How I Cured My Complicated Relationship With Religion

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WWhen I was 13 or so, a well-known prophet came to our town, and I accompanied my father to a prayer service. Daddy had always been very spiritual, a seeker, and he wanted me to participate in his active faith.

The worship was akin to what we’re used to seeing in megachurches and Black Baptist rituals. People keened and hollered around me. The music swelled. People cried out in joy and in deliverance. The Spirit was moving.

I did not like this outpouring of emotion, and I frowned in dismay. As a young child, I cried a lot, lacking the words to articulate my feelings. My parents did the best they could to console me, which meant asking me not to cry and telling me that everything would be okay. So, I learned to not show tears, to bury my feelings.

Back in the fervor of the prayer service, a woman across the aisle caught my eye, and she approached me with purpose. “I know you don’t understand what’s happening here,” she said as she took my hands in hers. There was a lump in my throat and a stirring in my heart I couldn’t describe, and I wept shoulder-shaking tears onto this stranger’s bosom. My new friend was correct: I had no idea what was happening, in the room or in my own body. All I knew was that it was slightly painful and unpleasant, and I vowed to avoid church for fear of triggering a similar outburst.

CControlling my feelings became part of my daily life well into adulthood. Sometimes I ate them, or I buried them with overthinking and fantasy. If I encountered a feeling, I’d analyze it with cognitive therapy tools until it moved from my heart to my head. If my romantic relationships made me uncomfortable, I’d placate myself with delusions of weddings and couples vacations instead of confronting the reality of my disappointment.

This continued until my late twenties, when I was diagnosed with clinical depression after a debilitating, tear-filled episode I couldn’t seem to reverse. Though my dad continued to invite me to church as a means to assuage my depression, I couldn’t go. With the intellectual focus I devoted to controlling my depression, I didn’t have the energy to keep my composure during a church service. I still called myself a Christian because I said my prayers every night and believed in God — I just needed to control my exposure to unbridled spiritual energy, and the public breakdown it would incite. This illusion of control gave me the emotional respite that I’d come to rely on. I wasn’t exactly at peace, but I appeared to be doing just fine.

I’ve learned to leave behind my obsession with control, and to rely on my spiritual connection with God to help me move throughout the world.

RRight before I turned 45, I met Steven, a man who was more open and honest than anyone I’d ever dated. At our first meeting, my new companion told me about vulnerability and learning to feel his feelings. As he talked, I registered a fleeting thought about whether or not I could trust this person who was seemingly so transparent. On the heels of that thought, I heard a voice. To be honest, it sounded like Ving Rhames saying, “We have the meats” in an Arby’s commercial, only there was more than one of him. This loud, commanding voice came from inside my head, inside my body, and all around me at the same time.

“You can trust him.”

I instinctively knew that the voice was God, and that He had sanctioned my date as someone with whom I could share my true self. I felt many things I couldn’t articulate, but the emotional onslaught triggered a rush of tears.

“What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” he asked.

“I’m okay. I’m feeling something, but I don’t know what it is. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”

I felt my heart and spirit break open, similar to how I felt during that prayer service so long ago. I blubbered like a baby, equal parts relieved and confused, but confident that something had changed in me.

God spoke to me several times after that night. At first, I heard His voice when Steven and I were together. If I had a thought about the progress of our relationship, God would answer it very clearly, the same as on that first night. I got messages like “This is where you belong,” which I didn’t understand at the time. I shared my experiences with my dad, to whom God had spoken numerous times, predicting events like his marriage to my mother, or the purchase of their first house. God became a friend who listens to your stories and gives you advice. He gave me the answers to the questions I couldn’t think to ask, always with a booming voice that I heard with my entire being.

These experiences catapulted me into a period of deep spiritual exploration, during which I spoke to God regularly, and He answered my questions. I took walks, asking God to reveal to me my life’s purpose. I’d pray about my career as a writer, asking Him to confirm that I was right to leave corporate life behind. I asked about my prospects for passionate love, and for him to give me signs about people or romantic situations I encountered. As our relationship deepened, my feelings exploded, and I cried every time I discovered a new depth to my emotions.

My transformation was the culmination of years of fighting with myself, and with God, about how to be emotional. I’ve learned to leave behind my obsession with control, and to rely on my spiritual connection with God to help me move throughout the world. As my spirituality expands, so, too, does my capacity to express all of my emotions. I have better friendships, happier days, and a relief that comes from accepting my feelings and then letting go.

As I’ve found to be true with many spiritual experiences, everything happens for a reason. My friend Steven had also entered a period of spiritual and emotional exploration during our relationship. We had to part ways because our journeys took us to different places, and our mutual growing pains had taken a toll on our relationship. Even though we don’t communicate for reasons too personal to divulge, I think fondly of our time together as an experience God created for both of us to become better, more emotionally honest individuals.

I cry nearly every day now, often in public, occasionally for reasons that are unclear to me. And every time I feel the urge to cry, it is accompanied by a familiar movement in what I believe is my soul. I kept that movement, and those tears, buried for a long time. And I still don’t attend church all that regularly. But I call God’s name every day in thanks for reaching out to me directly, and for guiding me towards a deeper level of peace.

Storyteller. Innovator. Master of most. I write about relationships, mental illness, and all the intersections of my identity. Ask about my cats.

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