Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Me and God

I just discovered that a well-loved fellow traveler seems to be on the path to miscarriage. The heartbeat is gone at 10 weeks. Amid all the thoughts, this one kept recurring: I'm glad I don't believe in God. If I did, I'd struggle so mightily with understanding how He could subject a good person to this experience. It would seem like such a complete betrayal. I'd feel that He was so unloving.

I hope so much I don't offend anyone by expressing my thoughts on this subject. I know it's a touchy one. I have great respect for people of faith. In fact, I was not always an atheist.

When I was four, my parents divorced and my mother moved us to a tiny town in northern New Mexico. She decided we should become Catholics. She grew up Catholic, though she had morphed into a sort of pagan by the time we were born, so for her it was partly a return to the fold. But I think her main motivation was not a resurgence of her faith but a desire to avoid complete social ostracism. Everyone else in town was Mexican, Spanish speaking, and Catholic. We were the only non-Mexicans within a good 50 mile radius. (In case you object to my use of Mexican rather than Hispanic, this is how they referred to themselves 'cause they traced their lineage from Mexico, not HispaƱola.) To be white and not Catholic would have been too much, I think. So we were baptized. My mother even managed to find me a gay godfather, which is pretty awesome given that the population of the town was about 300.

Church in this town was a remarkable experience. The tiny church was decorated in what asshole academics like myself would refer to as folk art. It was beautiful. Mass was in Spanish. I still remember the prayers and say them to myself sometimes. I particularly love the second half of the Hail Mary: Santa Maria, madre de Dios / Ruega por nosotros, los pecadores / Ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte, Amen. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Very goth.

I was a dedicated Catholic. I was always searching for Grace. Apparently I was quite a little martyr, too, always wanting to sacrifice things to show my love for God. But my faith disappeared when I was about 10. I don't know why, but I no longer believed. I remember crying because I realized I'd never see my father in heaven--that once he died, it was over. I don't expect my faith to come back. I am also angry at the Catholic church for many of its teachings. It seems to emphasize shame and guilt so much, rather than love and kindness. But my goal is not to criticize the church, simply to say that I've had the experience of faith, and I've had the experience of no faith.

If you do believe, how do you draw strength from God? I know the standard line: you tell yourself that you are not always able to understand His plan, that you just have to give yourself over to Him. But there must be more to it than that. If you are willing to share your experiences, I would find it helpful to hear them. Maybe it's not something that can be put into words.

And if you are not a person of faith, what do you do in your darkest hours to comfort your soul?


  1. Bunny, I am the same as you! My mom was raised Catholic, and made half-hearted attempts to bring us to church sporadically while we were growing up. I always HATED going to church. What a waste of a Sunday! I didn't actually think much about "Is there a God?" until, like you, I was about 10. My mom sent me to a religious camp in a lovely location, and we had Bible study where we could find a beautiful place to sit and study the Bible. Now, while sitting in Sunday School was boring, I am naturally a reader and a scholar and a nature lover, so I really took to this Bible study! For the whole week at camp, I concentrated on Knowing God. Striving my little 10-year-old heart out for a personal revelation of Divinity. All week. Which is a long time for a 10 year old to work assiduously at anything. And you know what? Nothing. No God revealed Himself to me. Shucks. The only thing to conclude is 'there is no God', right? Wouldn't He have given me a sign for all my efforts? I've been basically an atheist ever since. Now I'm an evolutionary biologist, so God has no role in my conception of the world/universe, in addition to having no role in my personal life.

    I don't have any idea what it is like to have faith, and I too would love to hear someone explain it. "What it's like to believe in God, for dummies"

    How do I comfort my soul? Alcohol. No, seriously, I basically just remain tortured.

    P.s. Your town in New Mexico sounds AWESOME. Know any good Mexican recipes? I have Diana Kennedy's book, which is great, but sometimes I just don't have the energy to, like, congeal pig's blood. Or find a source for said pig's blood.

    P.p.s. I am so so so so sorry for your blog friend, and if you send over a link, I'd visit her to send her warm thoughts (if you think she'd like that). This shit is just TOO AWFUL. Fuck. (cursing, that's another good one that we sinners use to comfort the soul).

  2. P.p.p.s. I always thought it was funny when people, particularly certain types of Harley-Davidson riders, proclaim themselves as 'sinners'. As in, "Yahh, baby, I'm a sinnah!!" I'm like, you believe in Hell and you CHOOSE to go there? Or maybe, like some of us, they are already there.

  3. It's a good question, Bunny. Since I wasn't raised in any particular denomination, I have always struggled with what to "call myself". I went to a Catholic and taught in Catholic school. But, my beliefs are mostly Buddhist in nature.

    In my darkest hour, I turn to poetry. I have several poems that bring me comfort at my times of need. "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver is one of my enduring favorites.

  4. Jaysus, I could write forever on the subject of religion. I am firmly anti. The product of a half-Southern Baptist, half-Catholic family and married into a mostly Catholic, partially born-again family, I just keep my mouth shut at family get-togethers. The hypocrisy and political agendas blow my mind, and the fact that churches are essentially corporations just pisses me off. Most of the rules and regulations are blatantly contrived and many make little to no sense.

    I took great care to study religion in college (science major and philosphy minor, holla!) and feel quite settled that "god" is a human construct, like fables and mythology, to explain things we do not (or once did not) understand. I prefer physics and chemistry to explain the universe, but I think the majority of people in the world prefer religion. And I don't think my world view is any less marvelous or miraculous than the religious view -- the universe is beautiful and fascinating and exciting without giving credit to a dude with a white beard and birkenstocks or "designing" it.

    I am fortunate that I somehow, after emerging from a shit childhood (another topic I could write about forever), have a well-developed sense of resilience and just enough optimism to get through tough times. Oh sure, I suffer. But I actually find more peace in knowing that I have at least limited control over my life, and sometimes no control, rather than "giving it all to god" as some churches preach. I feel more comfortable knowing that I am responsible for my actions; I have free will to decide what I will or will not do in whatever situations I find myself in. None of that "well, it's god's plan and I accidentally fucked it up." So, I let myself suffer through the hard times and channel it into whatever actions will get me through. Which have, at times, involved alcohol. :)

  5. My (Catholic) faith has been firm and shaky over the years, but I actually felt the closest to God I had in a long time in the weeks immediately following my miscarriage. I can't explain, I just felt inwardly assured that all this pain was leading me somewhere I wanted to go.

    Now, I don't believe there's a "plan" in the sense that God wrote my life down in a spiral notebook the day I was born and now I'm just following his script. I believe that God gives us opportunities at every moment to be strong or weak, honest or dishonest, thoughtful or thoughtless, and that if we face these times with our best selves, we'll lead the life he wants for us. I also believe that the "meaning" of life is the meaning we give it.

    (And I'm emphatically not saying that I believe God makes us infertile, gives us miscarriages, or kills babies to make us stronger or make us better or because he needs an angel in heaven. Heaven has so little to do with how I try to live my faith on earth and essentially nothing to do with how I've grieved losing my baby. I honestly just don't think about it much.)

    So-- yeah, there's a lot of Catholic guilt (if you couldn't tell in my posts) about feeling like I fall short all the time. But also, every so often, I'm lucky enough to really feel the force of God's love and to believe that he has something wonderful saved for me if I can only get there intact.

  6. I'm not Catholic, but I'm asian which is enough guilt and shame for a couple of lifetimes. (I really feel for those who have the double whammy of being Catholic and having an asian family.)

    I was never brought up in an organized religion, so over time I've just kind of taken bits and pieces of different faiths and worked them out into something that makes sense. Most of my "faith" is focused on cultivating a sense of love, forgiveness, and respect for all living things.

    It's worked out pretty well for me so far, but the infertility thing is challenging this spirituality hodge-podge I've thrown together.

    I often envy people who can easily and simply believe and can have faith that God/the universe has a plan for them, but if we're going to go with that line of thinking, then I think I was made the contrarian and complicated b*tch that I am for a reason.

  7. I was sort of raised Catholic too. I used to go to mass with my grandmother. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a nun. Since all the nuns were old, I figured I'd get married, raise a family, be widowed, and THEN become a nun. I stopped going in probably fifth grade; I just didn't believe.

    I'm struggling with a related question now, but for different reasons. I'm rolling out adoption scenarios in my head, and particularly what it would mean to become a multiracial family. Adult adoptees in multiracial families insist that the family must have diverse friends, and they suggest church as a way to meet people. I like the idea of joining a community and getting involved, but I'm just not a church-y person. I actually browsed churches online this weekend. I could get behind the Unitarians, but they seem to be all white. I just can't see joining a real christian church.

    I don't have any particular source of solace, although I'm grateful for having a great partner and a stable career that I really do love.

  8. My father is the son of a preacher and I attended one of those brain washing Christian schools, that would now just be a home school program. If you've watched Jesus Camp, you've seen my life at some point. I've watched an 8-year-old witness on the subject of abortion. Awful, right? Needless to say I rebelled against that pretty heavily in college and completely lost faith. My spiritual journey would fill too many pages here, so let's just settle that I never went back to that extreme, but I settled somewhere as Gnostic Jesus Buddist. And have rabid, mouth-frothing hatred for Bible thumpers and Jesus freaks. I share that same feeling in general for devout lives of ignorance. If nothing else, my early years have given me fuel for firing up all sorts of crazy stories that I hope to one day tell.

    I wish I could say that the worst thing that has ever happened to me was my unlucky cinco count, but it's not. I breathe faith in an effort to rekindle what little hope I have that this world isn't all shit and pain. Faith for me can be summed up by Mr. Marley "Everything's gonna be alright." Because, at the end of the day, it has to be. Not to say that I didn't wail and hate God when I lost those babies. I did. I don't believe that it was any plan of a being to make me suffer any more than I have already. What I do believe is that I am not dead yet and that for all the things going wrong, I have a lot going right. I cling to the idea that "desire is the root of unhappiness." The thought that wanting the baby so very badly carves that bit out of my heart helps me heal and continue drawing breath each day.

    I believe that there's a reason things are going wrong with me, and I accept that bringing that life into the world might be beyond my control. Faith is continuing to try despite the failures and trusting that when I get knocked down again, that I'll be broken but not done for. That despite hitting the crushing bottom spiked nail pit of despairdom, that I'll find something that's still worth living for tomorrow.

    I am very sorry for your friend also send her link along and I'll gladly send my kindest words of support.

  9. I am so very sorry to hear about your friend. If she has a blog please post the link as I would love to send her some support. Or if she doesn't, perhaps you could just let her know that people are thinking of her.

    I don't believe in God in any way that is portrayed by any organised religion. It's a very tough question, I'm not sure I can really begin to address it. I tend to seek solace in nature and contemplation.

  10. I do not believe in God. I don't believe in fate. But I don't think we're all alone here either. I don't mean that in some kind of agnostic sense, like there's "something" out there. I mean that I can find proof every moment of every day that I am part of something bigger than me alone. We share common human experiences, like joy and loneliness and fear and regret and love. We share more primal experiences like hunger, thirst, and an instinct to survive with the creature of the planet. We are part of communities, families, and groups. When I imagine myself belonging in this bigger context I feel less alone. I went through seemingly endless fertility treatments, sometimes wishing I did have faith but at the same time by not believing in God I had nothing to direct my anger at, and in some ways I think that made me less angry. You should check out Baby, Interrupted's blog. She has a unique perspective on religion and she writes beautifully.

  11. Firstly - so sorry for your friend who is dealing with an impending m/c. So terribly cruel.

    Religion.... well I was raised christian but to be honest I never ever believed it could be true. Even when I was 5 years old and going to church I'd sit there and wonder what stories the pastor would tell me today. Because thats what they felt like, fairytale stories. I couldnt understand how all these adults could believe the stories were true. But thats just my personal opinion, I'm a black & white, facts & figures kind of girl and if you can't put it into words or explain it to me with logic then I'll have difficulty believing it.

    What do I do in my darkest hour? I search for answers. Its the unanswered questions in my head that cause me to feel lost and out of control. All this infertility carry on is pretty hard on ones mental health and I think its partly because we feel so lost and overwhelmed by the huge amount of unanswered questions hanging over our head.
    Also, blogging has been an amazing reality check for me as instead of sitting in a bubble and feeling like I am going through a unique journey, I am now walking along side many other awesome and IF affected woman who help me put my pain into perspective. That helps ease me out of the darkness.

  12. I'm so sorry about your friend. Life is definitely not fair, and I will never understand how losing a child is part of someone's "master plan".
    I was raised Catholic - not the modernday church you see on every street corner now, but Latin Mass pre-Vatican II, not recognizing the pope as the true head of the church, Catholic.
    I will not go into all of it here, but I prayed for years to FEEL something, anything, to tell me that there was in fact a God out there. Someone told me once that God answered the prayers of children, and I prayed novenas at 12 years old after my parents separated, asking God to keep them from divorcing. When that didn't work, whatever little bit of faith I may have been able to hold together was shattered. I tried for years, desperately, to have some kind of faith. It just didn't work.
    I like the idea of having faith, hate the idea of religion. Love the beauty and mysticism in the old Catholic rites, hate the secrets and lies. I respect other people's faith, yet don't see a real place in my life for it.
    To put it simply, I guess I would be more of an agnostic, but I don't necessarily feel the need to label myself.
    Honestly, I find comfort in my husband and my family, my connections with other people in my life. Those are the people who pull me out of the darkness on a continual basis.

  13. Thank you so much, bunny.

    I don't know that I am a Christian, but I do have a hazy but strangely solid belief in some sort of Universal Plan, a kind of Jungian connectivity, the continuation of the spirit, and a Buddhist belief in life being suffering. A God, well, yes. I would like that, but at the moment, I see it more in terms of energy.

    This sounds very lightweight and flaky, the way I am expressing it - but like you, I didn't choose it, it just kind of settled on me. I would like to have the comfort of ritual an organised religion gives you. But so far I haven't found the one for me. One day, maybe..

  14. I was raised Catholic (attended Catholic school until 9th grade), but as an adult and making my own choices, I don't attend Church or pray or read the Bible, or any of the things I was raised to do. Sometimes I wish I believed in God, because I think that would help me through this.

    Honestly? Running is like Church for me. I have cried and smiled while running. It soothes my soul...it's like physically putting a Band-Aid over my wounds. Of course, I can't run in the dark of night when I can't sleep because of worrying and stress and fear. But if I run regularly, it helps to keep those feelings at bay.

    I am so sorry about your blogger friend's impending miscarriage. That breaks my heart. Lots of support and good thoughts for her.

  15. This is such a good topic. Touchy, maybe. But fascinating. Like you, I had a fairly “scattered” Catholic upbringing – intense at certain points but inconsistent. I was very fervent as a child, and I’ve continued to admire the way that others take solace in their faith. I won’t knock that, or mock it, and I don’t think (as some friends have expressed) that believers are any less intelligent than non-believers. But I don’t believe. I can still sit in a church and get some measure of comfort, but I just don’t believe in the whole. And, like you, I don’t like the shame, or the Church’s stance on a lot of things (including liberation theology, which might have kept me in the fold, if a bit doubtfully).

    As far as solace, I do take a measure of solace in my lack of faith. I don’t feel punished, or tested. I don’t believe that there is a plan. There’s only chance and circumstance. And that allows some things to happen at certain points, and disallows other things. It leaves a crack open in things (according to Leonard Cohen, that’s how the light gets in).

    I’m so sorry about your friend.

  16. First, I love learning about your childhood. It sounds really interesting and you wrote about it so beautifully.
    Second, I'm really glad you wrote about religion. Neither B nor I were raised with any religion, and we're not religious now either. There are so many times I wish I could believe in God because I know it would provide such comfort. Yet I just can't. For me, my solace comes from running, yoga, tennis...for me, these activities are a wonderful respite from the stress of daily life.

  17. (I'm a couple of days behind on my blogging, Bunny, but wanted to register a few thoughts...even though it sounds like many folks have weighed in with thoughts similar to my own. Anyway, sorry for the tardy comment!)

    We were never a church-going family. My mom did take my sisters and me to a baptist church for a couple of year when we were little; I didn't really connect with it, and it felt like we went more for appearances than anything else.

    I had a friend in high school who would invite me to attend church with her on occasion, and she invited me once to go with her to church camp. It was a Southern Baptist church camp, and I'm sure you know where this is leading; it was AWFUL. I spent so much of that week feeling inferior and derelict, and I finally had this AHA! moment of insight about mid-week: faith should never make you dislike yourself. It took me a couple of weeks to recover from that camp experience, and it ultimately resulted in my swearing off organized religion. Just fucking awful. It was terrible.

    I think social work, in many ways, has been both religion and therapy for me. Social work has several core values--that each individual has inherent worth and dignity and deserves respect; that everyone has strengths; that social justice is important; and that you check your biases and judgements at the door. It's a practice model, but it's a life model for me, too. I cling to the thought that people are good, that they can bring goodness to others. I don't know where that comes from, but I don't think I could persist (or exist, even) in my profession without this thought.

    I ditto a lot of what Finch said.

    I started attended a Unitarian Universalist "church" a couple of years ago. I haven't been this year very much, but I typically enjoy it when I go. It's such a diverse group of people--but they're typically very left of the middle, which is a comfort for me. There are lots of atheists who attend, too. They have such a strong emphasis on social justice, and this is what appeals to me. That, and the services are typically intellectual and it feels more like sitting through a good lecture than anything.