Autumn Mary was baptized on September 13th at St. John Neumann in Irvine, CA. This is the church where we were married almost two years ago, and where my Mom's funeral was held last October. My Mom saved my baptism gown for many years and through multiple moves, and this is what Autumn wore, along with a bonnet from London that Dad gave me last Christmas. She also wore my baptism booties, and I held saint cards and the blue rosary in our wedding pictures that was sent to my Mom form her favorite Aunt Annie (Bride) when she visited Lourdes.
It felt good to know that Autumn was wearing something that my Mom picked out, and it felt good to take this important first step into Autumn's faith. While I have struggled with my faith almost my whole life, I love the sense of tradition that the sacraments bring and knowing she was baptized like I was, my Mom was, her mother before her and her mother's mother, Mary Mangan. And I'm sure many more before them, as we come from a line of Irish Catholics on my Mom's side.
Baptism is the admission and adoption into our Catholic faith, a faith I hope Autumn embraces, but will never force on her. We plan to raise her in the church, but will be accepting and certainly understand if she questions her faith at times, or does not blindly subscribe to everything the church teaches. After all, if left up to the church, she would not be here now, as they (currently) do not support IVF. Even in cases, for example, where the husband has testicular cancer, and IVF is the only way to create a family. In my Mom's day, if she was curious about things such as evolution, she was told not to question. "Have faith, Paula." Now, almost all religions, including the Catholic faith, welcome questions and admit when they don't have the answers.
I have more faith now than I have ever had, yet I still have a long way to go and am not where I would like to be. I have to admit that I am a bit envious of those who have strong faith, and would like to increase mine. But even just my desire to believe is new, and a long way from where I used to be.
My parents raised me Catholic but I only attended church regularly until I made my first communion. In my catechism class, I remember thinking "this makes no sense" when they explained that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were one in the same. I was eight or nine years old when I started thinking 'this sounds like make believe' and stopped going. I also stopped believing. It would be almost two decades until I heard the water, vapor, ice analogy.
In high school, most of the popular kids were religious. They were also the same kids who did bad things to be rebellious. They were promiscuous and did drugs, all the while projecting this holier-than-thou image. Teachers loved them, and they thought they were pretty special. The hypocrisy was a huge turn off to me, not just with them, but also famous preachers in the media and I started saying "You don't need religion to be a good person." something I do still believe. They had an aire about them that annoyed me. One day, I gave a girl who was heavily involved with the campus crusade for Christ a scenario: There are two people. One is a man who murders and tortures many people but asks for God's forgiveness before he dies. The other is a man on a desert island who has never been given the opportunity to learn about God, but strives all of his life to be a good person. The first would be accepted into Heaven, she explained, and the second would go to Hell. "That is not right or fair" I said. "Well, that is why we do missionary work" she countered. I remember this being a turning point for me and all the "evidence" I needed at the time to be done with it. Too bad I thought she was an authority, and didn't seek out a second opinion, but my mind was made up. (Recently, at Mass, a similar scenario was presented and they stated that the second person would go to Heaven. I wish I had been told this back then, I thought.)
As a young adult I struggled with, and was fixated on, the details and basic tenants of most Christian faiths and the Bible that I didn't (and don't) agree with such as: the age of the earth, Adam and Eve, Noah's Arc, no evolution, etc., and again the hypocrisy of some of the followers. Then, I would learn about something like Indulgences or the Spanish Inquisition and it would serve to further distance me and lead me away from organized religion altogether. I lived away from religion for my adolescence and young adulthood, but I wasn't doing it to rebel, I was doing it because it didn't make sense and it didn't fit well with me. I tried to be a good person and do what was right. I worked on improving and bettering myself not because a doctrine was telling me I had to, but because I wanted to and I felt like it carried more weight and held more meaning. Although I was periodically invited by running friends to events such as the Harvest Crusade, I wasn't interested and turned them down without a second thought. I never believed it had a place in either my mind or in my heart. I was even known to ask guys on the first date if they believed and if the answer was yes, it was a deal-breaker for me. I can't be close to someone with such a different world view, I thought. They might as well believe in fairies or dragons.
At 22, I sought out counseling at my university because I was interested in it as a career, and because of my fear of death, something that had bothered me since I was 16 or younger. It wasn't the process of dying that scared me, but just the nothingness and finality of it all. I was fearful of loosing my parents, and not existing myself. Even if I knew I was going to die at 109, in my sleep, I couldn't wrap my mind around that just being it. It didn't sit well with me. "Have you ever thought about Christianity?" the therapist asked me. "No, I'm agnostic. I don't believe." I explained. "Well, maybe you should ask for a sign." she said. Not yet in my master's program, and not yet realizing this specific, biased suggestion was unethical, I took it as a very serious assignment. I left her office to walk to my Developmental Psychology class and whispered aloud to the universe "Okay. If there is a God, prove it. Give me a sign."
I sat down in the large lecture hall in the Jack Brown building among the 200+ students and waited. Class ended and as I was gathering my things, the professor, Dr. Hoffman, called me up to the front of the class. He suddenly took an interest in me and started telling me about the honors program. Apparently, he had been impressed with a paper I had written, and the fact I was one of the few to turn in an extra credit assignment. "Come with me to my office" he directed, as he told me I was going to join the year-long program and conduct research with him. I didn't know it yet, but I would present a poster session at the WPA conference in Maui the very next year, all expenses paid.
I left his office and walked to my car, floating on air. "That must be the sign!" I thought, but the feeling quickly dissipated. That's just a coincidence and would have happened anyway, I reasoned. It's time to get down to business. I need to be more specific. I sat in my car, keys in hand and thought aloud in my mind: "I want the song on the radio, right now when I turn it on to be a sign." I only listened to rock at the time. As I inserted my keys into the ignition, the radio came on. "I'm not afraid of dying, because I'm going to Heaven and it's going to be alright" was the chorus. I sat there, dumbfounded. Well, that proves it! I remember driving home to my parent's house, elated that there was indeed a God. They may have been a little concerned about me when I burst through the door, professing my new-found faith and "proof." It lasted about 24 hours. For reasons I can't explain, I chalked it up to a coincidence and moved on.
I have always had doubt in things and I have always wanted proof. I'm not sure if that's why I chose psychology as my major, or if that major brought it out even moreso in me. But I remember being 7 years old and wanting proof of Santa. So instead of asking for a toy that I really wanted, I gave him a test. I wanted a bear, with a green tie that had a snowman sticker on it and purple boots. Surely those weren't found in stores, and only St. Nick could produce one. I got my bear and and my belief was sustained for awhile.
Life in college moved on, and after two years off, I applied and was accepted into graduate school. While I would tell people I was agnostic and "didn't know if there was a God or not" others actually saw me as anti-religious. I was working in a museum at Cal State when one of my coworkers pointed this out. "You know, you actually come across as being against people who believe in God. You seem anti-religious." Until this point, I thought I just didn't believe and had no idea that I came across this way. I'm just as bad as a religious person who looks down on someone for their lack of faith, I thought. Or, someone who thinks their religion is the right one and all the others are wrong. I don't want to be that way I said, and made a mental note to tone it down. I also started doing some self-examination to question why and how I had come to this viewpoint.
That examination and questioning lasted a few years, as I moved away from the Inland Empire and settled into my career as a counselor in Orange County. I recognized how helpful religion was to some, and realized that my "anti" feelings came, in part, from frustration with my own inability to believe in what 84% of the world's population believed. By that time, my friend group was pretty wide and diverse and I had to admit that many of my friends of faith were intelligent and I both respected and admired them. I became curious and started asking some of them why they believed what they did.
Somewhere around my 30th birthday I began to search for more. The few remaining embers that were left in me involving religion began to glow brighter. I can't believe that song came on when I asked for a sign and I discounted it, I thought, remembering the event like it was yesterday. Why wasn't that good enough for me? I questioned. I still wanted so badly to believe that there was something - anything - after this life. There was something in me curious for more, yet I was still was leery of organized religion. I decided to broaden my horizons and attend a Unitarian Universalist church. I liked the services and the point of reflection each week which felt like hitting the rest button. But the lack of a belief system and believe-what-you-want message still didn't do it for me. Sure, they weren't judgmental, but what did they believe in aside from doing good? A colleague even laughed at me, saying it was not a "real" church, and I quit going.
More time passed, and I met Nathan, who would become my husband. The topic of religion came up on one of our first dates and he dropped the "C" word. Instead of cringing, I was a bit intrigued by this man who called himself a Catholic. Here was someone who had been brought up the same as me. But my mind was flooded with ideas that he would be dogmatic, religiously strict and judgmental. He was none of these things, and I began to realize that not all Catholics fit this mold that I had made and stuffed them into. It reminded me of a story I always heard about my maternal grandmother, Lily Sheehan, who used to have the local priest over on a regular basis for cards, drinks and smokes. After having six children, she was done and famously told the priest "If the Pope wants me to continue having children, tell him to give me one of his rings so I can afford to pay for them all." She obviously did not believe all of what the church taught, yet still considered herself Catholic and still attended mass. Just like Nathan.
Early on, Nathan explained that in his view, no one "owned" Catholicism, and he could choose to believe what he wanted, and still identify as, and call himself, Catholic. For example, he is pro-choice, in some situations. "Good" Catholics may look down their nose on this type of Cafeteria Catholic (looking down on others, also not supported by the church), but it was so refreshing to me. Blindly accepting all of the teachings of any religion scares me. Nathan's viewpoint made the whole dogma more palatable. After meeting him, for the first time, I was open to believing in a higher power and returning to my Catholic roots. In part, this was because of his approach and his viewpoint. After just one month of dating, I suggested we attend a midnight mass on Christmas eve. It was a bit romantic, with the late hour, candles and frankincense and myrrh. And it felt familiar, like coming home. My Mom told me "Oh, I always loved going to midnight mass." and I liked that we were following in her footsteps.
What first started out as a connection to my past turned into something more. I officially returned to the Catholic church when Nathan and I began dating. In part, it was because doing so was required to be married in the Catholic church, and both of our parents had. There was tradition there, and we both liked that. But there was something more than that, something not tangible that I can't quite articulate. For the first time, I genuinely had desire to believe in a higher power. Naively, I hoped it was more like an on-off switch and that once we attended all the classes and made our confirmation, something would change inside me and I would officially believe. To my disappointment, faith exists more on continuum and instead of automatically believing, I slid a half and inch to the right.
Since getting married and hoping kids were in the future, the pull continued, and I started asking Nathan to go to mass more. For those of you who don't know, Nathan treasures his naps and loves nothing more than to not do anything on the weekends, so we compromised and attended a 5pm Saturday night vigil here and there. When Mom was diagnosed with cancer and I lost her 14 months later, I surprisingly did not get upset with God, and instead my faith increased more. Now I had more motivation than ever to believe in something after this life.
Then, after becoming pregnant with our little miracle Autumn, the pull became even stronger. We heard, and saw, her heartbeat for the first time at only 6 weeks, the day before Mom died. Reading about her development each week from the time she was transferred having only eight cells through to her delivery was incredible. If there wasn't a God up there keeping score and orchestrating things, at the very least intelligent design had to be behind it, I thought. Suddenly, new life seemed too complex and amazing to all just be random. Now, the idea that all the beauty and pain that exist in the world just happened without something behind it, or at the very least, setting it in motion, started to seem about as likely to me as fairies or dragons. I had done a 180 degree turn without realizing it.
I've heard people say religion is a crutch. Maybe I've even said that before. But if that is the case, is that such a bad thing? I want Autumn to have the foundation and rituals there and if they comfort her in a time of need, that's a good thing. I want her to be able to pray to the saints that my Mom did and have something in her tool box to bring her comfort when she needs it most. To that end, my Dad gave her a plaster (not resin, as many modern statues) statue made in Italy of St. Martin. This was a saint that my Mom chose when she won a religious contest back in grade school. "Did you know he is black?" they asked her, before traveling all the way to London to obtain one once she stated that Yes, she still wanted a statue of him.
I haven't asked for a sign since that sunny day back in college, but I would say signs have presented themselves. Nathan means "gift from God" and meeting him right before Mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer really was a gift from God, as I have no idea how I would have faired alone. There was the timing of it all, including Autumn, who came to bring me absolute joy during the darkest days I have ever experienced. There was also the sudden change to our babymoon plans. We set off that morning for Venice, Italy and instead, ended up reconnecting with my Mom's family outside of London and retracing all her steps as a young adult (read about that in my blog post Kismet: London, Not Venice). I never used to believe that old adage Everything happens for a reason. Now, I'm starting to.
On our evening walks which we rarely miss, I try to pick Nathan's brain, hoping he will tell me something that will increase my faith. One of the best things he has given me is the dog in the library analogy. A dog in a library can look and see all of the books, but has no way of comprehending the knowledge contained within them. Maybe, that's how we are and our invention of different religions is an attempt to explain things with our limited reasoning and limited senses. Heck, even some animals have senses that we do not. And again, he reiterates that the Bible does not need to be taken literally, and that some of the stories may never have actually happened, but are a way to get different points across or teach us things.
One other thing that has helped me is the idea that we all seem to have a moral compass and know what is right or wrong, across time and across culture. Where does that come from? And maybe, the fact that there are different religions isn't evidence that there is nothing, like I once previously thought, but instead, that there is something and most of us in some way, at some point, search for it or at the very least, question it. That is where I am now. I still cannot believe that Noah took all the animals two-by-two into an arc because the world was flooded, and I still have trouble picturing a white guy in a beard but maybe, there is something. And it could be something that no one can comprehend or has articulated or experienced just yet. And so I keep praying, reading and going to Mass, hoping that my faith will increase even more.
For generations, my Mom's side of the family has been Catholic and attended Mass. Now that I have a little one, doing as they did and bringing her up in the church with a belief in something greater than herself and some guidelines for doing right by others is appealing to me. I know that if we don't attend regularly and lead by example, including prayers before meals and bedtime, she won't have faith and I will be breaking tradition. We now go (almost) every weekend, and I like the pause and point of reflection a good homily brings. I also feel closer to Mom when I am there. I like knowing that the readings are very similar to the readings that my Mom and grandparents would have heard and I want Autumn to have that, too.
So in that respect, Autumn really is bringing us to church. as the deacon asked. Having her to raise adds another level of meaning to all that we do, including our belief system. I hope to grow in my faith by helping her learn it, and seeing it through her eyes. Hopefully one day I can look back on this blog posting and recognize even more growth and progress along the continuum of belief.