To believe or not to believe… is that really the question?
In college, I was a devout Catholic, a weekly church attendee and band member, president of a campus Catholic community, and leader of a group of teens in youth ministry. I didn’t often ask questions and so I didn’t often feel lost and I often felt fulfilled.
But prior to the collegiate life, my faith had never before been challenged. For four years, I attended a university surrounded by peers whose views ranged from the same to vastly different from mine. I initiated discussion with far right individuals who I didn’t see eye to eye with. I also engaged in honest, open conversations with atheists about the role and existence of a divine being that oversees the universe. In these tête-à-têtes, my faith was never shaken but rather strengthened.
Then one day I was handed a white rose as I walked past organizations tabling on the campus’s main walkway. The white rose symbolized the pro-life stance. I was 19, a virgin who hadn’t put much thought into the abortion debate. I was an active member of a denomination that was outspoken about it’s pro-life viewpoint, but I realized in that moment that my instincts were on the other side of the fence. I could feel the rose’s thorns in my hands creating a pit in my stomach, nausea threatening to surface, and I very swiftly but discreetly discarded the rose.
I felt uncomfortable never having examined where I stood on this important and hugely personal but politicized issue. I felt like a liar practicing Catholicism yet now unsure if I believed everything the Church preached. However, I continued on with my devout Catholic life.
Soon, I realized how many strangers and close friends on the college campus surrounded me from the LGBTQ community. As the fight for equal marriage rights gained steam, I posed zero opposition, and in my head, this was nothing that should ever have been a political matter anyway. I shared my views openly, despite the Catholic Church’s stance and my continued involvement with the religion, but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t fully embrace my viewpoint. I could have been and should have been a stronger, more outspoken ally.
My junior and senior years, I helped launched the Inter-Faith House, one of various themed campus housing options. We promoted religious tolerance. I read the Tao, celebrated Passover Seder, and continued to be a devout Catholic. My campus housing projects included a silent awareness initiative of religious stereotypes and a faith unity quilt patched together from students and staff expressing their religious beliefs.
In my last years at university, I had one-on-one conversations with priests about the concepts of free will, fate, and destiny as well as good and evil. I am grateful to these priests, some of whom are still dear friends, for offering me perspective. I wanted to believe in God, but God was no longer the same man with a face in the clouds in the sky that I pictured in second grade Catholic school.
The summer of my graduation, I backpacked solo around Europe. At the East Side Gallery in Berlin, someone had painted on a preserved part of the Berlin Wall, “How’s God? She’s black.” It was empowering, and I’ve thought about it a lot since that day nearly 8 years ago.
After college, I dove head first into the animal and science world, embarking upon a career in wildlife conservation. While sitting on the couch in my apartment one day, I asked my then boyfriend what he wanted to get out of life. He told me he wanted to be happy. I asked him if he believed in God–a conversation I’m surprised we’d never had before despite this being the start of our relationship. He told me he didn’t think so.
I thought about his response a lot, namely that he simply sought happiness in life. It was such a simple yet solidified answer, one that boggled my mind at the time but has since come to be a beacon in my own muddled travels through life.
As my scientific career began to suffocate me, I started to wonder how faith and science can co-exist. I reached out to religious scientist friends, poured over atheist philosophy, and analyzed the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. I struggled with the concepts of time, beginning and end, and forever. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to believe in a Higher Power, that I would refer to this power as God, and that, while much of my definition of God was inspired by Catholic teachings, God as I saw him had changed.
Upon moving to Seattle, I stumbled upon a Buddhist temple. I began attending group meditation, discovered I am terrible at meditating, sought to improve my meditation, and still attempt to meditate today. Meditation and writing became my main forms of prayer, and nature replaced a physical church building.
When I shared publicly the story of my sexual assault, I received a wave of support from friends and strangers. However, some of that support wasn’t the best form of support for me.
One person repeatedly reached out to me to offer a shoulder but only from a deeply religious standpoint. I received texts saying how often I was being prayed for, which wasn’t what I wanted to hear but it wasn’t a terrible thing to hear. But when I read the words “God saved you,” I realized these texts were not helping. I responded saying I knew the texts came from a good place, but I needed them to stop. I said, “It’s alright if you want to believe that God saved me, and I know you need to heal from this news in your own way, but I do not believe God saved me. I believe I am a strong, capable woman and I fought my way out on my own.”
I am incredibly grateful for my Catholic upbringing. It gave me guidelines, morals, and values to live by. For a very long time, Catholicism was fulfillment enough in my life, and I never labored over what I believed. I thought this was enough to be happy and whole.
Ash Wednesday is still one of my favorite days of the year. I still feel very much at home on the occasion that I do I step into a Catholic church, especially when I’m alone in a foreign land. I still want to and choose to believe in God, but I’m still figuring out what God means to me.
My definition of who God is has changed dramatically over the years. I’m still perfecting that definition, and I don’t think I’ll ever have it perfect. Faith is a journey I don’t think should ever end. I think it should be challenged daily, and I firmly believe we should come to an understanding of the universe on our own.
In the beginning of my adult life, I was blindly trying to fit into a mold I was handed from birth with which I wasn’t sure if I wholly or partly agreed. Maybe that mold is right for me, maybe it isn’t.
Who is God? He is whatever you believe him to be.