“And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.” –TS Eliot
This is a love story. An often painful, sometimes messy, always grace-filled love story. To tell the journey of my faith, it must begin this way. Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” My story is one of a beautiful love that, when all seemed lost, saved my life.
The summer I was seven, my mother finally died. It was a long time coming. She had been in the hospital for over a year. Every Saturday I would climb into the car with my grandparents for the long drive to visit her. We would sit in a hospital room that stank of disinfectant and fear and make small talk. I would tell my mom about my school, maybe read her a story or hear one read. I would give her something I made in art class. I don’t really remember, but I’d like to think I did those things. I’d like to think her suffering was made a little less by my presence.
My mother was no stranger to hospitals. Eight years before I was born, her kidney disease was discovered. She was pregnant, and partway through her pregnancy, she got dangerously ill. The doctors discovered that her kidneys were not functioning. Her baby, my half-brother, was delivered early and died a few days later. My mother nearly died as well. It was while she was in the hospital that she began thinking of becoming Catholic. There was a priest there who answered some of her questions. Without knowing all the details because she is not here to share them with me (how I wish she were!), she decided to become Catholic and completed RCIA.
A few years later she met my father and they were married in the Church. My father was a cradle Catholic, though he certainly didn’t live his faith in any meaningful way. I was their only child, as my mother only had one working kidney; one pregnancy had been risky enough for her.
By the time I started kindergarten, my parents were separated because of my father’s substance abuse problems. Mom and I moved in with her parents, my Nannie and Pop. Around the same time, Mom got sick again and needed another transplant. She had one; there were complications. Thus began the year of Saturday car rides and hospital visits. It was pretty clear that if she didn’t make it, my father would not be fit to take care of me, and I would stay with my grandparents. Before she died, my mother made a request of them. Although they were not Catholic, she asked them to make sure I would be raised in the Church. They respected her wishes without question. Of all the things for which I owe them gratitude, this gift is chief among them.
I received all of the Sacraments. They came to all the parents meetings, met all of my ccd requirements. They made sure I made it to Mass with neighbors who were Catholic.
This is probably no shock, but I was enamored of Mary. I loved the statues and windows which depicted her beauty so exquisitely. I didn’t quite understand that she was my spiritual mother, but in my little soul I longed for her serene smile to comfort me.
As a child I attended Mass; somewhat reluctantly as I got into my teen years. I always went to Sunday school, and really liked it. I didn’t receive the best formation, but it certainly wasn’t bad either. All of my teachers really were faithful, if not always ready with answers for my many and varied questions.
I learned the basics; the prayers, the sacraments, the Bible. What I didn’t learn then, or for a long time afterward, was that I could carry my scarred and broken heart into the arms of a God who knows the true meaning of suffering. What I couldn’t even begin to understand as a sad, broken, abandoned girl was that there was a Father who loved me enough to suffer with me and give me peace, by holding nothing of Himself back from me.
I was a sad, lonely teen and young adult. I desperately craved love and affection, and as many, many girls do every day, sought real love in the arms of boys who were incapable of giving, only taking. Each time my heart was broken, I would crawl back to God, licking my wounds, begging for another chance. I had rejected His love again, for the promises of the world, and was let down time after time. I wanted to believe that His love was enough, but I lacked trust in God’s goodness.
After all, how could a good and loving God let my mother die and my father abandon me? Isn’t that the question we all have to ultimately wrestle with: Why do bad things happen to good people?
I didn’t know, and the lack of answers made me angry. I was so angry that I stopped going to Mass when I went to college, despite being at a very Catholic college. I was also angry because I had been reading a lot of feminist writing, and believing their (misunderstood and misleading) words about the Church and women. As an angry young woman who had been hurt by men, I found it easy to believe the feminist rhetoric.
Through my first couple of years of college, I continued to feel both angry at, yet drawn to, the Church. I still believed that the Catholic Church was the place where Jesus was most fully present, in the Eucharist. This made my flirtation with other denominations feel silly and forced. As time went by, and I returned to the campus chapel late at night to pour my sorrow out at the feet of Jesus after each heartbreak, I knew I had to make a choice: Either be Catholic, and live it, or to walk away altogether. There could be no halfway.
Still I rebelled. Like a petulant child in the arms of an ever-patient parent, I pushed away while simultaneously grasping. In my mind, I knew the truth of the Church, and God’s love, and a life of virtue. In my heart, I wasn’t ready for radical acceptance. I wasn’t ready to let God love me, and to let go of my past mistakes. Like the prodigal son and so many others, I let fear of being rejected keep me from seeking forgiveness. Like the prodigal son, God loved this prodigal daughter enough to run out when I was “a long way away” and meet me where I was.
I wish I could say that after this revelation just before my senior year of college, that I turned over a new leaf. It would be more apt to say that I sprouted a new blossom. A place that was dead inside slowly came to life. However, the rest of the tree was still standing, and there was so much pruning left to do.
Then I moved to Chicago and all hell broke loose. No, really. Stay tuned for part two; that’s where it really gets good. If I can say that. I think I can.