Fear, Doubt and Religion

We are hardwired for fear. In its purest and most primal form, fear protects us. It is what alerts us to danger. It is what makes our hearts quicken and hairs stand on end when we encounter ravenous wild animals in the forest and see tornadoes making their way through our neighborhoods. It is what lets us know that we need to run and hide or seek protection and safety.

Fear, as it was intended, is good, but somehow humans, as we have a tendency to do, have managed to pervert it, twist it and exploit it, so that which was originally intended to protect now serves to harm. Anyone who suffers from anxiety can tell you just how damaging fear can be, how, when we take an instinct designed with the intention of preserving our safety and set it in overdrive, destructive it can turn.

I have spent much of my life being afraid of everything. Afraid of being bad, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of taking chances, afraid of not being intelligent enough or good enough or enough of anything for that matter. In short, afraid of not being perfect. When I had children, I became overwhelmed with the fear that I would somehow make a mistake so large, so earth shattering that I could allow harm to come their way. Their well being lay in the balance and it depended on one thing-that I remained fearful enough to protect them from life and all its dangers. And I must say that being charged with protecting someone from everything is a miserable task. How stupid and silly we become when we so fully commit ourselves to the impossible.

Over the years I have worked on improving my ability to judge what should truly elicit fear and what is nothing more than a part of life with all its uncertainty. But fear still stirs me in deep and powerful ways, and I have to remain ever vigilant of its powers.

Over the past ten days I have given a lot of thought not only to fear but also to religion and its connection to fear as well. Perhaps it was the fact that last Sunday was Easter. Perhaps it was because I did not attend mass on this most holy of holidays, or perhaps it was seeing the parking lot of the church down the street filled with the cars of the faithful. Whatever the reason, I found myself dedicating a significant amount of time thinking over the matter. I was raised Catholic. I attended Catholic schools almost my entire academic life, even earning my undergraduate degree from a Jesuit university. Up until about seven years ago I attended mass regularly and did my best to be a good member of the Church. The problem is that I was not “blessed” with faith. I have always questioned and doubted. My mother once told me a story of how as a little girl (I think I was about five or six years old), I rolled my eyes and incredulously responded “Oh come on mom,” when she taught me about a miracle a saint performed. There it was. My lack of faith. My skepticism. My cynicism already rearing its ugly head at such a young age. I was told to pray for faith, to believe. But I didn’t believe, not completely, not everything. And I feared my lack of faith.

Growing up, I viewed my skepticism as being rooted in some form of evil. As stated in the Bible, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed ” (John 20:29). Unfortunately, I was like Eve. I was lured by Satan and bit into the metaphorical apple. I wanted “wisdom” (wisdom being used as a pejorative here). I questioned and doubted. I was Doubting Thomas. And doubt, when it comes to matters of religion and faith, is something to be feared.

I have learned, however, that there is something inherently damaging about fearing your very nature. “Lack of faith is bad.” “Doubt is bad.” For me these principles of blind faith seem to fly in the face of logic. It wasn’t until after graduate school and spending years teaching English and critical thinking that I realized that my talents lie in my ability to analyze, evaluate, doubt, consider and revise. I see my ability to think critically as my strength. It is something that could only be bad or bring harm when used with nefarious intent. I have learned that if I approach matters of religion with an open heart and mind and a healthy dose of doubt and awareness of the possibility that some things might not be true, not literally at least, that when I do believe something, the belief is strong and powerful.

Spiritually I consider myself a work in progress. I no longer fear that I am bad and going to hell because I don’t attend mass. I am a believer. I believe in much, but not all, that the Church teaches. But I am no longer frightened to say that I don’t fully trust the Church as a human institution. I just don’t. Of course I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher nor a historian for that matter. I am sure there is much out there that may convince me otherwise. But until I have the time to study and reflect and learn, I cannot truly believe. Should I fear my need for more knowledge? Should I fear that my faith needs to be fueled by some fact and study? I don’t, not any more. What I need is time. I need time away from the Church to research it and study and analyze and evaluate and ultimately decide what it is I truly believe. Rather than considering myself a fallen away Catholic, I prefer to view myself as a Catholic on sabbatical. I also don’t consider myself a free agent in the religion market. I am looking to work flexibly within the parameters of the traditions within which I was raised. I am, however, no longer so afraid that I feel the need to go to mass and go through the motions as if I can fool God into thinking I believe in what I am doing.

When it comes to matters of fear and religion I have learned that I do not need to feel afraid that the Church no longer serves as my moral compass. I believe in being good for the sake of being good. I believe that our job here on earth is to love and care for each other, for everyone. If I’m not mistaken that belief is in line with the teachings of Christ. Humans were created to think, to doubt, to gather information and, based upon sound judgement and reason, decide what to believe. That is our nature. If we are to be believe that we were created by God and that God is goodness and love, then we cannot fear that God will condemn us because, even in our search for the divine and spiritual, we question, doubt and seek knowledge.

Come on Everybody! Grab a Statue. It’s Time for the All Saints’ Day Pizza Party!

It astonishes me that the weirdest and creepiest moment I experienced while living on prison grounds had nothing to do with living on prison grounds. It was year two into my ten year exile in the land of desolation (as my pre-adolescent mind perceived it), and I was starting a new school for the second time in two years. Despite my protestations, it was determined that, rather than the local junior high, parochial school would be a better fit for me.  So when September of my second year rolled around, I donned my ever so modest and very uncomfortable Catholic school uniform, made the long walk down the hill to the main road where I boarded a bus. During my long morning journey, I rode past prisons and tobacco fields until I reached the “industrial ” side of town where I was deposited at the entrance of a very small school. This was a school that children had attended since kindergarten. It was a polish school, and, as I would soon learn, polish was often spoken, not during instruction but at other times, between teachers, teachers and students, the students themselves.  This would have been fine…except for the fact that I am not Polish.  Needless to say, the experience was, for lack of a better word, disorienting. My memories of my years at this school come with a soundtrack.  Always, not matter what the visual image is, I hear Jim Morrison hauntingly singing “People are strange, when you’re a stranger.  Faces look ugly…”

Anyway, I was not the only unfortunate to be starting seventh grade at my new school.  A couple of kids from the local Montessori , which only ran until sixth grade, were enrolled.  Now, those poor souls were completely out of their element.  They were and remained separate from everyone else.  They were a docile and different species of child that had no hope of assimilation.  And then there was the other group of newcomers. 

Apparently there had been a group of Catholics from a neighboring town that had been reprimanded by their diocese because of, without getting into sordid details, cult-like activity. Well, the pastor of my new school’s parish, in an act of mercy or forgiveness or whatever, decided to allow former members of the parish in question to enroll their children in his school.  Soooooooo….

Let’s just say that it sucks to be the new kid in school, especially when you are eleven years old.  And, new kids gravitate to other new kids.  So when the new kids from the neighboring town offered me their friendship, I gratefully accepted.  Of course, there was always something different about my new friends, although I could never quite put my finger on what it was.  They were just so unlike the kids I hung with from back home.  My friends and I used to be from similar backgrounds.  We went to school and girl scouts together.  We were silly and had fun. We used to laugh..a lot…about ridiculous things.  We played hide and seek and tag.  We played with Care Bears and Smurfs and Cabbage Patch Kids, and I think, for the most part, we were all relatively happy.  But these new girls were different.  They were dour.  But, they offered friendship, something I so needed, so craved, that I would have accepted it from anyone.

After about a month, my new friends began inviting me to their homes for sleepovers.  I remember well the long and lonely drive to their houses. We passed prisons and corn fields and tobacco fields and old colonial houses until we finally reached our destination.  And their homes were so unlike anything to which I was accustomed.  They were large, large enough to accommodate families with eight and nine children.  And they were old and, well, from my standpoint as a child and still to this day, creepy.  As a matter of fact, one of my friends had informed me that her living room was haunted.  And you know what?  As an adult looking back almost thirty years later, I believe it.  There was a feeling, a flat, sad, heavy, lifeless feeling to her home. Just as my new friend, the house was somber and cheerless. It was as if it existed in a dream and its reality was from a time past.  It was eerie.  I remember not being able to sleep when I stayed there.  Insomnia, true insomnia, which began in my new home on prison grounds, settled in during my stays in that house. 

I remember another chilly autumn day, when I packed up my overnight bag and headed over to another one of my new friend’s homes. Again, it was large, large enough to acccomodate my friends’s eight other siblings and her parents.  It was the day after Halloween.  What’s funny is that I don’t remember what I had done the night prior. Did I go trick-or-treating?  Who knows?  I can recall every Halloween I ever celebrated, except for that one.  Perhaps it’s because the events of the day after overshadowed the festivities of the night before.  I remember being hungry and feeling happy when I heard that my friend’s mother was ordering pizza.  I remember sitting at the table and hearing her mother say, in a rather serious tone, “Okay.  Let’s get the saints.”  My friend and a handful of her siblings got up. I followed them from the kitchen into the dining room, where, on the sideboard, was a vast collection of statues of the saints.  Now I have to state here that I have never been fond of statues and always found them a bit creepy. So you can imagine my chagrin when I had to carry two eight inch statues and place them on the kitchen table so that they could join us for dinner.  Unfortunately, right in front of me, my friend had placed the statue of Saint Michael slaying the devil. Now there is nothing that creeps the shit out of me more than Lucifer.  As a child, when other kids were afraid of monsters or robbers, I was afraid of the devil; the one with the tail and horns and pitchfork; the one on the old Red Devil Paint cans.  And there he was. In front of me. Being slain. Saint Michael slaying the God damned devil, with his scales and horns and tail right in front of me. During dinner. Of course I wondered what the hell (pardon the pun) was going on. And, of course, my question was answered when my friend’s mother began the prayer and instructed us to bow our heads and thank God that we were all gathered together, celebrating All Saints’ Day with the saints.  It was just too much. 

If only I had the wherewithal to call my parents and ask them to get me the hell (ooops there it is again) out of there.  Instead I stayed. Insomnia kicked in, but I made it to morning. And I think, although I don’t remember, that when my mother arrived to pick me up, I probably enjoyed my ride home, past the old colonial homes, and barren trees, past corn fields and tobacco fields until I was nice and safe, back at home…on prison grounds.