I used to be a Catholic. I believed in venial and mortal sins. When I had to do something difficult or something I did not enjoy, I was taught to offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory. I was taught to pray to saints and to do that by using novenas. Other than novenas and praying in church, I never prayed. Well, I said the rosary sometimes, but I never prayed to Jesus. I don’t remember being taught to. Prayer, within and beyond the stained glass church windows, was rote. My prayer life, if you could call it that, was a wasteland without a whit of intimacy or insight. I never learned about relationship, only rules or should I say tradition. I never learned about love, only sin or should I say my need for a Savior.
However, I thought I was lucky to be a Catholic. After all, I could eat seafood every Friday during Lent, I got to choose a name I liked when I was confirmed in the 8th grade, and every Sunday I could go to church and savor uninterrupted daydreams about the boy I liked. So, I was born a Catholic and thought I’d never be anything else. But I think I needed to be that.
I used to be a born-again Christian. For me, that meant two primary things. I was no longer Catholic and I was assured acceptance into heaven because I believed Jesus died in my stead. I became a Christian at quite a burdensome time in my life. I had made decisions that were clearly wrong, but I felt stuck in them. I needed to be right about something. Nearly all of my focus became directed toward the afterlife. I thought that was where I would finally be safe, that was where I would finally taste happiness. I had hope for the first time. Anyone who disagreed with me or just had a different point of view had to be shut down or ignored. I had to keep my hope safe from question, from further seeking, from even the shadow of doubt. See, it was all I had to hold on to.
I made it my business to instruct, I mean share, with others that they were on the wrong path. I needed to let people know that they had to do certain things, believe certain things, and denounce certain things so they could go to heaven. I had to tell them that everything they needed to know and would ever need to know was in the Bible. Every other holy text, every other path of faith or belief would lead them directly to hell. I didn’t say it, the Bible said it. So, I became a legalistic inerrantist. But I think I needed to be that.
I used to be a wonderer. Not quite a questioner. Certainly not a seeker. But I began to wonder about things. It was my oldest son who would engage me in conversations that brought me to a place where I could dabble in wondering. But I fought it. Oh, I fought hard. Anytime, he mentioned that he had read parts of the Koran or had learned something about other faiths or cultures just for the sake of learning, I would become defensive and argumentative.
But then came the first break in my seemingly impenetrable doctrinal armor. My son had a few homosexual friends that would visit sometimes, both boys and girls. It wrenched and rent at my very heart that these sweet, precious kids on the brink of adulthood were damned unless they changed their lifestyles. Then one day, suddenly, I wondered why… why did they have to suffer for eternity for being who they are? It was the first time I allowed a challenging question to enter my mind, but I only went that far for nearly 2 years. Baby steps for me. Maybe I’m just a slow learner or just slow to give up the doctrine that had first spoken hope into my life.
I continued on as a marginally wondering legalist, and then, I met a man. On our first date, he called himself a seeker, said he didn’t have it all figured out. I thought to myself, “Wow! What luck you have because I do!”
Our relationship was the beginning of a beautiful growth lesson for me. I had no idea how much that lesson would be needed or how soon. He planted the seed that maybe people had to find their own way. He planted the seed that maybe shoveling my dirt onto the seedlings of others only served to smother the sprouting they would experience without my interference in their life cycle. He planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, rigidity was not what would best serve me in my life or in the lives of those I love. I thought I was going to show him the way with all my so-called answers when in actuality he showed me that sometimes seeking can be answer enough. So, until that point, I had been bent toward egotism, elitism, and legalism with just buds of wondering. But I think I needed to be that.
I became a questioner. My second son began to share his doubts with me. I did a lot of blaming myself and wringing my hands because my baby was going straight to hell and I couldn’t let that happen. I resurrected my old Catholic guilt and bullied him with my Christian fear. And I pushed him farther and farther away every time.
He said things that made sense, though. Things like wanting to be good to others because he felt that was the best way to live, not because he thought he had to appease God or to avoid eternal damnation. Somewhere along the way, he had begun to think for himself. Where in the world did he get that from? I couldn’t tolerate his doubts or even his feelings and ideas openly, but in my heart I started to question just a little.
Eventually, I happened upon Dr. Wayne Dyer who led me to Eckhart Tolle who led me to Thich Nhat Hahn who led me to Marcus Borg who led me to Progressive Christianity. I investigated the Lost Gospels, early Christian mysticism, near death experiences, even pre-birth planning (a little too out there for me), but the point was that I began to be open to other ways, other faiths, other ideas. I found so much common ground where before I could only recognize differences. I found many things that sparked fires within my spirit like nothing ever had. I felt frightened and liberated, confused and oh so clear. But, I need to be all of that. Yes, I need to be all of that.
I am now a seeker who, of course, still has questions. I will never have it all figured out, and now that I have left black and white thinking behind, I know I don’t have to. My ideas are exceedingly different than anything I ever would have thought possible. But my life, the life I want to live has become an evolving one, an open one, an accepting one. I do not miss the locked door mentality that I so staunchly held for so very long. Although I still battle with the letting go of things I once believed, I have never had such moments of peace as I’ve had once I laid down my blind beliefs and realized that Jesus is radically different from the image I accepted and passed on all these years. And so is God.
I am grateful for all my “used to be’s” because who would I be without them? I am grateful for this most recent journey that has led me closer to Jesus, closer to God. I am grateful I have found friends and a place within the Progressive Christian community. I guess I am not completely free of the need for a label. Perhaps, one day I will be. But today, I will enjoy who I need to be now.
***Disclaimer (of sorts): This is only about my experience as a Catholic and born-again Christian. It is not meant to be a condemnation of any system of belief as it relates to the paths of others.