Lost and found and lost: On retreats, spirituality, and organized religion

Art by Ina Jacobe

In the summer before my senior year of high school, I realized that I didn’t believe in the God I’d been raised to believe in.

I’d been going to Catholic school all my life, save for one year of nursery school. For as long as I’d known, there had been a sticker on our fridge that said Jesus Saves. When I was eight my aunt started taking me to meetings at Victory Church. I felt more involved in it, so I became Born Again. I sang lead in youth meetings and had Hillsong on iTunes. At age 10, I wouldn’t even say “Oh, my God.”

But that summer, it occurred to me that maybe nothing about Christianity actually appealed or even made sense to me at all. There just came a time when I began to feel this frustration, this disillusionment, with how the Bible and its teachings went against things I stood for, like LGBTQ+ rights and not judging people based on their virtually harmless life decisions in general. I asked myself over and over if I did believe and the answer was never a strict, unmistakable yes.

I respected it, but it wasn’t for me.

It felt as though someone had tapped me on the shoulder and told me, for the first time, that I had a choice, and I could make up my own mind. And for someone who had spent the last 12 years getting an education that entailed being spoonfed subjectivities during Christian Living classes and First Friday mass, it was — well, to use a Biblical term, it was a revelation of sorts.

It felt as though someone had tapped me on the shoulder and told me, for the first time, that I had a choice, and I could make up my own mind.

Here’s what I did believe, and what I continue to believe: There’s a movement out there that’s bigger than any of us, and it exists somewhere in the greater scope of the universe. Think the Force, but minus the cool Jedi mind tricks and telekinesis.

So I worked this truth out about myself, and I moved on.

Early in the school year, my class went on a three-day retreat in Laguna. We cried, we wrote each other messages, we sang praise, we rolled around on the grass and stayed up and exchanged ghost stories. (Spooky segue: The door to my room was closing when I had left it open, and when I went to steady it and open it again, it no longer moved. It was not windy.)

One activity instructed us to write a letter to ourselves from God. Which is already a ridiculous concept in itself, but I was high off another session of singing Jesus, My Friend, so I figured I’d do it and see. How do you channel the voice of the Father when you’ve lapsed from His Divine Embrace?

I started writing, covering everything from high school graduation and entrance exams to friends and even, yes, crushes. At first, I think I fancied myself as being ironic about it, but somewhere along the line I got serious. My parents had gotten back together after a year of separation (and the six years of domestic turmoil that preceded it), and it hadn’t occurred to me until then how lucky I was that it happened. I got to thinking about how my parents pinned this particular success story on their faith and “finding their way back to God.”

Come the next First Friday mass, I stood holding hands with my classmates during Ama Namin and felt a certain displacement that gnawed at me. The change was irreversible: I no longer felt right.

It’s strange, but by the end of it, I was convinced that I’d found my own way back as well. My mother used to tell me stories about feeling a holy presence at youth meetings and fainting, overcome with exhilaration and the power of faith. I thought, finally, I felt it. I chastised myself for wavering and vowed that my faith was stronger than ever.

…until it wasn’t.  

Come the next First Friday mass, I stood holding hands with my classmates during Ama Namin and felt a certain displacement that gnawed at me. The change was irreversible: I no longer felt right.

Call it the heat of the moment, but the whole vibe of the retreat manipulated me into thinking I’d been found when I wasn’t quite lost in the first place. It was the sad music, and the inspirational spiels the facilitator would give from time to time, and the sporadic sniffling you could hear from different corners of the room.

So I wasn’t “saved” or anything like that. Still, it taught me to reevaluate the things I take for granted. I lost faith in the God I grew up with, but I did find faith in my parents, and the world around me.

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