I no longer need my religion

I became Catholic because of a book by the Dalai Lama. In it, he told the story of a man who was spiritually lost-who had traveled Dharamshala, India in search of the truth. When at last he secured an audience with the Dalai Lama, he asked for guidance. Go home and practice the religion you were raised in, the holy man said, for all religions share the same destination, and it is only in choosing a path, that one can more peacefully reach it.

So I became Catholic-again. As a teenager, I had become Catholic because of a Black priest from the Congo named Father Gaston. He wore leopard-print robes and presided over a beautiful church. At my first confession, he told me I could wear a prom dress that “went down to there,” because “if it makes you feel beautiful, then God would want you to wear it.” Beauty then, became the raison d’etre that drew me into that most ancient of faiths.

As an adult, however, the beauty faded. I moved, the churches became less beautiful, the priests less merciful, and after a difficult period in my life, I turned away from the religion of my youth and found solace in yoga, a gentle Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama, whose words once again led me back to my faith. That same year I enrolled in the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton to begin my graduate studies in Mariology-the study of the Virgin Mary.

I think, at the time I hoped to recapture the beauty that originally drew me to the religion, and to discover in my chosen path the same truth that man once sought in the mountains of Dharamshala. Now, as I complete my graduate studies five years later, I have discovered only one truth: that it cannot be found. In the words of the Greek philosopher Socrates: “The one thing I know, is that I know nothing.”

I do not know with any certainty whether Jesus was God, whether he rose from the dead, or whether his mother was a virgin. I do not know if my soul will continue after my body has turned to ash, or if it will dwell in some unknown afterlife. After all of my study, I cannot find proof of these events, nor do I have any reason to believe they are true. But what I have discovered is that my faith no longer requires that truth to exist. Instead, it thrives on the mystery.

I no longer agree with the Dalai Lama’s teaching. Though religion helped settle my mind by setting a structure for my faith- I even wrote about that here -in the end, I am not the sort of person that thrives on structure. I am drawn to it because I often find myself teetering on a tightrope looking for something to hold onto, but in practice, once I have it, I rebel against it-determined to walk the line on my own.

I imagine it’s like joining the military. I have often looked up to those who pursue a military career for their ability to have such a clearly defined mission, and to spend their entire lives devoted to it. But though I admire that ability from afar, I know I could never adhere to it. I would question every command, mulling it over in my mind in an attempt to determine whether or not it was the correct course of action. I would never have the peace of believing that everything I was instructed to do was good.

I envied the religious for similar reasons. They appeared to know so clearly what they believed, and they were never made restless by the unsurity that it might not be true. I wanted to religious, I even tried to be. How I longed to have such a clearly defined ethos. But the more I studied the tenets of my faith, the more I could not see in them any truth. Instead, I found only the great unknown.

Philosophy asks questions. Religion gives answers.

Like Jacob, the biblical man who once spent an evening wrestling with God, I too have struggled against my religion and come away limping. Though I adored the Church for her beauty and tradition, I abhorred her for her complexity and rigidity, and I could not forgive her for holding tight to doctrine that seemed to me deploringly out of date. Though I can still see the beauty of her past, her lineage, I can also see the decay of her present, her reality.

To me, Catholicism is very much like her Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris: beautiful in its creation, yet crumbling with age and now catching on fire.

I think most people do not think this much. I think most people do not need to decide for themselves whether Mary was really a virgin, or whether she experienced pain during childbirth. I think they simply attend mass and find peace there, and so they continue doing so.

I too feel at peace when I’m kneeling in a cathedral, breathing in the incense that twirls toward the ceiling in spirals of frankincense and myrrh. I too feel that Divine presence dwelling there, often wishing I could lay down in my pew and fall asleep in that embrace forever. I too take the bread and wine into my body and am filled with happiness.

But then we beat our chests, repeating that we have greatly sinned, through our thoughts, through our words, through what we have done and what we have failed to do, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault,” we chant. In the end, I just don’t think I’m that horrible of a person, and I’d rather believe that I am good.

Then we recite the creed and I do not know if I believe the words of it. When I began my graduate studies five years ago, I think I hoped to prove my religion was true. Or at least that there was some deep theological reasoning why it might be. Instead, I have found 2,000 years of men writing about events that happened — hundreds of years after they happened — and then using them to determine morality.

The very oldest written documents were not concerned with morality-they were concerned with freedom. And that is why, at the end of my graduate studies, I decided to write my own creed. A list of the things I do believe, the things I do not believe, and the things I do not know if I believe. Here it is:

Things I believe

  • I believe that there is a higher being.
  • I believe that life will continue eternally.
  • I believe in mystery, but it remains a mystery to me.
  • I believe we should be kind and compassionate to all.
  • I believe we should pursue peace and happiness for ourselves.

Things I do not know

  • I do not know if my soul will continue after I die, but I know my body will go into the earth and become part of it and that life will continue to grow and thrive upon it.
  • I do not know if there is an afterlife, but I know that life will continue perfecting eternally and that our kindness and compassion will contribute toward that.
  • I do not know if Jesus was God.
  • I do not know if Jesus was resurrected.
  • I do not know if Mary was a virgin.

Things I do not believe

  • I do not believe that one religion is truer than the others.
  • I do not believe that religions should exclude certain groups of people (women, divorced, non-Catholics, LGBTQ+) for any purpose (priesthood, communion, marriage).
  • I do not believe that religion should impose morality on its members-it only creates a culture of shame instead of love.
  • I do not believe that religion should dictate a woman’s birth control choices. I believe having children is a calling, and that we play a role in choosing that calling.
  • I do not believe in heaven or hell.

Though that may sound like a losing of my religion, in fact, I have gained my faith. For my faith no longer requires those truths to exist, instead, it thrives on the mystery.

My faith no longer depends on truth to exist. Instead, it thrives on the mystery.

When I was a child, I used to lay in my bed talking to God. Then, when I was about seven years old I said suddenly, “wait, what if I’m just talking to myself?” At that moment an absolute surety washed over me-a deep knowing in my soul that I was not alone and that in fact, God was with me.

Soon after, on a warm summer day, I was crying at my kitchen table when a wind blew through the screen door, flipping the pages of our wall calendar up until they reached the month of October. There was written: “In difficult times turn to the Lord.”

I did not grow up in a religious household, but I always knew there was mystery. The struggle always came when I attempted to define it. As an adult, I would read about the apparitions at Fatima, and though I could read about them with an open mind and presume a miracle, I could also read about them with a skeptical mind and see a girl who did not write about her experiences until she became a nun and spent years under spiritual direction.

Which mind is the correct mind? I do not know. I have experienced enough miracles in my life to know they exist. And yet I cannot do away with logic. The mysterious mind and the rational mind coexist within me. I both feel, and I think. And that means I can have faith, but I cannot have blind faith, and that has been the greatest obstacle of my religion.

On my last day of school, I attended a wine tasting to celebrate with family. While we were waiting in line, we began speaking with the couple behind us. When I told her about my studies, she mentioned that she attended Catholic school her entire life, but that she become Jewish as an adult, and that she found great peace in her chosen religion.

When I asked why she decided to become Jewish, she said she was tired of Catholicism claiming to have all the answers. That with Judaism everything was more of a mystery. She went on to say that during her first meeting with the rabbi at her synagogue, he mentioned the idea of an afterlife and one of the other church leaders disagreed with him. She was shocked. “We can do that?” She thought. From then on, she dedicated her life to Judaism, exploring the mystery of faith in a way she hadn’t been able to as a Catholic.

It was as though she read my mind, speaking out loud exactly how I felt. During the course of my studies my religion has all but fallen away, but I have found beneath it something far more beautiful. Like a forgotten path after the leaves have been raked away, there it lays before me, facing the direction toward which all religions wend, and yet free to explore every whim along the way.

I understand what the Dalai Lama meant when he wrote those words so many years ago. But I have found greater peace following my own creed, than I ever found following someone else’s. And I have found greater freedom in the mystery than I ever found in the truth.

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Author of a newsletter about writing (and other things) called The Novelleist. About to release my novel via Substack. Subscribe at ellegriffin.substack.com.

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