I entered graduate school in 1996 as an eager Pastoral Counseling major.
My main mission was to work toward a degree that would give me a chance to work within hospice care. I’d be there to help families to grieve and deal with loss and transition.
I went into grad school with what I felt was an unshakeable belief. I was raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), what I often joked was “Catholic light—one third less guilt and better wafers,” and I was secure in my faith.
I was rooted, and I questioned not. I was secure.
During my first semester, I took a class called “Religion, Psychology and Culture.” I realized quickly how ill-prepared I was for grad school. There were challenging questions and debates during class. You were expected to think. In undergrad I had gotten so snug with the concept of cramming in the knowledge and regurgitating it on an exam. Get your grade, get on with your life.
Graduate school asked me to really explore my beliefs. I was secure before!
After my third class, I walked outside on a break to call my mom. A woman imperfectly perfect and dedicated to the church actively as one of the heads of the Lutheran Church Women and the superintendent of our Sunday School. A woman that I saw secure in her beliefs no matter what life threw at her.
“Mom, I hate this class. It’s an endless series of defending what you believe and questioning what you know. Why can’t I just be content where I am?”
“Because, that’s not growing,” was her reply.
I wanted her to comfort me. I wanted security, but instead I got honesty. It sat with me like an uncomfortable pain, and I realized I either needed to go all in or go home. I went back to class. I listened more. We looked at all the major faiths, boiled them down to their base-line beliefs and explored the man-made rules we’ve stuck into religion.
I learned that questioning your beliefs wasn’t a bad thing, but what made us human and, more importantly, adult in our faith.
There is a concept we discussed in class that said each of us were children if we were raised in a religious system or community. We learned and followed. We believed what we were taught. In order to become an adult in our beliefs, we might each have to take what my professor called “an atheistic leap” and question our core.
What if everything we were taught wasn’t real? What if it was all a beautiful myth made to comfort us?
I got it. I understood the question. It wasn’t meant to be comfortable. At the time, I was afraid to take that leap. I wanted to stay in my safe cocoon. I believed there was a God in the sky, that hell existed and all good children went to heaven.
I believed in forgiveness. I believed in miracles.
Then one semester before graduation, my mother didn’t wake up from a night of sleep. A 58-year-old woman was fine one night and gone the next. My core, my center and the woman I lived every day of my life to make proud were gone.
There were no miracles. No reassurance that life always worked out like you had planned.
When you see your life with someone so important as a part of it, their absence changes everything, and everything changed in one day. I immediately took a leave of absence from grad school. I held the family together until I couldn’t hold it together anymore.
I delayed my grief. I abandoned faith.
In the past 16 years, I’ve dabbled in so many different pathways to spiritual grounding. I recognize that I’m not yet ready to call myself an atheist, but by goodness I’ve hung out a lot in that place of “atheistic leaps.” I’ve leapt so many times at this point in my life, I could be a prima ballerina.
Still, the need to believe and seek understanding persists. It grounds me. Every time I reach for it, it opens its arms as wide as a mother’s embrace. Not as comforting as my mother’s embrace, but still warm.
As I consider the prospect of huge life changes, I wonder if I’ll ever find my way back to a spiritual center after so much time being disconnected from something larger. But I do believe that somewhere inside us is a compass that points us to understanding, connection, comfort, security and maybe home.
Author: Anna “Moxie” Rogers
Editor: Toby Israel
Photo: Milada Vigerova/Unsplash