Y’all, this is a long post, so here’s the “takeaway thought”, if you will: The vulnerability of grief has also taught me to prioritize the mystery and vulnerability of spiritual life. Cool, okay, so if you’re interested, read on!
*A word for this post: I think of God, the higher power, the energy of the Universe that connects us all, in obviously a lot of different terms at this point. I respect and relate to all beliefs that cradle love and compassion at their centers. I have been working on getting less hung-up on taking the rhetoric of religious practice literally, so I’m probably gonna use a lot of different labels or terms to talk about God, etc. I don’t want this to be a space for just one denomination. We’re all connected.
I can’t be the only person who’s hadissues with religion after experiencing a massive loss. It’s hard to wrestle with all those doubts and questions about how that omnipotent presence could be so wonderful and loving… and yet then allow something so terrible and heartbreaking to happen to your loved one. Justice, fairness, right-ness— it all goes out the window.
Before we start, a little background info: I don’t pretend to have been the most devout person to begin with, but I did spend k-12 in a Jesuit school system. My parents upheld morality and spirituality in our household, and while we didn’t go to church all that often on the weekends, God was a presence in our daily lives. We prayed before dinner. We made sure to do good for others. We found glory and wonder in our natural surroundings and tried our best to be thankful for everything we had.
I say with confidence that politics was the only thing that kept us from being more active at church. My dad is Catholic and my mom was Lutheran. They decided to put me into a Catholic school system and raise me in the Catholic Church, but it turned out that the Catholic community wasn’t super welcoming to my Mom. Because she was an outsider- it was truly their loss. My parents were low-drama and introverted, and they humbly accepted that they didn’t quite fit in with the crowd. We stopped attending church. Instead, they kept God’s presence alive in our home and let mass be something I got from school (mass every Wednesday- don’t forget to wear your uniform!)
This experience made me understand at an early age that I believe there is a difference between a) religion as a cultural construct and b) faith as a deeply personal experience. Part a) is the aspect of religion that creates a community, brings people together, and upholds societal order. That’s the structure we see here on the ground. It’s important. But it can also get messy because it’s being organized by us complicated li’l humans.
And then there’s the transcendent part of religion which is part b) that is every individual finding their connection to the universal energy running through us all, finding their ability to love and empathize and hope and find strength when they are about to give up.
In my mind, the former is the physical parts, like the church pews and the news bulletins with info about the annual chili cook off. The latter is something that flows through the air, unseen, above our heads. And when we are being our best selves, we can almost hold onto it.
That was a tangent, but I want to make it clear that my relationship to religion before my mom’s death was already both complicated and wonderful. I wrestled with the way we share it with each other but reveled in it all the same.
When my mom got sick, she needed church in her life again. She needed a community. She asked my dad to start going to the adorable little rural lutheran church down the road with her, and I am happy to say they embraced her with open arms.
I was hesitant at first, because it seemed like a huge shift for our family. Suddenly my parents were Sunday church-goers? And we were Lutheran now? That idea took some getting used to. This occurred while I was away at college, mind you, so I felt disconnected from the transition and a bit blindsided by them making what felt like a massive change without me there. It doesn’t help that I’m stubborn and dislike change.
Once I saw how it was helping her, though, I softened up. I was truly won over when I had the chance to be home and see it for myself. I am nothing but thankful to the community at Our Saviors and to Pastor Eric. Their attempt to ease our burden through my mom’s illness and passing felt like literal, physical weight off our shoulders.
A couple months after my mom’s death, I was not even thinking about the subject of God. I couldn’t bear it. I knew it was too soon for me to have any gracious thoughts about it. But then, I picked up a book my mom had suggested to me a couple months before she died- before we even knew she was sick again. I don’t know why I decided to read it. The title “Surprised By God” sounded like something I would decidedly not enjoy reading.
It was a life–changing experience. My mom couldn’t have known it, but the author of the book had a story just like mine, and her mother passed away in almost identical circumstances. It was eerie and shocking. I wept through those pages. Had my mom subconsciously known this was what was about to come? I know she couldn’t have- the irony gives me chills all the same.
That book single-handedly brought me back to spiritual life. It made me realize that experiencing a huge loss had actually made me a more vulnerable, gentle person. It made me realize that my heart had been opened so much more to the complexity and beauty and tragedy of life.
That’s when the questioning really started. I began engaging with the universe in a torturous, one-sided dialogue. The simple questions: Why did this happen to us? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why did you make her suffer? What’s the point of having hope? Why couldn’t we get a miracle?
The harder ones: How can I not live in fear that all the people I love will die too soon? How can I not feel left behind? If I feel this isolated and let down, does God even exist?
I had two deeply painful confrontations with religion in the months that followed my mom’s death. The first time dad and I tried to attend church again was Valentine’s Day. The congregation was joyfully dressed in their reds and pinks, the atmosphere was bubbly. But I could tell that everyone was staring at us. It didn’t help that they hadn’t seen me many times before– I was something new to look at, too.
Pastor Eric did an activity with us during his sermon. He had placed index cards on the benches before the service, so he asked us to pick one up and write the answer to two questions. 1) what are you certain of? 2) what do you fear?
I wrote 1) nothing. 2) uncertainty.
The exercise was supposed to make us realize the trust we have in God. I think the idea was to understand that if we can have trust in Him in certain areas… why not in all areas? Well that certainly backfired for me.I realized what little faith there was in my heart that life would work out. I sat there silently fighting the tears that were clawing their way out of me. I haven’t gone back to a service since, and I’d be lying to say that I’m not afraid to go now.
The second incident happened in a beautiful cathedral in Durham, England. My dad and I had been traveling for the whole month of May, and we were exhausted by that point. We needed a pit-stop on our way back to London, and we decided to stay the night in Durham, an adorable little college town. We threw on our last clean t shirts and made our way into the city to explore. We accidentally found this beautiful, truly ancient cathedral. Tours were over for the day, but there was a small evening mass in the side chapel about to begin, so the doors were open. They allowed us to explore the place as long as we were quiet and out of the way of the ceremony. As I explored, I discovered that the Cathedral held the remains of St. Cuthbert, for whom people regularly came to ask for miracles. I couldn’t help but think “It’s too late.”
A priest solemnly stepped down the aisle from the alter to the chapel, swinging incense. The smoke hung in the air, caught by the evening light, as a hymn sung by an unseen choir began to float throughout the space.
Regaining my ability to breathe after the mystery of the moment, I went outside to sit on a stone wall and fall to pieces. My heart was breaking for all the beauty and loss in the world- not just mine. I thought of all those souls throughout the ages, traveling long roads in search of a miracle. I did cry for myself, too. For where I had come from, and where I would have to go from there. For what had happened to my mom.
I was so grateful for that experience. It hurt but I’d needed to feel that deeply again. To feel like the numbness that had been clutching my heart had been shattered to pieces by an experience with something greater than just little old me.
I do believe that losing my mom has made me so much more spiritual and so much less preoccupied with the details of religion. Who is to say what’s right and what’s wrong? We’re human; and that makes us imperfect and incapable of speaking on God’s behalf. I think it displays some ego and self-righteousness to pretend we know what God has in store for us- to try to convince others what they should believe because of our own experiences. Let Him do his work. He will find a way into their (and our) hearts when the time is right.
I was recently listening to the TED talk by Brene Brown (for like, the thousandth time) and her brief mention of religion only strengthened my most recent ideas. She said, “(When we numb ourselves) we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty.”
My grief has made me incapable of certainty. It has made me capable of embracing the mystery.
I see now that rigidity about my spiritual beliefs is simply a denial of the vulnerability it takes to admit that we don’t know. Our faith is a mystery, and that mystery should be beautiful- not scary or threatening. I still struggle with this every day. I ask why my beautiful, kind, incredible mama was taken. But I guess that’s just it, isn’t it? The uncertainty is what makes it important and essential.