As a kid, sometimes I was rather agnostic. Sometimes it was merely apathy. Other times, I was so enraptured by the stories of the lives of saints that I wished I could experience pain and wounds as they did. I think that I wanted so much to endure what many saints endured, if just to have external pain to focus on, instead of the internal emotional pain.
Many, many saints embraced pain and self-mutilation in the name of God. St. Margaret Mary mutilated herself until she was paralyzed. Numerous saints, like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Therese, St. Escriva…they all flagellated themselves. Even the children of Fatima flogged themselves.
I soaked up the stories of self-mortification, and I think I subconsciously hoped that such bodily pain would give my mental pain some meaning. Since I was too chicken to cut myself, I prayed fervently that God would give me stigmata.
Year after year, for Lent, my parish would put out this large crown of thorns in front of the ambo. Many years I wished I had the guts to run from my family’s front-row pew and jam it on my head hard just so I can get some wounds, pain, and bleeding, and I felt that God would justify my actions.
Yet I feared such action would land me in a mental hospital. On one hand, I knew I would love the solitude and serenity of being committed. It would be a safe place. On the other hand, I was afraid of how angry dad would get if I didn’t put on a “good face” for the public. Jamming a crown of thorns on my head would probably have caused people to wonder what the heck was going on at home, and I didn’t want dad to start raging or spanking. So, I never gave into that yearly temptation.
Other times I was apathetic. Almost agnostic. I didn’t care. Where was God? Where was God when I felt such extreme emotional pain? Why wasn’t He rescuing me? Faith wasn’t making me feel better. This Jesus business just ate up my Sunday mornings.
Besides, my dad hated going to Mass, so if I skipped out (These allergies might be a cold, so I’d better stay home…) it made him feel less lonely. That hopefully meant that he wouldn’t be as angry, and that would hopefully mean home would be somewhat happier that day. We would both dislike the “stupid” music, and just wanted to get in and get out as fast as possible, so we sometimes went to the 7am Mass while the rest of the family went to the 9am Mass.
Once, I managed to 2 or so months without going to Mass when I was down with mono, which I caught from the shared chalice. Only about 3 of those weeks were times when I truly couldn’t get to church. I could barely get to the bathroom. Other times I probably could have gone to church…but I kept excusing myself. Besides, excusing myself gave dad an excuse to stay home with me. We celebrated the shared communion of watching Bugs Bunny cartoons while everyone else was remembering Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
I couldn’t keep up such apathy for long. I craved the hymns. I wanted a more thoughtful pace. God won me back over. I would enjoy church again. I loved the songs by Dan Schutte and Marty Haugen. So singable! This deaf girl could follow along…especially when Mom was cantor because I knew her voice so well. And then the scrupulosity would hit again, spurred on by my new-found love for spirituality.
Scrupulosity is much like OCD with a hefty dose of guilt. I was convinced that a mistake, a lazy effort, or even a good attempt that failed, would land me in hell. I forgot to take out recycling? I’m going to hell. I didn’t feed my dog on time? I’m going to hell. I accidentally ignored someone because I couldn’t hear them? I’m going to hell.
Such intense feeling of unworthiness led to me praying compulsively after I went to bed. I started out with one prayer off of the back of one of my saint prayer cards. Then I worried it wasn’t enough–would God see me as lazy? I’d better do two. Or three. Or four. Then I worried I wasn’t saying the prayers with enough fervor. I added several extra “please!”es throughout the prayers, in case God thought I was lazy, spoiled, rude, and/or selfish. Eventually it led into me praying one decade of the Rosary. Then all 5 decades. Sometimes I would try for 15 for the three sets of mysteries, all while on my knees leaning against the wall to read by the nightlight. I quickly gave up on the idea of 15 decades because I kept falling asleep. The whole routine could keep me up for hours past my bedtime.
The entire time of prayer I would be on edge, keeping an eye on the light filtering in from the stairs that led down to my basement room, watching for people-shaped shadows. I didn’t want to be caught. If I was awake after my bedtime of 9pm or 10pm (even well into highschool) I would get in trouble. If I did see a shadow, I would creep from my knees and into bed, and pretend to sleep. Then after several minutes, I would get back on my knees by the nightlight and pray. Between this and another nightly compulsion, a habit I picked up before kindergarten that helped me to de-stress enough from my father’s rages so I could sleep, I often was up until 11 pm, midnight, 1 am…somewhere around there, depending on how horrible I thought I was.
Then from exhaustion of little sleep, I would swing right back into apathy, wondering why God wasn’t helping me. Why was dad so angry? Why can’t we be a happy family? My prayers didn’t work, I thought. Sometimes I felt so empty, as if there was no God. Such thoughts sent me further into despair.
Yet in these moments of despair, I would imagine Jesus standing by my bed. The weight of His body as he sat at the foot of the bed, and me hugging Him, God the Son, God the Comforter. I wanted someone to hold me, let me cry, keep me safe, after one of dad’s rages. Mom wouldn’t. She was drinking the koolaid. I was the oldest kid, so there weasn’t an older sibling to do so for me. Sometimes I had my dog Bailey. Sometimes she was being punished along with me, so I couldn’t curl up with her. So even when I was angry with God, I still sought His presence.
After I grew up, by the grace of God, I met my supportive husband, managed to move out of my parents’ house, and managed to start healing. My faith still wanders back and forth from “slightly more fervor” to “slightly apathetic,” but the wandering is nowhere near as extreme as it had been. I’m learning to see such variance in my degree of belief (or disbelief) as part of my spiritual journey. It’s like breathing. And I instinctively know that, even through spiritual dryness, God is there.