Two weeks ago Friday was the start of Passover, an eight-day remembrance commemorating one of the most significant events in Jewish history, a day shared by Christians as Good Friday and leading to the holiest day of the Christian calendar, Easter. Muslims just finished celebrating Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayer that ended with the feast of Eid al-Fitr on the weekend. Just before that came Vaisakhi, a feast of harvest for the Hindus, a celebration that also acts as the commemoration of the founding of the Sikh religion. Ridván, for the Baha’i, just passed as well, a twelve-day period of reflection and festivity. April—around the world—seems a celebratory time for religion.
And yet, sitting at my breakfast table this Good Friday, I realized that in the midst of all these celebrations, for me this time holds loss.
In my youth, Holy Week was the busiest, most solemn, most celebratory week of the year. It started the Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, when our whole congregation would process from the church, accompanied by the resounding sound of organ and choir, our palm fronds held aloft, their poky ends dripping the last drops of holy water still left from the priest’s soggy blessing.
That service marked the beginning of the end of a long forty days: weeks of no sweets, no eating between meals, and maybe even giving up a favorite television show or two. It was a time we saved our allowance money for offerings to Catholic missions overseas and tried not to fight with our siblings. During that week, we’d pray Stations of the Cross—restaging the last footfalls of Christ—and booked our turn in the confessional booth, atoning for our sins. On Thursday night, we’d be back in Mass for a celebration of the Last Supper, a two-hour event that included the Washing of the Feet and the commemoration of Christianity’s first Mass. Once old enough, my sisters and I would spend part of that night praying beside my grandma with all the other old ladies, keeping vigil with Our Lord, trying not to sleep as we clicked our rosary beads in prayer, keeping Christ company throughout the night and being witness to his ordeal. On Friday, we’d be in church again, gathering before noon, staying until three, when the sky was rent, leaving us almost in tears as we spent those hours accompanying Jesus on His torture and death, watching Scripture be fulfilled. Saturday’s Easter Vigil—a bit of a letdown after Friday’s drama—was a Mass spent blessing all objects in the church in one endless, monotonous litany of song, in preparation for Easter Sunday. And then came, The Day. The day of celebration that gave the rest of all days meaning in the Catholic faith.
Nothing could have felt more all-encompassing than that week. A week of ritual, and pageantry; recrimination, jubilation, and triumph. Even as children, we were asked to be a part of the guilt, the betrayal, the horror and finally—the celebration. Easter for us was more than jelly beans and egg hunts, it was an act of communal suffering, of joy and salvation. It was the participatory act of redemption.
To this day, when I describe my Holy Week adventure, with all its emotions, to my kids—who know nothing of it themselves—I am overwhelmed by how strongly its sensations come back. That belonging. The importance of it. The magic of that week. Which is what leads, now, to that feeling of loss that I no longer have access to it.
In college, I was still regularly going to Mass. Several college friends were, by chance, Catholic and for all of us Saturday evening was a chance to ditch homework for a few hours in a socially-approved, guilt-free way. We’d leave campus, see “real people” (not just students), gather and sing. It was a time to be quiet and thoughtful in a different way than studying; it offered a peace and solitude that helped me feel full and present in my life. It gave me a chance to question my place in the world; to prioritize its message of social justice and love. It gave me a sense of comfort and home. Drawing me back, week after week.
But college was also a time of growth, of questioning, of looking at things in life you’ve always known and accepted, and developing enough consciousness to ask questions of those things—and boy, did I have questions. And growing reservations.
In my junior year of college, after classes in feminist studies; after co-organizing a local PFLAG chapter (an organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, their parents, families, and allies); and after having lived several years with non-Catholics, non-Christians, and generally, in a wider cultural and geographical sphere than the one within which I was raised, I took my first trip overseas.
I joined a study abroad program in Seville, Spain, not knowing what to expect. At the time, Spain had only been recently released from the grip of Franco’s Fascist, dictatorial regime, so when I arrived, Spain was a mere 11-years-old in democratic time. Seville was a beautiful city—but also provincial, old-fashioned, a second city of Europe located in a country cut-off from its continental neighbors, making it look and feel like an impoverished lesser cousin.
What I remember of my Catholicism at that point was that I had become critical of the system of the church. Its rules. Its patriarchy. Its wealth. The misogyny entrenched in a lack of feminine roles; roles dominated by saints and whores, and a feminine ideal that was both mother and virgin—a role, unsurprisingly, impossible to attain.
And then in Spain, standing at the altar of the largest Gothic church in the world, the Seville Cathedral, with its Christopher Columbus tomb—whose American voyage had been both sponsored and blessed by the Spanish King and Queen on behalf of God and led to the mass extinction of a continent—where, through a fog of incense, I saw gold fixtures at every turn; where the height of the ceiling extended so high it almost hurt to look into its peaks—a design strategy of the church’s own architects to make sure its supplicants felt not just awed, but afraid. And it was there I pondered that planned powerlessness of the Church’s followers; the planned acceptance of my paltry fate beneath an all-knowing, all-controlling, (male) God; I felt the dissonance of the church’s luxury, its affluence, opulence, with the abject poverty right outside its doors. And I realized, with blunt trauma, the such a structure spoke to me of all I couldn’t accept. I still remember the feeling of that moment—that lighting strike of belief—when I knew that Catholicism was over for me. In one fell blow it happened, the same way it had for the Biblical Saul, just in reverse. And because Catholicism was not just a religion but so intertwined with who I was and what I’d come from, there was no possibility to look for faith elsewhere. With the vessel of belief so totally broken, nothing could replace it.
Over the years, of course, I’ve questioned that decision. But on the occasions when I’ve gone to Mass since, I can’t un-listen to the actual words being spoken without thinking about what they refer to; what they say in the larger context of that church, its history, the world. I can’t un-question the things I disagree with. So as much as anything else nowadays, a visit to church leaves me frustrated; feeling homeless and lonely and sad.
I have, over the years, still had positive experiences of religion and religious people in my life. I worked with a sweet Imam in Mombasa, who helped me find passages from the Koran to support the AIDS education project we were doing in his community. I witnessed the years-long dedication of Sister (Dr.) Julia from Peru, who ran a hospital in the middle-of-nowhere-Kenya and who single-handedly, single-mindedly saved many a rural Turkana from death. I experienced many Catholic schools in Kenya that offered—almost always—a better education for anyone than the one available from the public school system. In Brazil, I myself worked for a Catholic organization that traveled up and down the Amazon helping indigenous people demarcate their land, find access to healthcare, and figure out how to cope with the prevailing society who only really wanted them gone. And when my children asked to be baptized, my partner’s lovely aunt connected us with Pater Korbinius, a gentle, giant German monk, who helped answer their questions and guide them through the process that I no longer believed in.
Because I have also seen the worst of religion. Wars fought in its name. How it’s used, over and over, for justification of inequality and systems of inequity around the world where I’ve worked. I’ve met many missionaries (far too many) who have seemed the opposite of God to me: the couple in Wundanyi, Kenya who couldn’t live without their American washing machine, even as the people around them had no piped water. Or my fellow Portuguese-learners in Manaus, who, in bringing the word of God to the Amazonian tribes, had already decided that even if they brought disease, too, it would be better for the newly-contacted tribes to die after hearing the word of God than not at all. There have also been people like the middle-aged white man from somewhere in the Southern US whose singular, selfish goal to unload all my vaccines from the supply plane in South Sudan meant he could smuggle his bibles into the country while hundreds of children would die of preventable disease.
In my experience, religion has a lot to answer for—the good and the bad—but unfortunately, most strikingly, the bad.
And yet, I still understand the pull of religion. The purpose it gives people. The community it builds. I recognize the strength it provides, allowing people to get through really tough times. I understand how my grandmother’s belief made her difficult life not just bearable, but meaningful in its difficulty, as she interpreted those struggles as a test of her faith, a process of hope, giving her optimism in adversity.
Sometimes, when I think about my own upbringing and how it was so entrenched in religion, I mourn for my children the security that comes with such belief. Because there is comfort in believing someone else is in charge of the difficult things; there is grace in believing that someone benevolent and kind is the life force around us; there is relief in believing that someone is watching out for us, seeing all, knowing all and responsible for making things right.
But because I couldn’t accept my Catholicism anymore, because I didn’t have faith in that form, I could not pass it on to my children, even if I recognize that there are still moments when I notice its remnants in me. That subtle, certain feeling, stuck in the corners of my brain that allows me to trust in something, somewhere, thinking it will help. A belief in a general goodness, a hopefulness that doesn’t leave me. And maybe having God in those moments, if only in the background—is enough. Giving me something to turn to when I feel incapable of understanding what’s going on or how I’ll survive it on my own. A leftover from all those hours, all those years, watching a son-turned-God tortured on a cross, knowing there’d still be salvation at the end.