Cirque du Today: Losing My Religion

Cirque du Today40 Comments

As some of you might guess, my relationship with God has been, um, complicated. When you grow up with a mom who frequently converses with The Lord, and those conversations often lead her to pack up all your shit and move somewhere overnight, you might occasionally want to give God the finger. And not the You’re Number One finger. Now, before you go condemning me to Hell, try walking a day in my Childhood’s shoes. Try living in Steubenville, Ohio, a place Mom moved us to when I was four, in order to join a cultish community of Charismatic Catholics. Try having a mom who dressed like a nun for a year. Try also living with a nun, random families, and/or hippie college students who were coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs over Christ Our Lord. Everything anybody did in my childhood was guided by God, and you better believe no one took a shit in those days without praying about it first. Anywho. That being said, it was a long, long time before I would question my mother’s choices or God’s role in them.

I was a devoutly Catholic little child, albeit an ornery one. I got into all kinds of trouble, from teaching innocent home-schooled children to curse creatively, to shoplifting boatloads of candy from Treasure Island (Steubenville’s 1980s version of Walmart), to perusing my friend’s single mom’s stash of Playgirl magazines. No matter what I did, though, I always knew God had my back. And besides, being Catholic, all I had to do was go confess to a priest, and poof – it was like all that stuff never even happened! Even though I’m flip about it now, the little girl I was back then actually earnestly believed everything she saw and heard. People speaking in tongues were actually speaking their own language that only God could understand. People being slain in the spirit were actually becoming inhabited by the Holy Spirit and falling unconscious to the floor. My mother was actually able to hear God and see him too in various “visions.”

I would sleep with something like this under my pillow every night!

I would sleep with something like this under my pillow every night!

Pretty crazy, right? That’s what I think now, but back then I bought all of it, hook, line, and sinker. I can’t even imagine what my father, who divorced my mom when I was one and was raised a North Carolina Baptist, was thinking back in those days, when he’d come to pick up his two daughters and was greeted by all sorts of nuns, holy rollers, and an ex-wife wearing a nun’s habit. Back then, I was such a mama’s girl that the tears would just roll down my face as we drove away in my dad’s silver sports car for the weekend. As a sort of talisman, I would cling to a small Mother Mary statue, and I would weep as quietly as I could in the back seat.

A depiction of the apparition at Fatima.

A depiction of the apparition at Fatima.

Even by the time I was around 12, I was still really sucked into my religious culture. I remember watching a documentary on Fatima. In case you’re not familiar, Fatima is a town in Portugal where three children vowed that Mother Mary had appeared to them. The kids stuck to their story, even after being jailed and their lives threatened. I wanted to be those kids SO badly. Every night for weeks after that, I read books on miracles, saints, and apparitions. I knelt on the floor and said the rosary (which takes a helluva long time, if you don’t know), and I begged the Virgin Mother to appear to me. She didn’t, of course, and I finally gave up. Maybe that was when a small crack began to form in my previously solid beliefs.

Me (in the polka dot sweater), mom, stepdad, and my five siblings

Me (in the polka dot sweater), mom, stepdad, and my five siblings

By the time I was 15, my mother was re-married and we were no longer living with nuns and college students. Although Mom was still a devout Catholic and still communing with God on a daily basis, she had 4 other kids besides Alyson and I now. There was no longer time to attend Mass every SINGLE day in order to live, breathe, eat, and poop the body of Christ. My mom and step-dad had lots of financial struggles, and with 4 younger siblings, my responsibilities around the house quadrupled. After some major arguments with Mom (a long story for another time), Alyson and I decided to go live with our dad and new step-mom, who lived 10 hours away. For several months, we made an effort to attend Mass on Sundays. After awhile, though, those efforts just faded away, as did my relationship with my mother. One day I woke up to realize my Old World, fraught with visions, miracles, and belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, had permanently fallen away.

Twenty years later, I had a better relationship with my mother but no beliefs whatsoever. In coming to terms with the strangeness of my upbringing, I felt the wool had been literally pulled over my eyes for years, and when I finally pulled it off, I left no remnants. There was no God, there was no son of God, and there was no Heaven, and I felt defiant towards anyone who tried to tell me differently. I was a mother of three sons by then. One night my oldest son, at 5 years old, clutched at me and cried, “You’re going to die someday, Mommy. What will happen to you when you die? What will happen to ME? What-what-what about when I DIE?”

I felt the room spinning and my heart pounding, and as he gasped for air, I did too. What should I tell my child? That there is nothing more than this, and that there will be no comfort for him to cling to when I die? That when I die, or he dies, he will be cold and lifeless and buried in the ground, and that will be the end of him? I held him and rocked him, and I searched for an atheist’s words, but they didn’t come. I told him, for the first time in his 5 years, about the existence of God, about a place called Heaven, about his soul living there forever and ever. I didn’t get into Jesus, resurrection, the saints, Mother Mary, speaking in tongues, apparitions, rosaries—all of the noises from my own childhood that had ended up finally deafening me and distracting me from what was in my heart. Because what was in my heart as a child, when the lights were out and I was left alone in the silence of my room, was a presence, comforting and calm. Someone who had always been with me, keeping my fears and worries at bay. Someone who was there, no matter which house we moved to, no matter what chaos each new day could bring. Maybe that someone was still there.

My eyes filled with tears, and I taught my son an old and simple prayer – the Our Father – and after we practiced it a couple times, I went out of the room and brought back a cross I’d inherited from my grandmother. I didn’t go into the meaning of the object, only that it was known worldwide as a symbol of God’s love. I placed it on my son’s nightstand, tucked him in, and kissed him goodnight. The last thing I saw was his little hand reaching out to pat it for reassurance just before I turned out the lights.

My grandmother's cross still hangs on the wall in my son's room.

My grandmother’s cross now hangs on the wall in my son’s room.

Cirque du Today: Losing My Religion

40 Comments on “Cirque du Today: Losing My Religion”

  1. Samantha

    Damn. You got me. I guess that is what I’m left with too. Loads of questions and skepticisms and a favorite prayer. Ha! I said it in my head after reading about it. Loved this, thank you for being vulnerable.

  2. Drew Clarke

    Great story, Ashley. It’s interesting to think about how recently removed you were from being constantly awash in religious pietism and catholic doctrine when I first met you and Alyson. I’m not religious and never have been. My mother is a devout Southern Baptist. No offense to your father, but my older brother and I questioned the concept of “resurrection.” We also didn’t believe that gayness, suicide or simply not making Jesus your one and only savior would ultimately put you on the escalator marked “Hell” upon death. We were also very skeptical about the “Second Coming.” My father was never baptized and never officially accepted Christ as his savior. I refuse to believe that someone like my father is in Hell.

    1. Ashley

      Thank you, Drew. I still struggle, all the time. I do NOT believe that your father is in hell, and I do NOT believe in condemnation of any sort (unless we are talking about child molesters and the like). I am not so sure about hell at all. There are so many questions but I don’t let those cloud my mind or my decisions. I believe in God and goodness. That’s about as deep as I can take it. Thanks so much for commenting and your continued support.

  3. Jessica

    This is an INCREDIBLY Powerful piece…. and although I was raised a church-going Christian and still am a Christian, there have been many times when I felt like the trappings of “religion” are a hindrance to my relationship with God. I think that you handled the situation with your son beautifully, and you showed God’s love to him in one of the most beautiful, comforting ways possible. I know you still struggle with your beliefs, but its my prayer as a friend that loves you that you will know that peace and comforting love in your heart, too. We all have to find our own way… it’s a journey and when its shoved down our throats in a rough, way that violates us, our souls retreat until it’s safe to venture out again. Love You Ash…. you’re amazing.

  4. Michele

    I read all your posts Ash and love them ALL, but this one really resonated with me. Not because my mother dressed as a nun and I had Jesus shoved down my throat (your stories are always amazing to read), but because I think there are questions that swirl around in everyone’s head no matter what religion you may follow. As you know, I’m Christian, but I tend to view my Christianity from a very positive lens and am accepting of all walks of life, which is what I’m teaching my children. Just look at this through the lens of a child…how can they possibly ponder all if it, much less the evil side. I’m the glass half full girl and always will be. Thanks for always providing me with something to think about. Love u!!!

    1. Ashley

      Hey Michele – thank you so much for reading all my posts (and for the nice compliments). I totally relate with everything you said. I too teach my children about all religions and about doing the right thing, being a good person, and accepting people’s differences. You are a wonderful mother, and I love you. Thanks so much for commenting.

  5. Sarah (est. 1975)

    Very well-written and interesting post! I’m glad that in some way, you found a little comfort and resolution in an unexpected place.

    P.S. I know Steubenville, by the way, and… *shudder*.

  6. Ariel

    I love reading your posts! Such a sweet way to end your post on a complicated topic. I don’t have a rigid set of beliefs myself but we sent our kids to a Jewish preschool for a sense of community and culture. My daughter’s biggest takeaway? That I am not the biggest boss because God is the biggest boss and He knows when she’s upset with us because she talks to God all…the…time. I think she sees God as her enforcer.

    1. Ashley

      Hahaha! That is so funny, Ariel. I love it! My sons went to a Christian preschool, and they got a little more Bible learning than I would’ve done myself, but no one pulled out “God is BOSS” on me. I’m sure that’s in the Bible somewhere though. 😉 Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  7. WhenCrazyMeetsExhaustion

    Yeah, I was raised and I am a practicing Catholic, but the older I get, the more questions I have. I don’t doubt the existence of a higher power, but I just don’t think my beliefs jive with organized religion. I’m all “everyone is loved!” and Catholicism is like “only some can be loved because we said so!” Just doesn’t work for me. Great, thought-provoking piece, Ashley!

    1. Ashley

      I agree totally, Stephanie. Ack, the whole “institution” of Catholicism has really been pissing me off for some time now. When I was a kid, it was all “you’re going to Hell if you don’t go to Mass on Sundays!” Hell? Seriously? That’s all kinds of twisted. But it’s been an age since I stepped in a Catholic church and I don’t even feel nostalgic about it anymore. If I get a good feeling in a church, then I’ll go. Right now we go on Christmas only, to the church where my kids also attended pre-school. It’s a nice safe place for all of us. Thank you so much for reading and for your empathetic words! I love your blog!

  8. Chris P

    Great piece Ashley. I can sooo relate. I was raised Catholic so I sent my children to Catholic grade school. I thought that was the best option. None of us practice our Catholicism anymore. I also know your mother and felt her religious beliefs were a “bit strong” but she was also a breath of fresh air when she would want to swear and came out with “Jesus, Mary, Joseph” instead. I think I would’ve responded to my son’s questions the same way you did. My belief in a higher power does bring me peace at many times.

    Keep writing, love your articles.

    1. Ashley

      Ha, Chris! Jesus, Mary, and St. Joseph! That’s Mom, alright! You stated it very nicely – my belief in a higher power does bring me peace at many times. Peace. That’s exactly what I’m looking for, and what I want my sons to feel. Thank you SO much for reading and I loved your comment!

  9. Foxy Wine Pocket

    Amazing post, Ashley. So well written and absolutely fascinating. You made me choke up at the end. My religious upbringing was more on the traditional side of Catholicism, but I still struggle with what to tell my kids. “Jesus was a cool dude. We could all behave more like him.” has been said before.

    Thank you for such an amazing glimpse into your childhood and the beautiful lesson you taught your son. xoxo

    1. Ashley

      Ha, I love it – Jesus was a cool dude! Thank you so much for your sweet words, Foxy – I appreciate all of your support as well as your encouragement to write and share these stories. xoxox

  10. Gary Sidley

    I’m not a religious person. In fact I believe it causes more problems in the world than it resolves. But I did find your personal story very powerful. You convey your confusion and ambivalence, at various points in your life, in an way that allows us to empathize with your plight.

    1. Ashley

      Thank you so much, Gary. I’m not a religious person either – in fact, it makes me nervous to be around religious people…I sort of avoid them. I sat down the other day to write a post on mommyhood and this is what came out. I guess I wanted people to know that I’m not as totally disrespectful as I sometimes seem, and my journey to believing in God (or a higher power) has been hard-won. All the rest of it leaves me spinning so I don’t subscribe to more than that belief alone. I really appreciate you reading and commenting.

  11. Jake C

    Ashley, great piece. I can identify with the struggle to make peace with religion having experienced a somewhat similar upbringing in Steubenville. I went to school with you and Alison at All Saints. It’s not easy, but I think with time I’ve sort of carved out a place that I can call my own in the Catholic Church. Just don’t ever close the door all the way. I’m glad to see you are well and I look forward to reading your future pieces.

    1. Ashley

      Wow, Jake – so great to hear from you! Of course I remember you very well! How in the world did you come upon my blog? I’m so glad you did, just always curious. Thank you for relating with me on some of this – I’m happy to hear that you’ve found a place in the Catholic Church you’re comfortable with. I am not sure church is for me at all, but I will keep the door open. Thanks so much for reading, and I’m really so happy to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well!

  12. Real Life Parenting

    I refer to myself as a Recovering Catholic … and I didn’t have all the craziness to go along with my childhood. I can’t even imagine. I’m not at all religious–I’m actually anti-organized religion, but I think that we all have / use spirituality to help us make sense of the world. And, honestly, I think that many of us are defining our our “religion”.

    XOXO … as always, love your raw truth!

    1. Ashley

      Thank you, Jennifer! That’s right, I agree – I am defining my religion. That’s a great way to put it. Thanks so much for your empathy, and for reading!

  13. Chrissy

    I have always wondered what I’d tell my kids about death, and dealing with loss. It’s the hardest part of my connection to atheism, I want to believe in the comfort of more, a heaven for the good and a hell for the bad, and I don’t mind my kids believing it either, but the rest of religion is hard, and I’m skeptical. XOXO

    1. Ashley

      I totally understand, Chrissy. I have taught the oldest about evolution and about my own belief that the Bible is filled with stories, some historical and some fictional, but all of it written and re-told by people. I told him he could read at some point and decide what he thought about it. I don’t subscribe to any religion, and I don’t even call myself “Christian.” It’s all very confusing for an adult and a child. But I can’t just think of all of us being here for no reason, and our souls just coming to an end when we die. I have seen some acts of pure goodness in this life, and that’s where I think God resides. Wow, I don’t think I’ve talked this much about religion since I was in a home-chapel in 3rd grade. Hot damn! Thanks so much for reading/commenting, Chrissy. xoxox

  14. Brooke

    An outstanding post Ashley! I loved how after everything, you can still feel His presence and a security in that! You are an awesome woman!

  15. Jon

    Very interesting blog. Makes me think of my childhood: growing up surrounded by religiosity and doctrine. Over the years, those two have fallen by the wayside. Looking back, it seems to me what was missing was LOVE. I’ve known people who truly open their hearts and homes to others, who go out of their way to help others, simply out of a genuine sense of (hospitality?) and not because of any doctrinal mandate. I think of those people, and I reflect on my childhood and can’t help but see the irony — growing up in a ‘christian’ home, doing the religion thing, and somehow missing the most important part: love your neighbor. I guess I still believe in a Heaven. Why do I believe? Because I see glimpses of it in the here and now (mostly from people who aren’t so busy being religious).

    1. Ashley

      Jon, I’m so sorry that you feel like you missed the very most formative part of raising a child. Love is MUCH more important than religion in my book. There’s no excuse for allowing a child to grow up without it. I agree with you about religious people who are so busy being religious they miss the big picture. Thank you so much for reading and commenting – I appreciate it.

  16. Mike

    I can relate to losing one’s religion, as well as comforting our children with it when the bogyman is hiding under the bed. I have forgotten more theology than most people learn, and am still a skeptic. This was a very well done blog post, and thank you for sharing a little about yourself with the world.

    1. Ashley

      Mike, thanks so much for reading and commenting in a kind way, even if you don’t agree with my views. I never expected to convert anyone with this post – in fact, being a non-religious person, it’s the LAST thing I ever want to do! I was just sharing a little of my life, and thank you for appreciating that.

  17. Michael Murphy

    Been there myself. I was never Catholic, but definitely raised pentecostal/charismatic. However, I didn’t let the craziness of it all get too deep into my psyche. Felt I was intelligent enough to keep it all rational for me. I still have faith, but in a far different way than when I was a kid. I raised my children exposing them to faith, but never forcing, blaming, shaming or demanding anything. One adult daughter claims atheism though she respects and loves me dearly as I do her. The other daughter is likely, at best, agnostic (if she gives any thought to it at all.) Same relationship with her. I’m good with both of them. I respect what they feel and how they believe. Nonetheless, faith works for me. I don’t know what it does for others. I just know for me that it has. I am happy, healthy and pleased with where I’ve come in my own life. Each person has their own experience. There are no imperatives (in my opinion). You must find your own way.

    1. Ashley

      Thank you, Michael. I’m so glad you raised your kids the way you did – sounds like you did a phenomenal job. Thanks so much for reading!

  18. Kristi Campbell

    Wow. This is truly truly incredible and I’m in tears. I was raised going to Sunday School but without the rest of it. In fact, I remember my dad making fun of people who believed in tongues and I remember being fascinated by it and thinking he might go to Hell in case some people really could do it. I’d forgotten all about that until reading this.
    I believe in God, but not much of the other stuff. I’ve recently considered taking my son to church more – mostly because I want him to learn all of the stories so that they’re at least familiar and he’s able to make a choice on his own. There’s also a cross in my son’s room. Oh and I insisted on him being baptized as a baby, because I was. So I guess I believe more than I think.

    1. Ashley

      Hey Kristi – I totally relate with everything you said in this comment! I don’t buy into the other stuff as you put it. My oldest was actually baptized too because others insisted on it; my twins have yet to be baptized! Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  19. Angela

    Wow, Ashley, such a well-written post, and I so appreciate your heart-felt candor. I’ve had these conversations with fellow Christians lately, where we share the same opinion that the punitive religion of the 1980’s and 90’s scarred a lot of us and actually pushed us as far away from God as could be humanly possible. But it’s interesting how that value of His presence can still linger, particularly when we experience life through the tender hearts of our children. God loves us and is not a condemning God, and it’s sad that in the name of religious dogma, we were all brain-washed to believe we were perpetually guilty of something – anything. My trials of the past several years have brought me back to seeking God, and building my faith in Him as I’ve found myself powerless to change my circumstances and needing to believe that something bigger than me or my circumstances can deliver me from the anguish.

    Your explanation to Sam was beautiful. At the end of the day, we all just need to know we are loved, valued, safe, empowered, and that Someone has our back, right? Not all of us felt that in our families or origin or in religion as we were growing up. But we have such a beautiful opportunity to make it different for our kids. You are doing a wonderful job. XOXO


    1. Ashley

      Aww, thanks, Ang. I got your other message and am going to respond! I appreciate you taking the time to comment here – thank you for your kind words. Love and miss you!

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