I have been spiritually lost since eighth grade. In eighth grade, I “graduated” from a Catholic school that I had been attending since I was four years old. I had sat through mass after mass and had said the Our Father, Hail Mary and Pledge of Allegiance every morning for the past 10 years. I had been an angel in the Nativity play and followed the rosary in the chapel. But for all of that Catholicism, I couldn’t articulate one verse from the Bible if my life depended on it. And I still can’t. In eighth grade, a lot happened that made me question my faith and my belief in the Catholic church. First and foremost, September 11, 2001 was a day that I believe shook the faith of every American, regardless of where you spent your time on Saturday or Sunday. Tragedy had struck our country, and many were unsure how God could let something like that happen. I was one of them. Maybe my 13-year-old self just didn’t have the ability to comprehend how political and religious differences, accelerated by extremism, could generate so much hate. At any rate, my faith was already shaken.
The other thing that really shook my faith in the Catholic church specifically, was the scandal that struck the Boston Archdiocese that year. It was all over the news and my parents couldn’t shield me from the now 24 hour news coverage that our country was encouraging. The “leaders” of my church had sinned and had done terrible things to school children and altar servers just like me. But, thankfully, not me and not in my church (at least, as far as we knew). And so again, my faith was shaken. How could I believe in and attend services at an organization that had deliberately hidden reports of sexual abuse and misconduct? They had blatantly ignored reports and simply used reorganization as means of controlling the problem. How could I ever feel safe inside those walls again? I didn’t want those types of men as my spiritual leaders; that was the complete opposite of what I wanted.
And yet, my father still wanted me to commit to the church. He wanted me to complete my confirmation and acknowledge the Catholic church as my church, as my spiritual guide. And I couldn’t. At 14 years old, I knew I couldn’t. I knew it was not something I wanted. And so I fought it, casually. We were in the middle of a move to Maine and so I conveniently no longer had a church or parish to call my own. And I put it off, and put it off, and put if off. For years.
And during those years, my high school teachers provided perspectives that I had never had before. I was no longer at a Catholic school and so I no longer felt anchored to something I couldn’t really believe in. I had teachers that explained that the Bible was a library of books written by men, and the occasional woman. But that a council of church leaders in Nicaea had decided what was actually going to be in the Bible for mass consumption. And so more doubt crept in, and as I learned more about evolution and more about science and more about the history of the world, I began to question more and more of what it was that I believed in. I had one teacher, one fabulous teacher, named Dr. Jones. Dr. Jones was an English teacher, but he taught us about the Bronze Age and the Druids and the Vikings and the many belief systems that those early people adhered to and how they found faith in the gods of nature. And more and more my eyes opened to alternate ways of looking at the world and of thinking about faith and what to believe. And I was left feeling free and informed, but more confused than ever.
I stopped calling myself a Catholic in college. I started using the phrase “I was raised Catholic but…” and I realized that a lot of other people at my college used that phrased as well. We had all strayed and hadn’t yet found something to replace it. And with the college life being as busy as it was, I found little time to contemplate my religious affiliation and found that I didn’t need it at the time to define myself. I was finding all kinds of other ways to define myself and religion wasn’t a big part of that. And then my father passed away. And I thought, for a very short moment, that I needed to go back to church. That I needed to “come home” as they say. “Catholics can always come home.” But that thought was swiftly snuffed out by the fact that I still couldn’t find something to hold on to in the Catholic church. Nothing drew me back.
And so, when I immediately entered grad school the following year, I was no closer to defining what I believed in. One day during my Student Development course, my professor posed the question: “what do you believe in?” to the class and she started pointing at my classmates. I started silently praying, ironically, that she wouldn’t call on me (to who I was praying, I don’t know). I had no idea what I would say. The only somewhat truthful answer I could muster was Mother Nature and I wasn’t completely sure about that. But as she called on my classmates, they, fervently and without reservation, called out Jesus Christ, Allah, the Holy Spirit, and my Lord God Almighty. I was dumbfounded and more afraid that I didn’t understand my own faith than ever before. This conversation in class had stemmed from our reading about college students experiencing what the author had termed a shipwreck or a loss in faith of everything they had always believed. The idea that they no longer knew what was true and what was not. A shipwreck can wreak havoc on a college student’s education and experience, often brought about by interactions with those who have beliefs different from their own. As a student affairs professional, I would need to know how to help students through this crisis. How on earth was I going to be able to do that when I clearly had been experiencing my own form of a shipwreck for the last eight years of my life? I was at a loss.
Then, sometime before Winter Break that year, I decided that I would believe in doing the right thing and being a good person, and that some form of karma was what made the world go round. It was nothing formal, but I realized that I had to place my faith in something. I realized I clearly needed to define my own moral compass and my own belief in how I should live my life if no organized religion was going to provide that for me.
I have continued to use that type of belief to live my life. And almost every time I go home to visit my mom, we have a conversation about faith and how I don’t know what I believe in specifically. And I think for the most part, she is okay with that (she was never Catholic, so it’s not like I snubbed her faith). And almost every time we talk, she shares the beliefs of my grandfather. She always tells me that he used to say that he never felt more connected to God then when he was out in his canoe fishing in the middle of nowhere. He didn’t believe that his connection to God was held within the walls of the church, but was more evident in the wide open spaces of the natural world. And that gives me comfort. My grandfather was also a Mason and his beliefs generated from that organization were focused on service and being a good member of society. And that makes me feel like I am on to something; that my beliefs are valid and connect me to my past.
I also have a name for my beliefs now. I am a humanist. And there are many others like me; something I never knew before to be fact. I am not alone. I am not alone in not believing in organized religion. I am not alone thinking that it is really hard to believe in creationism when science poses contrary evidence. I am not alone in thinking that man-made faith too easily falls victim to greed, power and extremism. And while I continue to learn more about Humanism and what it means to follow that path, I believe that my shipwreck is finally washing ashore. That I will soon be able to mend my ship, board by board, and set sail toward living my life in a way I can be proud of.
I don’t begrudge people of faith. I envy them. I envy their courage and sure-footedness in a concept I find so elusive. But I am no longer drifting at sea unsure of my heading. I have my direction and I have found something to believe in: humanity and its ability to surprise, encourage and heal.