In recent weeks a few of my favorite bloggers have written posts about their experiences with religion, which got me thinking that I should write something similar. I’ve been rather quiet about the matter on social media and don’t talk too much about it on my blog, mostly because I think my faith is a work in progress and am not as certain about things as I once was. Lately I’ve been putting pieces from my past and present experiences with religion together and trying to discern if there’s any connection or meaning between them. I think there is.
A few nights ago I was sitting at my computer browsing the internet when I muttered something to myself. I can’t recall what I was looking at or what prompted me to say it, but I felt a sort of clarity and resolution when I did, like the proverbial “light bulb moment” people always talk about.
“I don’t want to sit around and talk about theology anymore.”
I didn’t decide in that moment that I was ready to hide theology in my pile of Things I Learned In College That I’ve Already Forgotten. It’s kind of hard to do that when you were a theology major and are considering earning a Master’s in it, too.
I realized that I was aching for something that simply talking about wouldn’t satisfy. If I’ve gotten good at anything related to theology, it’s talking about it and thinking about it and mulling over ideas with theologians. I haven’t, however, gotten very good at the practical element of theology: being, doing, reaching out, loving. You know, the Gospel. I suppose I’ve know this about myself for a long time, but this is the first time that I really felt the implications and the urgency of the Gospel’s call.
Five years ago I attended a retreat for high school students through a Catholic parish in my hometown. I’ve been Catholic all my life and received all my education in a Catholic setting, but I had been struggling to own my proclaimed religion for months until I attended this retreat. Jesus wasn’t close or accessible. The importance of the Gospel message was lost on me. It was at this retreat that I felt like all my searching and questioning had ended. I knew who I was and what I had been put on this planet to do: I was a child of God, and I had been charged with sharing Jesus with anyone willing to listen. I needed to make Jesus my sole focus of my life from there on out.
I was excited to begin my mission and did everything I could think of to prepare myself. I read whatever Christian books I could get my hands on. I studied up on the saints and prayed to them. I attended mass whenever I could. I read my bible and my catechism and was ready to defend my faith to anybody who tried to refute it. I changed my major to religious studies before my first year of college ended so I would be better equipped to carry out my new-found sense of purpose.
I think I’ve shared enough on my blog the “falling out of love” that I had with my faith two years ago (see this post for more details, if you want ‘em), so I won’t get into that here. In short, the past two years have been the biggest learning experience of my life, in terms of learning about myself and learning about my faith. I realized that I had neglected my personal development in favor of focusing all my energies on being the “perfect” Christian. I realized that I had been using religion as a way to hide from the world and all the shortcomings and challenges that I perceived in it.
Lately, though, I’ve also been realizing that in my quest for religious perfection, I had ignored perhaps the most important legacy that the man I was following had left behind: his service to others. A combination of things have led me to this discovery, but I think the most relevant is the new atmosphere that the new pope has breathed into the Church, especially considering how much his message and actions contrast the expression of faith my high school retreat taught me. The retreat emphasized prayer and self-examination and worship. I’m sure these things are very dear to Pope Francis, but I haven’t heard him talk about them much; his emphasis is on action, compassion, and immersing ourselves in the world so we can better understand how to change it. It’s not that my high school retreat didn’t teach me at all the importance of good works. It’s just not what I chose to focus on in forming my Catholic identity. I wanted the personal relationship with Jesus, not so much the obligation to help others that following him entailed. I suppose that the importance of doing good should have been obvious to me when I embarked on my faith journey, though. Jesus didn’t gain fame and become a beloved figure for his prayerfulness; he did because of his teachings and examples of how to treat others. Even the saints that I had grown to admire didn’t become so widely loved for their piety as much as they did for their self-sacrificing love for others.
As of the publishing of this post, I am jobless, but searching. When I’m not looking for jobs or filling out applications, though, I get rather bored. I’ve been wanting to find something productive to do with my free time, but more than just finding a new hobby or working on this blog. For a few years now the weight of all the world’s aches and troubles has been pressing on me, but I always felt powerless against them and unsure of how to act. I’m still unsure. But the pull to do SOMETHING to contribute to healing, to share myself with others, has been getting stronger, and that thrills and terrifies me. Thrills me because my life has been lacking some excitement and darn it, I just want to do something that makes me happy and proud of myself. Terrifies me because, as somebody who struggles with being vulnerable and open and real, the thought of sharing myself with others makes me want to hide from everything. But no matter how scary, I still feel compelled to do something. Loving is a risk, and it’s one that I haven’t taken often enough. As a follower of a person who lived for others and taught people to love radically and unconditionally, I feel that just talking about him and learning about him isn’t enough anymore; I need to be willing to imitate him. I suppose this isn’t quite so different from the call I felt five years ago, though. I’d still be bringing Jesus to people if I take this path, but I wouldn’t just be talking about him. I would be him for whoever I serve.
Do I know yet what form I want that imitation to take? Not a clue. Will it put an end to my confusion and questioning and searching about God and religion? Maybe, maybe not. But it seems the logical next step in my journey as a follower of Jesus. I can talk the talk. Now I need to see if I can walk the walk.