Losing My Religion
“Describe your past and current relationship with Christianity.”
The interviewer is pulling out the big guns straight from the gate, and it takes me several days to figure out how to even begin to respond to her in less than a short memoir, never mind the 100 word limit she has prescribed. It’s a difficult question, but a good one. Largely because it’s a question I have been turning over in my own mind for the last handful of months.
The simple answer is that I am a Christian. And in looking back from where I sit now, I am quite certain I always have been.
The more complicated question, it turns out, is what is my relationship to the church?
* * *
I’ve been sitting on this post for some time. There are some obvious reasons for that. I am back to working full-time-plus, which puts a drain on my available after-hours energy. I try to preserve some of that energy for a regular asana practice and a semi-regular cardio practice of walk/runs and spin class. After those things, I often find I don’t have much in the reserve tank to sit down and write to you in the ways I would prefer.
Another reason, which I have not discussed much here, is that I am officially back in school. My weekends, and the evenings when I can find the motivation, are quickly filled with tackling assignments and its such a lovely thing to be doing. But it also saps my available time.
And then there is the obvious reason I am posting less than I was a year ago that I had never really considered before. One a friend pointed out to me over coffee a few weeks ago. “You’re out living life now,” he said, “not just writing about it.” Amen.
But there is also the reason that I almost hate to admit. Part of me is nervous about this post. Because its sure to tweak some readers. Its sure to draw some criticism. It might even cause some hurt. But at the end of the day, our truth is our truth and if I have learned nothing else over the course of the last sixteen months, its that the truth was meant to be spoken.
* * *
Most of you know my faith journey has been a winding and circuitous one. Born Catholic, I was the middle schooler who checked out library books written by rabbis when I seemed unable to find space to ask the questions that plagued me among the priests I was taught by. I spent time among the Jesuits as an undergrad, and through them my understanding of who Christ called us to be deepened. For the first time, I found myself surrounded by priests (and one truly remarkable sister) who placed an emphasis on actions and living in the image of Christ rather than on the rote memorization of liturgy and showing up for one hour on Sundays.
After college, and largely due to a sermon delivered by a visiting Jesuit, I gave up on religion. I tried on both the label “atheist” and “agnostic” over the next small handful of years, but neither ever fit. Because despite the questions that continued to plague my mind regarding the opinions held by the Catholic Church, I unquestionably believed in – and felt connected to – God.
It was finally my Rabbi who gave me the desperately sought after permission slip to question. To wonder. To argue. To challenge. He handed me the key to an active and participatory relationship with the wisdom texts and in doing so guided me back into a space that I had determined was not meant for me. I converted to Judaism excitedly. Ready to steep in the rich historical tradition of the Jewish people and to cultivate an active and ongoing relationship with the Torah and the Talmud. And with Adonai.
I remember sitting on her bed just a few weeks after I went to the mikvah. “What do you do about the whole Jesus thing?” she asked. I shrugged the question off. But it bothered me, even then. Because I was fairly certain that Jesus was who he claimed to be. And if that was the case, didn’t that preclude me from being a Jew?
But I felt like a Jew in my bones. Being a Jew felt more right than being a Catholic ever had.
I tried to ignore this contradiction for quite some time as I learned Hebrew, sang the prayers, and became the best baker of rugulach this side of the Mississippi (as proclaimed by my Rabbi himself). But with each kosher cookie I nibbled in the temple basement on Shabbat evenings, it nagged at me.
What about that Jewish carpenter?
* * *
Sometimes I wish I had attended a college that had a Greek system. Loyola had its own brand of social structure, but fraternities and sororities weren’t part of that. I wonder if it would have made making friends a bit easier for this painfully shy introvert. I wonder if I would have spent less weekend evenings alone in the dorms. I wonder if I would have found my best friend sometime before junior year.
But if I’m honest, I know the Greek system would have wrecked me. I can see from here that my lack of a solid familial community created in me a deep desire to find a community – a family – in any system that would have me. Being discriminating was never a strong suit for me - I just took whatever I could get. So I am sure I would have pledged and would have been grateful to be accepted anywhere and in the process of that would have been willing to do quite anything the sisters asked me to do. And based on what I’ve heard, some of these things would have been quite ugly. But I’d have done them. To fit in.
I’ve tried to seek out community in all kinds of places. In romantic relationships that weren’t a good fit. In workplaces. In community organizations. I’ve tried to find community in friend groups and on discussion boards. And in a wide array of churches and temples. Becoming a chameleon became second nature to me. I could change into anything if it meant finally finding my community.
It has never been a successful search.
* * *
“What made you go back to Christianity?” she asked as we waited on the whistle of the kettle.
She is a Jewish friend. One that I have deep, long, rambling conversations with. She asks the good questions, the ones that go below the surface answer. She makes me think.
I tell her that in the end I discovered issues with Judaism like I had with Catholicism. I discovered I didn’t really fit there. And I tell her that ultimately, I couldn’t just ignore the whole “Jesus thing”, because I believed he was who he said he was and I wanted to live as he lived. And in the end, that did, in fact, make me a Christian.
So I took my permission slip to question and tried to sneak back into the Catholic Church with it. And when that didn’t seem to work, I tried to quietly deposit myself in the midst of nondenominational Christianity. And that didn’t work either. Because I never fit. It always seemed I asked too many questions. And I treated God more like a bestie than someone to be feared. Because if the fact I had at one time been a Jew didn’t raise some eyebrows, any number of my other beliefs quickly would.
But I kept trying. Me and my stubborn desire to belong kept wandering, presumably in search of a place where I could really connect to God.
Until I final grew weary of all that traveling.
* * *
“I think you don’t go back,” he said as he picked at his muffin. “At least not for awhile.”
This wasn’t the advice I was expecting from my spiritual director when I came to him with my current struggle with church. We decided that I would take a few months and focus on messages delivered from some of my teachers via podcast. That I would reconnect to my prayer practice. That I would spend more time walking in silence.
That I would not go back to church. Any church. At least not for some time.
This seemed a terrifying proposition for a little while. It had been nearly a decade since I had not gone to some place of worship on a regular basis. Since I had not been a member of some particular tribe. That first Sunday, it felt foreign and uncomfortable to wander in the early morning light talking to God, listening to Father Richard in my pajamas, playing worship music in my kitchen. Surely someone was going to catch me. I braced myself for the lightening bolt God was sure to send down when He realized my booty was not in a church seat that morning.
That lightening bolt never came.
But as the weeks went on, another one did. The one that made me realize that through all this wandering – all this searching – I was never seeking God. I was seeking a community. I was seeking a sense of belonging. I was waiting to wander into the faith community that would accept me, quirks and questions and legwarmers and all, and tell me I had finally come home.
I was seeking something I would never find.
Not in those spaces so many deem sacred.
* * *
I am now several months out from that organized religion hiatus. And in that space I came to realize the most important thing of all.
That I was never searching for God.
I think in some ways, that is part of what He was showing me in the time I was going through chemotherapy. I rarely entered a church during that time, but He and I, we got super close. I don’t need to go anywhere at any particular time to find Him. And part of me always knew that.
I’ve come to believe that I have always believed Christ was who he claimed to be. But I also connect to God through others – through Durga and Mary Magdeline. Through St. Francis and Ganesha. Through the tall crooked tree in my back yard that seems to watch over Hope and I – the tree that told me buy this particular house. I believe that each of these members of my matrix of support offers me a unique way to reach God. And I don’t think any of that precludes me from calling myself a Christian.
Through this hiatus I have discovered that my problem all these years has never actually been with God. But with the churches, the temples, the organized religions that pit their members against other religions. As if only one of them can be right. As if somewhere up in the sky feuding gods are keeping a tally of who has more in their camp on a given day. With the organized religions that create scales of who is more worthy that who. Those who pick and choose which words on the wisdom texts they will rely on to achieve a sense of superiority over others they deem less than, other, worse.
As I pondered the question sent over by the interviewer I came to the realization that after all this searching, wandering, praying, and striving to belong, I have finally lost my religion.
But I have found real connection to the Divine.
And that is surely the most beautiful thing of all.