When my great aunt was in her twenties, she was in a terrible car accident. She drove through a guardrail and landed on the train tracks twenty feet below, where she was found hours later by the conductor of a train travelling that route. She had two small children. She was transported to Boston and was not expected to survive.
The family mythology says that my grandmother, her sister, went to church and told God that if her sister survived, she would go to church every day for the rest of her life. My great aunt survived. My grandmother is almost 80 and still goes to church every day. Some of my relatives feel that she goes, not out of love for God, but out of a need to repay this debt her sister generated on survival. It has created for my family a bit of an interesting dynamic where religion is concerned.
We were raised Irish Catholic, but in the laziest possible way. We had Christmas and Easter and went to CCD. We did not read the Bible or attend mass regularly. Confession made me feel ashamed of insignificant wrongs, and absolution never improved it. Kneeling down and saying the responses to the priest didn’t feel important. I thought churches were pretty, with their dark vaulted ceilings and the sad Stations of the Church, but they all smelled like obligation. There was a lot of being quiet and sitting still and not understanding why we were doing any of this.
I asked a lot of questions in CCD, and a lot of the teachers couldn’t answer them. As I got older, often the priests couldn’t answer them either. For me, the Catholic religion seemed so severe, so punitive, that spending any time in it quickly became stifling. I read the Bible several times and found contradictions. I believed in equal rights and birth control and I couldn’t get a satisfactory answer why these things were shameful. I started resenting Catholicism and everything it stood for.
When I was 15 years old, it was time to get confirmed in the church. The night of confirmation, I told the Cardinal that I didn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God. He told me that I had to get confirmed if my parents wanted me to and it didn’t matter if I believed in Jesus or not.
An hour later, this same man laid his hand on my head and confirmed me as a member of the Catholic church. His name was Bernard Law. Three years later, I saw him on the news. He was charged with covering up numerous molestations by priests in what would become the Boston Catholic sex abuse scandal. I remembered the priests kissing his ring and the constant admonishments by the church staff to be quiet and not make trouble. It made me sick. My already flimsy connection to the church was severed. I would never identify as Catholic again.
In 2008, my father had a severe heart attack and went into a full arrest while driving a car carrying my entire immediate family. I gave him CPR on the street while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. At the hospital, they asked if we wanted to see a chaplain. My mother asked for a priest. He came and we prayed together. I still knew the words but they had long ago lost their meaning.
In the last few years, Catholicism has undergone a bit of a facelift. I like this new pope. I like that he says that everyone needs to treated kindly and that he says it’s not canon for priests to be celibate. He is personable and funny and humble. I like that he agrees that unbaptized children don’t go to Purgatory. But there are still so many things I don’t believe.
Finding the mast cell community has changed me in a lot of ways, some of them unexpected. One aspect of this community is that many of these people are deeply religious. Not in a superficial way, but in a real way. A lot of these people really love God and believe that He can heal them, even as their bodies are failing. It takes a lot of faith to believe that. It inspires me.
People sometimes ask if they can pray for me. I always say yes. I’ll take all the help I can get. I watch these people that I respect give their troubles to God and they feel unburdened. And if it comforts people, isn’t it worth something, regardless of what you believe?
I believe that people should be kind to each other. I believe that they should help each other when they can. Helping people feels like praying to me. It comforts me to think that after everything that has happened to me, some good could come out of it. And that’s a big part of religion, isn’t it, if you read the stories? To learn from the parables, to do good?
In the very hard moments, I sometimes feel this presence near me. I don’t know what it is, but it is soothing. And if I don’t know what it is, couldn’t it be God? Or the power of the universe? Or is it all the same, with many different names?
I don’t always know what I believe. But watching these people I care about be faithful while they struggle – that feels spiritual to me. It feels, maybe, a little holy.
Peace be with you.