A few years ago I read a letter my mother had written to my grandmother after she'd returned from a retreat at her church, some time in the year before she died. She wrote of her strengthened relationship with God, how He'd become so much more real to her, and of her love for Him. It may be that the strength of my mother's faith carried our family into church every week, and was the foundation for my early believing. My father was also a churchgoer, but not as expressive about his faith as my mother was.
I remember being a devout little girl, thrilled when my first communion day came around. I loved the mystery, the rituals, and the symbolism of the church. I was impressed each Good Friday when all the statues and the altar were shrouded in black, and then on Easter when the color white was much more prevalent. The Catholic churches of my childhood used the Latin mass, and I can still recite parts of the liturgy. From first grade through sixth, I went to parochial school, and stayed in the church long enough to go through confirmation, where I was to choose a confirmation name. I decided to take the name of a saint whose holy day fell on November 22, my father's birthday. She was St. Cecilia, patron saint of music. Confirmation names are not legal names, and I don't use the name Cecilia. But I do remember choosing the patron saint of music to watch over me in a special way. Maybe she did.
An untimely death can wreak havoc with the faith of a family, and so it was with mine. Even a simple thing like how the news of a death is relayed can say unintended things about the nature of God.
“God needed your mommy in heaven,” a well-intentioned person told my 6 year old brother. As an adult, he still remembers what he thought. “I need my mommy. God is mean. I don't like God.” I don't remember if I had a similar thought, but I do know my expectations about how the universe was supposed to work got shattered. Bad things did happen to good people. The world no longer felt safe. It didn't make sense.
My father's second wife came from a Protestant tradition. The rules were strict back then about what Catholics called a “mixed marriage”. The new spouse was to promise to raise all children in the Catholic faith. My parents were also expected to follow the Catholic rules about birth control, which meant only the rhythm method was acceptable. And it didn't seem to work very well.
I don't know all of my stepmother's stories, but she did become bitter toward the Catholic church, and she, my father, and their son joined her church some time when I was still in Catholic school. Many years later, when we were talking about motherhood, she told me how hard it had been for her. I'd already known she'd gotten pregnant a month after she got married, but this day, she told me she had wanted to nurse her son. The priest told her she had to wean him at 6 weeks and get back on the rhythm method. She said she got pregnant again, right away, and I could still hear hurt and anger in her voice. I have to assume she had an early miscarriage, because my sister and I never knew about a second pregnancy. This may have been the last straw, angering her enough that she no longer wanted any affiliation with the Catholic church. She went from trying to follow the rules of the faith of the family she married into to disparaging it, bringing up things like questionable practices of the popes and abuses during the Crusades. If the stories we've heard in the past few decades about sexual abuse by priests had been known at that time, I'm sure she would have brought these up as well.
I've been thinking about when things happened in my family, and realized that my brother was born, and my mother must have had her second pregnancy, some time in my 6th grade year. That was the year my sister and I were told we would not be going on to Catholic high school. Since public school junior high started in 7th grade, I chose to leave parochial school after 6th grade. My sister was more reluctant, but left the same year I did. Our situations were very different. She was outgoing, popular, the girl voted May Queen in parochial school. I was the shy, sad child who was the target of bullies. I anticipated that going to public school would be a way to start over. It was a good choice for me, but harder on my sister.
I was no longer in Catholic school, and had no encouragement to go to the church I was raised in. I could have gone to my father and stepmother's church, but I had no desire to do so. It didn't take long for questions about the fairness of God, and later the existence of God, to come to the forefront. By the time I was 13 or 14, I had become an agnostic, believing as many do that God was probably an invention of weak people who needed something to believe in. It's easy to lose faith when you are a child who feels forgotten by God. My life was so painful. Did that mean I was being punished for being a bad person? Or did God simply not care? I did not feel protected, and I did not feel loved. Somehow, it was easier to believe there was no God than that God let so many bad things happen to me. I'd been a child of faith. Didn't that count for something?
No one told me at the time that sometimes the painful things in life cause us to question everything we believe. Mental health professionals now call this “a change in the assumptive world,” or a paradigm shift. The things we assume to be true are found to be false. Bad things happen to good people. Prayers are not answered in the ways we think they should be. People that should be there to protect us die, or are too wrapped up in protecting themselves. These are hard lessons for anyone. Faith can change when life does not go well.
It was something of a relief to be sent to my aunt and grandmother's house when I was 15, but I went back into living in a family of devoted Catholics. My grandmother spent time every day on her knees, and I was uncomfortable knowing she was praying for me. I was expected to go to church, but felt disconnected and disbelieving in the church services. The rituals of the church and the faith of my childhood did not seem powerful enough to help me.
California culture was very different from Ohio. In Ohio, it seemed like most people got married, stayed married, and went to church. I was a sophomore in high school, and remember a classmate telling me she'd moved in with her boyfriend because her mom was now on her third husband, and she didn't want to live with her any more. People my age were sexually active, and some used drugs. One of my required classes was philosophy, where conventional ideas of faith were challenged daily. A lot of people believed God did not exist, or was irrelevant. I did meet people in my high school, though, that were “Jesus People.” California, the home of the “flower people” and the hippie culture, was experiencing an outpouring of the Spirit. Somehow, among those who were dropping out, getting high, and indulging their appetites, God started moving.
I decided to go to church with my friend Portia. It was a small Pentecostal church in a storefront in downtown San Clemente. I was a bit afraid of some of the rough-looking characters who were part of the congregation, and was taken aback by one man who said he'd been in prison when he found Jesus. And yet, hearing the testimonies of these people whose lives were changed by faith, I decided I wanted to believe. I asked God to help me, and started to find faith again. In that church, I started the journey that led to healing. It was a hard struggle, but I realized that God loved me even if I was an utter mess. I now understood “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” I've been a wretch.
I still cringe a bit when people of faith tell me that God had a plan for everything, and nothing happened that He didn't mean to happen. I've had people tell me there was a wonderful master plan in my mother's sudden death at age 36, leaving three children behind. If I am so selfish to think her death was to bring me into some place of ministry to the bereaved, I then think, what about my sister? She struggled with depression until she was in her forties. She is involved in a church now, but it took many years for her to get there. And what about my brother? I don't think he ever really got past feeling like God was mean, and he doesn't feel the need to go to church, if he believes God exists. He's had his struggles, too. We all have.
Many of the people I talk to see death as the culmination of a good life, a natural process of going home. And when someone dies old and full of years, having left a legacy of a life well-lived to children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, it's easier to come to peace with that death. It's often an affirmation of lifelong faith. These deaths do feel like homecomings, and the funerals or memorial services can feel like family reunions.
I've also worked with people whose loved ones died in accidents caused by someone else's drunk driving or by carelessness, by murder, by suicide, by drowning, and other causes. Did God take those people, snatch them away in the middle of life? Is that the master plan? That doesn't make sense to a lot of those who are affected by these deaths.
I mentioned in an earlier post a minister who spoke at one of my bereavement luncheons. She lost a brother when they were both teenagers, and a son when he was a child. She said she doesn't believe God takes people. She believes He receives them, with open arms. If they die tragically or too soon, she believes that God mourns with those who loved them. To me, that makes more sense.
There are a lot of people who believe strongly in predestination, Everything that happens was supposed to happen, and they must accept whatever God gives them. Questioning seems wrong, showing a lack of faith. It is true that becoming reconciled to a loss is part of healthy grieving. But for many, long before reconciliation comes wrestling with “Why?” I heard a grief expert talk once about the necessity of asking why. He was saying “Why?” is a question of protest, and a question we need to ask when we've gone through a major loss. We may never get the answer, but it's still part of the process.
Paradigm shifts. Changes in the assumptive world. Asking why. These can all be a part of healthy grieving. A person of faith does not need to feel guilty for wrestling with his or her beliefs when the world changes. It's okay to feel angry that God allowed something to happen, and to go through doubts.
When I had gone through all my questions, my protests, and my loss of faith, I found a faith that was no longer the one given to me by parents. My early faith was one where I accepted the teachings my family followed. After I went through some of the really hard things of life, I found God was there, after all, grieving with me, and wanting to comfort me. My faith now is my own, chosen, held to, and forged through the fire. Going through loss ultimately led me to a place of strength. I am a survivor. I'm also a believer.