Confession time. I’ve always been a bit jealous of people who practice their faith with confidence, or those who seem to truly enjoy their churches. During adolescence, a few of my friends were active in youth groups at their Methodist and Episcopalian churches. There were movie nights, service trips, and the few times I was lucky enough to tag along, I enjoyed myself. Right on up until we began reading scripture or praying. Then the dread set in.
My religious anxiety began around middle school. After years of child-friendly Sunday School at my family’s local Catholic Church, I noticed a shift in tone. I started listening more closely to the priest’s homilies, and I wasn’t certain I liked what I heard. During the 1990s, my diocese was considered one of the most conservative in the country. Girls were not allowed to serve as altar boys (in fact, I don’t even know if there was even a gender neutral term for this position). Women were encouraged to “submit” to their husbands.” At one point, a priest told my mother that women can’t be called to receive religious orders.
“What about nuns?” she retorted.
“Nuns don’t receive orders. They have a vocation. They are married to the Lord.”
The crisis point came for me at 17. My younger sister was in the process of Confirmation, and she asked me to attend a weekend retreat with her. Her chosen sponsor, her godmother, was unavailable, so I was tapped for the role. By that point, I was already dreading Church every Sunday. I had much more “important” things to do, like hang out at the mall with friends or go see a movie with my boyfriend.
That’s right. My boyfriend. The boyfriend significantly complicated this situation because after a year of dating, my boyfriend and I were on rather…intimate terms. I was responsible about it. I spoke with my mom, and I went to my gynecologist regularly. Other than that, I kept things hush-hush, mostly because I was a “nice Catholic girl” who got good grades. I knew that anything beyond hand holding or chaste kissing was a big no-no in the eyes of the Church.
The retreat weekend consisted largely of extended lessons, some wholesome improv games, and confession. (Worst. Retreat. Ever.) As “adults” in the eyes of the Church, us previously confirmed and confessed Catholics would “get to” go first. You know–as an example that it wasn’t that bad. The whole morning, I agonized over the afternoon’s activities. I knew that sex was a sin. I wasn’t sure that I could go in there and NOT mention it. But what would happen if I did confess?
I decided to be honest, and I spilled my guts to the Priest. I don’t remember much about the conversation we had, but I do remember him asking 1) “Do you want to go to hell?” and 2) “Do you want your boyfriend to go to hell?” I vividly remember the sting of hot tears on my face, and the shame I felt as I walked out of the confessional past the line of wide-eyed 8th graders, gawking in horror. Oh wow, they must of thought. It is that bad.
Ultimately that experience had exactly zero impact on my sexual behavior. What it did impact, however, was my relationship with my body, my sexuality, and religion.
Over time, I expanded my thinking. In college I encountered feminist theory. I read about the women’s liberation movement and learned a whole new way to think about gender. I took psychology and biology classes and learned that sexuality was a natural part of the human experience. I occasionally felt a yearning for some sort of spiritual connection, but every time I went back to Church, I left feeling even further from God. I’d changed so much and the Church hadn’t.
Fast forward about ten years. In 2010, I enrolled in Catholic University to pursue a Master’s in Social Work. At some point during my two years there, I stumbled across the theory of faith development by James Fowler. This theory posits that our experience with faith and religion is fluid and in a state of flux through most of our life. The description of the stages below is from Wikipedia:
Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.
Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.
Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to authority and the religious development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.
Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment”. The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.
The theory spoke to me, and for the first time, I began listening more closely to the part of me that missed God and spirituality. I realized that while a part of me will always be Catholic, I could no longer sit in Church, recite a few prayers (the same prayers every week), take communion, and feel remotely connected to God.
So where am I on Fowler’s scale? It depends on the day. I am still learning. And sometimes doubting. Most importantly, I am stretching and taking risks. And right now, that is what makes me feel closest to God.