I was raised Catholic. Although I never went so far as having my confirmation (life was..well..insane at that time in my life-we won't go there) I grew up surrounded by all the rituals of the church. We went to Sunday mass, sometimes at the very church where my dad was an altar boy. Church to me entailed lots of kneeling, singing, and repetition of the familiar prayers.
When I was in high school, I experienced a church that was to me very cult-like in nature. I was looking for a place to worship and wanted something different than that ritualized Catholicism that I was so used to. At first, this church was everything I wanted and more. I went every week with my friends to church services, and we attended youth group regularly. I felt a lot of support and love there for quite some time. It was exactly what I needed, and I looked forward to attending church every week. Until one day one of the main pastors at the church asked us if any of us had any friends that were of a non-Christian religion. Not knowing what he was asking for I replied that yes, I had a friend who was a Muslim. He was non-practicing but identified with the Islamic faith, as that is what he had grown up with. When the pastor heard this, he asked me if I had ever tried to talk my friend into converting to Christianity. I said no. The pastor then informed me that if my friend did not convert to Christianity, the Lord would send him to Hell when he died. And I would go with him, for being a "party to nonsense." That was the last time I ever went to that church.
Though it shouldn't have, that experience totally turned me off to the whole religion experience. I didn't want anything to do with any religious institution whatsoever. I still prayed, and I still talked to God. Quite a bit. But I did not want to talk about the Bible. Or church. Or any of the scripture I had grown up knowing so well.
Then my daughter got sick.
It was horrifying. When I woke up every morning, I would race to her bedside, not knowing if today would be the last day I would see her. I screamed at God. I cried. I questioned-loudly-why this was happening to me. I was fumbling and lost. It was very ugly.
When Madi was hospitalized in 2009, things got hairy rather quickly. I found myself feeling so alone and so afraid. I had spoken with a chaplain many times, but didn't feel very comforted. Then we went to the Mayo Clinic. The first night that we were there, a sister came to see Madi. (They have a convent in Saint Mary's Hospital.) She prayed with my husband and I, and even did a blessing on her and her blanket and a cross pin that we had bought for Madi. There were wooden crosses on the walls, and the most gorgeous chapel I had ever seen in my life. Honestly, the chapel at Saint Mary's will make you think that you were in an old Roman cathedral. It's beautiful, and peaceful. Right then, it was everything I needed.
The night that Madi got her heart transplant, when her new heart failed and the nurses and doctors were rushing her back to the OR, I felt like my life was over. I requested a chaplain. A little old man made his way up to our little conference room on the 5th floor. He sat with my husband and me for what seemed like days-into the wee hours of the morning-while somewhere on the ground floor of the hospital, doctors were cutting Madi open again, trying to save her life. Oh how we prayed. And cried. That chaplain didn't even blink an eye when I told him how angry I was at God. I assume that he has heard it all before. I asked him if this was happening as a punishment to me for not going to church. He gently took my hand and said that that was not the case. I described my guilt in not praying at church, in having a relationship with God that only existed in my own mind. He smiled and said "That's all God needs. Do you think the Lord requires that you go to a specific physical location to pray? No, He just asks that you try your best to live life like He would want you to. He wants you to talk to Him. And I am willing to bet that you probably have a better relationship with God while you are praying in your bathtub than a lot of people that only pray for an hour on Sundays while their fellow church members are watching."
Just like that, a huge weight disappeared. That chaplain, with his gentle words, brought me back to where I needed to be. Madi recovered from that scary episode, and when she was brought back to her room at around three in the morning, the chaplain and the nurses all joined hands with us and surrounded Madi's bed. And we prayed together. It was then that I knew that God was in the room. That He had been with me all along, and He knew what He was doing.
I still don't attend church, but now it's mainly because we were told not to for the sake of Madi's immunity. In the words of one of our many caregivers, "Church is one place where unfortunately there are way too many germs." Now, though, I don't carry the guilt. God and I? We are pretty tight these days. And I don't have to go to some building weekly to know that. I don't feel lost anymore.
Sometimes, all you need is a gentle hand to lead you to where you always knew you were going.