Below is a speech delivered at the Women’s Tea, All Saints Anglican, Attleboro, MA on May 15, 2010 The speech was based on exerpts from Not of My Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct
Choosing Joy in Times of Trial. I had to think about that one. My book, Not of My Making, reveals the challenges I faced and overcame at school and in church. Did I choose joy during the dark times of my life? Is it possible to choose joy? My psychological training tells me joy is an emotion and while what we say, do and think can influence how we feel we cannot directly choose to feel anything. When I think of the years of depression and anxiety, I see myself in my mind’s eye hanging on to a piece of drift wood in turbulent seas while resisting the urge to let go and drown. Letting go would have been so much easier but while it may have ended my pain it would have spread it to others. So I hung on.
My standing here before you today is evidence that I overcame the forces that sought to destroy me. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you my struggle and how with the help of God I finally found the peace, contentment and joy that often eluded me.
I was raised Roman Catholic and lived in Italian Catholic neighborhoods. When discussing the back story to my book, my editor referred to those neighborhoods as “oppressive”. I protested. The priest walking through the neighborhood in his black cassock blessing our homes while we followed him as if he was the Pied Piper are among some of the treasured memories of my childhood. When I communicate with my high school classmates on Facebook, we share this common experience. Even though my classmates rejected me when we were young, as adults our memories of catechism, First Communion and Confirmation at St. Cyril and St. Methodius connect us to each other. Rather than being oppressive, the Church was a safe haven. A place I went to during times of distress. Even when I insisted there was no God, when distressed I sometimes slipped in and sat in a back pew and felt comforted.
So why, at age sixteen, did I stop going to church? After years of neglect and abuse my father’s heart attack triggered my decision to leave. I can’t say why exactly. We weren’t close. My father was an angry, bitter man who told me frequently that no one would ever want or love me. On a Sunday morning in February 1968, my mother woke my sister and me to tell us that our father was in the intensive care unit at Good Samaritan Hospital. My mother, who only went to church on Christmas and Easter, insisted we attend mass before going to visit him. She drove us through a blizzard to St. Cyril and Methodius in time for the service being held in the church basement. We sat crowded together on folding chairs with our hats and coats on. Although I remember the priest delivering a good sermon, it had absolutely nothing to do with my life. I felt numb and had a deep sense that I no longer belonged there.
While my father recovered, I began wondering why God required Sunday worship in a building built by human hands. If God was omnipresent and omniscient, couldn’t He hear and respond to my prayers no matter where I uttered them? At that point in time I didn’t understand it wasn’t about where God could hear me but rather about Christians joining together to help each other remain faithful and obedient to God.
I stopped going to church. I stopped praying. It seemed that asking God for something was one sure way not to get it. All the praying, pleading and begging didn’t end my isolation. Yet, if I didn’t pray to God and ask for His help, whom could I turn to? Who else besides God would listen to me? Not my mother. Not my father. Not my classmates. I was alone. No one reached out. Maybe God wasn’t there at all.
I threw myself into my schoolwork believing that knowledge was the one thing that couldn’t be taken from me. I was alone but gained comfort and strength from my books and my journal. It didn’t occur to me that on the day I discovered the joy of reading it was God showing me a way out.
Two years after my father’s heart attack I argued with my boyfriend about God.
“Everyone is alone,” I told him. “The only thing you have is yourself. You make who you are. If you get knocked down, it is your own courage that gets you to stand up again, not God.”
My boyfriend, a devout Christian Scientist, had enough confidence in his own faith to listen to my rants. He challenged my agnosticism and accused me of running away from God. I denied it, but I worried he was right.
When my boyfriend ended our relationship without explanation, I was devastated. Heartbroken, I sat in Evans Chapel in the center of the garden below the library. I found some comfort in its simple interior of pale pink walls, arched stained-glass windows and polished-wood pews. I prayed, but God didn’t send anyone to hold me and love me. My father’s prediction that no one would ever want me appeared to be true. I dropped out of college and sank into a severe depression. I put all religious questions aside. Whether God existed or not was irrelevant to my life.
I sought answers in therapy and psychology. With the help of mental health professionals I returned to college, prospered and earned my degrees. I married and had children. When my son was about five years old and my daughter seven, I became aware of an emptiness in my life. I missed church.
Listening to public radio I learned about Unitarian Universalism. Soon I joined the local UU fellowship where I found a large numbers of Catholics who, like me, wrongly concluded religion and Christianity in particular was the cause of the world’s and our own problems. Not wanting to be told when and with whom we should or shouldn’t be sexual or whether we should or shouldn’t use birth control or have an abortion, we struggled to establish a new religious identity for ourselves and our families. While we rejected God-talk and modified the old hymns, we still celebrated Christmas and Easter while adding Passover and Kwanza. Longing for a world free of hate and violence, we embraced tolerance and strove to be inclusive. A decade later when I questioned the selection of a lesbian minister I discovered that Unitarian Universalists had their own hidden dogma. Thinking this was just an anomaly of one congregation I joined another UU church.
While I’m grateful for the freedom Unitarian Universalism gave me to explore and think about religion it began to feel incomplete. I didn’t know it then but what I really missed was not the trappings of church, but God, Himself. I asked myself why did so many people that I admired believe in God? People like my grandmother, Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Schweitzer. What did they know or understand that I didn’t? I began reading books about Christianity and to use Marcus Borg’s phrase, I met Jesus again for the first time.
In August 1998 while vacationing in New Mexico my husband and I drove north through the high desert and past the mesas. Unlike Long Island where I grew up, the sea didn’t limit the landscape. Instead, it literally went on as far as the eye could see. I was unsettled by the land’s hugeness and immensity. Standing at the base of the white cliffs painted by Georgia O’Keefe, I knew I was in God’s country.
That August night, sitting in our room at a bed-and-breakfast, I read a discussion of the Ten Commandments. I knew them, of course, but hadn’t really reflected on them since leaving the Catholic Church. As I read the first commandment, “I am the Lord, your God, thou shalt have no other gods before me,” I remembered a conversation with a fellow Unitarian Universalist.
“I think it is just as likely for there to be more than one God as there is to be only one,” she asserted.
“That’s fine,” I said. “UUs have no creed. You can believe whatever you want.”
“Including paganism?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
I blinked and dropped my book in my lap. Was it really okay? Polytheism was a violation of the first commandment. In my desire to be tolerant and open, I had supported her idolatry.
My return to Christianity contributed to a conflict at the Unitarian Universalist church I belonged to and I was forced to leave. Memories of my childhood victimization were triggered and I was overwhelmed by anxiety. I returned to therapy.
Devastated and numb, I went to the healing service at the local Lutheran church. I allowed the minister to anoint my forehead with oil and lay her hands on my head. Her touch was gentle and loving. I was comforted.
Almost every week after Bible study, she and I would talk privately in her office. She would sit across from me in her rocking chair while I sat on the black couch. She told me she liked me and I was always welcomed even though I didn’t believe in Jesus as Savior. I shared my childhood history of neglect and sexual abuse. We discussed why God had allowed me to be abused.
I read holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy. While I went about my daily routine, I was haunted by Wiesel’s image of the hanged child as God. I was uncertain what Wiesel meant when he saw God in murdered children. Were they Christ-like figures, or did evil kill God, or is God with the oppressed? It was disquieting. The Nazis turned their captives into godless, wild, hungry animals. Did clinging to God and love help a prisoner maintain some dignity, some humanity?
I didn’t have any answer for where God was when children were being raped or abused. If evil was the work of the devil, why didn’t God, who was more powerful, stop him? But how could God stop it? With a lightning bolt? By yelling at pedophiles to stop? How? How could God intervene without us losing our sense of self? Is evil the price we pay for free will?
I needed to believe God valued me and didn’t want any harm to come to me. But where was God? Was I, as Elie Wiesel asked, a mere toy for God to play with? Surely God didn’t want to harm us, any more than a parent wants to hurt their child. There are things that happen, painful experiences we cannot protect ourselves or our children from. Maybe God, like a good parent, knew that you often have to allow your children to work things out by themselves.
Where was God? I remembered St. Augustine’s words: God is always with me even though I have not always been with God. God hadn’t abandoned me. It was I who abandoned God.
During my struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I read the Psalms and prayed to the God I said I didn’t believe in. One Sunday morning I lingered in bed, I recalled my visits with my grandmother. In my mind’s eye, I saw us sitting at the table on her sun porch. She fed me roasted peppers and apologized for not having more food to give me. She told me stories of how and why our family left Italy for America.
“Everything works out for the best,” she often reassured me. “Margherita, keep your faith,” she urged.
“I will,” I promised her.
Suddenly I knew with certainty there was a God. My entire being radiated with joy. God had always been there for me. In the midst of my worst times, I prayed to God and He eventually helped me.
I had been teetering on the edge of a cliff about to fall to my death. There were people offering their hands, but I didn’t know which ones, if any, could be trusted not let go. Then I thought, God is there, too. God will catch me if I am betrayed. I felt calm.
I was the prodigal child returning home and finding there was still a place for her there. Just as Hosea kept taking back his faithless wife, God had taken me back. God had always been with me, even if I had not always been with God. When you believe in God, you accept life as it is without despair and know it will work out in the end.
A few years later I again found myself in the center of a church conflict and pastor’s promise that I would always be welcomed in her church was not kept. Desperate to belong to a spiritual community I attended a service at an Episcopal church in Providence, where there was little chance anyone would know me. As if I had a scarlet letter sewn to my dress, I furtively took a seat away from the other worshipers. Speaking to no one, I sought God’s protective embrace.
During the service, a woman who had been raised in the church and who raised all her children in the same church spoke about the love and care she had received from her religious community. Like a starving child looking through a window while people feasted and who would never
be invited to stay, I envied her. Tears filled my eyes. Where and when would I find a spiritual home? Exiled, I had become a spiritual nomad, taking up residence for a season and moving on when I was no longer welcomed.
Feeling the sorrow and fear rise within me, I bowed my head and closed my eyes. I purposely breathed slow and deeply. I leaned forward, placing my elbows on my knees while resting my head in my hands. If anyone noticed they would think I was praying and would not see my tears. In my mind’s eye I saw Jesus walking close to me. I touched his robe and God blessed me. I belonged to Him.