When I was in my early 20’s I attended a talk given by a visiting priest at my sister’s church. It was during Lent when most Catholic Churches invite outside speakers to come and talk to the congregation about how they can grow closer to God, grow in their faith, etc. The speakers are usually thought provoking and lively and interesting. My sister invited me to come with her on the night they were scheduled to talk about “Sin.” I don’t recall the exact title of the talk but Sin was definitely in there, so we were both thinking, “This oughta be good!”
Right Words, Wrong Music
The first thing we see when we walk into church is a small sheet of paper entitled “Sins that Need To Be Confessed.” As we sat waiting for the priest to get there to start the talk, we both stared at the paper. My stomach was in knots and I began to tense up. I recall staring at this sheet of paper with 20+ Sins on it and I’m counting at least 10 that I was guilty of. My blood was boiling. It didn’t matter what the priest said during that one hour. I had tuned out the minute I read that paper. I sat with my arms folded across my chest, completely shut down and closed off to his words.
As we venture into these reflections (of Theology of the Body) let us “be not afraid” to face honestly how far we have fallen from God’s original plan. For only if we first realize how bad the “bad news” is, do we then realize how good the “good news” is. The “good news” is that historical man is not merely the man influenced by sin. He is also redeemed in Christ, who gives us real power to regain what was lost. We must keep this in the forefront of our minds as we reflect on the effects of sin on our experience of the body and sexuality. Without this hope, we will be tempted to despair, or to minimize and even normalize sin. TOB Explained
I went home and complained to my parents that I didn’t think I could go to mass anymore (interesting to note that I identified as a Catholic by claiming I went to mass every week). I remember my mother being upset at the thought of me just up and quitting. I tried to tell her why. Looking back, her response wasn’t the greatest. She admitted that she didn’t really believe everything the Catholic church preached, just most of it. That I could just be a cafeteria Catholic and pick and choose what I wanted to believe.
I didn’t see this as an option and in my heart I knew that response was wrong. It didn’t sit well with me. What I SHOULD have realized was that we’re all sinners. But there’s something called grace.
Christopher West mentioned during my recent retreat that “You can’t talk about sin without mentioning grace and God’s mercy. People will rationalize sin or despair if you ONLY talk about sin without mentioning God’s mercy and forgiveness.”
THAT’S exactly what was missing during this particular talk that I sat through. If the priest DID mention grace and forgiveness, I had already tuned out because I was rationalizing the sin in my mind.
“I don’t need to go to confession, this is BS.”
“These sins aren’t really sins at all. Everyone does this.”
“This is old-fashioned and archaic. I’m going to find a church that isn’t full of hypocrites.”
So my version of leaving the church meant not going to mass on Sundays.
I think I lasted a month before I went back.
The night before, I remember laying in my bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling like a rock was on my chest. I could feel pain and disappointment and sadness coming from within me.
I went back to Church the next day, sat among all the sinners, frustrated, clueless, broken. Looking back, I was looking for answers. But I was too stubborn to ask. I assumed the answers were simply, “This is just the way it is. Now stop asking questions.”
I stayed stubborn for 15 more years.
Feeling Like a Fraud
After moving to Chicago at the age of 23, I joined a church and went through the motions. Still avoiding confession, but at least I was attending mass more than those “twice a year Catholics.” “At least I’m not one of them,” I told myself. “I’m one of the good ones.”
If I was broken before, I was now practically shattered. I was completely delusional about my life.
When our desire to understand the body and sexuality is not met with the truth, we inevitably fall for the lies.TOB For Beginners
I thought my life was going exactly as it should be for a single young woman in a fun town. I became proud of my independence and the fact that I didn’t need a man in my life to make me happy. I wore my independence and singleness like a badge of honor. I lived my 20’s and early 30’s…managing to squeeze in a few masses here and there on Sundays.
So although I identified as a Catholic, I was really living the life of someone else. I was definitely not engaging in behavior that would make anyone proud. I repeatedly felt like a fraud. That word, fraud, always seemed to creep into my head. It started when I was in college with my first “real” boyfriend. Fraud. Fake. Acting. I never focused on this word for too long to think about what it meant.
We do not have any direct experience of the first man and woman’s state of total innocence. Nonetheless, the Pope proposes that an “echo” of the beginning exists within each of us. The original human experiences, he says, “are always at the root of every human experience. Indeed, they are so interwoven with the ordinary things of life that we generally do not realize their extraordinary character.” (TOB 1 1:1) TOB for Beginners
That “echo of the beginning” was trying to come out of me. Call it my conscious or call it God or call it just a voice. But I know, now, that it was the echo trying to peek out. But I closed it out for a long time. Anytime I came close to “releasing” it, I rationalized it back inside. I kept thinking that my behavior was the norm. My actions were what everyone else was doing. I was just going along with whatever society told me to. I assumed it was okay and it was right and since it was legal, it was fine. I was free to do whatever I wanted.
“We are “free” in a sense to “do whatever we want with our bodies.” However, we are not free to determine whether what we do with our bodies is good or evil. TOB for Beginners
Our bodies can tell the truth or they can tell a lie. Our bodies tell a story and the story I was telling was one of desperation, sadness, pride, lust, dishonor and plenty of lies. Lots of lies, actually.
Lust is often thought of as some benefit to the sexual relationship or it is conceived of as an increase or intensification of sexual desire. In reality, lust is a reduction of the original fullness God intended for sexual desire. We do not get “more”when we lust but much less. Indulging in lust is comparable to eating out of a dumpster, when God invites us to the feast of eternal life. Why would be ever choose a dumpster? Because we do not really believe in the great gift of God’s banquet. This is the gift man and woman denied with original sin. Shame, in turn, indicates our attraction toward the “dumpster.” TOB for Beginners
I was attracted to things that were not good for me because my ethos was off. It wasn’t directed towards heaven, it was directed to things of this world. And I hurt a lot of people. I never apologized to any of them. I never confessed to anyone. I never admitted fault. In fact, I blamed others instead of pointing the finger right back at my own heart.
The stubbornness and rationalization continued on…and it became exhausting and despairing.
That’s what despair is: Hopelessness. In turn, when there is no hope of an eternal banquet that will satisfy our hunger, we start grasping at the pleasures of this world in a disordered way. Fill These Hearts – God, Sex, and the Universal Longing
That was exactly me. I listened to the secular world for too long and believed so many lies. I promoted the lie. I believed in the lie that when I finally found the truth, I practically shouted, “I KNEW IT!!! I knew I wasn’t the only one that felt this way!” I was thrilled because that “echo” was finally freed from inside me.
And THAT’S why when I read TOB and went on this retreat that I cried for so long. I grieved my old life and all the sins and lies that were in it, but forever grateful for the transformation of my heart. I finally went to confession on that retreat after a 23 year hiatus. I am so grateful that I finally found the answers I fought so hard to shut out, starting the night I sat in that pew with arms folded and closed off to the truth.
That is my point with this week’s post. I would be willing to bet you or someone you know has broken away from the church. Maybe the words were right but the song was wrong, like it was in my case. I stayed away for a long time. And if you ask me if I was happy, I would have lied right to your face and said yes.
Those 15 years were a necessary step in my journey of faith. Because if I hadn’t lived and believed the lie, I would never have been able to share the truth with anyone once I finally discovered it.
When we desire what is true, good, and beautiful, then we are free indeed – free to love, free to bless, which is the freedom from the compulsion to grasp and posses. TOB For Beginners
I look back and see my “break” from church as a child who fakes an illness in order to avoid going to school because he/she is afraid to take a test.
Now that I’m back, I have a lot of make-up homework to do.
…to be continued…
What I’m Currently Reading: