–Daniel S. Ferguson
Disclaimer: I’m not as familiar with Catholic life as I probably should be. I know a lot of the traditions, practices, and theology involved, but I’ve never been Catholic myself. In telling Rachel’s story, I hope not to fail in representing that experience well. It’s actually my gap in my understanding that caused me to want to reach out to Rachel in the first place. I’ve definitely learned a lot from it.
Rachel had long since left the Catholic church when I first met her in early 2013. She was a friend of a friend who quickly became one of the highlights of my week. Her energy, her passion, her pursuit of truth, her sense of connectedness, and her willingness to experiment with ideas soon made her a fixture in our social circle.
But the Rachel I first met was on a long, arduous journey, and at that point, she was still in the throes of a particularly angry phase of that journey.
“I had kind of a war going on inside me since I had left the church. I went through my angry phase where I hated everything about Christianity.”
That hatred seemed to come from a sense of loss that Rachel had. Some part of it was because she felt that she had been so hurt for so long, but also because church was where her identity had been for so long. When she did end up leaving, she left a large chunk of who she had always been behind. Naturally, this identity void caused her a great deal of frustration.
After all, it was the church that had first given Rachel a sense of purpose:
“The one thing that really attracted me to church, aside from finding friends and family within it, was the search for truth. What was real? The church was a platform for this?”
Rachel launched from that platform and made church the centerpiece of her life. From a young age, Rachel, like many Christians (both Protestants and Catholics alike), wrapped her whole understanding of self around what it meant to be Christian. She latched on to the church’s mission and substituted it for a personal identity.
“Here is us, and here is them. I need to save them. I need to fix the world. That’s my job. That’s the narrative that was taught to me. Even though I was kind of empty inside, I had this noble goal, this noble mission.”
Rachel found that by committing herself to this mission, she was immediately accepted into a community of like-minded Catholics in the form of a Catholic college, and she found this feeling of inclusion intoxicating.
“I wanted that feeling of belonging 24/7. I was finally in this world that I had heard of, that others seemed to live in. It was this magical time.”
But that sense of belonging depended on one thing: conforming to the mission and values that originally made Rachel a part of it. Her initial pursuit of truth had led her to a group that proclaimed its truth valiantly, and this was attractive. Rachel tried hard to explore who she was within the church’s truth. But after the warm welcome had faded, Rachel’s self-exploration led to her realizations about herself that were outside what her church taught. It was a trying time.
“Nobody ever said to me that my identity was wrong. It was more implicit. It was ingrained. The thing I was most taught was a sense of fear. And the shame that came out of that prevented me from exploring who I was. My identity was so aligned with the church that I didn’t have any internal identity. I didn’t even know how to begin looking for one.”
This feeling of internal emptiness mixed with an external pressure formed a swirl of confusion for Rachel, one that was only exacerbated over the course of a long and trying romantic relationship. The relationship itself wasn’t all bad–much of it was good–but because Rachel had long-since practiced externalizing her identity, her relationship became more about satisfying her partner rather than being herself.
“For the first time, there was this other source of strength and peace. That had always belonged to the church. The church was losing me because I was being offered joy instead of fear.”
And just like with the church, Rachel gave herself to that fully. At first, it was wonderful, having someone to love and being known as someone’s beloved. Just like with church, at first there was a great sense of belonging in this new identity. Soon, this relationship supplanted church wholly in Rachel’s heart.
“For the first time ever, I deliberately didn’t go to church. We just stayed home all day. That was one of my most pure moments. It was a moment in which I was really happy. I knew who I was, and that was enough for me.”
Rachel describes the immense peace of making pancakes on Sunday mornings and staying home all day as some of the happiest times of her life. I can hear her tearing up on the other end of the phone as she reminisces about a time in which she was truly happy. But these aren’t tears of joy at the memory; they’re tears of sadness at the loss, because that relationship was toxic.
“Living with joy instead living with fear was such a dichotomy that I didn’t even care if I was sinning. I was happy. Even though that ended up being a hollow, fake sin that hurt me dearly.”
Yet again, Rachel had allowed her identity to belong to someone other than herself, and yet again, this caused her great pain. But even as she processed this new relationship, her old relationship with the church still needed reconciling. By finding, at least temporarily, some sense of identity outside the church, however external, she was free enough at last to make honest choices about what she believed.
“Once the framework, the need to have church, was out of the way, Jesus being real became more important than ever before. I had never asked if Jesus was real. I finally asked myself if I believe in Jesus.”
Even though I’ve heard this before in other forms, I’m always stunned by it. I cannot even count the number of people who didn’t feel free enough when they were in church to ask the basic questions of church. The church’s answers are so strong-willed that these people don’t even believe they can think them, much less ask them. (See answer #3 in this blog post.)
Just like many of the people I met, leaving church was a fairly dramatic experience for Rachel. It was immediately freeing, but there was definitely a long journey ahead.
“The church had provided a stable framework of “Who am I?” When I left, I had zero identity. I didn’t have this massive framework anymore. I had to ask myself hard questions, and new things started to come out.”
Ultimately, Rachel’s toxic relationship ended badly. But while it hurt a great deal, she seems to have a peace about it, at the very least because that relationship had given her just enough freedom to start forging an identity for herself that she never before had.
Now, she’s dealt with that issue of identity head on. I met her only somewhat through that journey. It was messy; it was dramatic. She was processing so much anger and residual shame that it came out a lot, even when she didn’t want it to. She’s finally answered her question about whether or not she believes in Jesus (she doesn’t), but she has settled, at least for now, on what her spiritual identity is becoming.
“I lived with certainty for so long, and I’ve only now learned to live with doubt. Yes, I believe there is a higher deity of some sort, but I believe he’s vastly more complicated than humans.“
Rachel’s spiritual journey led her first to agnosticism, but later, after she had overcome the initial anger, she arrived at a more spiritualized approach. She’s made many friends in the pagan community, where she notes she feels a new sense of freedom. I’m happy that in her description she isn’t falling into the same trap she did with Christianity. Paganism isn’t an identity substitute for her; it’s something she’s actually choosing based on where she is in her search for herself. It’s precisely paganism’s sense of freedom that attracts Rachel to it.
“Disorganized religion, where I can decide on ethics myself without having somebody pound it into me, that’s a breath of fresh air.”
What’s so interesting to me about her experience is that it is so familiar. Not every Christian who has left the church has transitioned into paganism, not by a long stretch. But so far, many have described their leaving the church as a moment of immense freedom, like a burden lifted off their shoulders. I know full well that I have experienced that burden myself in church, but I also know that I found freedom there. Not all will. Rachel has had to come to terms with that.
“There are many Christians who have been good people, and that’s helped me reconcile to church somewhat. I have a great need for spirituality, but because of my past I’ll never go back to church. It all comes down to whether or not I believe in Jesus, and I don’t.”
Rachel’s story is like so many others. It hasn’t seemed to matter (so far) what denominational background people who leave the church come from. Their journeys are strangely similar. Rachel’s is couched in somewhat different terms because of her Catholic background, but really she’s part of a massive community of people who are all alike. They want joy instead of fear. They want peace instead of anger. They want grace instead of law. I can honestly say that the only reason I haven’t left the church is because I’ve found those things within it, but I freely admit that they were much harder to find than they should have been.
Thank you, Rachel, for your passionate honesty, and I look forward to hanging out with you again soon.