The following is an excerpt from the book The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, published by Pauline Books and Media, Boston, MA.
When I was a child, I loved God with all my heart. My devout parents centered our family life on the Catholic Faith. The liturgical rhythm of the Church was the heartbeat of our family. My father was a professor who led an evangelism program at a Catholic university. From a young age, I shared my father’s enthusiasm for evangelization. When I was only eight years old, I coaxed him into allowing me to attend one of his evangelism classes. Much to the amusement of the students, I filled out the workbook and contributed with gusto. I participated in door-to-door evangelization with my father and handed out religious tracts downtown. Although my interest pleased my father, I did none of this under pressure; a real fire burned in my heart. My fiery faith was authentic, but not yet strong enough to withstand the powerful dousing effect of suffering and cold logic.
Despite my youthful fervor, I was always a natural doubter. When I was about five years old I doubted the existence of God for the first time. As I climbed the stairs to the second floor of my family’s house, suddenly, like a snake pouncing, a thought stung my mind: “What if God doesn’t exist?” I felt as if the walls of my secure, warm house had fallen, and I was surrounded by an empty blur of white, the shrill stillness whistling in my ears. I dismissed the thought almost immediately, but the doubt remained, dormant, like a sleeping volcano under the deceptively calm surface of my soul.
Over time, my doubts about the existence of God began to resurface as the pounding rain of life’s suffering gradually broke down my strong faith. Unfortunately, most of my family’s challenges involved people and organizations tied to the Church. My father’s career as a theologian was primarily dedicated to evangelization and serving the Church. However, several difficult situations arose, both in his teaching post at a Catholic university and then in his work as the director of religious education in another diocese. My father began working for a secular college. He did not want to stop serving the Church, but all too common politics and divisiveness led him to do so. In the midst of all this, I unfortunately saw some Catholics, including priests and religious, acting in some very un-Christ-like ways. I was a sensitive and impressionable child, and these experiences scandalized me and served to push me further from the faith.
All these things, combined with other family difficulties and topped with the drama of teenage angst, stirred up the perfect storm within me. At fourteen years old, shaking my fist at God, I left the Catholic Church. My parents, thinking this was only a phase, forced me to go to Mass on Sunday. But I was finished. In my heart I had left the Church. I absolutely refused to be confirmed, and when my parents brought it up, I angrily asked them if they really wanted to force me to receive the sacrament. I insisted they would have to drag me to church if they wanted me to be confirmed. I was angry, and I trusted no one. The hypocrisy I had seen among Christians convinced me that it was possible to be a good person without God. I decided to set off on my own.
The faith my parents had carefully and painstakingly instilled in me since childhood quickly dissolved. My formerly strong childhood connection with God, left unused, eventually broke off completely. I became an atheist. Idealistic, nonconformist, and full of anger, I quickly entered the teenage subculture with which I could most identify: I became a punk. Through a friend at my high school, I started to go to punk rock shows and sneak out at night. I chopped off my long hair and started dying it: pink, dark red, platinum blond, anything but normal. I left behind big floppy hats and floral prints for safety pins, chains, and anarchy symbols. I maintained my place on the honor roll, which kept most of my illicit activities unnoticed, but at the same time, a dark world began to absorb me. Before my parents knew it, I had changed from a quiet bookworm into a troubled, angry, and brooding teenager.
At the end of high school, I was accepted into an elite women’s college on the East Coast. I was thrilled. This fit my self-image as an intelligent, urbane atheist who would show the world that being a good person did not require imaginary gods. I left the punk rock culture behind; I figured the drug use and related risks would hinder me from making something of myself. Of course, I continued some dangerous behavior, just not enough to get caught in the undertow. But I still wanted to live in rebellion against the status quo, so I lived to separate myself. I listened to obscure indie music, read existentialist philosophy, became active in various causes, and ate only vegan food.
During this unlikely time, without even knowing it, my angry heart began looking for God again. It started with a conversation about miracles. One day a friend and I were sitting on a stone wall, swinging our feet and chatting about transcendent things. I casually said that I believed in miracles. My friend said, “Oh, you mean amazing things that science can explain?” “Of course not,” I said. “If something can be explained, it’s not miraculous.” My friend aptly pointed out that atheists do not usually believe in miracles. “I know,” I grumbled. If I believed in miracles, then they had to have a logical cause. “What could cause a miracle?” I thought. At this point I had rejected God for so long that I didn’t even think of Him as a possible explanation.
My natural attraction to the supernatural led me to look for answers. Like many seekers, I chose the religion furthest from my own. I began reading Buddhist texts and taking philosophy classes on Eastern spiritual thinking. It fascinated me. My exploration of Buddhism helped me begin to accept mystery and paradox. At one point I went to hear a Buddhist monk speak at my college. In some way, his words made me feel as if I were lifted out of my ordinary life. “Desire is the source of suffering” — it sounded so easy and yet so difficult! I began to become open to a deeper reality present in the world than what is readily apparent.
My college was originally Quaker and was near a meeting house so, out of curiosity, I started to also explore the Quaker faith. I began to occasionally attend Quaker meetings (a weekly worship service). The Quakers provided me with a non-dogmatic setting (I would not have accepted anything else) in which I began to explore spirituality again. In that simple wooden building, people gathered for an hour in silence. During the meeting, individuals would stand when they felt they had a message to share. In that pregnant, peaceful, and silent atmosphere, without being aware of it, I began to explore the long silence that had become a wall between God and me.
After college, as part of my independent quest to be a good person and help people, I joined Teach for America, an organization that places college leaders in low-income inner-city and rural schools around the country. The summer after my graduation, I was trained in L.A. and then was sent to teach a third grade class in Miami. On the first day of school, all of twenty-one years old, I sat behind my desk wide-eyed and anxious, waiting for my students to arrive. The thought of the awesome responsibility before me filled my heart with fear. If I did not do a good job, I feared that my students would leave my classroom more disadvantaged than ever. Most of them had already fallen behind academically. For the first time in my life, I faced a situation I doubted I could handle.
The first month, I went home every day, threw myself on my bed, and cried. Not one of my students could read at grade-level, if at all. By the end of the year, they would need to pass a standardized reading test to move on to the fourth grade. Many of the kids had serious behavior problems. Their difficulties at home, the violence they were exposed to, and the sad family situations they faced continually shocked and saddened me. I began to search desperately for something that would help me keep my head above water. I realized that in order to help my students, I needed to mature and grow as a person.
Looking for something that would bring me peace, I tried meditation. I failed miserably. I would sit cross-legged on my pillow, nodding off to sleep, wondering, “Is this supposed to be so boring? What am I doing wrong?” Every morning I would practice yoga, trying to focus my mind. During lunch breaks I sat outside, looked at the bright clouds and took deep breaths, counting the hours left in the day. I also started to attend Quaker meetings every Sunday. There I found a supportive community of very kind, highly-educated people, some of whom seemed as unsure about the existence of God as I was. I felt at home. I still did not profess a belief in God, but these spiritual practices soothed my spirit, and the Quaker community offered support and helped keep me afloat.
After I finished teaching, I took some time off and moved to California with my boyfriend, who was studying for his PhD. I applied to law school and envisioned getting into a top school and changing the world. I lived on the campus of the university where my boyfriend was studying. I was surrounded by successful people and the prospect of my own success, but I began to feel like something was not right. My sensitive heart gradually became aware of what felt like a deep chasm in my soul. Something was wrong, very wrong. But I felt deeply confused because on the outside everything seemed so right. So many people would have wanted my life.
Yet, I was not happy. One day, as I sat outside my apartment under a tree, tears rolled down my cheeks. I was deeply sad, but I didn’t know why. I rubbed the top of my hand back and forth against the rough bark of the tree until my skin was red and raw. I wanted my interior pain to be seen exteriorly. Otherwise, I felt as if I would go crazy. Anyone would have said my life was perfect. Yet I experienced an emptiness that nothing around me could fill. Why was I so unhappy? What was this pain that seemed to rip me apart from the inside out? What was this terrible emptiness?
I had time before I would start law school in the fall, so I decided to take a trip by myself to Costa Rica. A local family hosted me while I worked at a nearby ranch, weeding the garden, carrying firewood, and cooking. Rural life suited me. The spartan living conditions and manual labor were actually a great relief. I felt liberated, free from the complications of life in the United States. I realized how differently most of the world lived from the affluent world into which I was lucky enough to have been born. Health insurance, stocks, retirement, savings, all the things that consume a post-college graduate’s plans, didn’t matter in this rural town. Yet the people had enough and they were happy. In fact, they were happier, with much less, than most of the people I knew back home. The anxiety I felt almost every day in my normal life melted away. I was at peace here, working with my hands and living day to day.
I quickly noticed that almost every person I met in the small town where I lived believed in God. Even if they did not go to church, the existence of God was a given. At first, I tried convincing myself that they were just too uneducated to understand that God was an idea that intelligent people naturally moved beyond. But this mental tactic did not work for long. I realized that in many ways these people were much more mature and intelligent than I was. Perhaps they had not read Kant or Hegel, but they knew life. When I would spout off the freethinking opinions of a spoiled American, my new friends would give me amused but patient looks. At first I felt indignant and embarrassed at their reaction, but I gradually began to realize my own immaturity. These people, who worked hard every day of their lives and believed in God with ease, knew more about life than I did with my many years of expensive education.
Arabela, the mother of the family I stayed with, was a strong Catholic. Every week she would walk with her two daughters to clean the church. It was a poor, concrete building with crumbling walls, but the people of the town painstakingly cared for it. Mass was only celebrated once every two weeks due to a shortage of priests and the rural location of the village. Every other Thursday, small groups of older women would make their way to Mass. Much to my surprise, when I first noticed the little groups of old ladies walking to Mass in the crisp morning air, I felt a pull to join them, but I ignored the feeling wondering if I was going crazy.
One day, I felt the pull so strongly that I grit my teeth while working in the garden, trying to resist the feeling with all my strength. Then, for some reason, something inside of me gave in, and I surrendered. I dropped my hoe and walked to the church. The other volunteers at the ranch where I worked watched me strangely. I could feel their eyes on my back. As I approached the door of the church, conversation died down abruptly. The women waiting for Mass eyed me with suspicion and mild disgust. I was not welcome; I was a foreigner, and a badly behaved one at that! But then Arabela arrived; seeing me, she looked shocked, but a smile quickly broke over her face and she waved me over.
The celebrant was a city priest from the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. He was fluent in English and was delighted to see a foreigner attending Mass. He spoke slowly during the liturgy so that I could understand, and he would insert little stories and jokes in his homilies that seemed to be for my benefit. I started to go to the church whenever Mass was celebrated. Each time, the other women would give me dagger-like looks. But the priest was always happy to see me, despite the disapproval of most of the other church-goers. With a warm smile, he would reach out his hand to shake mine, and Arabela would pat the seat next to her.
One day after Mass, I went to the local pulpería, a tiny grocery store that also served as the bar for the small town. I was talking to some of the locals when the priest approached the pulpería with a bright smile. All of the people at the bar sitting on the three rough-hewn wooden benches turned and looked at him with discomfort. He was getting some of the same looks I got when I went to Mass. For me, it was a clash of two worlds. I wondered if the priest would know that I was a fake, that I spent more time at the local bar than I ever did praying. Would he ask me to stop attending Mass?
He ordered a soda in a loud voice and joked with the guy behind the bar. Then he sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. I was impressed by how happy he seemed. We talked about various things while the non-churchgoers at the bar watched us warily. Then, for some reason, I asked him why he had decided to become a priest. “I was a very successful lawyer working for a large corporation,” he told me. “I had a beautiful fiancée,” he said, and his eyes got a faraway look for a moment. “My life was perfect. But I felt something in my heart, something that was not right. Then I started to pray more, and I realized that God was calling me to the priesthood. And how could I say no?” he said with a twinkle in his eye, looking at me as if he just knew I would understand.
I did not understand. It sounded crazy. But something stirred in my heart, and for a moment I considered my own life, which, even though I was not practicing my faith, was quite similar. I planned to attend law school in the fall. I assumed I would eventually marry my wonderful boyfriend. Yet something did not feel right. As for the priest, I couldn’t understand how someone could be so joyful about leaving behind success and happiness with a family. It seemed quite insane, yet I couldn’t deny that this man radiated joy. I left the conversation feeling unsettled. I felt so above Catholicism, and yet this priest — an educated, intelligent, and successful person — had given up everything that I was planning for — because of God. I wondered how he could even be sure God existed. Little did I know that in just a few days I would begin to understand.
One day, early in the morning, I was walking from my host family’s house to the ranch where I worked. I looked out at the mountains surrounding me and admired the beauty of the rolling green hills. I could hear the birds singing joyfully. I was filled with gratitude for the day, the mountains, the birds, and the trees rustling gently in the breeze. Unlike back at home, everything felt just right. My soul suddenly swelled, as if it could not contain my gratitude any longer. At that moment, a great wind tore through the trees around me. I felt frightened at its intensity, and the trees seemed to shake for fear with me.
Suddenly a conviction filled me: God exists! I could feel His presence in a way I had not felt since I was a child. And the God who was introducing Himself to me was not some sort of universal spirit or sci-fi force that impersonally ran the universe (ideas I had once entertained). I knew in my heart that God was a Person, that He had feelings and desires, and that He loved me in a deep and intimate way. His presence was so much greater than I was; His overwhelming immensity almost stopped my breathing. Yet this love waited to envelop me, waited for my permission. I knew I could not resist Him any longer. I surrendered.
Immediately, I knew my life would change. While flying home from Costa Rica, I decided not to go to law school and also to break up with my boyfriend. It was time for a new beginning. I did not quite know why. But I did feel that it would be better for me, better for everyone. God knew why and that satisfied me. I still did not consider myself a Catholic, but continued with my former way of living. Outwardly, not much changed. Another year would pass before I started returning regularly to Mass, and yet another before I was confirmed. Most people around me would not have known that anything had changed. Seeds of grace tend to unfold silently before they bloom.
Several months after returning from Costa Rica, I was still living a carefree life. I told myself I had to wait for God to make clear what He wanted for me, but not knowing exactly how that worked, I also made my own plans. I worked at a temporary job, saving up for another trip to Latin America. I dated various men and eventually became involved with one who had been raised Catholic. He still attended Mass occasionally but did not live his faith seriously. However, for the first time, someone close to me — other than my family — saw Catholicism as a good. Even though he did not live it well himself, I could tell that, deep down inside, he wanted to. One day, we were discussing religion, and I said something to suggest that I considered myself Catholic. He looked at me in amusement and exclaimed, “You’re not Catholic!” I paused briefly, and in a voice that I hardly recognized as my own, the unexpected words came out, “Yes, I am.”
I am a person of all or nothing. The moment those words came out of my mouth, things changed. It still took time for God’s purifying action to cleanse me of many outward inconsistencies (in fact, God will always be working on these inconsistencies). But interiorly, the inspired words that escaped my mouth that day became the basis for a new will to change my life. To my boyfriend’s surprise, I soon grew more serious about the faith than he was. The relationship quickly ended. God was jealously guarding and guiding me. Even when I deviated from His path, He used it for my good, and patiently continued to move me forward, as long as I was willing to follow.
I became a member of a nearby church in my neighborhood and began attending regularly. The parish community was diverse and full of life. I found supportive friends, who helped me to order my life around God and His plans for me rather than my own. I had never expected to be back in the Catholic Church, but now I knew that God had unmistakably led me to where I was; I could not deny it. Although I still had many doubts and issues with the Church, the knowledge that God had led me to where I was made me feel secure in my doubt. I soon began a program to prepare for the Sacrament of Confirmation. And just like that, I picked up the thread I had so disdainfully thrown away when I refused the sacrament as an angry fourteen-year-old.
Throughout the Confirmation process, I wrestled with my doubts and all that kept me from the Church for so many years. I could feel the Spirit moving in my life, helping me to understand and accept the faith. I did not suddenly find the answers to all my questions, but I did grow enough to become comfortable with mystery. I began to trust God more and to accept both the joys and the mess of Christian community. The day I was confirmed, I felt as if my soul had found its place again, and the emptiness that had haunted me for so long began to be filled to overflowing.
I wrote this poem to describe what I felt the day the holy oil was placed on my forehead at Confirmation:
I can feel the Spirit sinking into my soul,
I breathe deeply
My pores widen
The Spirit, like the oil, sinks into my being
Making Himself a home.
He finds the fire of my Baptism,
It is ablaze.
He immerses Himself in it,
Melding to me,
His name a seal upon my heart.
It is a moment in time,
But outside of time it stretches on.
I am home.