Wednesday, April 18, 2012

When meaningless becomes meaningful

I don't know how it happened guys, but the Disco has gone sappy. I SWORE I WOULD NEVER BE THIS WAY! I should probably do something really epic soon to give you all the comedy you CRAVE.

But for now...introspection.

I was born and raised in a devout Catholic household (don't worry, this story is not going to be about my intelligent departure from religion, nor is it going to be about how my favorite pastime is sprinkling the homeless with holy water...just keep reading). That means that in 7th/8th grade, it was time to prep for Confirmation, which is ultimately the last sacrament you MUST receive as a full blown, from-birth Catholic (the only ones left are marriage, holy orders, and absolution of the sick, three of which you will only receive if your life goes in any of those directions).

Sacrament prep varies slightly depending on where you go to church, but most of the time, you have to pick a patron saint and write a report about them. The kids who are lucky enough to be born with classic biblical names like James or Elizabeth usually have a pretty easy choice and write about St. James, or St. Elizabeth, but those of us named after rivers in Ireland have the challenge of finding a saint that appeals to our personal interests. In the report, you have to talk about the history of the saint, but also about why you picked them.

A habitual procrastinator, I am pretty sure I wrote my saint report the day before all of my confirmation stuff was due. So needless to say, I didn't put too much thought into who my patron saint was going to be. A week or two earlier, my mom asked me how my research was going, and I answered with the typical "Oh, it's going okay. I'm still indecisive about who I'm going to pick though, there's just so many good ones," knowing that this would be enough to appease her without probing any more questions. The truth was, the extent of my research thus far had been finding a list of saint names on the internet and seeing which name sounded coolest. Maybe my mom was smarter/more perceptive than she let on, because instead of letting the conversation end there, she gave me some direction.

She asked me if I had heard anything about St. Theresa the Little Flower (yes devout Catholics, I know that's not the correct way of writing her name, but I'll get to that). I told her "Yeah I think I read a little bit about her" (lies). She then told me a story about how influential said saint was in her own life, and why I might be interested in taking her name:

St. Therese has a prayer that you can do (which I later found out is called her novena), and it is said that if your prayer is going to be answered, you will see the sign of a rose within 9 days. When my grandma was sick with lung cancer, my mom's cousin said the novena and prayed that my grandma would get better. Exactly nine days later, she went out to dinner with her husband, and was seated in front of a stained glass window that was a picture of a rose (now that I think about it, I wonder if this dinner was in the west wing of the Beast's castle). A few weeks later, my grandma's cancer went into remission. Eventually, the cancer came back as a brain tumor, and this time my mom prayed a novena herself, but this time asked for my grandma to no longer suffer, whether that be through healing or through death. If I remember the story correctly, within the span of nine days, my dad randomly brought her roses after work one day, and a few weeks later, my grandma passed away.

As 12 year old Shannon wasn't a cynic nor a skeptic (yet), this story was SUPER impressive to me, so I decided why belabor my saint decision? This saint was as good as any and had a personal connection to my life. DONE AND DONE. I dug through my belongings, found my trusty children's book on saints that I got for Christmas three years before, summarized the four paragraphs in the book into one about her life, threw in the story about my grandma, and BAM! Saint report done.

Needless to say, one paragraph on her life that I based on information in a book written for 10 year olds was really not a thorough examination of the impact she had on the world. I didn't even know that she was actually called Therese, not Theresa. But it was good enough to get me on the "Getting Confirmed" list, so I thought absolutely nothing of it.

It wasn't until years later, when I was a Summer Friendship Director, that I realized how little I knew about my own patron saint, and how much the 7th graders I was working with DID know about theirs. Talk about embarrassing. As they told me the stories of their own saints, a lot of whom were child martyrs, or men and women who performed incredible miracles, I decided it was time I learned more about my own saint so I could talk about all of the epic things she did too.

The first thing I learned was how to actually say and spell her name. GOOD TO GO.

The second thing I learned was that St. Therese? Yeah. She didn't do anything epic. She became a nun super young, prayed a lot, was usually sick, and died of tuberculosis.

WHAT? THIS was the person who represented SHANNON KINGETT?! I was so mad at myself for not researching better, resulting in me picking someone so lame. I could have picked St. Maria Goretti! St. Agnes! Someone STRONG! Someone like ME!

This was Summer 2008, and it was a period of time of over-abundant faith in my life, as well as over-abundant arrogance. I of course kept this new knowledge of my saint and these opinions on her awesomeness to myself, as revealing them would have meant revealing my vast ignorance of the faith I had basically tattooed across my forehead. I patted myself on the back for learning EVEN MORE about Catholicism and went on my merry way.

I spent the next six months becoming an even more awesome Catholic. I started keeping a prayer journal. I volunteered with the youth group at the Catholic Church in Harrisonburg. I took a vow to quit drinking completely until my 21st birthday. I went to confession. I remembered all the Holy Days without having to be reminded by my mom. I was even arrogant enough to pray for an increase in faith, because I figured I was already such an awesome person in every other way, that the only thing that could make me better was to be even MORE faithful.

Then my best friend and my second mom got murdered.

A whole lot changed after that. In retrospect, my "faithfulness" was simply a combination of a very sheltered and relatively pain-free childhood (of which I am not complaining about whatsoever, I am eternally grateful and blessed) and a deep connection with the Holy Family community, a connection that had been reaffirmed by working there 60 hours a week for two summers. This was not true faith, and it was not strong enough to endure the absolute despair I was dealing with. I think the easiest way to explain it is to liken my life, security, and faithfulness to a house. So when the dust after this explosion of a tragedy settled and I attempted to see how bad the damage was, what I found was nothing. Absolutely nothing remained of my house, and it was like the builders had forgotten to put in a foundation, so I had absolutely no idea how to even try rebuilding. And to be honest, I didn't even know if the "land" was salvageable.

I was, figuratively, homeless for the first time in my entire life.

People react to tragedy's almost inevitable shake of faith differently. I know a lot of people who depart completely from their older ways of thinking. From what they used to be faithful to. They look for new answers, new solutions, thinking that their old way of thinking must have flawed. Other people cling even harder to what they believed before. They rebuild quickly (sometimes for the better, and sometimes foolishly so). I didn't do either of those things. Rather than quickly build a new house, or move to a new one, I decided just to chill out on my little plot of land and see what happened without anything to protect me from the elements. To be honest, it was because I was completely paralyzed. The shock of what had happened to two of the people I loved most was hard enough, but the shock of what that event had done to my spiritual life? I couldn't think, I couldn't move. So I just stayed still. Which, in a not figurative sense, meant going to church (sometimes) to go through the motions, but feeling and emotionally giving absolutely nothing.

Houses, simply put, provide shelter. They protect you from the elements. They protect you from danger. So here I was, completely unprotected for the first time. It was not long before doubt, cynicism, and skepticism crept in. Part of that was due to the situation, but part of that is inherently part of my personality anyway. I am cynical, I am skeptical, and I am logical far more than I am emotional. My friends joke that if I don't know something I immediately look it up, because I always need to KNOW. And I need to have proof.

So the questions that existed in the back of my mind probably my whole life came SCREAMING to the forefront, unhindered now that I had no roof to shelter me, and suddenly I was not paralyzed by shock, but by fear. What if I've been wrong this whole time? What if there is no God? Then what? The fear of death completely crippled me. What used to be infrequent feelings of discomfort that maybe came into my mind on occasion were now constant panic-attack inducing obsessions. I was not only hanging out on my homeless piece of land, I was covering my head with my arms, unable to move from the fetal position, terrified of what might happen. Basically unable to shield myself from the storm of doubt and despair. Incoherent and basically unconscious.

The death of the Smiths was like a bomb. Highly destructive but instantaneous. But what happened to me in the aftermath was like a Class 5 hurricane. Unrelenting. Unbearable. And never-ending.

But like after any horrible storm, eventually, the winds die down. It took me days, weeks, months, years, but eventually, I realized the storm was no longer raging. It was time to open my eyes, and look at how well I had fared on my shelter-less piece of land. Not well...but I was still alive. Still breathing. Miraculously, still able to stand, to walk. And when I realized I at least had those things to cling to, even if my house was gone, I knew I had a starting point. A road to recovery.

I could do an entire blog post on what my emotional and mental recovery road has been like. But right now, I'm talking about my spiritual recovery. It has taken me so, so, SO long, but I do think I've wrapped my brain around how far I fell, and how much rebuilding I need to do. And another fun lesson I've learned through all of this is that falling away from God and faith is quick and SO easy. Rebuilding faith? Sometimes it feels impossible.

It has only been very, very recently that I have been actively seeking out answers, and not just leaving the scary questions in my head to fester. And by recently, I mean last six months recently. I cannot just sit and wait to be healed, wait for faith to find me. I know now that this is an active journey, and one shrouded heavily in mystery. But I am by nature of person of action, and it feels like I'm finally getting back on track, simply by keeping my eyes open for signs, for answers.

Which is what inspired today's post. I can honestly tell you I had NO intention of ever telling anyone the depth of my troubles, let alone posting about it in a PUBLIC FORUM. But I was so inspired this morning that I knew it was what I had to do. Airing my insecurities is a way of letting them go. Acknowledging that pride is what has been forcing me to keep this to myself, to handle it alone, is comforting. Because I can master pride. So I recognize that like with anything, this is a step.

To bring this full circle, this is what inspired this whole post. Monday and Tuesday were rough days mentally. I'm not even sure why. But all the fear and doubt was back at the forefront. I did my best to shove it out of my head, while praying for patience, strength, and peace. This morning, my mom posted St. Therese's prayer on her facebook, a prayer I'm sure I've read before, but one that hasn't resonated with me until now:

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise, and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.

Not only were these the EXACT words I needed to read today, and not only are they perfect reminders throughout this time of rebuilding....but they are the words of MY patron saint. The "lame girl" who I "chose by accident and because of laziness." A sign?

This is something Shannon the skeptic, the cynic, and the doubter would dismiss. I'm pretty sure I wrote off a lot of signs throughout the past few years. But the newly forming Shannon-of-faith has a sneaking suspicion that choosing St. Therese was no accident. And man am I starting to see signs...everywhere. Divine Mercy Sunday was this past weekend...the story of Thomas, the doubter. The one who said he wouldn't believe Jesus had risen from the dead until he felt his pierced hands and side. He needed tangible proof. Sound familiar? And in the Roman Catholic missal for 2012, who is the Saint who has a quote listed for Divine Mercy Sunday? Twenty guesses: "You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them. -- St. Therese"

Suddenly, a meaningless decision I made at 12 has become something so unbelievably meaningful. I don't think I could have picked a better saint to be mine. Sure, I'm probably nothing like St. Therese. But the two qualities she exuded more than anything were unrelenting faith and a quiet humbleness. Two things I desperately lack and desperately NEED. This woman is in my life for a reason. And finally realizing this today is the strength I needed, the strength I prayed for. It won't last forever, and sooner rather than later, I know I'll be asking for help again. But for now, it is getting me through.

I'm not preachy about religion, or at least I try not to be. I respect the differences I have with others. I don't even like to talk religion most of the time, because it's something that is SO personal to me. So I'm not writing this post to prove anything. This is not a foray into evangelism. That's not who I am. But for whatever reason, writing about this journey I'm on is something I needed to do. I have no hidden motives, other than admitting that this is something I struggle with. And that I have to force myself to keep building FAR more often than I actually feel motivated to. And I know that I'm not the only person in the world with questions about spirituality, about God, about death. So I'm shelving my pride and admitting that I get lost...A LOT. Pride is a trap I fall into so much, and always to my own detriment (and the detriment of many, many others). Maybe this is a tiny, personal way of overcoming pride. Temporarily of course, but a step. A layer of brick in my new foundation.