If you’re anything like me, the title of this article may have scared you away. Losing religion? Finding faith? Yikes. Religion can be a touchy subject; delicate at best, offensive at worst. Perhaps you’ve had an unfortunate encounter with religion, one that has turned you off. I know I’ve had a few.
I was raised in the Catholic church. My grandparents were devout Catholics. They never missed mass on Sunday, never ate meat on Fridays, and never used the Lord’s name in vain. They read psalms from the pulpit, were eucharistic ministers, and had fonts of holy water next to the entrances into their home. I grew up watching my grandma faithfully pray the rosary. Noticing how well-loved they were by their church community. Knowing how much their faith meant to them. Losing touch with their religion was never an option.
They were good people. They loved their grandchildren wholeheartedly. And I was aware of how deeply they loved the Lord through their practice of prayer, their observance of tradition, and their adherence to ritual. And I wanted that kind of faith for myself. The holy kind that required dedication and piety.
I used to play “communion” the way other kids played “house” or “school.” I would use a dosage cup from the top of a bottle of children’s Tylenol and cut tortillas into wafer-sized circles. Then, I would walk around giving my family the Body of Christ, requiring them to hold out their stacked palms, face-up, and respond with an “Amen.” I couldn’t wait until I could join the ranks of the churchgoers who received communion each Sunday.
I was baptized at the age of 7, which is unusual for a Catholic. Typically one is baptized as an infant. The baby is clothed in white and the baptism represents the cleansing of the original sin into which we are all born. But in hopes that I might have an understanding of the sacrament I was receiving, my parents had waited. I had a private ceremony in a small chapel behind the larger church sanctuary one Sunday after mass. And afterward, I felt different. Special. Transformed. Like I was one step closer to joining the club.
I have a fondness for my upbringing in the Catholic Church. There’s a holiness about the doctrines and tradition of that religious way of life. But I had become so hyper-focused on the means, that the end seemed to be slipping farther away. I could recite and respond properly, but a personal relationship with the One I was praying to was not at the center of my faith. I was an actor on a stage, not a participant in a relationship.
Cracks in the Foundation
When I was a teen, I joined a youth group led by a forward-thinking youth pastor. When he prayed, he spoke to God as a loving Father, rather than an unseen entity, and it had an impact on me. While I was busy learning to be a good Catholic girl, I had missed the biggest piece of the equation; my devotion fell flat because I wasn’t really buying into the truth of it all. I thought I was only worthy if I followed the steps correctly and flawlessly. The resilience of the religious rock I had been standing on crumbled like sand under my feet.
For a while, I felt tainted by judgment, in one form or another, from the Catholic Church. And it soured my general attitude toward the religion in which I was brought up. Suddenly, the rules I had spent my formative years practicing felt like a self-inflicted punishment.
I floated from church to church. I tried a non-denominational Christian church and then a Lutheran church after that. I’ve been back to a Catholic mass a time or two since, but I felt kicked out of the club. I felt like I was losing my religion, and I wasn’t sure how to get it back.
Faith Vs. Fear
It wasn’t until I had children of my own that my desire–or desperation, really–to give them a sense of something bigger than themselves reemerged. We had been wanderers for long enough, and I wanted them to be firm in their faith. But I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to teach them. I’d lost my footing long ago.
I enrolled my son in a Christian preschool where he learned about Jesus through sweet prayers and songs from godly teachers. He came home excited to tell me all about it, and I was proud of him. He probably knew more Bible stories at the age of three than I did as an adult.
Except I didn’t know what to do with his newfound awareness. Sure, I could teach him a whole host of prayers I had memorized, but praying from my heart, much less talking openly and comfortably about God in any capacity, felt too awkward. I addressed the Lord with formalities; we were hardly on a first-name basis. So I dropped it like a hot potato and let the teachers do the work of forming my son’s faith for me.
Coincidence or Providence?
One day, on the school playground after dropping my son off at kindergarten, I met another mom. She was friendly and approachable. She told me her husband was a pastor at a local church. That alone made me a little nervous. She was going to see right through me. Could she tell that I was an ex-churchgoer? That I had flunked out of church? That I had lost my religion years ago?
But instead, she invited us to come to their Christmas Eve service. And, although it was against my introverted, religiously-skeptical nature, we went. And then we went to the Easter service a few months later.
Instead of genuflecting, kneeling, and reciting prayers, people in this church sang worship songs with the rock band, threw their hands up into the air in praise, and murmured “Amens” when they were inspired by the pastor’s words. I felt uncomfortable at first. Like I was in a foreign country.
Memories of younger me, slouched down in the pew and red with embarrassment rattled my brain. My mom used to root through her purse for her checkbook in the middle of the priest’s sermon, and I dreaded the attention it would draw to us. Papers crinkling and crackling, keys clanking onto the floor, interrupting the silence. I would brace myself for the disapproving side glances from people nearby while she fished out a check to put in the offering basket.
But here, I felt like I could relax a bit.
Come As You Are
No one was judging me for my behavior. No one was even looking at me at all. I could sit and soak up the pastor’s message, really hear it, without worrying I might miss the phrase for the responsorial psalm or forget to kneel at the right moment.
And the more I listened, the more I felt loved and seen by God. The more I realized that it was never about religion in the first place. What good is religion if instead of bringing you closer to the God you believe in, it pushes you farther away? I want to be clear here. I’m not blaming my distance from God on my upbringing, my religion, or the Catholic Church. I have many Catholic friends of strong faith who have a deeply personal relationship with God.
But I had become too snared in the wires of perfection within my particular religion to untangle myself and set my sights on finding God in places other than the inaccessible pedestal where I’d assumed He belonged.
So, I guess you could say that losing my religion was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it helped me find my faith. And it allowed me to be open to new ways of expressing my faith.
Loss = Gain
I’m still learning. I’m still gaining spiritual muscle when it comes to pushing the awkwardness aside and praying out loud from my heart with my children as witnesses. They’re happy to tell me the stories and lessons from their Sunday school classrooms and I’m working on reframing what I know and how I know that it is true and real. I ask a lot of questions; questions I was afraid to ask before because it would prove how little I understood.
And I’m trying to speak up. Trying to own and give voice to what I believe even when I feel intimidated, or when my words don’t sound practiced and perfect. Or when I feel like my knowledge isn’t deep enough to prove what I know to be true.
It makes me feel vulnerable and unsure, but I think that I’ll get there. And I think I’ll continue to draw closer to Him in the process.
Because God doesn’t need me to be perfect. He doesn’t need me to be well-rehearsed. And He can still use me in my imperfect, awkward state. Maybe you’ve lost religion, too. Maybe religion has turned you off, even failed you. But in every loss, there is room for gain. For finding something better. Or finding a different way of expression. I hope you know that you’re enough, and that faith doesn’t require perfection, only that you’ll lean in a little and trust in God, who wants you just as you are.
You never wanted perfect, You just wanted my heart.Cory Asbury, “The Father’s House”
Another great read on this topic from The We Spot’s Rebecca Dollard: Easter Sunday: When the Faith of Your Childhood Feels Like a Broken Hallelujah
And also, by The We Spot’s Lindsay Bohlinger: Navigating My Husband’s Job Loss: God’s Way of Answering Prayers
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of The We Spot, it’s employees, sponsors, or affiliates.