Saturday, May 17, 2008

Finding My Religion

Originally written March 20, 2008

We enter the dark sanctuary of Stanford’s large chapel and I am immediately struck by its gilded ceilings and marble altar. While the décor is beautiful it seems baroque compared to the understated facades of Stanford’s Mediterranean style buildings. And it is a far cry from the hippy-style Newman Center that I left behind in Chapel Hill. We enter a pew towards the back of the church and I gratefully settle into the hard wooden bench. My mind and body are still reeling from a cross-country move completed only a few short days ago. Bill begins his pediatrics residency in a few weeks and I start a new job as well. We are excited at the prospect of starting our life together in our new home, but I feel overwhelmed by yet another change in my life – one too many in what has already been a long year.

Midway through the Mass, my eyes begin to tear. I have no idea what sets me off – the music, the setting, the awareness of my very fragile faith – soon the tears roll down my cheeks uncontrollably as Bill looks on bewildered. It is the second time in a week that I have fallen apart in a place of worship. I have been sick for 18 months and I am filled with anxiety about my future. Now when I enter a church I feel intensely lonely and abandoned. I find no solace here, surrounded by healthy college students anticipating their bright futures. While many of them are likely praying to ace their upcoming exams, I cannot even find enough faith to pray for my life. For the past 6 months, I have not felt like I can ask for God’s mercy. “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” I think. But I don’t want to utter these words. I have no right: there are so many people in the world far sicker than I am. And my faith is so feeble that I feel like a fair weather friend running to God now that I need him. I don’t want to be a hypocrite – doubting God’s ability to intervene in our lives and asking him to do so now that I am desperate. And so my tears fall as I stand here helpless before God.

A week later I fall to pieces standing in the Sonoma Mission. The sanctuary, devoid of pews and completely unadorned, has none of the grandeur of Stanford’s church. There is no priest or choir, no prayers or hymns to touch my heart – just me and my husband in an empty room. The tears race down my cheeks and once again my stoic husband looks at me quizzically, wondering why I am suddenly so labile. Even with him present, I feel completely alone. My illness has given me a sense of isolation unlike any I have ever known. Intellectually, I know there are other young adults facing their mortality, but I don’t happen to know any. So it feels as if no one could possibly understand the mix of emotions that have taken up residence in my heart. While my husband certainly endures the ups and downs of my illness, the fear of being left behind differs vastly from the fear of leaving before I am ready.

I cannot help but notice that I have fallen apart three times in less than 2 weeks in three different places of worship. My faith is so worn away from years of higher education, a logical mind, and simple doubt. My head has no need for God, but my heart wants the blind faith of my childhood desperately.


I am a cradle Catholic, raised by a devotedly religious mother who attended daily Mass for much of her life. As if my mother’s indoctrination was not sufficient, I also attended 12 years of Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In fact, that still was not enough for my mother. The summer after third grade, she even sent me to CCD classes where the public school kids went to learn about the Catholic religion. On the first day of CCD, we learned the 10 commandments. I was already well-versed in the ten commandments by this time and I remember putting my head on the desk and thinking that it was going to be a long summer.
Falling away from faith was a gradually process. A began questioning religion at an early age. When I was in third grade, my teacher drew three large circles on the blackboard. She colored one in with white chalk. She also colored in the second circle with white chalk and left a few dark spots. She left the third circle black. “Boys and girls,” she began, “these three circles are like souls in different states of grace.” Apparently, the pure white circle was a soul without sin. The soul with a few black spots was a soul with just some venial, or minor, sins, like lying to your mom. The last soul was a soul with the dreaded mortal sin, such as missing Mass. The teacher than assured us that if we were to die with our soul in such a state that we would, indeed, go directly to hell with not so much as a pit stop in purgatory. This is how Catholics teach “the fear of God.” I sat in my desk and pondered this newly imparted bit of wisdom. I raised my hand, “So you mean if you have been a good person your whole life and you happen to get hit by a car on Monday after missing Mass on Sunday, you are going to hell?” The teacher assured me that, under such a scenario, the lifetime of good behavior was of no relevance. Had I known the word “bullshit” at that point in my life, I feel certain that I would have uttered it under my breath.

It did not end in the third grade. Throughout my Catholic school experience I was taught similarly outrageous things. In my freshman religion class, our instructor, an ancient nun who probably went into the convent at age 13, informed us that we were responsible if our parents divorced. Someone raised their hand and asked, “What if you were a baby when they divorced.” “Well,” the little nun replied, “You must have cried too much.” Truth be told, my freshman and sophomore religion classes were more like comedy hours. I have long since forgotten the name of the nuns but their images remain vivid in my memory. One had the habit of putting each of her hands in the opposite sleeve and peering over her glasses. With her white curls peeking out from under her habit, she would scan the room with a serious glance before spouting out some idiotic non-sequiter. “Girls, there are atheists among us,” she warned while she grew increasingly hysterical, “They will try to tempt you girls, but don’t let them. Don’t let them.” The same nun once gave us a long speech directed at preserving our virtue, “Girls are you like the beautiful shoe that one has to ask permission to try on or are you like the shoe on the bargain rack that anyone can come in and try on and does what he pleases with?” I think my fellow classmates and I spent the entire year alternating between stunned silence and suppressed hysteria.

Even the sensible nuns could not explain religion or morals. My senior religion class was taught by a nun that I adored. I had served on student government since my freshman year and she had been our faculty moderator. We had spent inordinate amounts of time together for the previous three years and the adoration was mutual. Senior religion class was a last ditch effort to get us on the Catholic bandwagon. Naturally, sex was a big topic. In one class, Sister Michael Ann led a discussion of why sex was a sin. I give her a lot a credit. Trapped in a room with 30 horny high school girls and faced with the charge of persuading us to reject our culture was no easy task. I, like most of my high school friends, was a “good girl.” I think maybe one guy had managed to touch my breasts at this point but sex was not even a remote possibility. Still, I just couldn’t follow Sister’s reasoning, “But Sister, if sin is a failure to love and you love someone and they love you AND you are willing to accept the consequences of you actions, why is sex a sin?” My friend Alycia told me years later that, with that question I had single-handedly convinced her that premarital sex was not a sin, condemning me to hell for all eternity no doubt for leading an innocent astray. Sister Michael Ann returned my gaze and conceded, “Because that is what the church teaches.” I wonder if she knew that we were all goners.

Despite all my religious indoctrination, I just couldn’t accept all the tenets of my religion. In my early twenties I decided to go church shopping. My first experience was at a non-denominational “Bible church.” At communion they passed around a tray of Kool-Aid in dixie cups. I couldn’t deal with the lack of ritual (or alcohol for that matter), so I moved on. I tried several other churches and none felt right. I have to admit that I loved the Unitarian service that I attended. The entire homily focused on the joy of mediocrity, which contrasted nicely with the last sermon I had heard at the Newman Center pushing us toward perfection. But try as I might to leave the Roman Catholic Church, my church shopping merely led my to the discovery that I was inescapably culturally Catholic. I attended an undergraduate where 45% of the student population was Jewish. Without even trying, most of my friends ended up being fellow Catholics. We never met at church, we all just seemed to have built in Catholic detectors. I should have realized then that I could no more stop being Catholic than I could stop being female.


A few months into my illness, my friend Theresa remarked, “You must be so angry.” I considered the comment briefly but found that anger was not among the many emotions that my illness evoked. “Who’s there to be angry at?” I replied, “It’s not like it’s anyone’s fault. I could be angry at God, but I don’t think he did this to me.” I honestly didn’t believe that God had sentenced me to my situation. Throughout my illness, my mom has insisted that God had chosen me for a reason. But I could never believe that. I just cannot imagine that God is somehow manipulating us like puppets on strings.

Somehow in my mind the corollary to “God didn’t do this to me” is that “God can not undo it.” It seemed somehow hypocritical to absolve him of responsibility but assume that he could intervene after the fact. I found that I simply couldn’t ask God to take it away. “Why should he relieve my suffering,” I thought, “There are so many people suffering far worse fates than I am.” I felt that I had no right to ask God to spare me. And so, I never did.

Then it occurred to me one day that even Jesus asked God to take away his fate, his cross. And surely, if Jesus could ask, so could I. That night I prayed to the God in whom I believe just a little but hopefully enough. I thanked him for the lessons of my illness. I acknowledged that others were suffering far worse than I and that I had no right to ask but I asked him anyway, “Please, make me well again.” In the following months, an elbow wound that I had endured for four years healed thanks to the concern and advice of two nurses. My pulmonary function also improved by 20% after I committed to an exercise routine.

But the question of whether God answers prayers is a quagmire. If God answers prayers, why does he answer some but not others. I was thinking of this one night while cooking dinner. I just couldn’t accept that God answered prayers because he clearly doesn’t answer all of them and it’s hard to have good feelings about a guy who only performs miracles selectively.
For whatever reason, I thought about a young girl who emailed me four years ago. She had seen my name listed as a contact person for a ministry for mothers at my church. In her message, she explained that she was 5 months pregnant and had moved to NC with a young man who was not the father of the baby. The young man had decided, after the move, that he did not want to continue his relationship with her. She was hundreds of miles from her family, jobless, and soon-to-be homeless. “Can you help me?” she asked.

I spent the next several days calling agencies trying to find her housing. I called the parish, which offered her some maternity clothes. This really pissed me off; what’s all this bullshit about being pro-life and you offer a homeless pregnant girl maternity clothes and nothing else? It didn’t take long to figure out that the only viable option in NC was a homeless shelter.
I spoke with my husband and suggested that she live with us. I conceded that we didn’t know her but that I just didn’t feel like I could send her to a homeless shelter. He agreed to meeting her and making a decision then. Upon meeting her I knew that we had to take her in and help her get on her feet. Yes, she had made a series of unfortunate choices, but she was young and good at heart. In her desperate eyes I saw the eyes of my own daughter. So we took her in. People told me I was crazy, but I kept thinking, “When I was homeless you opened your door.” I had to take her in.

Sandra had told me that she went to my parish that day for the first time to pray for help. She saw the ad and hoped it was her answer. Now years later I realize that I answered her prayer. And maybe that is the crux of it, God can only answer prayers through people.


By the time I had turned 27 I had experience three brushes with death. In the summer of 1993, my used car died while I was an intern at the National Center for Health Statistics in Maryland. After several trips to the Chrysler dealership, I decided to buy a Plymouth Sundance. It was the only car I could afford. Through some miscommunication, the salesperson thought I wanted a burgundy car, which wasn’t available. We had to drive to another dealership to pick up my new car. On the way back to Arlington to sign the paperwork, I commandeered the vehicle that was not yet mine. Somewhere along Highway 66 I missed the sign informing me that the far left lane in which I was driving was ending. I realized it too late and slammed on the brakes. The car spun 360 degrees and landed on the right shoulder. When it was over I looked up to see several cars stopped in stunned silence. Not a single accident had occurred. The salesman, who had watched the entire event through his rearview mirror, backed up his car and suggested,  “God must have big plans for you because it is clearly not your time to go.”

The second brush with death occurred in Uganda. I was walking to a casino from my hotel with a colleague when a man pointed an AK47 at us and demanded our money. I emptied my pockets rapidly while my companion sucked his teeth at our captor. “Are you crazy?” I asked. Our mugger then motioned toward my companion’s watch. “Take it off,” I demanded. Once the mugger had our money and timepieces he motioned for us to walk away. I walked away, sideways afraid to turn my back on the machine gun wielding man. But he let us go.

My last brush with death was a housefire that occurred one morning after I had already left for work. I lost everything that I owned but I learned that possessions don’t matter, especially when you have your health.

So when I developed scleroderma I had to wonder if God was trying to get my attention. I had this mental image of him hurling bricks at me saying, “Damn. This one is dense. What do I need to do to get her attention?


A few years ago, I sat in Mass on Palm Sunday. Having the children has predictably intensified my fears of dying. Leaving behind a smart, talented, loving spouse doesn’t frighten me. He will find someone to love and share the remainder of his life. But the thought of leaving my children fells me on an almost daily basis. More than anything else, I want to live to raise them to adulthood as I cannot imagine negotiating the teen years without a mother. Surround by the “Chreasters” -- people who attend Mass only for Christmas and Easter liturgies – I feel like I’m dreaming. The ritual, prayers, and song are all so familiar, but I feel so removed from it all. How do I celebrate a resurrection when I am dying? How do I celebrate the gift of everlasting life when I don’t want it. On this Palm Sunday, I find again no solace in this church and I leave feeling empty.

On my way home from church I realize why the idea of heaven offered me no solace. The idea that I could watch my children from heaven, from afar, left me feeling hollow. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I waited for a red light and I tried to imagine watching them without being able to hold them, touch them, or wipe away their tears. To me, the thought of being in heaven while I watched the lives of my children play out before me without any ability to intervene or support them was pure torture. I’ve always loved the idea of reincarnation and I tried to imagine how I could be reincarnated in such a way that I could still be a part of my children’s lives. Becoming a baby wouldn’t work because I couldn’t imagine how I could interject myself into their lives and how useful I could be. Then I thought about becoming a dog. It was perfect, Bill could go to the pound after I died and I could be there in my new, disease-free form. They could take me home and I would still be there. I could greet them every day when they came home from school and I could lick away their tears. I could still touch them and feel their hands against me. When they needed me I could insistently force my nose under their hands until they felt compelled to acknowledge my presence. I could protect their home and be their companion, their friend. I could listen to their troubles. I could be physically there for them until they left their childhood home. The idea of becoming a dog gave me the solace that heaven could not. I returned home shortly thereafter, “Bill, when I die, take the kids to the pound and buy the dog who pleads with you to take her home.” He looks at me with his eyebrows knitted together. “Ok,” he replies, knowing by now not to ask questions.

Today is Holy Thursday. After Christ shared the Passover meal with his disciples, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. There he asked his father to let “this cup pass from my lips.” I relate to Gethsemane so much now. I want so much to be relieved of my suffering. I want so much for God to take it away. And, for the first time, I understand the desire for heaven. Well, it’s not so much the desire for heaven as it is a willingness and, at times, a desire for an end to my suffering. It takes so much effort to do anything, even to make the kids’ lunches or drive them to their activities. I often cannot eat and my nights are restless. Breathing has become increasingly difficult and even walks on flat ground tax me. I am physically and emotionally overwhelmed. Tomorrow I will see my pulmonologist and ask for a referral for a wheelchair so that I no longer have to rely on my own ability to walk. It is the beginning of the surrender. And while I want so much to finally rest, I hate myself for raising the white flag. Where did my fighting spirit go? How can I give up when Amelia and Aidan are still so young? Maybe I am just a selfish person. Maybe I am weak. Or maybe I am practical: this is not a good life for any of us.

So, perhaps God finally got my attention, but I still do not know what he wants from me. My disease has brought my frail body and withered spirit to its knees. I am trying to accept each moment as it comes. I try each day to put one foot in front of the other. But I am so very tired now.


Persnickety Ticker said...

I know you wrote this a while ago, but I am hoping you read all your comments.

Thank you for your gift of articulating everything I have never been able to find the words for.

Now I know I am not alone in my feelings and fears of leaving my child.

I also wanted to suggest a book for you, in case you haven't read it yet. It has given me more comfort than religion ever could.

What Dreams May Come: A Novel
By Richard Matheson

Once again...thank you.

Anonymous said...

God answers prayers. The answer maybe NO, YES or MAYBE. I wish you peace and wisdom.