll be busy answering people’s prayers so that the humans down below can grow their library of evidence documenting all divine intervention that can be attributed only to your work. Eventually when the evidence is robust and compelling — they will “canonized” you as a saint.
And then there’s patron saints, specialists if you will, in earthly matters that need divine intervention. You pray to St. Michael if you’re sick or St. Francis of Assisi if your pet is sick. St. Anthony if you’ve lost something. St. Joseph for social justice. But, where it really starts to get silly is when you become aware that there is a patron saint of almost anything, including the internet — and it ain’t even Steve Jobs (bless his soul), it’s St. Isidore. No joke.
I nearly lost my mind in that class. All my ethics got twisted up and I couldn’t make any sense of why Catholics ever prayed to anyone but God — including all those dang Hail Marys; she’s not God. I mean, if God is, well, um… God?! Why the heck are we praying to all of these other people? Is it to save Him listening time? And then where do we draw the line? Can I pray to my dead ancestors for divine intervention? Or is this too East-Asian?
We had one question to answer in a final term paper. “Should Dorothy Day be canonized a saint?” I submitted my answer as instructed, double spaced and single sided. I wrote the whole essay on why I thought the idea of having saints in the first place was odd — quoting the relevant scripture which says we should only pray to God (all that Bible study paid off, see?). My teacher flipped my essay over and wrote her own back to me in furious green ink. I presumed I had struck a nerve until I read the last part: “I wish this wasn’t the end of the term. I would have loved to talk to you more about your thoughts on this.” A large, capital “A” was circled underneath.
I lost my religion on a hot summer’s night in Australia, sitting outside on a slatted wooden bench on a veranda of a backpacker’s hostel. I had a long chat about religion with an Israeli chemical engineer (who was on sabbatical before starting his obligatory, national service) and an Englishman who is now my husband. I can’t remember what was discussed exactly. What I do remember is realising that a loving God could not damn quite a significant proportion of the world’s population to hell, for all eternity, if they were not Christian. I mean, what are the stats on that anyways?!
The boys went to bed. I pulled my knees up to my chest and studied the stars until an indescribable emptiness washed over me. I guess stars can do that sort of thing. I pushed my eye sockets into my knee bones, wrapped my arms around my head, and sobbed for several hours (as quietly as possible). I eventually crawled into bed. When I woke up, I felt changed and maybe a little frightened that the world I thought I knew the day before — the world with a God, was not real.
Living life without religion is sometimes sad, sometimes awkward. I never know what I should be doing on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday. When my daughter was born, my cultural reference point for welcoming a little one into the family was baptism, but that didn’t feel quite right so we didn’t bother.
Living life without religion is also impractical. It caused no end of friction trying to plan a wedding. Both my parents and grandparents were concerned that my non-Catholic fiancé and I didn’t have an ambition to get married in the church — and I ain’t just talking about the building! Apart from the fact that we wanted an outdoor wedding and Catholics can’t have outdoor weddings (who knew?!), if we were to have a Catholic priest presiding over the ceremony, it would have to be with the understanding that we were setting out to live a Catholic, married life. That meant that we would have had to go to those dang catechism classes I avoided in high school. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter that my husband-to-be wasn’t Catholic (yet). My grandfather was sure the logistics could all be sorted with a church donation and a word with Father Don.
A few days later, my Dad drove us down to the lighthouse. We were curious about its suitability as a venue. I thought he was softening on the idea of an outdoor wedding until I realized an intervention had been staged. The priest and deacon from the family church just happened to be taking a stroll along the beach when we arrived. “Why hello!,” Father said. “What brings you and your family down to the lighthouse today?” He, of course, impressed upon us the importance of getting married in the church first of all, perhaps prior to coming to the lighthouse for a celebration? I can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t funny at the time. My family still insists they had nothing to do with it. The divine intervention was lost on us; we married in a gazebo overlooking Lake Michigan on a hot summer’s afternoon.
I have tried to make sense of Catholicism and Christianity but couldn’t find answers for myself that allowed faith to stay. I loathe the religious preference section of a form. Ticking atheist evokes a catholic-amount of guilt but also does not reflect all of the work I have done to arrive at that conclusion. I tend to leave it blank as an intentional thought-provoking exercise for whoever has to read it.
The work I have done has led me to a place of understanding. I used to cringe at the monotony of a Catholic mass but now understand how powerful its rituals, repetition, and symbols can be in telling a story to a broad audience. The power can be uplifting; it can also be intimidating.
I understand where the missionary is coming from when he knocks on your door or wants to tell you about Jesus in the street. He is energized by his faith and genuinely wants you to feel the same joy he has found through religion. He is concerned for your wellbeing, now and in the afterlife. I get it. I know what that feels like.
Worship is important; it happens in all sorts of ways. It might seem odd to an outsider, but its expression helps people connect with their understanding of God and to one another. Worship should feel uplifting. Every time.
I understand why religious devotees avoid people who live differently. It’s an easier task than contemplating salvation (their own and everyone else’s) and easier than losing face with their church family.
I understand why the Quakers, where I live now, sit together in silence. I know the feeling of peace that can be found just by sitting quietly in camaraderie with others who just want to be good.
I said I lost my religion, but that isn’t completely true. Religion has roots and cutting down its plant does not damage them. What remains is dear and is because of religion: childhood memories, heritage, culture, ceremony, and shared values; where values are not shared, still, a compassionate understanding of the impact religious faith has on daily life.