I grew up Catholic, but in the beginning, it wasn’t as bad as many people make it out to be. My family isn’t particularly conservative or religious, and my church was, unlike older Catholic churches, a bright and sunny place where we spent Sunday mornings listening to fairly short readings and sermons before singing pretty songs and being given cookies and juice or hot chocolate by the nice guy in the lobby.
My priest was a kind old man who knew my name, told jokes in his homily that were actually funny, and was an ex-alcoholic (which meant grape juice instead of wine, score!) who was very aware of the difficulties of making the rules and ideals of the church mesh with the real world. Notably, he made it very clear that in our parish anyone was welcome at the communion table, including people who had had abortions, gays, etc–pretty much anyone that old-school Catholics would look down their nose at. Gradually all the grumbly old people left our parish for more conservative parishes, and we were left with mostly people who nodded approvingly at our priest expressing opinions that got him called to speak with the big-shots in the diocese on more than one occasion.
Even Sunday school, known as CCD to Catholics, wasn’t that bad. Yes, there were painfully stupid worksheets where we filled-in-the-blanks in the ten commandments, but it could have been worse. We mostly learned lists and rules and there was minimal discussion time for me to ask difficult questions. At least, that was how it was in elementary school.
In middle-school-age CCD, they start ramping up for Confirmation, the sacrament usually received in 8th, 9th, or 10th grade, depending on the policies of your diocese, in which you become an adult in the church and become responsible for your own beliefs by officially and ceremoniously professing them. CCD was refered to as Youth Group, supposedly a fun relaxed place where we hung out with friends on cushions on the floor in the church lobby and talked about how awesome God is. And mostly, that is what we did.
But I’d always had questions, the biggest one of which was about the notion of sacrifice. God made the world, which means he made the rules. Why did he put it in the rules that in order for people to go to heaven, someone had to die for their mistakes? I was about seven the first time I reasoned this out, and I’d been suppressing this obviously blasphemous thought since then, thinking that maybe when I was older I would get it. But I was older, and learning more about the church just made me ask more questions. On the surface, I seemed like a good little kid–I memorized things easily and could tell you exactly what I was supposed to believe. But I had always had a hard time believing it, and I was starting to realize that the middle school Sunday school teachers didn’t have any better answers than anyone else I’d ever talked to. This was seriously disconcerting.
Had things gone on this way, I probably would have slowly fallen away from my faith. I almost certainly would have been confirmed, but I would have gradually pulled away because it is immensely important to me that the world make sense, and religion just simply didn’t. It would have been an uncomfortable transition, as God’s existence was an assumption I had always lived with, but it wouldn’t have been too horribly painful. At the time, my Catholicism was a relatively small part of my identity.
But unfortunately, that wasn’t how things went. During my freshman year of high school, my family moved half way across the country. The move triggered my first major episode of depression. It started out as anger about the move and frustration with how isolated I felt, but it just... spiraled downward, and somehow I ended up entirely broken and an entirely different person.
I didn’t call this depression at the time–I honestly believed that the world was hopeless, that I would never fit in, and that I was just biding my time until I got to die. I considered suicide for one horrible week, but came to the conclusion that suicide was selfish when I knew how many people I would hurt. That didn't really feel like relief to me though, or something to live for-- it just felt like a trap.
I wish I could joke about this, because now it sounds so angsty and over dramatic, but at the time it was very, very real.
What finally saved me from myself, I’m ashamed to admit, was religion. Despited the fact that our new parish was scarily large and conservative, the music was familiar and the youth group welcoming. That wasn’t much of a relief, but it was enough that I didn’t fight my parents about going, and I slowly got drawn in. Breaking out of my depression, however, was not gradual. In just a single weekend retreat(my first one), my entire world changed.
We had all the necessary ingredients for a cult on that first retreat. Our youth minister was young, charismatic, and had a nice tragic little backstory about how she was a miserable person before she “found” God (because, you know, he was missing). Also, like any good cult leader, she was a complete hypocrite, but I had yet to realize that at the time. The audience was largely young, insecure, and vulnerable for one reason or another. The older kids who were there were only in the youth group because it was a refuge from their screwed up lives. The freshmen were mostly pushed to go by parents, but we were the newbies, and many of us were loners with no friends in the youth group.
The setting was simple, but the entire weekend was heavily draped in ceremony. We were exposed to old and strange rituals of the Catholic Church that most average Catholics don’t bother with or even know about–Eucharistic Adoration (literally kneeling down and praying to the communion cracker enshrined in a golden sun-shaped holder), being prayed over, and speaking in tongues. We were given elaborate promises about how taking God into our hearts would transform us and transform our lives. We were told that if we only asked, God could take care of all our needs, heal all our wounds. God was to be the father to those of us who lacked a decent one of our own, a best friend to the lonely, and someone reliable to those of us whose lives were in a constant state of chaos.
A few months before the move, I would have probably found most of this unbearably ridiculous. Our old parish had dispatched with most of the kookier rituals of the church in favor of more concrete and realistic approaches to faith–all of this was entirely foreign to me. But I was a disaster of insecurities and self-hatred, deep in a hole that my naturally logical and pragmatic mind had been useless in dragging me out of. So I concentrated on the beautiful and familiar worship music that the entire retreat was awash in and beat down any remaining doubts. This felt like my last hope. I’m ashamed that I was so easily manipulated, but I’m not particularly surprised. These people were pros.
I know that “religious experiences” are real because that retreat did something to me that abruptly snapped me out of the mental disaster I’d been drowning in for so long. At the time, I interpreted what happened to me as some kind of gift from god, but it was a lot more mundane then that. In a crowd of True Believers, with enough ritual, with enough desperation for hope, you can trick your mind into doing some crazy things. On the night of the Big Event of the retreat, as Eucharistic adoration was coupled with being prayed over while worship music played and our youth minister babbled in tongues, something in me snapped.
It was a moment when I was supposed to be “giving up my burdens to God.” I was actually frantically praying “God, please fix me. I’ll do anything. And if you can’t fix me, please, just let me die. I can’t do this anymore. Please.” All night my heartbeat had been getting louder and faster, and I felt lightheaded and weak, but suddenly I felt like I couldn’t stand anymore. And then I was sitting down, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably, overcome by a sudden rush of emotion and relief. Absurd as it sounds, a weight was lifted from my shoulders, and I felt free.
I was euphoric, but also quite physically overwhelmed. I cried for nearly an hour, and shook for nearly two. I had palpitations constantly for the rest of the weekend, and they continued to surface intermittently when I prayed, thought about retreat, or listened to worship music, for weeks. Frankly, palpitations aren’t fun, as anyone who has experienced them as part of a panic attack can tell you, but I associated them with the notion of being “overcome by the holy spirit,” and thus took them as some kind of a sign.
The feeling of euphoria persisted for weeks, though it did fade with time. In my youth group, they referred to it as a Retreat High, and I don’t think there is any more appropriate name. I was incredibly energetic and productive, and every moment I was intensely aware of how happy I was.
Retreats and many other religious events/rituals are specifically engineered to produce this kind of emotional response. God isn’t real, but that doesn’t mean that religions don’t have access to powerful tools. They’ve been converting people for a long time, and profound emotional experiences are the quickest way to get someone hooked. That doesn’t mean that everyone involved in such indoctrination tactics intends to be manipulative. Most of the adult leaders on my retreat were True Believers who really believed that we were all opening our hearts to god. Unfortunately, their good intentions do little to prevent/repair the damage that can be done by such powerful emotional manipulation.
The retreat changed everything. I had energy and hope enough to really start connecting with friends, especially with one of my friends from retreat by my side. Life got good, and I started accepting and almost liking the fact that this strange new town was my home. For a few months, life was wonderful.
Continued in part two... I know it's long, but please read on