Fifty years ago, my faith was in doubt. Tired of hearing the hell and damnation homilies of the local parish priest, I tuned out every time he spoke. I knew that I should have been listening, for I feared that I was one of the sinners that he condemned to everlasting fire, and that there was no hope for my salvation.
I did not “do” drugs, proffer myself to men, nor commit crimes against society. I was, however, not a dutiful daughter who accepted her subservient status in a household that held women with little respect. My parents believed that my sole purpose in life was to work for them, as a household servant, and when those jobs were done to satisfaction, then and only then could I pursue an education.
I did not object to assisting with the care and operation of the house. What angered me most was that my siblings were exempted from any and all responsibility, including cleaning up after themselves.
A major part of the problem was that my parents were ultra-conservative and narrow in focus. To them, the duty of an older daughter was to manage the house and to marry young. By young, I mean by the age of fourteen. I didn’t even date at that age, let alone have a serious boyfriend, and I hated housework, so I was a failure in their eyes.
It should be a surprise that I was so affected by what was said for the pulpit, for Sunday worship was not something that my parents faithfully practiced. They went to church when they felt like it, when the weather was good, when there were no sporting events on television. And when they did go to church, it was not at the nearest church, but rather one which held the shortest service.
When I left for college in the summer of 1969, I decided to act boldly: I would not go to church at all. My resolve faded as soon as the first Sunday arrived. Not wanting to anger God, fearful of blackening my soul any further, I found the Newman center on campus. The atmosphere was one of welcome. The music filled me with joy, literally erasing all my negative thoughts and feelings in one fell swoop.
As time passed, my attitude toward the church changed. I believed the good news that I heard over and over during those joy-filled services. I understood that God had not judged me and found me wonting. Instead, I now knew, He was a loving God who cried when one of His souls lost the way. He offered peace and salvation to all who believed. He gave solace, when needed, in times of stress and anxiety. He loved us, no matter what we might have done.
Several months into that first school year, the Neuman Club organized a retreat up in the nearby mountains. I had never done anything this before, but it sounded exactly what I needed.
The camp was somewhere east of Los Angeles, a rustic setting nestled in a forest. From the time we arrived at the camp, I felt at peace. All of us hurried inside, anxious to claim a bunk in one of the dorm rooms. There was no pushing, no domineering, no one person making others feel worthless.
Having never been camping, I was unprepared for the chilly nights and the crisp morning air. My clothing was not substantial enough to keep me warm, especially when it snowed in the night, leaving about six inches on the forest floor. Nevertheless, thanks to the generosity of those who shared warm mittens and thick sweaters, I stayed warm.
Throughout that weekend, my heart sang. It was as if a giant anvil had been removed. Like a newly feathered chick, I flopped my wings, and took off. Faith came at me from every direction. From the treetops came God’s blessed light. From the ferns sprang His offerings of love. From my fellow participants came God’s unconditional love. From our times of prayer and reflection, came discovery of my love for the God who loved me back.
I smiled until my face literally hurt. I laughed at the crazy antics of my roommates, and joined in the singing in front of the fireplace at night. During prayer times, tears poured down my face, yet I did not have the words to explain why. It was as if someone had reached inside, pulled out all the pain, and filled me with a wholesome goodness.
I do believe that God touched me that weekend. Not with His hands, for I did not feel the slightest brush against my body. What I did experience was the enveloping of His arms, holding me and making me feel safe. He gave the gift of feeling both loved and lovable. He made me feel important, and inspired me to continue to follow His way.
When the weekend drew to a close, it was with deep regret that I packed my things. I hoped to hold on to all that I had experienced.
I would love to report that my life was permanently changed, but it was not. When at home, I continued to feel inadequate. Not one day passed without hearing what a huge disappointment I was. There was nothing that I did that ever pleased my parents, and not once did they give me a single word of encouragement.
When I graduated from college, I moved back to the still stifling environment of my parents’ home. Pulled down by the never-ending criticism of my unmarried state, my unemployment, and by the wasted years at college, I quickly fell into a state of despondency. The local Mass situation had not changed, even if the pastors had. One pastor continued to preach the same old fire and brimstone message about the blackening of our souls. In another, the Mass was so short you could be in and out in less than forty minutes.
It was not until my husband and I moved into the parish that he had known as a teenager, that the glow returned. I rediscovered the God who loved me, who sheltered me from the storms of life, and who walked with me every step of every day.
It was, and continues to be, a community of caring individuals who come together to worship and to pray for each other in times of need. While priests have come and gone, the overall feeling has not. We are the parish, the ones who define the atmosphere that envelopes all who step through the doors.
I know that there is a loving God who helps us walk through life’s challenges. He has blessed my life in ways that I am still discovering.
That is the story of my faith.