Losing My Religion (and then some)
When I stopped attending my mother’s beloved Catholic Church, I did it on the sly.
I was in my early twenties sitting in a pew just blocks from my first adult apartment, aching to live a purpose-filled life.
I remember the priest raising his voice. I remember a fist pounding a pulpit. I remember hearing my own voice in my head:
“Your answer isn’t here.”
I felt a surge of anger. I’d spent so many hours on my knees in this particular place of worship in the hopes of guidance or at least acknowleged goodness. But I knew it was over. When I stood up and walked out, I hadn’t even received communion.
I intentionally did not tell my mother.
Not telling each other was what we did back then.
The Catholic Church’s betrayal of its people was decades old at the time of my walk-out and was finally being revealed above the fold of The Boston Globe. Still, it would be almost another decade before I learned that the priest of our small-town Massachusetts parish was a pedophile.
The Church knew, of course, when they moved him from Methuen where he’d already destroyed the lives of several boys, to the dimly lit basement in Haverhill where I spent hours listening to his sing song voice describing how best to lead a God-filled life. At my Confirmation when I was thirteen, it was his sinner priest hands that made the sign of the cross over my bowed head.
He was named in the papers early. Though not even the worst of the perpetrators, his actions were brutal, calculated and endured for decades.
I didn’t “know,” of course. I was a child.
But I fought my mother about going to Catechism class. My general childhood m.o. was a life of utter compliance, but instead I made fun of Paquin’s voice, the way he held his hands, said he was an insincere actor.
My mother was at a loss. When had I become so disrespectful? She wasn’t wrong–though it wasn’t a priest I was disrespecting.
I often wonder now, how much of my little kid self I must have had to disassociate from just to keep myself in the room?
It took seeing Paquin’s face on a movie screen before I went back to thread the stories back together. I went down a devastating rabbit hole–it’s never just rabbits down there. The Spotlight team did an extraordinary job. It’s all public record now. One boy was named Keith. I remember him as quiet, and handsome in an oversized baseball jacket. I tried to sit next to him, though I understand now he would have been paying attention to other things.
When I called my mother years late to the outrage, she couldn’t. “It’s too painful to dredge it up again,” she told me, as though a crime of that magnitude ever really sunk beneath the water.
I’d actually already found another church. I’d been Episcopal for years. On the surface, and maybe a layer or two below, it felt enough like what I knew–kneeling, singing, praying and it included gay marriage and women on the altar.
When my non-practicing husband and I decided to get married we waffled about doing it in the church. Would it seem hypocritical if we weren’t both believers?
“It’s the people who bring God to the church not the other way around,” the rector told us. “We can stand in a field under a tree, but the moment we gather in God’s name–that’s church.”
Nearly twenty years later, I have continued to hope that is true.
By the time my father died five years ago organized religion as a whole and I were no longer speaking to each other. I resented the priests that came to bless him in his last hours–as if they could declare his life worthy. I could no longer see any goodness past my pain.
When my mother died over two years ago it felt like blunt force trauma. I yearned for peace in the familiar. I felt my heart break further when I couldn’t make myself believe in the heaven she deserved. Eventually, I found myself in the small garden at the foot of the National Cathedral (of all places) nearly every day of my COVID quarantine. I even found myself fumbling with prayer.
Last week I interviewed a Rabbi who told me about the intensity of his work during COVID. How? How could you hold all the pain? All the death? How? I begged him to tell me.
His answer was nothing short of grace.
“My people have a long tradition of mourning.”
His reply was so simple I stopped breathing.
A long tradition of mourning.
Me, too. My people have a long tradition. Come to think of it, it might be all people.
I don’t see myself reconciling with religion in this life. I’m not sure I believe it’s truly sorry for the hurt its caused. I found what I needed, anyhow.
Now, I sit in the Cathedral — one of the most beautiful churches, to mourn, to be with my loss. It rests easily amongst the tradition of losses that so many have held and felt here–the losses that have come before and those still to come.
We gather our losses in the name of Love.
Love is worth a cathedral, and a long tradition of mourning and we will always gather in its name.