What would Mother Mary Do if her son came to her and said, “I don’t even believe God exists!”? Those were the exact words that came from my own son’s mouth as we were discussing future college options for him and a promising opportunity from a Christian college for him to play ball.
He didn’t want to go to a Christian school. He didn’t want to have to take classes about the bible, he didn’t want to “waste time” praying in a chapel, he didn’t want to spend time with people who would have rigid rules of what was right and wrong, he didn’t want to go to an institution where he would be judged by his beliefs, have to defend his values or have the possibility of being an outcast.
Immediately I wondered what had I done to influence his choices? What did I fail to do?
I understood his fears of being judged by other Christians as I have had Christians try to “convert me” or “save me” from my own Christian beliefs. I went to a state college and had those experiences so I couldn’t argue that judgements of an atheist would be even more prevalent at a school that required course work and worship time. Those interactions formed my awareness of the consequences of following religious beliefs to be “right” instead of to be loving. Its what I believe has led to the separation of so many from church today.
Yet I couldn’t understand his lack of openness to learn more about God. I have always told my children, “Just as your mind and body need activities to strengthen it, so does your faith.”
The way my son said those words were as if a nuclear reactor just exploded inside of him….it was too much for him to contain for any longer. It slipped. He was panicked and yet felt relief from the pain of holding it back for so long. He waited for my response….
I’m not exactly sure where things turned for him. When he was in elementary school, for many years he wanted to be a priest when he grew up! All of his religious education teachers would say, ”He is wise beyond his years.” and I was so proud of his faith development because it seemed so strong. We had a collection of bible stories that he loved to have me read to him. I’m not sure where I went wrong.
As he got older, he begged more and more to not have to go to religious education classes. He claimed he didn’t learn anything from them and it took up so much time traveling to the other side of town every Wednesday. Those evenings it was always difficult to get homework done and he didn’t have many friends in the classes so he felt isolated too.
I signed him up for confirmation classes at a different parish than our normal one that was 15 minutes closer to our house so there was less travel time and here several of his friends were enrolled in the classes. As a middle schooler, he was challenging things more, as is appropriate for that age, but it came that we would both dread the night of classes because we knew there would be a huge battle. I would insist that he go and he would resist.
Finally, the weekend of his confirmation retreat came and I was so thrilled for him because this was a retreat that truly catapulted my own faith development when I was his age. It was where I discovered my life had a purpose, and meaning and that God had good intentions for me. I just knew it would be give him a whole new meaning of to life and his faith in God.
Well it sure did! After three days, when I went to pick him up he was full of rage – telling me I had sent him to some kind of cult! There was only food available at meal times and so he was starving most of the time (his snacks I sent him with were not enough). He is not a good sleeper to begin with and he drew a 1am-2am slot for attending the Adoration Chapel which he saw as forced sleep deprivation. It was cold and snowy outside and there was nothing to do during the free time. To top it all off, his girlfriend broke up with him right in front of all of his friends in his dorm room – he was humiliated.
The next week during our carpool, I asked his friend on the way to class how he liked the retreat. “It was the best time of my life! I made so many friends and had so much fun!”
“But there was hardly any food!” my son claimed.
“I had plenty” his friend said.
“There was nothing to do!” my son retorted.
“Didn’t you go to the game room? I played tons of pool. And we had a snow ball fight and everyone sat around in the lounge and talked for hours” his friend asked.
“What about the Adoration Chapel? I didn’t get any sleep!” my son insisted.
“I stayed up late anyway talking with everyone. I thought the chapel time was really powerful – I felt so close to God!”
My son was quiet after that. I knew he went into the retreat with the perception that it would be an awful experience and that is exactly what it was for him.
I tried one more Wednesday class to get him to go and the more I pushed him, the more he would push back so I decided to see what would happen if I stopped pushing. I no longer made him go to class.
Church has always been a struggle. How do you explain to your children that it’s okay for Daddy to stay home and do what he wants to do for the two hours that we are going to go to church and be with all the other families that came together whole? On the drive to church I’d always give an inspired sermon of my own and we would have great conversations about how much God loves them and I’d try and top it off with the lure of donuts afterward. But no one ever came to church willingly.
Our church attendance was slowly being overtaken by soccer, basketball and baseball tournaments that went all weekend long with team dinners on Saturday nights and games again early Sunday morning. By the final service on Sunday evening I was far too exhausted to battle with everyone about showering and going to mass.
But the season of sports didn’t prevent our attendance every week. There was one Sunday the three kids and I attended a service that would change our lives….it was a service right before Easter when the theme of our sinful lives was running rampant. All of a sudden, as I was contemplating the words of the sermon and reciting the prayers I had said for so many years, I felt nauseous. I tried to keep it down, I tried to feel the love of the message, but I squirmed like a child…it was an instant knowing – focus upon our sins was not the intentions of Jesus’s love and life. The words being said both in the sermon and prayers felt so shameful. In my heart and now my mind I knew Jesus made every effort to make even the lowest of lowly feel worthy by loving them warts, wounds and all. Why were we saying and doing things that intensified our feelings of unworthiness of God’s love? I couldn’t bear to have my children hear, let alone think and feel, shameful and afraid of never being good enough for God. How could they ever connect to God without love?
With the nausea at my throat now, I could hardly manage the words to tell my children we were leaving. We never even got communion. I picked up my little one and I should have headed straight to the bathroom but instead we whisked out of the church. The instant I left the building, my nausea was gone. I stood stunned – not knowing what to do. The kids were asking, “Why did we leave? Are we going back in?”
I was still reeling from the instant knowledge that the focus of the Christian faith was going in a different direction than God had intended it to go. Forgiveness is the message of Easter – we should be practicing letting go of the thoughts and feelings that take away our life energy – the thoughts about unworthiness and judgement of our sinful nature. It was a knowing that Jesus’s life was to show us how to love and his death was to show us how to forgive so we could have eternal life.
I didn’t know if we would ever go back. The entire event was also an epiphany of why the children, so precious in God’s eyes, might instinctively have a difficult time going to church. Perhaps their little hearts knew the message was a little warped from Jesus’s intention.
I told the kids Mom was feeling sick so we wouldn’t go back that day. I tried going back a few months later and didn’t want to bring the kids until I could work out this vast space between my love of Jesus and the message of my faith. I became a Christmas and Easter Christian each time feeling queasy at the shame that was being offered over love.
Without the community of faith, without the rituals of the service, without other examples of family and God’s love through our relationship with parishioners, what would happen to my children’s faith? I am now seeing the consequences…
As I contemplated what my son had said, I wondered too if perhaps this was a developmental stage. He is growing into a young man and the last thing he wants to be thought of is being “like his mother.” His father is an atheist – a very loving, kind man who seems to know how to tap into each of our kids’ love languages.
Whereas I am the one who makes him eat his vegetables, my husband is the one who makes his bed. Whereas I am the one who won’t allow him to watch inappropriate movies, my husband is the one who takes him golfing. Whereas I am the one who tells him through prayer and God’s grace, he will receive anything he asks for, my husband tells him focus and hard work is the only way to get what you want. Whereas I am the one who schedules my children’s lives, my husband schedules the vacations.
Something about the way my husband relates to my kids feels like unabashed unconditional love whereas my efforting to manage their experiences and learning doesn’t.
Freedom – it’s what God knew would be the most loving gift to give upon our creation. Free will was given to us out of God’s unconditional lovel. No matter what we choose, God always loves us and always wants the best for us and never leaves us. God is here for us whether we talk to him on a daily basis or have never spoke a word to him. God gave each of us the freedom to feel, think, express and act as our hearts lead us to act. Our freedom is what makes the world diverse and beautiful and helps us to be creators of our own reality. Freedom is what every soul desires. Freedom to be all that God created us to be is what brings us joy, it is what makes us feel loved, it is how we can live on earth as it is in heaven.
As my son waited for my response, the last thing I wanted him to believe was that my love was conditional on whether he believed in God or not. It was the furthest thing from the truth. I fell in love with his father and even married him knowing he did not believe in God. If I wouldn’t put those conditions on my husband, I most definitely wouldn’t put those conditions on my child.
He expected my tears of disappointment in him but I did not give any power to what would be anything other than love. If there had been tears of disappointment they would have been over my own inability to instill a love for God in my son.
He readied himself for an argument about God’s existence and the error in my thinking but I didn’t give any power to that either. He is a natural defense attorney and his quick wit and state of mind would be no match for my esoteric views on faith.
I have never believed there was only one right way to believe in God. Almost every religion has a component that preaches there is only one right way to pray, believe, worship and theirs is that way. The many thousands of different Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hinduism denominations who have claimed to have found it is a perfect example. If so many millions of people have found God in so many different ways and through so many faiths, I cannot fathom God creating us all so different without creating many possibilities of coming to know him.
My son’s words however did stun me. Although there were many signs of his abhorrence of religion, I had thought he believed in God. My son’s words were crushing to my heart because I believe it is my life’s purpose to inspire and teach others what I know that Mother Mary did to develop a relationship with God that opened her heart to say yes to Jesus. If I were only to be able to use my gift on my children, that would have been enough but I wasn’t even able to be effective on my oldest son. Oh Lord! What do I do?
So I stood stunned and speechless for a moment as I had on that life changing day in church. Instead of feeling nauseous, I felt completely emptied like someone just shot a cannon through my soul and there was nothing left.
I let him know I loved him no matter what. I gave him a big hug and told him I knew he would make the best choice of schools for himself and I would support his decision and then I left the room. It was evening and so I climbed into bed trying to recover from the blow.
He ended up picking a Christian school that did not require chapel. That choice alone tells me there are other forces that are leading him exactly to where he needs to be. But what should I do from here so that I can instill a love for God in my other children who tend to idolize their brother?
I go back to that question that has gotten me through so many tough parenting moments….What would Mother Mary do? Did Jesus ever doubt his divinity as a child? As an adult? Then I thought about Jesus’ last words, “My God, my God…Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Mary’s heart was already broken in seeing her son tortured and dying on the cross. Those words must have emptied her as my son’s emptied me…What would Mother Mary Do? Perhaps all Mary could do at that point was pray…
Lord, let my will be aligned with yours.
By the power of your love, cleanse me of my worry, my doubts, my fears.
Lord, please shepherd me beyond my self imposed limits from death into eternal life with you.
Lord help me to grow in wisdom of your will and in strength through your love. By the power of your graces please bless me with faith that all things are possible.
Lord, please lead me away from temptation and deliver me from evil so that my thoughts, feelings and actions resonate with joy, peace and love to live as you taught us on earth as it is in heaven.
Lord, make me a channel of your peace so that anyone who seeks you can come to me without judgement or shame and receive unconditional love and support in finding their way back to you.
Lord please use me as a vessel of your love and light to open the hearts and minds of others to your love and your will.
Lord may your words be spoken through me and plant a seed of faith in the hearts and minds of others who do not yet know you, who may be lost or confused about their relationship to you and to those who desire to know you more.
Lord, let all the people in the world experience an encounter with you that is undeniable, unforgettable, and so desirable that they return with confidence, strength and fervor to your arms forever.