This is a story from the beginning of my faith journey, or really the beginning of my loss-of-faith journey. I was born and raised Catholic and attended Catholic grade school. I didn’t choose to be Catholic but I really loved it. Loved God, loved Jesus, really bonded with Mary. At that point, I was more of a bit player in my parents’ faith journey. But the first day of my freshman year in high school the whole edifice of the faith they had given me came tumbling down. Here’s how it happened.
As kids we had been taught that God was an old man with a long white beard who lived in heaven. He was our father and loved us but he wanted us to behave in certain ways or we’d go to hell. We went to weekly confession to tell our sins to a priest and I remember being freaked out about coming up with good enough sins and worst crime of all, of lying in confession. So I always added one to my lie total to cover my ass on that one. Anyway, God was our Father and our Judge. Be good and avoid hell. Simple enough.
“I only found my way back to God when I found a community where I felt safe to share my questions, doubts and wounds.”
But the first day of religion class in my all girl Catholic high school was a total reversal of all that. Sister Joan handed out our religion books which looked nothing like our catechism, which had lists of questions and answers we were supposed to memorize. This looked more like a glossy coffee table book with lots of pictures and white spaces on the pages, poems and song lyrics, even quotes from the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Okay, my classmates and I were a little surprised but we were taking it all in. Then Sister had us turn to the first two pages. On one side a very impressionist image filled the page, a suggestion of sky and clouds, pretty but no man with a white beard anywhere to be seen. There were only three words on the facing page, black letters on a white background. They read: God is love.
Sister Joan seemed quite happy to be sharing this good news with us, but we reacted almost uniformly, as if we had been collectively slapped in the face. We were angry. Furious, in fact. We had lots of questions ranging from “Is this true?” to “Why the hell didn’t you tell us sooner?” We felt we had been lied to as children, that our obedience and trust, our willingness to believe the right way and do the right things had been abused. We didn’t learn that day that God is Love but that the people we trusted – our parents, teachers, priests, and nuns – were not worthy of our trust. Sister Joan was clearly at a loss. Nothing she said soothed us or addressed our deep feelings of betrayal. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for everyone in the room.
We took it out on poor Sister Joan and devised terrible ways to torture her all year. One day we decided that every time she said “um”, which was a lot, we would inch our desks closer to the front of the room. Within a half hour or so we had Sister Joan pinned against the blackboard. She fled the room in tears. We felt bad about that but not so bad that we could let her off the hook. We were only too happy to shoot the messenger because the pain we felt was unbearable. We had nowhere to turn for help, because the very people who were supposed to comfort us and nurture our faith were the very ones we had hurt us beyond imagining. It was a very bad day and a horrible year for me and my freshman classmates.
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Before long, God became nothing more for me than a bad idea for misguided people. I became agnostic and spent the next fifteen or twenty years in the wilderness, trying to work out the truth about God, indeed, if there was any truth there to discover at all. The wilderness can be really lonely. I only found my way back to God when I found a community where I felt safe to share my questions, doubts and wounds. Which is what motivates me every day to create a safe space here at Raven for people in the wilderness. Seriously, that God is love should never be bad news or hard to believe. Wherever you are on your faith journey, especially if you are in the loss-of-faith chapters, we hope you can find a place of comfort here and a community you can trust to accompany you wherever your journey takes you.