in search of

Shortly after my divorce — many years after declaring I was an atheist — I went off in search of God. I went back to church, knowing full well I didn’t believe in God but hoping against hope that I would find something to cling on to, some shimmer of his presence that would turn me around and give me something to believe in again. I was lonely, feeling hollow and empty inside. My soul was aching. My Catholic upbringing reached out to me and said “Go back to God. Go back to church. Find something to erase the darkness from your life. Find hope in religion.” It was against everything I did (or didn’t) believe, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I was sure I would find something in church to give my life meaning.

The first time I sat in the pew, in the last row at the 10am Sunday mass, every Sunday morning of my childhood came flooding back to me and it was all there — the incantations, the recitations, the hymns, the kneeling, the standing. It was like going to a concert by a band I hadn’t listened to in ages; I still knew all the words to every song, but the passion I once had for those songs had dwindled until the words were just mumbled as rote memorization.

I stuck with it, hoping something would click, that my heart would magically, mystically somehow fill up with joy and gladness and I’d forget this feeling of treading water in a gray ocean with no one around to save me. But mass after mass, my heart never filled. Still, I kept going, just waiting for a sign.

I threw myself into the social aspects of the church. I started a mother’s group. We met two mornings a week with our kids and did Jesus-centered arts and crafts while we talked about our lives. I joined the volunteer staff of the youth group and listened to teenagers talk about their lives of drama, turmoil and emotions, not so different from the lives we talked about as mothers. I helped decorate the church for holiday masses. I found myself going to mass at 9am on weekdays, sitting with the old ladies who still wore hats to church. I’d chat with them after mass and we’d talk about our lives.

I lost some of that loneliness. My heart didn’t feel as bleak. I had people to talk to, things to look forward to, a whole slate of obligations to keep me busy, to keep me surrounded by the joy and laughter of others. I found God’s house welcoming and comforting. But I didn’t find God. I was a fraud, masquerading as a believer so I could have that one thing church offered me — a social network.

I’m by nature not a very social person but at that time in my life I needed interaction to keep myself going. Without the masses filled with people, without the mother’s group and the youth group and the various other obligations I made for myself within the church, I would have no reason to get out of bed. I had spurned most of my friends’ well meaning efforts to get me out of the house because they wanted me to talk about it. They wanted me to tell them all the details, to rehash my marriage. I think most of them wanted to know what went wrong so they could either avoid the same pitfalls or feel some kind of kinship with me. But I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to expose the very things I was trying to keep inside. At church functions, we talked about our lives, but in a very skim-the-surface way. No one dug into my life. No one wanted my dirty laundry. We talked about our favorite grocery stores and the rigors of kindergarten and what colors the flowers on the altar should be. I found a home where I was comfortable. But I didn’t belong there and I knew it. I started to feel guilty about it and began to ease out of the only place I felt a sense of belonging.

I skipped one Sunday mass and then another. I asked another mother to take over the group. I resigned from the youth group citing time constraints. I stopped showing up to talk to the old ladies on weekdays. It was a relief to stop saying words I didn’t mean and sing songs that rang hollow. I felt an acute sense of guilt — that old Catholic guilt — that I had used the church as a way to keep me from sinking into despair. In essence, I was telling a lie every time I recited the Apostle’s Creed. There was a deep sense of shame when I realized the scope of what I was doing. So I stopped doing it.

I went back to having nothing. No social network, no one to talk to, no life outside of the mental hell I made for myself. I had gone off in search of God and comfort and found only the comfort, with no sign of God. I thought I had found a place where I belonged, but I didn’t really belong after all.

When I left the church, I left part of myself there, the part that was finally healing. I wonder if it was so bad that I had used the church like that. I wonder if there was a god, what he would think.

I have spent a lot of time in the intervening years finding my place, somewhere that offers me the comfort and friendship I found at church. I’ve made a small, eclectic group of friends through the wonders of the internet. I remarried and we have made a warm home for ourselves. I spend a lot of time with my family. I’m content. I am home.

But I’ll never forget my time in the church and the people who welcomed and accepted me, who made me feel whole again. I think about them a lot, I think about that time a lot. I’m sorry I didn’t find God, but I’m not sorry for what I did find there.

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