When I was young, particularly when I was on the path to receiving my first communion, I remember religion as being just another thing I wanted to get right. I’ve always been a goody-two-shoes when it comes to rules, and the Catholic religion has lots of them. Lie to your parents? Better start praying. Steal something? Get your butt to confession. Sex before marriage? Don’t even THINK about it.
In addition, the church I went to for CCD class was particularly rigid about these rules. One priest was famous in my family for his anti-video game rant during a homily, shaming the industry for their violent messages and suggesting children could be sent to Hell for playing such things. This was the kind of church where if you even mentioned the word “gay”, people would stare at you. I didn’t even feel comfortable singing during mass, because the only voices you could hear were the perfectly tuned opera singers from the choir. Everyone else surrounding me seemed to simply be mouthing the words, as if they too were worried this was another thing they could get wrong.
I was a good religious student. I prayed every night. I practiced the rosary. I looked up articles on how to communicate to my guardian angel. I practiced receiving communion using candy wafers. I wrote notes to God. I tried to listen in church. I read stories about saints.
And sometimes I felt very close to God (during a spiritual song, in the midst of a late-night prayer). Other times I just felt...lost. Like I was trying to hard to find something that wasn’t even there.
My family decided to switch churches once I entered middle school. We just couldn’t deal with the judgy parents and threatening priests anymore. Our new church was more relaxed- I actually felt comfortable singing in mass-but I still didn’t get much out of the experience. I didn’t understand much of anything the priests said, the bible verses didn’t resonate with me. After sixth grade, my family stopped going to CCD classes. My mom decided to let us make up our own minds about confirmation, and I personally felt that I didn’t want to commit to something I didn’t fully believe in.
My sophomore year of high school, I had a four month depressive episode. During that time, I started visiting a therapist for the first time since second grade. In second grade, my therapy sessions entirely consisted of board games and lessons on “How to Maintain Eye Contact”. My new therapist was quite different.
She was a latina with a soft, soothing voice. During her sessions, she played Buddhist spiritual music and taught me visualization techniques to help with my depression. I relied heavily on this spiritual music in my recovery process. I played it in my bedroom when I was having a particularly bad day, or listened to it in school, through headphones, where I was frequently bombarded with harmful thoughts. It helped relax me.
During these four months, my grandfather was gradually getting sick, and we visited him often: in several rehabs. One day, my mom and I went to church before visiting him. My mind was buzzing with self-harm images, and I found myself thinking I felt this way because God didn’t love me. I felt I hadn’t been a good enough Catholic, and that was why I was depressed. I started crying, right there, in the middle of church: tears streaming down my face as a woman read a passage from the bible. I so badly wanted to stop having these harmful thoughts about myself, and I just couldn’t. We ended up leaving in the middle of mass.
After that, I took a break from church for a while. I knew I would never get through my depression if I kept thinking God didn’t love me, or that I deserved feeling this way because of my lack of religious commitment. I needed to learn to love myself again, and my view on religion wasn’t helping me do that.
My road to self-love involved a lot of books, a lot of mint tea, a lot of candles, a lot of looking into the mirror and accepting the reflection as beautiful just the way it was. I thought a lot during this time period about what I personally believed and valued. I believed in kindness. In hope. In helping people in need. In making your own future. In a power bigger than myself. In equality. In peace.
I am an idealist at heart, and the truth is, while many religions express my same interests on paper, they don’t show them through their actions. I want to believe in a heaven, or an afterlife, where people of all races, cultures, sexualities, gender identities live happily ever after, because that’s what religion should be to me: entirely focused on love.
I’m still not sure what I believe in. I have a feeling that will grow and change as I progress through life. I still consider myself a Christian, but I’m trying to focus less on religious labels and more on respecting and bettering myself as a person. I know I’m not perfect, but I also know that I can help make the world a better place. And right now, finding the meaning and beauty in life is all the spirituality I need.