“Dad, what was there before God?”
My questioning of religion began when I was very young – I remember how one day, as my dad was driving me and my sister somewhere, I kept repeatedly asking him obnoxious questions concerning the existence of God.
I was, apparently, a very metaphysically-minded seven-year-old.
My poor dad, whom I had just a year beforehand asked what sex was, answered patiently, “God was always there, Nicki.”
That answer was not good enough for me.
“No, who was God’s mom? Bet you can’t answer that.” (My compulsion not just for asking potentially awkward questions but also to “one-up” my dad also started when I was little.)
After pausing to think for a second, Dad — again, always equipped with an answer — said, “Mary was God’s mom.”
“No, Mary was Jesus’s mom, Dad, everybody knows that.”
Being a baptized and confirmed Catholic from a long line of Mexican and German Catholics having going to confession, I've attended and even planned retreats and big family gatherings, worn plaid skirts, given up things for Lent, celebrated Easter with church and eggs and chocolate, and gone to mass every Sunday. Catholicism and the culture surrounding it have shaped my life and my identity thus far.
And being a communications intern at the Sheil Catholic Center here at Northwestern as well as a confirmation sponsor for my sister and a good friend’s younger sister, Catholicism is still, and will probably continue to be, a huge part of my life.
I must say, though, that I’m not entirely sure I believe in all of it. Catholicism fascinates me, but it also frustrates me. I don’t understand why the Mass liturgy developed like it did, why the Vatican exists, why Catholics believe that the scriptures that make up the Bible are holy, what the concept of “holiness” even is – and this is even with 12 years of Catholic schooling under my belt. My thoughts on God, religion and spirituality vary on a daily basis from cynicism to confusion to content (and sometimes all three at once), and I have existential worries nearly every week.
My questioning of Catholicism only progressed from those pestering queries. In fourth grade, I received a stern look and an exasperated response of “Yes, of course,” from my religion teacher when I asked if transubstantiation (the Catholic belief that the consecrated bread and wine actually turns into Jesus’s body and blood) could be examined under a microscope. In middle school I worriedly asked my religion teacher if people from other religions could go to heaven. (He said yes, by the way, which reassured me greatly).
In high school, even in the midst of dealing with many religious crises, I joined the Campus Ministry Team and planned and led retreats. However, I was never comfortable being seen as a “super Catholic” by my peers. I saw it as more of a way to connect with other people on the team as well as with the other members of my class, and a way to learn something about the Catholic religious experience. I even spoke at our senior retreat – not about God or anything super personal, but about love, unselfish acts and how they bring people together.
Even while continually asking metaphysical and religious questions, I still found beauty and enjoyment in attending Mass. In high school I started to look forward to my family’s Saturday 5 p.m. church-going ritual, rather than dreading it. I loved the music, the priests at my church, the liturgy and the ritualistic nature of it all. I loved the calm, peaceful feeling that I would get from attending Mass. I didn’t know or believe that God would hear my silent musings (or “prayers”), but I did it anyway. I also learned that people-watching while in church is one of my favorite pastimes.
When I came to Northwestern, I went to Sheil every Sunday for Mass freshman year, something that my mom probably saw as a bit of a miracle. Easter Vigil Mass at Sheil was – and still is – the most spectacularly spiritual event I have ever witnessed in my life. The community at Sheil is wonderful and welcoming, and through Sheil I’ve made wonderful friends and lasting connections, especially with Sheil’s director and pastor, Fr. John Kartje.
But besides attending Easter Mass and other Holy Days of Obligation (“Obligation to put money in the collection plate,” my dad jokes), I stopped going last year. Mass didn’t make me feel calm anymore. It actually made feel slightly anxious – I started getting worried that I would never feel anything that would be remotely considered a “religious experience,” and that if there is no God or if God doesn’t have a “chosen people,” then it is a waste of time for me to attend. (Also, I don’t believe in a God who takes attendance).
Now, I believe there are four, maybe not so equally feasible, explanations or options for this universe and God:
Option one: there is no God and I am indeed wasting my time worrying about religion.
Option two: there is a God and it is possible to have a connection with Him/Her/It, but only through a specific religion.
Option three: there is a God, and it is possible to have a connection with Him/Her/It, but not through any particular religion.
Option four: there is a God, and there is no way for anyone to have a connection with Him/Her/It.
At this point in my life, I think that Options three and four are the most viable. So I guess the way to define me religiously now is that I’m a cultural Catholic who seeks spirituality and connection to God but is slightly skeptical of it all.
Now, that’s an identity I can accept.
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