Welcome, Reader, to the hardest part of the Church year for me. It’s been a hell of a week, not least because I’ve realized that I’m holding tightly to some really, really stupid habits that I need to let go. I will ask you for prayer that I wander this 40 day wilderness with the acknowledgment that Easter is at the other end. I ask that you hold me accountable to grace—although I couldn’t begin to tell you what that looks like.
In this season of battling some fairly well-established demons, I feel like it’s time to go over how I got here. I need to revisit the rabbit hole of faith I fell into, and I invite you to come with me. It feels very arrogant, to take six weeks to tell a conversion story, but pride has ever been toward the top of my preferred Deadly Sins. So let me start as I started then: my sophomore year of college, I gave up God for Lent.
It sounds now like a class project of some sort, like when people pretend to have some handicap for a day to see how people treat them. It wasn’t quite like that—it was a conscious, angry, cold decision to give up on the idea of some loving Being who was paying attention to the human race. I felt my life didn’t reflect anything like that, felt that I had been living too long pretending that this jolly man somewhere in the heavens cared one whit about the ways in which I and others were destroying my life, my relationships, my planet. It was taking too much energy to keep lying about it, I thought, so I stopped. College was the time to break away from all of the foolishness I’d grown up with. I was a new creation. I decided I didn’t believe in anything at all.
When I decided to give up God, I thought there was going to be this immediate sense of loneliness in my life, as if a hole had just opened, the “God-shaped” void that Christian writers talk about. Having been brought up in the Bible belted Midwest with Catholic guilt on one side and Brethren severity on the other, surely something would happen, like a lightning strike or a black despair or a longing for whatever I’d had that kept me tied to this God guy.
Let me set the scene for you. That year, I was living with some folks in an apartment-style unit on the edge of my college’s campus. We were an odd bunch, to be sure—we had unofficially earned ourselves the nickname “the God Squad Pod” because most of the 7 women living in the apartment were leaders or regular attendees of a religious organization specifically geared toward collegiate men and women. I had not known this when I signed on to live there. In fact, I hadn’t known most of the people I’d be living with; college, to a certain extent, is about leaping without really looking into new situations and new ideas and new relationships. It would be an adventure, I had decided. So we had four religious leaders, an atheist, a religious groupie, and me.
The weirdest thing about the first week without God was that the void didn’t happen at all. In fact, I think I was more aware of God and His presence then than I had been in some time. It started with my room décor; on my printer, I had a sticker a friend gave me my freshman year of college that says, “Know Him.” Plain enough. Yet extremely contrary to what I was trying to accomplish; my entire goal was to not know Him, to ignore Him entirely through denying His existence. So I tried to peel the sticker off.
Some stickers are made with very determined adhesive. I still don’t remember actually attaching it to my printer when I got it, but I must have done so with an eye to it never coming off. It was as stuck as a sticker can get. I suppose with a lot of effort and possibly some steam, I could have gotten it off and then dealt with the awful glue pieces that such stickers inevitably leave, but that was way too much effort for an angry college sophomore to put in to ignoring Something that totally didn’t exist anyway. In retrospect, I am amazed by how much of my soul thought this whole concept was absolutely foolish and would have no part of my attempts to get it underway; there is so much more I could have done to sift through the Christian undertones of my life at the time, so much that I didn’t even realize “needed” doing. However, with no better idea at the time, I simply covered it with a sheet of printer paper.
How appropriate, I thought. Cover it up. It’s what you always do, with everything.
In my old room at my mother and stepfather’s house, it was much worse. There was a crucifix above the door, a prayer to St. Patrick above the closet, a carved plaque from Israel with the Lord’s Prayer and a small replica of the Pieta statue, not to mention the dusty Bible lying forgotten next to my nightstand. Although my parents had had their own fallings in and out of love with God and His Church, I had grown up weaving through its doors. I didn’t have a stellar attendance record, but I had been baptized, confirmed, and knew enough of the system to blend in when one of my more enthusiastic college friends dragged me along. Along that road, I had accrued much more Christian paraphernalia than I had realized from Sunday school teachers, pastors, and my very Catholic grandparents. That had to go, all of it—if I was serious about this, I was going to do it correctly. I locked my Bible and a devotional lying next to it with my rosary in a lockbox (I’m still not sure if I was locking them in or myself out) and stashed the plaques and statue in a closet in the guest room.
I told myself that I didn’t simply get rid of it all because it had sentimental value. Remember when so-and-so gave you that? Didn’t you really appreciate the gift? My inherited pack-rat gene accepted the embrace of the remembrance-through-object gene and, instead of selling off all of these things I firmly believed I would never need again, I set them with the never-touched stuffed animals from kindergarten and the box of papers proving sixth grade had been a poor year.
Except for that one crucifix, the crucifix that had been over my doorway in every room I’d lived in for as long as I could remember. I could leave that one, right? My grandparents would kill me if they knew I had taken it down.
No! If I was going to have that void, if I was truly going to say to God that I was through with Him, I needed to be serious. I felt like an alcoholic throwing away liquor bottles—Christianity had to go, this toxin, this lie had to be completely erased from my life before I could move on, before I could start to rebuild after all of the false piety I had exercised for years.
I took down the crucifix, covered with dust and a lot heavier than I had imagined. It was the one piece of anything gold that I’d ever thought beautiful, with a finely wrought lacy looking background and the “INRI” banner flying high above Jesus’ head, itself crowned with minute thorns. I scoffed at myself for thinking this was beautiful. This? How had I stood having this, all these years, reminding me of a man that started a religion which accused me of having killed before living, a man who gazed wearily at me for sins I had yet to commit? It would be amazing grace to my soul to be rid of it, surely!
I put that in the guest room closet next to the statue and plaque and slid the door shut. This was ridiculous; how had I not realized earlier that this was all junk? Jesus was some guy my dad thought he knew and the rest of my family called on when we felt especially ceremonial at dinner, or we needed something good to happen. He was usually around when we needed someone to blame for the vagaries of life, though who knew if anyone was actually listening to the rants at the ceiling where holy things and spiders lived. Other than that, he was around about as often as the Easter Bunny—and I’d stopped believing in that one when I was about 8.
Standing in front of the mirrored closet door, I congratulated my image on growing out of this, too. I was absolutely turning into an adult at college, I could feel it.
To be continued…