God is a metaphor for a mystery that transcends all categories of human thought. – Joseph Campbell
One of the topics I have tended to avoid on this blog is the topic of faith. Religion I’ve touched upon, in as far as I’ve mentioned that I was once a devout Catholic but no longer am. But faith in a more general sense I’ve been inclined to leave alone. I’m now going to take the risk of broaching this personal topic in more detail.
Faith once played a huge role in my life. I grew up believing strongly in God, and in the power of prayer. Like many trans youth I saved my strongest prayers for asking God to make me a girl. But after a while I came to believe that the reason God wasn’t answering those prayers must be that I was asking for a sinful thing. Still, I maintained what some call a “personal relationship with God” in the form of my prayer life as a child.
As life went on I fell away from my Catholicism, and indeed away from all organized religion. I dabbled with paganism, Buddism, Taoism, and a lot of New Age stuff that defied easy categorization. But I wasn’t looking for faith during this time. I was looking for some kind of personal religion which fit my persistently strong faith.
Because, religion aside, I still had faith. I believed in something, even if I couldn’t easily define it. It wasn’t really a personal God any longer, but more like a general sense of right and wrong built into the fabric of existence. I believed in a kind of power in the universe which defied empirical observation but, when trusted, brought peace and happiness to life. I didn’t think any of this could be directly observed. In fact I believed once you headed down the path of looking for proof you had misunderstood the nature of the thing itself. But it was something present in my daily life, informing my decisions and guiding my actions.
All this was jumbling around in my head in my mid-20’s when I hit my first gender crisis. At that time I was confronted with the first serious notion that the right path for me might be transition. I panicked. The consequences of gender transition absolutely terrified me. I freaked out, ran for the closet, and slammed the door shut behind me. This wasn’t just a “purge” in the traditional sense. This was a complete redefinition of my life, my values, my identity – everything.
I decided my gender conflict was over. My logical mind had come to realize the absurdity of it all, and now I knew better. You have to play the hand of cards you’ve been dealt, I told myself. I had been born a male and that was that. As far as I was concerned, I was cured.
Along with that conclusion was a similar self-condemnation of my previous wishy-washy version of faith. No more Tao Te Ching, Tarot cards, or Zen meditations for me. It was time to grow up. The thing my teachers and parents had always taught me about religion was clearly the truth. There was one God, one true Church, and the only real path to salvation and happiness was within it. I stopped looking for a sense of order and happiness in my personal life – because look where that had lead me – and instead trusted that a rigid following of Catholic teaching would provide all that and more.
The following years held a lot of significant life changes, but I can’t say I found much spiritual fulfillment in the zealous application of Catholicism to my life. My prayers were rote recitations – one way communications cast in the direction an unresponsive God. I couldn’t pray the way I had as a child because that seemed too much like the new-age mumbo jumbo I had recently left behind. I found intellectual fulfillment in parsing through intricacies of canon law in order to learn the true teachings of the Church. I found Church approved causes into which I could vent my frustration and anger, providing emotional displacement if not exactly fulfillment. My earlier sense of peace, harmony, and rightness in the universe had become foreign to my mind. I trusted that it would all make sense in the end, but I no longer truly experienced faith in my day to day life.
In the end it all came crashing down around me. My rigid adherence to orthodox Catholicism couldn’t save me from the deepening fog of depression. I was deeply, profoundly unhappy with my life. Not a single path open to me seemed to offer any hope. All I could do was “offer it up,” as Catholics like to say, and accept my lot in life. Except how do you “offer up” anything to a God who won’t take your calls?
And so the color started draining from my life until all that was left was a never-changing world of gray. I existed like that for a long time, neither believing nor disbelieving in anything. Nothing mattered. Give me heaven, give me hell, give me nothing but empty void… I didn’t care. Looking back I can see that the opposite of faith isn’t disbelief or doubt. It’s that emptiness – that void.
Somehow out of those depths, and for reasons I can’t pretend to understand, I spotted the faintest glimmer of hope one morning. It instantly gave me direction and purpose, even if the purpose was simply “live,” and the direction was merely “get help.” I honestly think I followed it largely because the alternative was literally nothing – that’s the meaning of “void” after all. Whatever the reason, as anyone who has hit bottom knows, “live” and “get help” can be pretty strong motivators.
Over the first years of my transition – starting with the initial meeting with my therapist and persisting through coming out and living as a woman – I no longer had real faith. I had an ugly scar where my faith used to reside. In its place I had purpose and direction powerful enough to see me through some very dark and frightening times. I didn’t think in terms of whether I was doing the right thing. I was doing the only thing I knew how to do. A ball doesn’t need faith to roll down a hill. My life was like that ball.
But as I rolled down my metaphorical hill things started to change for the better. The void was left behind. Color began to return to the world around me. I started feeling real emotion again, and real connection to the lives of those around me. And it began to dawn upon me that some day I would find myself at the bottom of the hill. And then what?
For a long time I had instinctively tuned out any talk of faith or God. I pitied people who still clung to such things. But more than that it hurt to contemplate. I remembered when I had believed, and I remembered the smoking ruin that became of my life following such things. There might be wisdom in the occasional words of the faithful, but if so it was human wisdom derived from rational human minds. And yet…
Here I was living my life with a singular direction, everything was getting be better, and I couldn’t explain any of it. The success of my journey defied my own sense of reason. By rights I should have been dead before I started. After all, I couldn’t explain how I got the inspiration to shake off the depressive fog to begin with. Every significant step of the way I had concluded, with good cause, that disaster would follow. I proceeded only because I didn’t see a viable alternative. I couldn’t explain why things were going so well. Every time a seemingly impassable obstacle arose which I couldn’t handle on my own, some unexpected person or event seemed to arise to help me overcome it.
I couldn’t shake the growing sense that something was going on that lay beyond my ability to explain or even comprehend. A feeling that, now that my life was on the right path, the whole universe was harmonizing around me to carry me through my moments of greatest need. This is not an easy feeling for an atheistic cynic to carry around for long.
But recently some unexpected exchanges reminded me of the faith that I once possessed. It may sound strange, but I had all but forgotten. I hadn’t forgotten that it happened, but I completely forgot what it felt like to believe before that word became poisoned in my mind.
But once upon a time I had a basic belief that there was something in the universe laying beyond our comprehension. Something that every religion from the dawn of time had been trying and failing to describe. Something at once very human yet also transcendent beyond any single person.
Maybe it’s time for me to learn to believe like that again.