Wandering Through the Desert

On my drive back home, I caught a CBC program with an author discussing her new collection of short stories, which included the church as a unifying theme. The conversation surrounded how when the author started going to church, there was a great deal of embarrassment. How she used to almost hide behind trees to make sure no one would see her. That brought the conversation to what she called “seekers”; the people who due to a loss of some kind, either a funeral, a job, a diagnosis, suddenly found themselves searching for comfort and meaning. She quoted another author who said: “I don’t believe in God but I miss him”.

While the radio conversation was infuriating in many ways, it made me think back to another conversation, one I had had with my father.

When I started university, it was with the certainty of one whose faith had never been seriously challenged. I had questioned a lot in high school and as a child, but always relating to specifics and details. Even when the specifics of my faith modified and changed, they always existed within the Catholic framework. I was Polish Catholic. That was who I was.

At first, the biggest barrier to church was the fact that most of them in Ottawa seemed to have their masses early in the morning, or required bussing some distance. I finally settled for a church that was on campus and across the street from my residence. I went with my roommate who was also Catholic.

Over the next several months I found myself feeling less and less comfortable at church. I had seen my friend reduced to tears because of the messages of hate against gay people that were spewing from the pulpits. I had been thoroughly annoyed by the way that the church was railing against the DeVinci Code, as though they hadn’t learned their lesson from centuries of unsuccessfully banning books. But most of all, what I felt the hardest, was the way that I didn’t get the same feeling from church that I had back home.

Back home, while I still found church pretty boring, I often left mass feeling energized. At the time I didn’t recognize that this was the effect of being the cantor. I get a charge from performing and as the soloist, when I really got to belt it, it left me feeling elated. It left be feeling so full of life it felt like I had made contact with something greater than myself. Since at university I was suddenly part of the crowd, and briefly, just another member of the choir, I didn’t get the same effect. To me it felt like I had somehow come disconnected from god.

I remember feeling so empty and disconnected as a result, that I often found myself in tears at church. Where was this feeling that I remembered? Why had I been abandoned by god?

When I spoke to my father, he called the feeling something like wandering the desert or crossing the desert. It was a period of questioning, seeking, and doubt that would lead to true faith. In a way he was right because eventually it led to my atheism, which while not a faith, at least has the benefit of being most likely true.

Over the next several years, I would follow this up and down pattern regarding my faith. I would go to church when back home with my parents, but on my own, I did so rarely. Sometimes I would miss some aspect of my culture, and go to a mass to reconnect with that part, but it was rare.

After I broke up with my first boyfriend, I went to confession. I had lost my virginity to him, and while I had previously made the decision not to wait until marriage, there was still a part of me that still believed I had done something wrong.

After that I entered into a relationship with an avowed atheist. We would spend two years together, getting very involved. He was with me when I first got diagnosed with Crohn’s. While I didn’t change my lack of church going habits while we were together, and was quite prepared to recognize the evils done by the church, I still identified very much as catholic. I also disliked his approach to faith. He was an atheist but his approach to it seemed more one of apathy. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe there was no god, but rather that he didn’t care enough to wonder. Since this confirmed all the worst stereotypes I had been raised with regarding atheists, it wasn’t difficult for me to resist thinking about the possibility that there was no god.

Still, I found myself still moving further and further away from the church itself. Yes, I was Catholic, but I believed that the god was really “love”. That unifying force that binds us all, and so forth and so on. Anything to avoid facing the fact that really, I didn’t believe anymore.

When that relationship ended, I needed a fresh start. The day after being unceremoniously dumped, I felt strangely light and relieved. I wanted just to do something to cleanse myself of the realization that I had let myself waste time on a relationship that ultimately hadn’t been right for me. For a brief time, I came back to the church. I know now, that I was searching for community after having felt like I had lost mine. It was however, something new that took me out of the house once a week after having previously felt isolated and trapped, and so for a brief period of time, it worked.

At the same time, going back to church left be feeling embarrassed. In my heart, I knew that this wasn’t the place for me. Too much of what I cared about was in direct opposition to the ideology taught in that building. I knew too many people who had been hurt directly as a result of that ideology. The embarrassment wasn’t because I thought it would be uncool if people knew I was going. It wasn’t because there was some sort of persecution of Christians.

Rather the embarrassment stemmed from an unwillingness to have people connect me with that ideology. While I was Catholic, I didn’t want people thinking that I would suddenly be thinking like a Catholic.

The trips back to church lasted maybe two or three months. Over the weeks they became increasingly scarce as I realized that the community I was looking for couldn’t be found in those walls. Not if I wanted to continue being the person I was.

When Alyssa and I finally met, her questions I don’t think really changed what I believed, but rather it forced me to face a truth that I had been trying to hide from myself.

The concept of the seeker and the concept of “missing god” are both ones I understand, but just because the seeker is looking for something, sometimes the search is more about finding the strength to face what you already know. Sometimes it is about finding the person who is willing to ask you the questions you need to be asked. Sometimes it is about finding what you need be it community, be it comfort, a purpose, a place to perform, or something else.

Sometimes missing god is more about missing the comfortable answers and the illusion of control.

And sometimes, embarrassment is trying to tell us something worth listening to.

Wandering Through the Desert

One thought on “Wandering Through the Desert

  1. 1

    I was just thinking the other day that the only thing I miss about church is the mysticism. The whole feeling of being “connected” to some mystical higher power that permeates throughout nature and the universe. Then I realized Douglas Adams was right; the garden is beautiful enough without believing in fairies.

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