This is me wrestling with God: on family, faith, and doubt

“Jacob Wrestles with the Angel” by Gustave Doré – Doré’s English Bible. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

So, here’s a family myth: my mother and grandmother were sitting in the kitchen talking, and little toddler-me was playing in the living room when they suddenly hear me talking. They peak around the corner between the kitchen and living room to see me looking up into empty air, as if an adult is standing over me, saying “Jesus” and having a full conversation with an invisible figure. Clearly, I could see something my family could not.

My mother also used to tell stories of how even as an infant, I would laugh and cry simultaneously whenever we entered a church. She told these stories often when I was young, with a mingled tone of amusement, teasing, and pride. She always seemed torn between feeling the absurdity of her own stories and wanting to believe I really did have some special sense of religiosity, of faith.

My mother’s side of the family is very religious, Roman Catholic and conservative to be precise. My grandfather was active in the church and taught CCD (Sunday school), my grandmother volunteered to at monastery near her house, helping with cleaning and cooking on weekends. One of my aunts worked as an administrator for the diocese. And my mother, though she worked full time as a Marine Corps officer, volunteered as the choir director of the base we lived near.

From the time I was born, until I was fourteen, I was raised by a devout Catholic to be a devout Catholic. My brother and I spent every Wednesday evening and all Saturday and Sunday in the church. During choir practice, I would sit in the pews and do homework. One of the priests would throw a football in the aisles with my brother. Though I was young, I often got along better with adults than children my own age, and I became very good friends with the choir’s organist, Miss Anne (it was always Miss Anne, not because she cared about formality, but because my mother did). I joined the choir, the only ten-year-old among twenty or so adults, and sang every Saturday evening and Sunday morning Mass. Our whole lives revolved around Easter Holy Week and Christmas preparations. I was obsessed with hagiography (the stories of Saints’ lives), and had a whole collection of children’s books devoted to my favorite saints. Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music. Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. Saint Bernadette, Our Lady of Lourdes. And so on.

I was very passionate about my faith. I loved being in the Church. I prayed with my rosary constantly. I cried when I thought of Jesus suffering on the Cross. I seriously considered becoming a nun, and gave the option serious weight until the age of sixteen.

In the meantime, however, life was beating up my mother. She went through a bad divorce when I was three and my brother was only six months old, and was left to raise two young children on her own. Though part of her loved being in the Marine Corps, a military career is not kind or even respectful to women, and she was faced constant sexism and stress. My mother started dating again when I was nine, but by the time I was ten, the man she’d fallen in love with had left her to return to his ex-wife. Money was always tight. Being a Marine does not pay well, and we lived paycheck to paycheck, always watching the budget, always nervous and wary. Even years and years later, my mother still got upset when she thought about the things she could not give my brother and me when we were little.

By the time I was twelve, my mother had grown bitter and angry with God and the Church. My whole life, she had been my pillar of faith. My teacher, my model, my guide. We moved from one Marine Corps base to another, and finally my mother resigned her commission and we moved again. By then, I was fourteen, starting high school, and we had stopped going to Church altogether. I was too young to simply go to Mass on my own. And so, while others my age were starting Confirmation classes, preparing to become active adult members of the Catholic Church, I was secretly praying on my own, for fear of angering my mother.

As often happens, my own faith grew dim as I got older. Life beat me up just as it had beat up my mother. I became bitter. I also became very progressive. A liberal, a feminist, and bisexual — all identities that have not traditionally been welcomed or supported by the Catholic Church. I still prayed sometimes. I found a strange comfort in the rosary, like a kind of focused meditation. But it was harder and harder to believe in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. And it was harder and harder to believe in a benevolent God.

“The Victory of Buddha” by Abanindranath Tagore (1914). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I ended up at a Jesuit University for my undergraduate degree, and even minored in Theology. I had always been fascinated by mythology — Greek and Egyptian mostly, but it was during my undergrad that I began to learn about and experiment with other faiths. I have a deep appreciation for Shaivism. But I am most drawn to certain kinds of Buddhism.

I have a small Buddha statue that sits beside my small Mary statue. I meditate with a Buddhist mala in my left hand, and pray with a rosary in right hand.

But I still feel unsure. I still feel abandoned by God, by faith. Filled with doubt, and regret, and anger.

I miss the sense of community to be found in most Christian Churches – everyone knowing everyone else in a congregation, Sunday brunches after Mass, large Christmas and Easter celebrations, singing in a choir, and so on. I miss the sense of certainty. I am envious of those who totally and completely believe what the Church tells them, what the Bible tells them, what they sense about God and religion. Even though I know the dangers of blinding following. Even though I am painfully and personally afflicted by the oppression of which institutionalized religion is uniquely capable. Even though I pride myself on my logic and reasoning, my education and intelligence, my rational and progressive social and political stance. I still wish I could feel that solidity and certainty of unshakeable belief.

Since Pope Francis replaced Benedict, I have slowly regained some optimism about the Catholic Church. Francis is not perfect, of course. The Catholic Church still disappoints me on a regular basis in the way it treats women, and the unmarried, and the LGBT community. But there is hope now. Francis has been more open, more compassionate, and more, dare I say it, progressive that I would have thought possible. So I have started research Catholic Churches in my area. I am looking specifically for a local Catholic Church that considers itself “liberal” or “open-door” or “inclusive,” all terms that generally indicate a more progressive and accepting attitude than the Roman Catholic Church as a whole may provide. I haven’t found a good one yet. I am losing hope again. A friend recommended a Unitarian Church, which tends to be more open and non-denominational. But I don’t know.

I just know I miss the community, and I miss the belief. I am still filled with doubt and anger. I am bitter, and lonely, and depressed, and I am in search of anything – ANYTHING – that may offer me some comfort, some hope. But, though I hope for it and cry for it and struggle toward it, faith still escapes me.

“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” by Alexander Louis Leloir – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a letter written by Emily Dickinson just a month before she died in which she describes herself as “Pugilist and Poet.” I have been struck by this description for years. Scholars often argue about how religious (or not) Emily Dickinson was. So much of her poetry employs religious imagery and allusions, but no one is ever sure if she just liked the imagery or if she really believed in anything she wrote about. But “Pugilist and Poet” cannot help but recall the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, refusing to let go of the angel until it blessed him. I see Emily Dickinson wrestling with God. I see, also, Anne Sexton (one of my all-time favorite poets) rowing toward the island called God in her very last poem, “The Rowing Endeth,” where she arrives broken and blistered and bleeding, and sits down to play poker with God.

This is me then. Playing poker. Wrestling. Fighting to find my footing, my faith, in the midst of this mess that is my life.

Silent Sister


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