Sunday meditation.

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Dear Father…

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“Dear Father” by Taming the Tiger

I usually shy away from anything too spiritual or religious, because I do realize many of my readers are atheist, agnostic, or of differing faiths–and I respect their right to believe as they wish.   But today in church when the priest asked us to “add our own prayers,” I felt inspired to pray a particular prayer that has great meaning to me, for a myriad of reasons.   I would like to share it here, so maybe others can join me in prayer for these things that are so important to me.

*****

Dear Father,

You have created us all in your own image. I don’t believe you have left anyone out of your great bounty and the hope for eternal life, in spite of what some Christians and others believe.      I don’t believe that Christ’s death on the cross was a “limited atonement” meant only for a select few (as Calvinists believe).   I believe he died for us all, and offers all of us the chance for redemption and healing, no matter how hopeless things may seem.

PTSD, C-PTSD, and narcissistic abuse survivors.

God, please shower your grace and compassion on all victims of narcissistic abuse and all people suffering from PTSD and C-PTSD, that they may find comfort in your arms and be able to trust again, realize that there is still goodness in the world, and eventually, that they may find loving, healthy relationships and friendships that do not turn abusive.  Many survivors have turned to you when everyone else seemed to be turning away from them and rejecting them, and found that you were there and were listening.  But many, especially if they were rejected or scapegoated by their own families, are so damaged they have trouble trusting anyone at all, even You.   Please give them the courage to turn to you when things are at their darkest and it seems like they have no allies.  Please help them to trust you, and to heal from abuse, regain their sense of self worth and self-esteem,  and be whole and happy again. Please show them that what happened to them didn’t happen in vain, and that they are so much stronger than they realize because of the adversity they had to face.  Please let them feel the loving arms of Jesus Christ holding and protecting them from harm.  Guide them on the path to become whole again, and to use what they learned to help others heal, should that be your will for them.

Also, although anger is a necessary stage of healing (in order to leave an abusive situation or person), please allow victims who become trapped in their anger and hatred to be able to move on from it, because only then will healing be possible.   I’ve seen too many survivors who remain so mired in rage that they take on the traits of their abusers and acquire a victim mentality that does not allow them to move forward in their journey to healing.

As for myself, please don’t let me stray from the path you have set me on, which is beginning to be revealed to me. Please don’t allow me to become bogged down by envy, selfishness, or pride.   Don’t allow me to let my own will get in the way of what you have planned for me, for whenever I have forced my own will, it always turned out to be all wrong.

People with NPD, BPD and other Cluster B disorders.

God, please show these broken people who have made so many bad choices and act out toward others–usually because as children they were shamed for their own vulnerability by abusive caregivers or parents–that they do not need to rely on primitive defense mechanisms, abusive or aggressive behavior, or a “false self” in order to survive and be happy.   Please show them the beauty of their own inner vulnerability and that being sensitive can be a great strength and is never a weakness.   Please lift the scales from their eyes and show them that the things they have learned to believe about themselves and others are lies–and the truth is the opposite of what they have always believed.  Please remove the fear and shame  keeps them trapped inside cold, dark walls that separate them from their own vulnerability and the light of your grace.   If there’s a glimmer of their original soul left in them, please help that spark grow like a mustard seed within them and burn away the darkness that surrounds it.  Make them aware that their defense mechanisms are only allowing them to live the stunted, painful life of an emotional cripple, and that by jettisoning authentic feeling, they also jettison love, empathy and joy. With fewer people with narcissism and other “predatory” disorders in the world, there will be fewer abuse victims too.

In particular, please make my mother aware of what has happened to her (due to no fault of her own) and what she became, even at her very advanced age.   Even if it’s too late for her to be healed, at least remove the scales from her eyes and allow her the grace of redemption.

Our increasingly narcissistic society. 

Over the past 30 – 40 years, our western society–especially in America–has become increasingly cold, callous, lacking in empathy and compassion, materialistic, hubristic, and narcissistic.   Wealth and power are valued over compassion and love.   Individual achievement is valued over community involvement.   Greed and an “I got mine!” attitude is valued over altruism and compassion for the less fortunate.

Even families buy into this lie to the point of scapegoating family members who fail to “keep up” (or who are vulnerable or attempt to expose the family dysfunction).    Intolerance of those who are different, hatred, and racism abound.   Every day people die because they are the wrong color, wrong religion, or have a lifestyle that the Powers That Be believe is wrong.  Our society is like a huge dysfunctional family, complete with its narcissistic and abusive leaders, its golden children, and its scapegoats.  This should not be the case.  God,  please heal the hatred and fear that permeate our society and keeps people from being neighborly and charitable toward one another.  Please make dysfunctional families whole and healthy again, and give the scapegoats of both society and of dysfunctional families relief from their suffering and pain.  Make “the least of these” realize they are as worthwhile and valuable to you as the powerful ruling class who seems to have every earthly thing.

I ask these things in the name of your son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Angels among us.

earthangels

God sometimes comes through in small, unexpected ways when we appeal to him for help.  I think he appoints certain people to serve as angels right here on earth.    A dear friend of mine, active for a long time on this blog, empathized with my problems coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and offered to purchase me a light therapy lamp, knowing I could not afford one. (They aren’t cheap).   I burst into tears of gratitude when she told me she was buying me one.  She didn’t want me to pay her back either.

Yesterday I got my package from Amazon.  At first I couldn’t imagine why I was getting a package, since I haven’t ordered anything recently.  I had forgotten about the light therapy lamp.   But then I remembered, and excitedly opened the package.

It’s a handsome streamlined model, portable, perfect for propping up next to me while I write on my blog.  It also makes a terrific reading light.

There really are angels among us.   You just never know how God will come through.   I’m also taking Melatonin (which regulates the sleep cycle) and St. Johns Wart (a natural herbal antidepressant).  Two new front tires on my car so I don’t have to worry about sliding all over the roads when the ice and snow starts, and I’m good to go.

I’ll let you all know how this regimen works on my SAD.

Here are two photos of my new light (closed and open).

light_therapy1 light_therapy2

Beauty from Broken Pieces

There’s beauty in brokenness.

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Untangled

I don’t hide in the shadows any longer. It was a conscious decision, although at the time I didn’t really know what that meant. My memoir was published a year ago. I went from no one knowing my story to letting the whole world know my story. It’s more than a story, it’s my life, my truth. It’s true that I don’t lay out all the sordid details of my past in my book, and very few people in my life have earned the right to hear all the details, but, I share enough of myself and the resulting struggles I have with PTSD that I’m comfortable with the volume of my voice and that I’m being heard and making some wonderful connections.

I still struggle every day. It’s the way it is for me. Fall is a particularly hard time of year. Now, instead of pretending all is well while feeling…

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Going with the flow.

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I wanted to get up early and walk on the beach at sunrise, but I guess I was so exhausted from my long drive yesterday and busy evening (also stayed up late blogging about it and chatting with my son) that my body needed extra sleep, and I didn’t get up until about 1 PM!

No worries though.  My son has to work all night tonight so he was still asleep too.   I quietly ate some cereal and headed out. I decided to go back to Rees Park, where we witnessed the sun set last night.   I felt like it was calling me back.  This time I had the presence of mind to wear a swimsuit.

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The day was hot, very hot–95 degrees and very sunny.    I drove to Rees Park and immediately smelled the ocean smell and felt the soothing sea breeze, making it seem cooler.    I noticed that unlike last night when we were there, the tide was coming in.  There were no sandbars and there were very small waves (really, more like ripples), and a lot less of the beach was visible.   Banks of puffy white clouds dotted the horizon against the bright, almost electric blue of the sky.

I took off my sandals and stepped into the water.  It was as warm as bathwater!  So unlike the ocean water further north, even as far south as Myrtle Beach. Of course, this was the Gulf, a smaller body of water than the Atlantic Ocean, so that probably had a lot to do with the very warm temperature.

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I waded out into the water, and when I looked down, I saw small schools of tan colored fish swimming around my feet.  I squeezed my toes into the very fine, silt-like sand, an lowered myself into the water.   It was like sinking into a bathtub, only so much better.

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I closed my eyes and used the rest of my senses to feel nature around me.  I felt the ripples gently rocking me, and I just let my body respond to that, rolling over and floating and stretching every part of me that could be stretched.  I breathed in the salty air and listened to the seagulls on the shore.  I scooped up some of the silt-like sand into my hands, and squeezed the water out of it until the claylike substance squeezed out between my fingers and left a small ball in my hands.   I looked at it and could see many tiny shells and fragments of shells studded throughout the ball.    It felt so nice in my hands I decided to rub it all over my arms and then lifted my legs out of the water and rubbed some of it on those too.

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I looked around me and saw a few other people, also just relaxing and enjoying nature.    I had a short conversation with a woman lying in the water nearby, who was visiting her mother.   She said this was better than going to a spa, and I agreed.

I just sat there, not caring that the tide was now getting dangerously close to where I’d laid my things.  I looked down into the clear greenish water and then looked out where it seemed to stretch out into infinity, becoming dark blue as it receded into the distance.   I looked down again and there were those little fish swimming all around me, as if protecting me.    I looked back at the beach and gazed at the palm trees and listened to the hissing of their fronds in the gentle breeze.    For a rare moment, I was completely in the moment, not worrying about the future or fretting over something in the past.  I just was me, just a part of nature.  Not my ego or my achievements or my failures or my fear or my anger or my shame.   Just me.

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I felt the healing energy of the sun, sand and water that cradled me, and realized that this was all God’s doing.   It wasn’t the water rocking and comforting me, it was God holding me gently and using the warm water to do that.  I never felt like I got that from my family or anyone else I loved, but God has always been there, always ready to hold and comfort me.  All I had to do was ask and be open to it.   I felt a lump of gratitude form in my throat and thanked him for bringing me to this place.   Through grace, I knew I would be healed, that one day my mental disorders would be a thing of the past.

When I got back to the apartment, I found out an answer to an earlier prayer was answered favorably.   I think that has everything to do with what I found out on the beach today.

Little Miracles.

GodsGrace[1]

God keeps sending me all these little gifts and surprises that are becoming proof to me that he listens and cares.   I’ve written about a few of these before.  A few others are too hard to explain so I haven’t talked about them. Another one happened today, sort of a big one.

Katie from Dreams of a Better World blog and I have been having a lot of discussions (in the comments) about the nature of suffering and what it means.  She’s also written some excellent and moving blog posts about it.    A whole book could be written about this topic (and maybe has), but here’s the short version of what we both think suffering means.

God doesn’t cause us to suffer or make bad things happen.  He isn’t a big bully in the sky. But he allows those things to happen and asks us to trust him when life looks hopeless.   He uses those things so we learn to lean on him, and then he will begin to show us in small ways that he is there, and that increases faith.

What happened today seems like a dream, but I think it’s the beginning of a spiritual awakening…maybe.   Time will tell.  I know I’m changing, and they are all good changes. I don’t think these changes would be happening without God and the reason why things never changed before, was because I wasn’t ready to trust him or lean on him yet.  I was still too proud and too suspicious and untrusting and skeptical because of my past. But you need to lean in completely and just let go. But that came later.

You reach a spiritual low that can go no further, in our cases caused by prolonged abuse, and one day we realize we must fight to survive.   But we’re so weak and beaten down, how can we fight?   But we do.   We get angry at first, and rage and pound our fists against the walls and at the sky and maybe at God himself.  But soon the angry fires burn themselves out and are replaced with a sort of openness.  I can’t explain this openness but it happens after the anger.  It’s like you’re empty and waiting.  Waiting for what, you don’t know.   You’re exhausted.

If you’re a writer, you start to write. Katie and are both write and that’s the tool God has given us to draw us closer to him, and to help us make sense of what happened to us. So we started blogs. For someone else, it might be art or music. Creativity is very close to spirituality, and it is given to us through grace.

That’s when God steps in.

And then everything begins to change.

Getting back to the conversation Katie and I were having in the comments about suffering, I decided to go to Mass today.  I never go on Saturday but something told me to go today.  The homily was about–

You guessed it.  The nature of suffering and how God uses it to humble us and mold us into who he wants us to be. 

I couldn’t believe it. This couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.   I felt my heart open.  Wiping away tears, I looked up at Jesus on the cross and whispered thank you.

After a lifetime of not knowing what I was put here for or what I wanted to do, and not being passionate about much of anything,  the clouds are finally beginning to clear and some kind of plan is coming together for the rest of my life, and it’s nothing I could have ever dreamed up myself.

Whenever I tried to make choices without God, I always made the wrong ones and was back to where I started or worse.   But now, I’m finally starting to see the path that God has laid out for me, because my faith is growing.  And it’s the little miracles like what happened today  that are helping with that.

 

 

When a scapegoat dances in the love of God

This post just begs to be reblogged.

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Changes.

changes

I never used to be able to relate to “positive thinking” statements.  They seemed trite and shallow, as if they were made up for other people–people with normal lives, normal families, normal incomes, good jobs, who didn’t suffer from mental illness, who hadn’t been abused by almost everyone they had known, and who had an actual future to look forward to.

Dying slowly.

When I was with my narcopath ex,  I really didn’t have a future.  Not if I’d stayed with him.  I was slowly dying a long, excruciating death–a death by annihilation of my spirit. His abuse was effecting my body, my mind, my emotions, and my soul.    Pictures of me taken when I was with him compared to pictures taken of me now show the toll the relationship was taking on me.   I looked older 3 years ago than I do now–and my depression showed on my face in every picture, even the smiling ones.  I was overweight and miserable. Even my hair looked depressed, dull and without shine. When I was told to “just think positive” I felt nothing but rage and frustration.  How could I even hope to have a better life, how could I even hope to ever be happy?   A smiley face meme, a “thought for the day,” or “inspirational” coffee mug just wasn’t going to do it for me.   And those things can be shallow and trite, but that doesn’t mean that a positive outlook is forever barred from me.  It doesn’t mean I can’t still find happiness.

 Cynicism and bitterness.

Even if I hadn’t been abused, by nature, I’m a depressive sort of person.   As an INFJ, I think deeply about things and feel them even more deeply.    I’m a worrywart who tends to see the glass as half empty.  I catastrophize and ruminate and obsess and worry about almost everything.  I get upset when I hear about wars, murders, shootings, racism, sexism, injustice, unkindness in general, and most of all, the abuse of animals and kids.  Or  the abuse of anyone for that matter.

I see all the trappings of success–big houses, late model cars, vacations, the latest this or that–and feel depressed because those things will never be mine.   I wasn’t invited to be in the Club.   I feel victimized and alone in the world.  I used to think God hated me.   I almost became an atheist–but not quite.   I always felt *some* kind of presence, but didn’t think that presence thought very highly of me.  I even thought that my purpose for existing was to be an example to others of what not to be.  I felt like I was held in contempt and condescending pity by everyone.  But what I didn’t know was I was projecting my own sense of self-hatred and hopelessness onto whatever Higher Intelligence was out there and everyone else too.    The internal voices instilled in me by my emotional abusive upbringing echoed down the years and contaminated any ability I had to find joy and meaning in life.   I became bitter and cynical, and turned up my nose at “happy people,” assuming they had no depth at all–but was it really just because I envied their ability to feel joy?

Slouching toward heaven. 

godareyouthere

When I finally went No Contact with my ex, things began to change.  Not a lot at first, but for the first time ever, I felt some hope and even fleeting glimpses of joy.   I started to blog. Writing down my feelings about what happened to me helped me make sense of them.  Through blogging, I found a community of others in a similar situation.  I no longer felt so alone.  Blogging was the best sort of self-therapy I could have hoped for.    A talent for writing was the one tool I had that began to help me be able to lift myself out of the mire.

Eventually, this got me to the point of wanting something more–an actual relationship with God.  A lifelong agnostic, I began going to church and decided to become Catholic.   I started to pray a lot more (I call it “talking to God,” which sounds friendlier).   My faith was shaky and fragile (and still is), but I kept plugging away, asking God to give me the ability to trust him and to give me faith.   If I couldn’t trust other people, it was especially hard to trust an entity I couldn’t even see.    Sometimes I felt like God wasn’t listening and had doubts that he existed at all.   But God was always someone I could turn to when no one else seemed to care.   I had no choice!   Over time, I felt myself beginning to change from within.  I began to appreciate the things I had more, instead of feeling resentful and envious of others for having more than I did.   I’ve even had a few of those rare transformative moments of  gratitude and happiness so profound it brought me to tears.

I am grateful.

I may not have a lot, but I have what I need, and that’s a lot more than many.   I don’t live in the best house in the world, but it’s a nice place to live and I like its cuteness and coziness.   I don’t drive a late model car, but I have one that’s reliable and gets me where I need to go.   I don’t come from a big loving supportive family, but I have two wonderful children who I have a good relationship with.   I can’t afford to take real vacations, but I have a car to go on short day trips.  I live in a beautiful part of the country, even if I’m jaded and don’t appreciate it as much as I used to.  I can sit on my porch and see mountains and trees and flowers and see the night sky.  I can hear birds singing outside my window.  I don’t have to look outside my window and see a back alley full of broken glass and hear sirens and people fighting all night.  I don’t love my job, but it pays for what I need and there are a lot worse things I could be doing.   I have two wonderful cats.  I have writing ability.  My blog is doing well and is not only helping me, but it’s helping others too.  I have a wonderful, empathic therapist who almost seemed to drop out of the sky at just the right time.  Lately, I’ve been finding myself thinking that my glass is half full instead of half empty.  That’s God changing my attitude in a really big way.

It’s not a smooth road.  I still get triggered and go back to my old thinking patterns.  I stil have days where I feel hopeless and unloved.  These attitudes are so ingrained in me that removing them sometimes feels like performing a skeleton transplant.  But all I have to do is lean on God and tell him I can’t handle it myself–and things do begin to look better. God is working on me, changing my attitudes, and people have said they’ve noticed a difference in me.

Big changes, bright future.

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I have a very strong feeling that God is planning a major change for me in the near future–a change that would give me a whole fresh start and more choices than I’ve had.   It looks very likely that in the very near future, probably before winter (my least favorite season–I hate it!) sets in, I will be moving to Florida to join my son.   I won’t be living with my son; I will have my own place.   He thinks he can get me a job where he works too.   I will be living near the beach.  I can watch the sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico every night if I want.   While I love the North Carolina mountains, they don’t speak to my soul the way the ocean does, not even after 23 years of living here.   I grew up in coastal New Jersey and New York and used to hit the beach every weekend in the summer since it was no more than an hour away from where I lived.   The ocean is in my blood. Here where I live now, getting to the beach requires planning a vacation or at least a weekend getaway since the closest beach is a five hour drive away.   I never have enough funds to do that though.  I haven’t seen the ocean since 2008.   That’s far too long.

I have no ties to North Carolina. There’s nothing left for me here–no friends, no family, no pressing commitments–so I won’t have any misgivings about packing up and leaving when the time is imminent.   I’m trying to get my daughter to come with me, because I think she needs a change too.  There’s nothing left for her here either except her dad, but he is a toxic person and her relationship with him is a codependent one.  She may not want to leave him though. She feels responsible for him.    But when and if she decides enough is enough (and I’m praying she does), the invitation to join me and her brother is always open.

I think that this move will change my life in so many positive ways.   No, of course it won’t be perfect, but I will be living near my son again, I will near my beloved ocean again, and I can make a fresh start in a new place, free of all the ghosts of my abusive past I still associate with where I live now, and which continue to haunt me at times.   I imagine myself in my little house or apartment, or sitting in front of the ocean, listening to the waves and the gulls, finally writing the book I keep saying I’m going to write.   And I’ll thank my Heavenly Father every day for presenting me with such a positive life changing choice.   I never felt like I had choices before.  Now I think I do.

Why God has waited until now, I don’t really know,  but it’s probably because I wasn’t ready.   I wouldn’t have appreciated it.  Maybe he wanted me to appreciate the things I already have first, before blessing me with new opportunities.    Now, when I see positive thinking memes or inspirational quotes, I actually pay attention.   Yes, they are trite and can be shallow and annoying when nothing else of substance is being given, but they do seem to have more meaning now.  Is that because I feel like God is finally smiling down on me so I can relate to them better, or is it because I’ve changed enough to pay attention?

Little gifts.

God shows up at the strangest times.  Earlier today I was at the Laundromat, and as I waited for my wash, I found a small devotional book called “Fear Not Tomorrow, God is Already There,” by Ruth Graham.  It was sitting right there on the table, on top of a bunch of advertising circulars.   A few years ago I would have left the book there.  Today I took it home with me and said a small prayer of thanks.  I know God left it there for me on purpose.  I’ve realized he is always trying to show you in small ways how much he loves you, but if you’re not paying attention you won’t notice.    If you open your heart to God and just talk to him, like you’d talk to your best friend or a loving parent, your heart will begin to change and your faith will grow stronger in tandem with that–and then it’s possible your whole life might take a turn for the better too.  It’s so simple–how did it take me so long to see this beautiful truth?  I feel in my bones that the last half of my life is going to be when the harvest comes in–a harvest rooted in the pain of my past.

Is there a reason why we suffered so much?

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One last thought.   There’s an old Buddhist proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”   Everyone who ever touched my life has been a teacher to me. Yes, even the narcissists.   Maybe especially them.  If it weren’t for them, I would not be who I am today.  I don’t think I would be as deep or as spiritual or value empathy and kindness as much as I do.   I don’t think I would have the same sort of relationship with God.  Many of the most spiritual (not necessarily religious–that’s a different animal!) people I know came from abusive backgrounds.   They suffered terribly and carried that heavy spiritual load all their lives, then finally turned to God because there was no one else.  In pain there comes much wisdom.     Maybe God allows some of us to experience more adversity so we learn to lean on him instead of other people–and then when we learn to trust him, he finally blesses us with people who can help us and love us unconditionally.   No, we should never have been abused by our narcissists.  It definitely wasn’t fair.  But out of that kind of adversity we can learn so much about ourselves, about human nature, and even learn to help others who suffer like we did.   And that is my greatest wish now–to help others heal.

A close call.

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My son took this photo while waiting for the tow truck. Look at the wheel.

Earlier today, my son called me. He told me that while crawling along in slow moving traffic, his car suddenly wouldn’t steer properly. He heard some metallic sounds like something breaking, and suddenly his steering wheel stopped working at all! Fortunately, he reacted quickly, and slammed the car into Park and put the hazards on.

He got out of the car to look under the hood, but he saw someone in another car pointing to his front driver’s side wheel. It was bent sideways. He called a towing service and at the shop they told him his wheel was about to fall off!

He’d been on his way to work, and because he was unable to come in, lost a day’s pay as well as having to shell out some bills for the repairs (AAA is covering the tow). Working as a shift manager in a convenience store, he’s not exactly wealthy.

He could have been really angered by the inconvenience and expense. He could have groused about the lost pay and the fact he has to pass on meeting up with some of his friends tonight. It’s certainly understandable he would be at least a little irritated by all that! I know I would be.

But he was looking at this a different way. He said he felt blessed. I asked him what he meant, and he said, “It could have been so much worse! I could have been driving at 65mph on the Interstate!” My son is an atheist, but he said he felt like some sort of presence, if not actually God, must have been protecting him and made sure he was driving at only 6mph when his wheel began to go.

Thinking about what could have happened to my son was sobering, but how right he is! Something that seems like a huge pain in the butt can actually be God’s way of keeping us safe from something much worse. You just never know.

Sometimes I think my son is wise beyond his years.

Why I love liturgy.

A view of the famed Rose Window in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France.

A view of the famed Rose Window in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France.

Back in April, during the Easter Vigil mass, I became a Roman Catholic. This came as a surprise to many people I know, since I’d spent most of my life as an agnostic and at times veered close to atheism. I’ve also toyed with Buddhism and Scientology (and I admit I still have a soft spot for Buddhism because it appeals to my rational mind, and that isn’t likely to change). Due to the recent charges of sexual abuse taking place in the Catholic church, this oldest and largest of all Christian denominations has become more criticized than ever, and probably rightfully so. I don’t think it’s the only religious organization that has been guilty of such behaviors, but I think it’s the most publicized. I’m also not ignorant of the fact that the Catholic Church has a bloody and often very un-Christlike history, especially during the Middle Ages, as well as being the wealthiest religious organization in the world and often full of hypocrisy. In addition, I do not believe that being a Catholic is the only way to salvation. Any Christian who has accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior in their hearts will get to Heaven, regardless of denomination (why did I almost spell that DEMONination?) and don’t necessary even have to attend church at all.

So why did I become a Catholic, you ask. Why did I join a church that’s so rife with its past of violence, and a present still full of intolerance, sexism, and heirarchy? The answer to this is complicated.

I was raised in a family that although nominally Christian, was basically agnostic. We did not attend church regularly (although I was sent to Sunday school as a young child), and holidays like Christmas and Easter were recognized more for their fun/materialistic secularity (gift giving, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, new Easter dresses and coats, etc.) than for the solemn events in the life of Christ they actually honor. My family regarded them as “children’s holidays” that adults indulged and that would eventually be outgrown. Although I was baptized Methodist (and I was surprised to learn my Protestant baptism was recognized as valid by the Catholic Church), we never became very active in any church and therefore were not part of any enduring “church family.” When church was attended, it was a sterile, secular affair, full of feel-good stories of God’s unconditional love, lessons about tolerance and social justice (nothing wrong with that, of course, but it wasn’t very religious nor fill me with a sense of awe or wonder), and very little that was Biblical or traditional. Services revolved mainly around the sermon, always a feel-good pep talk about God’s all-encompassing love and loving one another. All of this clap-happy, touchy feely reformed-Protestant stuff flew in the face of the constant anger, rage, loneliness, and discord that was constantly going on at home. Due to that, all the messages about positive-thinking and feel-goodness seemed insincere and meaningless, and didn’t address the very real problems in my family that made me feel so defective and different from everyone else.

For a short time–maybe one or two years–my father became fascinated by Christian Science, and I was sent to a Christian Science Sunday school. I was too young to comprehend the metaphysical beliefs they espoused, which basically preached that all that was material was an illusion, and only Spirit mattered (later my father would become active in Religious Science, a similar belief system that isn’t based in Christianity and overlaps a great deal with New Thought, part of the New Age movement). I couldn’t wrap my young brain around the metaphysical mumbo jumbo I heard on Sunday and I desperately needed something tangible to offset my growing feelings of dissociation from myself and the rest of humanity and from God Himself. I was filled with uncertainty about what was real and what wasn’t. Living on a diet of spiritual junk food, I was starving for emotional and spiritual sustenance. Although I coudn’t have put it into words, I needed to experience the Divine with my five senses.

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How I envied these girls!

Enter Catholic school. In 5th grade, the bullying at the local public school became so bad that my parents decided to take matters into their own hands and despite their misgivings about the Catholic Church, I was sent to a Catholic girls’ school. My grades immediately improved and I found it easier to make friends with these girls than at the public school. My parents were surprised (and probably a little disturbed) that one of my favorite classes (and the one I did best at) was Religion. I didn’t become religious back then, nor did my faith in God deepen (I was for all intents and purposes agnostic), but I found myself always looking forward to the masses we used to have at school on religious days. Although the highly liturgical services confused me at first (knowing when to stand up and sit down, memorize the various prayers, etc) I found myself drawn to the orderliness and beauty of the Mass. It somehow seemed Godlike and was steeped in history that the Protestant services I’d attended with my parents just didn’t have. I envied the cool trappings of Catholicism (when the other girls were going through Confirmation, they got a new name and a pretty dress and I wanted that too) and longed to be able to take Communion with everyone else. I wanted a set of my own rosary beads. Today I know these things really don’t matter (I think whatever denomination you are–even if none at all–is a matter of personal preference) but at my tender age, these tangible things seemed part of some wonderful, sacred, mysterious and heavenly world I couldn’t be part of. Sitting there in my folding chair watching the proceedings, I always felt the presence of God and a benevolent, forgiving love I never felt from my own family, even though I had to remain seated during the communion. It was one of the few places where I could feel the benevolence of God.

Many cradle Catholics remember negative experiences from their childhood about the Church and turned away from it as they came of age, but as someone who only knew it as a refuge from the harsh realities that took place in my agnostic home, I never developed those negative associations with Catholicism. I loved most of the nuns at my school. With one or two exceptions, they seemed so kind and compassionate, very saintlike–and they seemed to care about me in a way I never felt I got from my own family. Although I never talked about what went on at home, one nun in particular who seemed to favor me for some reason, guessed that things at home weren’t ideal, and told me to come see her anytime I needed to talk. I never did (for fear of what might happen if I “squealed” about the family to an outsider), but it felt good to know that she cared enough to reach out to me.

As I grew older I fell away from Christianity (not that I’d ever really embraced it much and knew next to nothing about the Bible or the life of Christ), and experimented with other belief systems, including Scientology and Buddhism, if anything at all. The Bible seemed to me like a book of ancient fairy tales with no relevance to my own life. I rarely prayed and looked down on churchgoing and religious people as ignorant and deluded. Although I never embraced full-on atheism (it was too depressing to think there was no afterlife at all), I thought that if God existed, he was pretty much hands-off and that everyone, other than the most hardened criminals and mean, cruel people, would get to Heaven, if there even was such a place. The concept of reincarnation made a lot more logical sense to me than the idea of heaven or hell.

But my soul was still starving and I think deep down I always knew this. Every once in a while, in spite of my doubts about the existence of God, I’d make time to attend a Catholic mass. I didn’t believe what they preached, in fact I thought most of it was pretty silly, but I loved the ritual and the order, and somehow always came away feeling transcended. I’d go take Communion (knowing as a non-Catholic I wasn’t supposed to) and feel somehow nourished. In a way I couldn’t explain, witnessing the reverence and beauty of the Mass, made me feel like part of something much bigger than myself and accepted for who I was, not (as in my FOO) expected to be someone I could never be.

I toyed with other Christian faiths, including Lutheranism and the Southern Baptist church. During the late 1980s, I attended a Lutheran church (and was confirmed as Lutheran) mainly because the man I married was Lutheran. The services were called masses and were very liturgical and quite similar in many ways to the Catholic mass, but they seemed watered down, somehow. For instance, the communion wafer was regarded as symbolic rather than being the actual Body of Christ. We never became deeply involved with the Lutheran church, and although we had our kids baptized Lutheran, we did not attend church on Sundays or otherwise do much to encourage their spiritual development.

When we moved to North Carolina from northern New Jersey, we were faced with culture shock–instead of having mostly Catholic and Jewish neighbors, suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by Southern Baptists who insisted we needed to be “saved.” Still looking for spiritual nourishment, I started attending services at the local Baptist church as well as Bible studies on Tuesdays nights. My kids attended 2 years of Vacation Bible School. I never cottoned to the hellfire-and-brimstone preaching though, or the literal interpretation of the Bible. I was especially turned off by the church’s conservative political agenda, that actually told us we were “going to Hell” if we didn’t vote Republican, as well as their dismissal of science. I decided to stop attending church there.

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Hellfire-and-brimstone preaching is a turn off to me.

A few years later, my daughter had a friend at school whose parents were Southern Baptists, and my daughter, age 9 at the time, decided to be baptized in their church. I was fine with that, even though I disagreed with the southern Baptist belief system, because it took the burden off of me to be responsible for her spiritual growth. I attended her baptism and was surprised at how modern the service was, with a pop-rock band that played contemporary Christian music rather than traditional hymns. Intrigued, I decided to attend a few more services, but I always felt like I was at a rock concert rather than at church. In spite of the emphasis on Biblical literalism, during the long, emotional sermons, I never felt my soul uplifted or any real feeling of spiritual transcendence. Although very different from the touchy-feely, heaven-awaits-no matter-what-you-do preaching of the liberal Protestantism of my childhood, this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching bookended by Christian contemporary music with the words splashed on a huge TV screen didn’t do much for me either. I longed for tradition, for history, for meaning.

I still occasionally attended Catholic masses, but never thought I’d actually become one. But shortly after I went No Contact with my ex (who freeloaded off me and mentally abused me for almost 7 years following our divorce and nearly bled me dry emotionally, mentally, financially, and spiritually) I began to blog. My mental and physical health came back first, and then I realized I was still starving spiritually. I needed God, who after all, had been watching and protecting me all the time I was in an abusive marriage and had shown me on several occasions how real He was. Last October, I decided to start attending Mass as well as RCIA classes (the classes you take to become Catholic). I had doubts about much of the doctrine (and truth be told, still do). I still wasn’t sure I wanted to become Catholic, but I thought I should at least take the classes and make an educated decision.

To my surprise, I found that Catholic doctrine isn’t very different from what I’ve always believed anyway. The Bible is held as important (more important than many fundamentalist Christians believe we do) but much of its content is not not interpreted literally and therefore doesn’t fly in the face of centuries of scientific discovery and achievement. Yes, we are saved by grace alone (all Christians are), but works are also important and are tangible evidence of God’s grace. Sacraments (communion, confession, etc) give tangibility to God’s grace although (I don’t think) they are necessary for salvation. Confession is not a punishment; it is an opportunity to unload to someone else and makes you feel better afterwards (very similar to a 4th step in a 12-step program). Although I had my doubts at first, I’ve come to believe the Host (the communion wafer) does actually become the body of Christ, due to the glorious, transcended way I always feel after partaking. I do feel like my soul is being changed for the better, even though it’s not a Saul-to-Paul-like sudden conversion full of fireworks and drama.

I admit I do still have some issues, mostly having to do with the Catholic church’s stance on social matters such as abortion and homosexuality, as well as the fact that priests still must be male. I don’t think the Pope is infallible either (he is just a man), but I understand the reasoning behind having a Pope and I happen to like the current Pope anyway. I don’t venerate Mary and the saints, although I have utmost respect for them. Veneration isn’t the same as worship, anyway. Only Jesus as God is worshipped so there’s nothing un-Christian there, a far as I’m concerned.

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Because of my doubts and personal proclivities, I’ll probably never be the “perfect Catholic” or “perfect Christian” but that’s okay. I pray that God keeps working on my soul to cleanse it from sin and I’m willing to believe anything God wants me to believe. I’m willing to turn my soul and my life over to the Creator. Whenever I’m at mass, I feel part of a vast family and something glorious, beautiful and so much bigger than myself or all humanity. I feel accepted in God’s kingdom and have begun to fear death and the future less than I used to. The tangibility, beauty and order of the liturgical tradition–the memorized call-and-response prayers, the communion procession, the incense, the swelling organ music and the singing, the kneeling and the standing, the Sign of the Cross, and all the rest of these “silly rituals”–makes me feel that God is a tangible, real thing, someone who is RIGHT THERE and that I can see, hear, smell, feel, touch and even taste. The traditional hymns with their pipe-organ and piano music and the ancient prayers imbue a sense of mystery and history into the services that neither liberal Protestantism or fundamentalist pop-rock sing-alongs do for me. And I love the Bible readings too. I’m beginning to feel that the messages in the Bible do have meaning for me personally. The orderliness and ritual of the mass is regarded by some as mindless, dull and lacking spontaneity (and to some extent I can understand this view), but I find the repetitive and predictable aspects such as the call-and-response prayers and chants to have an uncanny way of eventually filtering down from my mind into the deepest part of my heart, in a way a hellfire-and-brimstone or feel-good, prosperity-gospel sermonizing can never do.

Before becoming Catholic, I toyed with the idea of becoming Eastern Orthodox, a religion which, if anything, is even more liturgical and steeped in ritual, history, and tradition than the modern Catholic church (and is somewhat more liberal in its stance on women’s rights and birth control), but finding a sizable Orthodox community here in the Southern United States is a huge challenge to say the least. I did actually attend one Orthodox mass about five years ago (my son’s Kung Fu teacher was Russian Orthodox and invited us to attend his church), and although it was incredibly beautiful (and the food served afterwards was delicious), the feel of the Orthodox mass was a little too “foreign” for my taste. Anglicanism (The Church of England) also has a rich liturgical tradition (please see my Christmas post “O Come All Ye Faithful”) but again, is uncommon here in the southern US, and it’s still Protestantism anyway. I like the idea of being part of the oldest and largest practicing Christian community in the world that has such a rich and colorful history (even if at times in the past it wasn’t especially Christ-like). I feel proud to be a part of that. Although I know the trappings and ritual are more a matter of personal preference than salvation, for me they make an abstract God seem more real. Coming from such a chaotic, unpredictable background, the order and predictability of the liturgy is food for my soul. My adopted religion may not be the only road to salvation, but it’s the only road for me. Thanks be to God.

Millennials and liturgical Christianity.
As an aside, the Millennial generation, although largely turned off by religion, are, when drawn to religion, are converting to “high church” (liturgical) Christianity such as Anglicanism, Catholicism, and the Orthodox church. They are a generation that (like me, even though I’m not a Millennial) longs for a sense of tradition and connection with history that’s lacking in the evangelical, fundamentalist, and liberal Protestantism or New Age or atheistic belief systems they were raised with, all of which largely ignore or dismiss 1800 years of Christian history and tradition.

Further reading:
Why Millennials Long for Liturgy: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/why-millennials-long-for-liturgy/
Millennials are Seeking Tradition, Sacramentality, and Liturgy: http://www.catholicvote.org/millennials-are-seeking-tradition-sacramentality-and-liturgy/