My mom was raised a Catholic. So initially, I was, too.
Catholicism was never the best fit for her soft and malleable spirit, and instead of leading her to profound truths and realizations, it led her to worry, guilt, and fear. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it fanned those flames already within her. But that intentional spiritual seeking–the one that really has you digging deep–seems to most often take place later in life. And at seventeen she was far too busy with other things. Things like finishing high school and navigating the new waters of both motherhood and marriage. They kept her far too occupied to spend much time, if any, exploring whether or not she and her religion were well-matched. That would come later, when the demands of homework and diapers weren’t quite so pressing.
So, in the tradition of her family, the Catholic Church baptized me, and I made my first communion properly attired in the pearly white of the innocent.
Then I turned nine and we made the loooong move from Rhode Island to Connecticut. While only an hour in distance, it was apparently far enough from her roots that my mom felt she had the freedom to contemplate her religious direction. Our Sundays became a series of testing one church after another; some visits lasted for years before we’d pack up and begin the search again. But we always moved on, because nothing seemed to satisfy my parents. I’m guessing that nothing felt like home, or offered the answers that they sought.
Wafers & Juice
I may have been young, but I was never attached to a single one of those churches. All I remember was fighting to stay awake during sermons, hoping it was a Sunday that the wafers and juice would be passed around. That, at least, broke up the monotony. I liked the singing, but not enough to make me like the church. And Sunday school? I know the teachers meant well, but I learned next to nothing about Jesus and God that I could carry with me through those tough teenage years ahead. And I could never be sure which was worse–suffering through a sermon, or suffering through a class with my unruly peers.
I do remember one moment, just one, sometime in my late teens, when God made His presence known to me within the walls of a church. It was on a Christmas Eve; the lights were low and the candles were lit. The organist was playing softly in the balcony. The pews were full and the small country church resonated with voices lifted in song. I remember standing up to leave and walking down the aisle as an enormous wave of peace broke over me. And I had only one thought: this is God. This. Only this.
Burn in Hell
I did subconsciously internalize a lot of religious doctrine throughout the years. The beliefs were merely pasted on, though, never really mine. Never of my own deliberate choosing. I remember one particular conversation with my brother when we were younger; I have no idea how old we were, but he was in a phase where he was questioning. Now I see that as a healthy and necessary place for most of us, but at the time all I could do was feel absolute horror. If he didn’t believe in God, then after death we wouldn’t be together. He may even burn in hell. The idea was horrifying to me, and somehow unfair. And the fear of fiery brimstone was enough to make me never want to test God. Failure wasn’t just failure. Failure was eternal suffering. And who would be crazy enough to risk that?
I don’t remember ever finding a church that we stuck it out with and through the years I became more and more disillusioned. The growing awareness of the rampant sexual abuse by priests was an especially horrific blow. But things hit a peak after I had had Taylor and I was looking to find a church that would baptize her. Because that’s what good parents do. If you don’t want your baby to languish in purgatory, I mean. And what I found was that no one would do it. No one. Even though Scott and I didn’t belong to a church we were still able to hire a minister to marry us. But when it came to baptizing, we couldn’t find a willing soul anywhere.
Sins Of The Fathers
Which, honestly, infuriated me. My feelings at the time were this: if a servant of God had the power to baptize, and thus save, a child from being denied Heaven, shouldn’t they be more than happy to be of service to each and every innocent child born? But because we weren’t members of the congregation, the sins of the father were to be visited on the daughter? It seemed so, so wrong to me, and my discontent only deepened.
The more disillusioned I became, the more I started to doubt all that I’d been taught. I’d always believed in God; from my very first memories, God was always there. Always. I remember having silent conversations constantly with Her. And while I’m not sure if Her replies were real or imagined, She answered me just the same. Despite the struggles, I never lost my faith in this Something that was always watching out for me. Somehow God stayed safe from my increasing doubts, but unfortunately, Jesus wasn’t quite so lucky.
And it pretty much broke my heart. Because I wanted to believe more than anything, but if I felt I’d been deceived already, what’s to say that the story of Jesus wasn’t also a fabrication of the church? It was a constant battle, one without any comforting answer. Sadly, the church–any church–telling me that Jesus was real just wasn’t enough anymore. It seemed too good to be true. A human, this brave? For his fellow humans? I wasn’t about to fall for another Santa Claus ruse. So I tucked him safely away in my heart and went about the business of living, all the while hoping that one day I’d find my way back to believing again.
Cue The Indian Guru
The funny thing is, it wasn’t until I found my Indian guru, who not only praised but deeply loved Jesus, that I found my way back. Yoganandaji was someone who had earned my trust, carefully. With each piece of guidance offered, I had received, tested, and confirmed what I was shown. He never asked me to blindly believe, but to use the reason that God had blessed me with and see for myself if what he taught was true. And with each confirmation (such as his teaching of giving kindness unconditionally, which I’ve written about here), the trust grew, and my heart told me that this was someone with no personal gain at stake. With no ulterior motive, save one: to lead me back Home. And just like that, the story of Jesus became my story again.
But this time my relationship with Jesus was different. Without fear as the foundation, my love grew exponentially. And I had to know more; I had to know everything. No longer was I satisfied with the Bible’s short passages of his death; I wanted details. The need to understand what it actually was that he’d had to sacrifice and endure was overwhelming. I didn’t want glossy stories; I had to hear the truth, with all of its ugliness and cruelty. In a world where we cry over and seek to avoid the slightest discomfort, what had Jesus willingly endured? Thy will be done carried to the most extreme, all the while holding love steady in his heart.
Anne Catherine Emmerich
I reasoned that if we have copious writings on so many of the saints, even centuries later, then surely there must be more on Jesus. And in my never-ending search for inspirational literature, I was led to The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich. After it arrived, Jordan picked it up, thumbed through, and started reading randomly from a page. She quickly shut it in horror, slapped the book back down on the table, and refused to open it again. Unfortunately, she’d opened directly to the scourging, and her repulsion ensured that to this day, no one in this house but me has read the book. But her immediate, panicky reaction told me that the book probably held the secrets that I sought. I took a deep breath, steeled myself…and dove in.
The book was exactly what I had been praying for. It put me in the world as it stood two thousand years ago. I’m not sure what to make of the demons and the angels and the rising of the dead from Limbo, but none of that matters to me. It isn’t what I was seeking. What I was seeking was to make Jesus human, and then understand exactly what it was that he agreed to. It wasn’t a whipping, it was a brutal scourging, almost to the brink of death. It wasn’t a carrying of the cross, but the painful and continued torture of this wooden weight on a body mangled by man. And it wasn’t only a death, it was an unspeakably barbaric crucifixion.
A Million Times More Beautiful
But also this: it wasn’t only love, but continued and sustained prayer for these humans who had only savagery to offer him. It wasn’t only faith, but complete surrender to a trial that would break even the bravest of men. It wasn’t only compassion, it was forgive them, for they know not what they do, after inconceivable cruelty. And with each page, his love became bigger and broader and a million times more beautiful. This was the Jesus that I wanted to know. And this was the Jesus that I wanted to believe in.
I reread The Dolorous Passion before Easter each year now. I try to time his resurrection within its pages with Easter Sunday in the world. It’s comforting, especially after getting through the nightmarish story that is Good Friday. It’s a necessary reminder; it keeps me and my goals in check. If Jesus was willing to sacrifice his life for God, I need to be wiling to sacrifice the little (the minuscule, even) that God asks of me. Jesus is my constant reminder to be tough, and strong, and steadfast; but more importantly, to also be kind, and selfless, and loving. Love each other as I have loved you.
Just Get Home
While drafting this post up I realize there’s the very real possibility that someone misinterprets this story of mine as an attack on the Catholic Church, or on any church. But it’s not. Any religion that can lead so many to God has my respect. And Catholcism produced some of the humans that I admire most: St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Bernadette Soubirous. And on any given day just the mere thought of St. Teresa of Ávila can instantly re-balance me and re-kindle devotion. I’m just of the mindset that religion isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. And in the end, I don’t think God cares what road you take Home, just as long as you get there.
So, my final thoughts are this: No, I actually don’t hate chocolate-covered eggs. I guess if I were to hate anything, it would be that somehow candy stole the spotlight on a day that means so much more. And while I’m not trying to take the fun out of it for small children everywhere, I can’t help but wonder how, once again, humans have managed to take a day meant to honor love, selflessness, and sacrifice, and somehow turned it into greed, competition, and overindulgence.
I’m just thinking that maybe the Easter Bunny should be renamed and given a day all his own to celebrate the oddity of a giant rabbit who lays chocolate eggs. We can call it Dentist Appreciation Day. Just a thought.
Wishing you all a very happy Easter. Much love from our house to yours. xoxo