For most of my life, my religious beliefs have been both deeply meaningful to me, and a source of intense turbulence. I agonized over my relationship to Mormonism for decades, over what it meant to stick with a tradition that did things I so deeply disagreed with but which was such a profound part of my identity, and had played such a foundational role in shaping my spirituality. I don’t know how many hours I spent writing about those questions, talking endlessly to friends and family about them, even bringing them up in therapy. And because of all that, I think I developed the idea that genuine faith was meant to be difficult, and by “difficult” I meant, something that regularly drove you crazy.
That’s why this year has been so incredibly disorienting. The thing about Episcopal church is—I just like it. It’s a fairly straightforward thing. I don’t feel tormented or conflicted. I don’t walk out of worship services feeling like I’m being ripped apart, like I have conflicting loyalties that will forever be in tension. I feel spiritually nourished, connected to things I care about, dare I even say, happy. I don’t go to church out of any sense of guilt or obligation; I go because I get so much out of it, and missing even a week makes me genuinely sad. It’s not something to be endured, followed by a lot of processing with various people of what crazy things happened that week. It really is that simple for me right now, that I like going. I’m in love with the liturgy, the music is consistently stellar, the sermons are usually substantive and thought-provoking, and the rituals have started to feel familiar in a way that speaks deeply to me. Worship leaves me feeling content, at peace, hopeful, and wanting to be a better person. The worst that ever happens is for it to be mildly boring (and even that is pretty unusual). It never aggravates my depression, or ramps up my suicidality. No lie—it’s consistently one of the high points of the week.
This is all so, so strange. I can’t even tell you.
The thing is, without even realizing it, I’d developed a religious identity centered around angst. And part of me liked that. Part of me even believed that faith that wasn’t completely wrenching maybe wasn’t the real thing, maybe wasn’t worth pursuing. And I liked that image of myself, of the person whose faith was so real, so committed, that I wouldn’t let even the hardest aspects of the church, the things that were so difficult for me, take away my connection to it or my willingness to stick with it. I’d adopted a narrative about there being something extra virtuous about going to church when it’s kind of a brutal experience. I mean, anyone can go to church when it’s easy to do so, when you mostly like it. But it takes someone special, I figured, to keep going when it feels terrible. I don’t know that I ever consciously articulated this point of view to myself, but it was lurking underneath, and definitely influencing my decision to stay.
It’s really thrown me for a loop, then, to be someone who’s going to church because I like it so much. I’ve never been in this position before. And to be honest, I’m a little suspicious. I’ve internalized so many messages over the years about how the things truly worth doing in life are going to be hard, and maybe take everything you’ve got. I find myself wondering: is it really okay to be doing this, to have picked a church just because it’s such a positive thing for me? Or is it cheating somehow? I was telling my therapist the other day about how religion is supposed to be demanding. I brought up that Joseph Smith quote about how a religion that doesn’t require you to sacrifice all things can’t produce sufficient faith for salvation. He had a strikingly different perspective. He thought that life was already going to be hard, that intensely difficult challenges were going to come regardless—and ideally religion would help you get through those rough patches, rather than make things even harder. I can see arguments in favor of both views, and I’m still sorting out what I think. The old saying about how church should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable seems relevant here.
But right now, I’m exploring the possibility that faith could still be meaningful and worthwhile and genuine without quite so much angst and internal conflict. That there might be a different way of being religious, and that gritting your teeth and continuing to attend services that regularly beat you down isn’t necessarily virtuous, or admirable, or even wise. I was recently trying to explain to the rector of my parish why I find it so unsettling to like church, to feel this good about it. It’s actually a new thing for me to even think about my personal experience of church as something worth taking seriously; I grew up with the idea that that wasn’t supposed to matter, because all that mattered was being in the True Church, even if it was pushing you over the edge of sanity. If you didn’t like church, you were supposed to fix yourself in some way so that you would have a better experience. I think the rector was a little confused by all of this, but he asked me, could you just let yourself enjoy being spiritually nourished for a while, without having to second-guess that or feel guilty about it? For me, that’s not as easy to do as it might sound. But I think it’s a question worth asking.