They say to really know a person we need to look at the way the world was when that person was 21. 9/11 happened when I was 18, just weeks after starting college 2,000 miles away from my upstate New York home. When I was 21, we had just gone to war with Iraq…we were at war because it’s what we do when we’re attacked, and because we needed something to do with our hands when we didn’t know what to with the Muslims in our neighborhoods. After Pearl Harbor, we rounded up anyone that looked even a little Asian and put them in internment camps before going to war, so I guess at the least we’ve taken a step above that.
I remember a kid who lived down the hall from me, Mahmood (or, Moody, as we all called him), who was hysterical and was the first person to show me that the black and white world of religious acceptance just didn’t make sense to me. We went to a state school in Colorado that had a very Christian leaning, so it was a tough lesson. All of my friends were Christian, and it was important that they knew where you fit in. It was a very sing-songy kind of high school lunch room all over again. You had to choose whether you were one of them or whether you were the “other.” There was no in-between. Fear does that. And I was as scared as anyone else in the country.
Because I love belonging more than I gave a crap about what I was belonging to, I was in every Bible study, went to the weekly young adult services, and almost learned to sing with my hands in the air. They had never seen a real life Catholic, and I was completely fascinated that there were things such as Christians that didn’t believe in the Pope or not eating meat on Fridays. The novelty wore off, though, just like the shine on new shoes. Novelty always wears off of the things that we cling most tightly to. Religion became confusing and boring, and sewed a lot of doubt into places it wasn’t before.
There are few worse feelings than doubt when doubt is the thing you’re told is wrong. Everyone around me seemed to have an unwavering faith in God, so much so that they all had that twinkle in their eye and would say things like, “Yes I know my mother has terminal cancer, and my father lost his job, and I can’t afford school books, but I know God has a plan for me.” I would sleep for a week in depression if I over-cooked my ramen noodles, so I just didn’t understand this faith.
I have never understood. I want to hear something, understand it cognitively, then feel it and believe its truth. I was desperate to believe in the Bible, or for that matter, the Left Behind series I was convinced to read one summer. I found myself recently wondering if I should rethink whether the Bible is a definitive user’s manual. Maybe it’s just a conversation starter, like a good coffee table book for when your dinner party gets boring. Or maybe the Bible (and other religious texts, for that matter) were the first Amazon reviews of God, “Totally has a lot of wrath, but did help me get out of Egypt. 4 stars.”
I so want my faith to not be an evanescent and impermanent thing. I just want something solid to hold on to. Something trustworthy and real. I want to not be judged, but to be seen. This is something of a leitmotif in my life, which I can finally say I’m starting to appreciate.
Because I didn’t understand faith at 16, I was a real jerk in catechism classes before my Confirmation. One day in particular makes me wince still. My memory of that day is of a golden sunlight lit room and a lot of dust. It was probably a Saturday. Probably a nice day where I could've been doing literally anything else, like watching TV and avoiding swim practice. I remember my cousin Margaret, our teacher, asking me what song defined my faith, and because I'm a jerk and because I wanted people to notice me, and because I had no idea what she the hell she was asking because I didn't know I had faith, I said, "Losing My Religion." Because Margaret was Margaret and was 16 once, she smiled nodded and moved onto the next person without indulging my idiocy.
I think if I had to define what I thought faith was back then, I would have described a calling. We are told that we were supposed to have a calling. Everyone has a purpose. But I had no idea what that was for me, and I wasn’t good at anything. We are also told that callings come in the form of priesthood or nunhood. But what didn’t make sense was that I had an aunt who was forced at 16 to become a nun because she had kissed a boy.
I wonder what my “calling” would have been for the things I had done by 16.
I held faith about as well as a colander holds water. And at the ripe age of 30, I would had given up on God altogether, had my Catholic guilt not made me anxious for even thinking such a thing.
It took nights of begging on a bathroom floor in fetal position with tears streaming down my face for me to start to look for God for the first time. We inherit the framework of our belief system, but no one can give you faith, I guess. For me, it took pain and desperation and anger. And even then I didn’t know that I was looking for anything.
My quest to find calm in the terrifying world of anxiety and depression that took me by surprise, has taken me on an equally unexpected path to find faith. Faith in God, faith in people, and hopefully, a faith in myself.
I found, one night while crying and begging for my agony to end, that God meets us where we are. God doesn’t need us to find him in church, I think God wants us to find him in places outside of those brick walls. He wants us to find him in a piece of toast, or in a sunset, or eating a chocolate croissant, or in a homeless cat. He wants us to see him when you’re talking with your friend on a front stoop while she smokes a cigarette. Or in a perfect eggplant florentine pizza from DeFazio's. He wants us to keep looking. It’s like hide and seek, but he’ll give you a ton of clues that he’s everywhere. He’ll meet us right where we are.
I mean, hello? Jesus went and met people where they were, right? Literally? He went to the sea to meet them, and got brunch with lepers. So why can't God meet me when I'm eating Whole Foods sushi in my car on my lunch break or when I drink too much on a Friday night and consider calling 911 to bring me a Gatorade?
It's one thing to believe in a God that is the controller of all, and it's another thing to believe in a God who cares if you take that shot of whiskey. We think God is "out there" doing "out there" things...but really, I think he's actually sitting next to us on the stoop with our friend having the cigarette. That's the faith part.
Faith is a trust. The lack of faith is a hunger and wanting. It's a longing. It's thinking there will never be enough. It's a panic that you won't ever feel ok. Faith is the thing that happens the second before you bring your hand to your mouth. Faith is the tiny spark that tells you that you don't need a fix to be ok.
And then there’s doubt. I doubt it all. Name a thing there is to believe in, and I’ve doubted it. I wish I could say doubt that was my main problem. I think it's laziness. Actually that's not it either. I think it's a preoccupation that the other things that are going on in my life need to be dealt with first before I can pursue faith recreationally. Like it's a hobby. I doubt myself when I don’t identify with a religion.
But we’re wrong to think God is only for the religious, and we're wrong if we think we can't find God in the enemy. Whatever that enemy is. My enemy isn’t another religion. My enemy is “the other”. There is a fallacy to believing that there are spiritual people, and then “the other.” For me, because of my rigidity and my own struggles, “the other” are those who make mistakes. Preventable mistakes. Drinking mistakes, or drug mistakes, or sex mistakes. I have been “the other,” and judged myself harsher than anyone I’ve ever known. My enemy, my other, are those going through something I don’t want to understand.
I have to really look for God there. God isn’t trying to help me heal anyone else, he wants me to find him to heal my own dumb mind. He wants me to find him not to be tolerant of others, but to know that he doesn’t exist unless we’re all in this together. He’s not hiding, he just wants us to be interested in where he is.
I think God wants us to be interested in him. Not just to find a final answer, but to discover how complicated he is and to keep looking for new pieces to the puzzle. Don’t we all want that too? I don't want someone to see me as one thing, I can be a million things at once and I want someone to see them all.
My search has helped me start to look for the things the people in my life are too. Maybe I can't just define them as the one thing they’ve done. Maybe my faith isn’t in God as a one thing either. Maybe my faith has to touch all the things God is in. Maybe having a faith in the people I so want to love is the whole point.
The moments I find my faith are not navel gazing or a waste of time in the least. It's the most practical thing I can do in my day. The irony of faith is that having an understanding that the disappointing feeling of doubt is useful is probably the thing that’s going to get me closest to finding God.
I wish I could find my friend Moody and tell him that I thought of him today, and that he planted this seed for me back in my dorm room when he gave me a copy of the new Maroon V CD. I found the God that is in all things in Moody, and think of both of them when I scream sing in my car. The God that’s in all things is there too.