I have been reading the Bible.
It is reminding me of all the things I knew as a child, but have forgotten as an adult, like remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.
I would have been smart to remember this lesson.
Due to my dad’s faith and our extraordinary Irish family history, my three siblings and I were bought up to be Catholic. I enjoyed attending church with my dad, every Sunday, until I went to university.
I was a timid, modest, perfectionist child: the oldest of four children; afraid of getting anything wrong; afraid of getting in to trouble. I know now that I had Autism, but that I was also born with the propensity to isolate myself and to fall into dark holes in my mind.
Looking back, these Sunday church services were some of the safest moments in my memory.
I need that feeling back.
Our congregation was an extended family and our church felt like home. Singing hymns revived me. Going there was like learning how to breathe properly again, in preparation for the next week-of-life. The week’s anxieties would slot back in to perspective. I was always worrying, always catastophising about the worst-possible-outcome, but Church gave me weekly reassurance that I am good: I don’t steal; I say kind words; I help people in need; I think of others before myself; I am humble; I am giving and forgiving; I appreciate the environment; I respect my family.
I was reassured by the ‘knowledge’ that I am never really alone because I have a protector who does not leave me, who created me because he wanted me to live. I was reassured by the consistent-structure of the church services; the rigidity of the rules; the right and wrong; the smells; the words; the rhythms; the repetition; the flowers; the familiarity; the belonging.
I didn’t feel the need to question if Jesus really did walk-on-water or feed-the-5000. I didn’t try to literally believe any of the bible stories because I couldn’t. I just had faith. I just wanted to interpret them, and apply their messages to my own life in-my-own-way.
And I just loved reading them.
I believe that the messages gave me strength and rationality through my exams and many other stressful childhood burdens. They kept me grounded through times of teenage angst and gave me good-morals. They gave me depth, confidence and comfort and they kept me on the right-track when I was tempted by peer-pressure.
They made me understand my purpose and value in life.
God was like a whisper in my little ear, telling me to keep going.
When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.
Sometimes, I ponder that, if I had continued to attend church as an adult, I wouldn’t have fallen so far down the ‘mental health hole.’
Mental illness can strike anybody, anytime, but I think being a religious child gave me a greater determination to be okay. I think it gave me a better, early understanding of the meaning-of-life. This helped me to make sense of the harder times. Our religious community would work so hard together, to provide encouragement, support, food and company to anybody within our ‘family’ who was in need. It would support a person in crisis better than a qualified Crisis Team, around-the-clock if necessary.
And the church was a place where you could just go.
I don’t think you have to believe in God to find comfort and peaceful-positivity from a church.
For some people, this will sound like brain-washing-bull-shit. Many people will never be able to understand it. I have been ridiculed in the past by friends, for wanting to support my church: the largest non-governmental provider of education and medical services in the world. I have felt like perhaps they think me less intelligent, to believe in something which, to those without faith, makes no sense.
People find all sorts of different things therapeutic in life though: kick-boxing; counselling; choir; nature; tattoos; yoga; binge eating; not eating; reading Harry Potter; self-harm; drugs; alcohol. I, being poor at verbal-communication and unable to identify feelings, wanted to just be able to say little prayers to ‘something’ above, that was bringing me comfort, and donate some pocket money to the poor.
People should do and believe in whatever comforts them, as long as it doesn’t hurt others.
I stopped believing in God accidentally, when I saw my first dead body.
It was the first time my faith was really shaken. I remember seeing the dead person before me and thinking… you really are dead. No more living. It did not look, to me, like their ‘spirit’ was going to live on in the kingdom heaven, even though I desperately wanted it to. Their organs were no longer working: the machine had been switched-off forever.
This happened at approximately the same time I left my church and my Catholic, girls’ school and Sixth Form College, to go to university. There were suddenly no rules, no God, no Jesus, no heaven. Everyone was encouraged to do what they liked, and be who they wanted to be as long as they were happy.
Happiness, rather than goodness, was deemed important.
It was deeply confusing. It felt selfish. Surely happiness comes from being good to others… surely such a ‘right’ to be happy is going to lead to deep sadness?
I haven’t lived like a Catholic girl since turning seventeen. I am not part of any church family and I have lost the purpose, self-belief, sanctuary, comfort and love within me that I had as a little girl. I still respect the faith: to me the world is so scary with all the choice and freedom that is acceptable. I am still interested in all of the different religious beliefs of the world. But the black-and-white world in my head, isn’t the same as the vibrant-chaotic world around me: it isn’t the same as the world my friends and family all experience; it isn’t the same as the one I see on the news or read about online.
God doesn’t whisper in my ear to keep going anymore, but I hope that doesn’t mean I am not good.
My favourite bible story is the Good Samaritan. It is about a Jewish traveller who is beaten and left for dead beside the road. People see him struggling, but they pass him by. A priest and a Levite cross to the opposite side of the road, to avoid the dying man. Finally, a Samaritan stops to help, even though Jews and Samaritans loathed one another. That is what a ‘Good Samaritan’ is: a person who helps people, and strangers, in need.
That’s who I will always want to be.
People still think that the church believes mental illness to be sinful. But in 1953, a vicar called Chad Varah founded The Samaritans charity, to help suicidal people. He did this because he was deeply affected by the first ever funeral he did, which was that of a fourteen-year-old girl, who had taken her life. Throughout his career, Chad Varah had naturally counselled the parishioners that had reached-out to him, but he wanted to dedicate himself to suicide prevention, and do more to help those struggling to cope with depression and contemplating ending their lives. The Samaritans still operates on Chad Varah’s criterion, that the charity should provide confidential and non-judgemental support.
It was Ray’s funeral this week.
People were saying that he is back with his beloved wife, Bett, now, and that is a wonderfully-comforting thought, but I sadly cannot get my mind around it.
I think I will comfort myself with the thought that Ray is not without Bett anymore.
Heaven is in my head, and Ray will live on there, in my memory, with all of my grandparents, Susan, Stanley, Simon, Craig, Alex, Danny, Blake, Keenan, Dolly and all of my other lost loved ones, until whenever forever is.