LOUISE O'NEILL: I couldn’t stomach having to kneel down every Sunday, whisper ‘I am not worthy, but only say the word and I shall be healed’

As a child, I had what some might describe as a religious fervour, writes Louise O’Neill

I loved going to Mass, and felt sanctified when receiving Holy Communion. I had a collection of illustrated Bible stories that I read every night before bed, keeping a keen eye out for the Devil whom I was certain was biding his time before he tempted me into sin. (I wouldn’t succumb, of course, that was for the less devout.) I served as an altar girl, asked for a missal

as a present for my ninth birthday, and, after a trip to Fatima when I was 10, gave serious consideration to the possibility of becoming a nun one day. I also prayed/begged that I would be lucky enough to experience visions and speak in tongues, which, let’s be honest, seemed much easier than actually learning a foreign language from scratch. All in all, I was the ideal Catholic child — devoted, committed, and zealous.

Then I grew up. Scandal after scandal after scandal hit the Church, details of horrific abuse exposed and worse, the seemingly blatant attempts to cover them up. The silencing of the innocent that occurred because the institution had to be defended rather than protecting the individual victims involved. Children who were broken without a second thought, and called liars.

I felt sickened by this, appalled by the casual manner in which the wounded were thrown upon the pyre, how willing the Church was to make a sacrifice of them, to stand by and watch them burn as their stories turned to ashes in their mouths.

As a burgeoning feminist in my teens, there were other aspects of the Church that began to make me feel as if it wasn’t a safe environment for me. Stories about the mother and baby homes and the Magdalene laundries; women ostracised for daring to be sexual beings, babies torn from desperate arms and sold to the highest bidder in the name of God.

And while I knew some amazing people working within the Church itself; kind, decent men and women who selflessly devoted their lives to helping those who are less fortunate, with more understanding and experience, I couldn’t continue to blindly accept the Church’s stance on gay marriage or abortion.

I couldn’t stomach having to kneel down every Sunday, whisper “I am not worthy, but only say the word and I shall be healed”. Repeat again and again and again. Say it like you mean it.

How many times in my life have I chanted that I am not worthy? What kind of a message is that to instil in another human being? When the truth is that, as Max Ehrmann wrote, “you are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here”.

We are all worthy, just as we are, and any person or religious organisation that attempts to dissuade you of that is doing you a grave disservice.

The time had come for me to break up with Catholicism (it’s not me, it’s you) but I soon discovered that, like all breakups, its absence left a massive void in my life.

The sense of loss I felt was incalculable. Religion had provided me with a sense of purpose and without it, I was floundering.

What was the meaning of life? Was I supposed to believe that we are born, we live our lives as best as we can, and then we die? Was this — this small, petty little existence — all there was?

I was dissatisfied with the limitations of traditional religion but I needed to believe in a Higher Power than myself.

In response, I turned to new-age spirituality. Tarot cards, angel healing, Reiki, a necklace with Ganesh on it to provide me with protection, meditation.

I still prayed to Jesus but the nice, hipster one who thinks we should all just be cool to each other and not be judgemental assholes. (I’m paraphrasing.) I’m not alone in this; while attendance at traditional churches is decreasing rapidly, there has been a rise in popularity in alternative ways to worship.

Hillsong NYC, a ‘mega church’ whose Pastor Carl Lentz is a tattooed, leather jacket-wearing ambassador for Christian popular culture, has become a hugely important part of life for many. The congregation is typically young, wealthy urbanites (Justin Bieber is frequently in attendance) with the services likened to a rock concert.

A friend of mine in New York told me that “the city can feel exhausting, everyone is competing to see which of us will be the one to succeed. I go to Hillsong for a break from that.”

And while Hillsong and other churches like it are attracting criticism for what some describe as the ‘cult-like’ atmosphere and questions around funding, it’s impossible to deny that they are fulfilling a need amongst the young people who attend.

People like me, who feel alienated from traditional religions because of years of systemic abuse of power and the denigration of women and the LGBT community, but who still want to feel as if we belong to something greater than ourselves.

We are hungry for the community that the Church provided but is now lost to us. We ache for the comfort it promised us, but could not or would not deliver. Where do we go from here?

LOUISE SAYS

READ: It’s Messy: On Boys, Books, and Badass Women. At the age of 15, Amanda de Cadenet ran away from home and became a television host, and has rarely been out of the headlines since. This collection of essays details everything she has learned in the process. It’s wise, honest, and compassionate — just like the author herself.

BUY: The Happiness Planner. A friend bought me this for Christmas and I’m finding it incredibly useful. It’s a daily planner that is designed to help you practice self-reflection and train your mind to focus on the positive side of life.


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