Like many people my age, I consider myself spiritual but not religious, but that wasn’t always the case. Despite growing up in a family of atheists and agnostics (or maybe because of it), with no religious upbringing whatsoever, I found Jesus. I don’t know where’d he been before that, but I found him when I was in high school.
I’d been baptized and confirmed in middle school (salvation – checked off) but by high school I was feeling a little rough around the edges. I was going out to clubs, drinking, smoking pot, sleeping with my boyfriend. Then, I upgraded to an older boyfriend with a motorcycle. Let’s just say I was much more Mary Magdalene than the Virgin Mary. At 16, I was already feeling unhappy from and tired of life. I’d had some near misses with my risky behavior, and I wasn’t so sure I’d get another free pass. Something had to give.
Enter religious conversion.
As with all the boys I’d pined for up to that point (and, okay, maybe for some years afterward), I threw myself at Jesus pretty shamelessly. It’s true. I worshiped him and changed my behavior so I could be more like what I thought he wanted (based largely on highlighted and underlined New Testament passages in my New International Version Study Bible). People, I was in love. Seriously in love. I’m not shitting you when I say there was a time during my senior year when I actually contemplated becoming a nun. Yeah, that idea passed pretty quickly, but still, I had it.
I don’t do anything in moderation. So Jesus got 150% of me, all the Christian fervor I could muster at 16. Being His personal advocate, I took it upon myself to speak to my family, sinners that they were. How sad I would be that they’d be burning in hell while I strolled with the angels in heaven. (Yes, I actually said this to them.) I was pretty dogmatic, but I was 16 and, apparently, knew everything.
So in my senior year of high school, much to everyone’s disbelief, I joined the youth group at church, started going to religious retreats, and wrote my college essays about religion. If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be? St. Francis of Assisi of course! Who are the three most important people in your life? My mom, my best friend, and Jesus (not necessarily in that order). No, I wasn’t applying to Bob Jones University. But, like I said, when I go in, I go all in. I was dedicated. No more drinking, smoking, or fooling around. I went to school, worked, and was hyper-involved in church activities.
In college, resisting temptation didn’t prove too difficult. This was undoubtedly helped by that fact that I was attending an all women’s school in the suburbs. Plus, my boyfriend was in Texas, and I was in Massachusetts. A long distance relationship poses few opportunities to sin. So I happily led Bible study in my dorm room, taught Sunday school at the neighborhood Episcopal Church, and attended the college’s Christian fellowship group.
And then everything went to hell. In college speak that means spring break happened. No, it wasn’t a Girls Gone Wild video, although there were copious amounts of alcohol and immodest behavior involved. For the record, I was in love and had gotten engaged that spring break of my sophomore year. It was the ensuing celebration that involved alcohol. And carnal mischief. Then, 8 weeks later, I found myself crying in the student health center. Forget scarlet letters, I was going to be wearing something much more damning for a 19 year old – maternity clothes!
There was something about getting knocked up, getting married, and being forced to grow up too quickly (though truth be told I think I’m only now really starting to grow up) that created a small crack in my core. And, over the years, that crack widened and spread. It happened slowly. First, I stopped going to church because my kids didn’t like Sunday school but then they wouldn’t sit still for a service either. Then, I started questioning why things were the way they were. What was wrong with being gay? Or living together before marriage? And then, some years later, I just woke up and realized, I just don’t love Him anymore. This relationship is not the answer, not for me anyway.
What’s happened over the years since that parting of ways is that I’ve realized two things. First, there is no one right path for me. Second, I can be a moral person without religion. In fact, I’m probably more moral without religion. While I have nothing but happy memories of my experiences with organized religion and all the people I met when I was involved in it, ultimately, I chose a different route, one where I use my own moral compass for guidance. For now, this is where I need to be, the path I need to take. As I walk this path, growing in my understanding of right intentions and actions, I engage in meaningful self-reflection and find that my heart widens and my dogmatism softens. Which is to say, I have more compassion and love to give to myself and to others.
I think Jesus would probably approve.