I have been so fortunate to be able to connect with other atheist women out there, many of whom have traveled similar roads as me on their journey. Some with entirely different stories. All of them interesting. Today’s post comes from one such woman who was kind enough to share her experiences with not only me, but with all of you as well. Reading her story reminded me of my own. Her dedication to her faith, her search for truth, and her painful moment of clarity felt all too familiar. I hope the words of Phillipa Gilbert ring true for you and bring encouragement to those who may find themselves walking a similar road.
Being born in the ’70s in one of the most prosperous and traditionally European-like countries of South America, you could guess correctly with a 96% of certainty that I was brought up as a Roman Catholic Christian. I was so proud of my heritage. But what I was most proud of was that I used to keep my faith intact against all odds, all except one.
The first odd thing was that I never ever went to any mass of any type with my whole family. I just can’t remember doing that. My dad or mum drove me to the church and left me there and waited patiently outside the building. However, I was regularly in front of the Altar receiving the holy communion almost every Sunday and some Wednesdays, by myself, since I was an eight-year-old school girl until I was at the university. They didn’t ask me to. I made them do it.
At UNI, I went to mass or stood around the tabernacle maybe twice, three times per day between database design workshops and discrete math classes or any other time that I could have. No one asked me to. No one taught me how to do that stuff. I just did it. I was sure that I felt the Call.
Everything started when my Mum and dad diligently enrolled me in all-girls catholic school run by conservative Italian nuns. I can’t complain. I was happy there. I was shy and never got into trouble… oh wait, once. That time, I was boxing with one of the girls that was weirder than me. Just one punch, and one of her molar teeth flew over to the other side of the room. After that, my favourite nun, locked us in a bathroom without saying a word. Odd. Years later, I talked to my, now, best friend about the incident. We have been laughing about those school years and realize that in a way, the incident was the reason for our strong friendship. In the middle of the jokes and laughs, she turned very serious and told me that she lost her faith after that because “nuns are bad people”. I guess I didn’t get it because at that moment I laughed harder than before. I couldn’t grasp the possibility of someone losing their faith. That’s just impossible.
John Paul II, the pope, had a lot to do with keeping my faith stronger than ever. No doubts. He was the first pope to visit Venezuela and all the young Christians were more excited about his coming than any rock star alive. I went to one of his concerts, I mean, one of the gatherings and it was mesmerizing. I couldn’t talk about anything else for months. I was invited to enter a youth association and I got so involved that even being just a 19-year-old, I was appointed as a Youth Leader of Religious Education. First, I was my local group leader, one year later I was the regional leader and couple of years after that, I was the National Leader of Religious Education of this youth group. Those years were the most prolific of my young religious career. I organized several workshops and camps. People travelled great distances to get to one of those. The most memorable was a five-day retreat for thirteen and nineteen-year-old boys and girls and the main and only topic was: The power of praying. No one taught me how. No one asked me to. I was totally sure that I was called by god to do that.
I was never a religious fanatic though. I talked about god and religion just with people that were on the same page. At the same time, I was another student. One that did aerobics, swam at the uni swimming Olympic pool, went to classes, was enlisted in her first political and rights debate, walked around the place as if she owned it and had a whole group of male fans of her own. They could smell virgin blood wrapped in a very innocent looking 20-year-old girl in a mini skirt. Not knowing that when no one was looking, she went to the small room of the tabernacle, knelt with her face between her hands, bent down as close to the ground as possible to meditate and could stay like that for hours. No one taught me how. No one asked me to. I just was trying to listen.
One very odd day, I couldn’t find one spot in the technology section of the library so I went to the humanity section. I sat down close to a guy that was reading another type of book: Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mercea Eliade. Every word of the title was a puzzle to me. I couldn’t help but ask the reader what it was about. That moment of curiosity changed my life forever. He photocopied that first chapter for me and gave it to me right there. I kept seeing him for a whole month and every meeting he brought me another photocopied chapter. That was my first book other than technology or Catholic Books. Hinduism? What was that? I started reading, and breathing, about other religions, history of religions, comparative religious ideas, sacred books of every major religion and some minor too, cults, different divisions inside major religions, biographies of the religion founders and cults, philosophy of religions, spirituality, new age, angelology, theosophy, anthroposophy (I think I read all that Rudolph Steiner wrote about this one), all against or pro. Maybe, this time, I thought by comparing what I have learned for so many years with everything else I could prove to others that my faith was the right one.
Years after years passed and everything was growing old or comfortable enough to consider it as part of my conscious being, until a couple of events that are odd enough to mention here.
The first one, the realization that the only way that I could use all this religious knowledge was being a priest. A female priest? Yes. Maybe. My admired John Paul II had said in an encyclical letter: “no way” for now and for ever. I was so disappointed. Probably, another Christian church, then. Conversion was never my plan. It would be a failure. “The Holy Catholic Church was the right one”, I repeated to myself, I don’t know how many times. All other churches were a posterior modification of that glorious first one. Or, should I pretend that I could convert and be an Anglican and forget all about the Anglican Kings and Queens killing thousands of innocent Catholics just because I want to properly and lawfully preach? It didn’t sound right. So, what to do with all this knowledge? I just want to be one of those people that people would like to listen to.
And the last and definitive event was the passing of a little innocent baby. Abraham was my in-law-nephew’s very sick baby. I didn’t have the opportunity to hold him or kiss him, not even once, but I felt how a part of my life went to a very dark place with the losing of him. I’d prayed for him not to die for months. I prayed to god, to virgin Mary, to Jesus and to all saints. Even other deities were called for their intervention. I performed every ritual or praying position that I knew. I said every single prayer known to religious people. I explored the meaning of the words and I know the intentions were the right ones. I prayed in different languages based on different traditions. I just wanted to be heard.
The day he died I wanted to die too, and in a way, I died. Someone called and my husband repeated the words he was hearing. His voice was extremely sad and he was in disbelief. He cried. I felt like something was leaving me and it did. I went down to the floor crying. Midway, I stopped crying for him and started to cry for me. I was so desperate, hopeless, betrayed and alone. How silly and innocent I have been. I heard my own voice saying “there is no one listening”.
In a split second, all the pain in the world made perfect sense: there is no one listening. So: paedophilia, human trafficking, foreign occupation, killing, raping, murdering, terrorism, horrible politicians, nationalisms, totalitarian regimes and all religions are just man-made acts based on one-sided opinions. There is no one who knows it all and at the same time is present and does nothing when things like these happen.
There is no one listening. So, natural disasters are just that – disasters that are natural – or even man-made sometimes. They are not signs of something different. They are not punishment for one or another convenient reason. They are not abominations of an all-knowing omnipresent but impotent god.
There is no one listening. Life has no intrinsic meaning. And, this is not the voice of depression. This is the voice of someone that is not looking for immortality anymore… just freedom.
Finally, I freed myself from my own search for meaning. No one taught me. No one asked me to. I just stopped that and it feels so liberating.
If you would like to share your story, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.