When Sarah And Jen were killed, I stopped going to church. I stopped praying. I stopped believing in God. In many ways, October 4th, 1996, was the date of my spiritual death. I struggled to comprehend how a kind and loving God would allow two innocents to die in such a tragic and violent way. The God that I had been raised to follow and honor could not be the same God that allowed such events to take place, rocking a community and breaking the hearts of two families and countless friends. My young and confused mind (and heart) decided that day that I couldn't believe in a God that would allow such horrible things to happen to people who didn't deserve it at all. I had lost people I loved before, but those people tended to be older or sickly. Their loss was more expected. Hard, but expected. Losing friends who were 16-years-old, popular cheerleaders, good people with kind personalities .... that's a lot harder for a young heart and spirit to process and overcome. Because I couldn't make meaning out of their deaths, I turned my back on God.
For the better part of the next decade, I didn't go to church. I didn't pray. When friends asked about my faith, I told them that I didn't believe in God, and, if there was a god, he was the great clock maker who set the gears into motion and then turned his back on us. There was a lot of hatred and frustration in my heart initially, but that soon faded to general disregard and apathy towards the whole religion thing. I didn't hate religion; it just wasn't for me because it didn't provide me the answers and comfort that I sought. I lived my life as a good person. I just didn't need religion to give me guidance.
In the midst of a long-term relationship with a life-long Catholic, I was repeatedly asked to attend mass with him. I repeatedly declined. I attended Midnight Mass on Christmas out of a feeling of obligation to him and, while the ceremony was beautiful, it didn't "do" anything for me. I didn't feel the spirit or God or any of those things that people often say they feel when in church. It just wasn't for me.
While in grad school, I worked for a woman who was an presbyter a local Presbyterian church. She happened to be friends with the former Bishop of Charlotte and had invited him to speak at a series of lectures at her church. While his "bishopness" didn't really impress me, I was intrigued and interested in his experiences with Mother Teresa. He served as her personal spiritual mentor for many years, and Mother Teresa has always fascinated me as a person. I was eager to hear more about her life and Bishop Curlin's experiences as well.
During his lecture, something happened. While I wasn't moved to tears by any means, I was moved to investigate whatever that "something" was that happened. I decided to talk to my local Catholic church and start to explore the faith. After speaking to a parish priest and the director of religious ed, I decided to pursue the rights of initiation into the Catholic Church. It just felt like the right time to look into the faith. I hadn't felt God speak to me nor did I feel a "calling" (what do they feel like anyway?), but I was inspired by the Bishop and Mother Teresa. I figured that investigating their spiritual foundations couldn't be bad.
Within a few weeks of RCIA classes, I felt comfortable and at home. I was encouraged to question the faith in order to more deeply understand it. I felt the intellectual challenge that I've always loved. I felt a sense of community and history and belonging that I'd never felt before. I began reading all about the saints' lives and the history of the church. I found the miraculous stories absolutely fascinating and inspiring. In particular, I felt a strong connection to St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis was a rich merchant's son who grew up in Assisi, Italy, in the 1200s. His father had amazing wealth, and Francis' formative years were indulgent and carefree, devoid of religion and faith. After experiencing war, Francis had a vision and turned his back on his material world. He took to a life of poverty and piety, and people, inspired by his devotion, began following him. He started the Franciscan Order as well as the female counterpart, the Order of St. Clare. He is known as the patron saint of animals. His love of God and Christ was so overwhelming for him that he felt compelled to spread the word everywhere, including to the animals that he passed as he roamed the countryside with his followers. He is the a patron saint for Catholic action, and his famous prayer (The Prayer of Saint Francis) is a daily reminder to be a humble servant to all of mankind, thus serving God dutifully. His faith was deep and profound, and he inspired me to fully participate in and convert to the Catholic faith. And his feast day?
I didn't know this when I chose him as my patron saint, and I didn't realize it until just a few months ago. While October 4th, 1996 was the day of my spiritual death, October 4th now carried a different significance. It is the feast day of the saint who truly inspired me to find faith once again. Everything seemed to have come full circle. The emotional wounds that once were so fresh had faded into scars that only hurt when they were pressed upon. While Sarah and Jen are always in my memory, they have moved to a sacred place in the back of my brain that allows me to remember but in a much less raw and exposed way. After almost a decade of confusion and pain and frustration, it was time to return to God again.
I fully believe that my separation from God was needed to be a true believer in His works. Before, my faith was superficial and social. I went to church because my friends were there. I never "felt" it nor did I pray often outside of those four walls. Upon entering the Catholic faith, it feels different than it ever did before. I regularly feel and see God's presence in my life. I pray every day and attend church as often as possible. It feels real now when before it didn't feel like anything. I think God knew I was going to turn my back on Him because He knew that, when I returned, it would be real and honest.
Everything had come full circle.
As it often does.
He does indeed work in mysterious ways.
The Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.