"I hadn’t set foot in a church since my father passed away." A JV talks about "steering" her way back to God.

I have always felt connected to water. I come from a line of recreational sailors and boaters, and the anchor has often served as a symbol of my life’s journey. Throughout this journey, there have been moments where I have been broken, and it is during these moments when I learned to ground myself in my spiritual anchor, God.

During my freshman year of college at the University of Michigan, the best advice I received was from my oldest brother when he dropped me off on my first day. He simply told me, “Go to church.” He knew I hadn’t set foot in a church since my father passed away; and he also knew that before my father’s death I had attended on holidays only out of a sense of obligation. He told me that even if I didn’t know where I was spiritually, taking an hour for myself once a week to sit in a quiet space would be good for my mind. So, in my first week of college I looked for a church—but not just any church, a non-Catholic church. My heart wasn’t ready for Catholicism yet.

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I stumbled into a worship night at Cru, an Evangelical Christian organization formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ International. I listened as the songs kept saying, “Father,” Abba”, some even referring to God as “Daddy.” I hadn’t said these words in months and found myself in a puddle of tears. I left the room to be in a quiet space in the hallway to let the wave of anxiety pass. One of the program leaders found me and prayed over me and asked if it was the Holy Spirit moving through me. To this day, I still haven’t been able to answer that question. Was it the anxiety of dealing with issues I wanted to avoid, or was there truly a greater power revealing my heart’s true desires?

Despite my inability to answer, I found myself turning to Cru’s teachings as a way to start rebuilding my faith once again.

Finding My Faith

But Cru is not a church; it didn’t meet the qualifications my brother asked me to fulfill on my first day. So I asked around to see where people were attending services. I wanted something uplifting that showed me my faith in a way I hadn’t experienced before. So I started going to New Life regularly on Sunday mornings; their unique service times had an element of quirkiness that I identified with. I then signed up for a New Life women-only small group. There I learned to begin opening up. In this space I was able to listen earnestly and learned to talk about what was in my heart. But despite feeling more vulnerable and open, I still could not talk about my father. I still felt it was my unique experience and pain that no one would understand. Instead I talked about ex-boyfriends, which made me more relatable; a part of me wanted to feel like less of an outsider in a group that I badly wanted to be a part of. Another part of me felt that becoming a permanent part of this group was not the best thing for me. I was not ready to “drop anchor.” This would have meant that my sail was over, that I had found the friends and relationship with God I wanted. I hadn’t.

Simultaneously, I was being “discipled” by a core member of Cru who would meet me at Panera once a week to have a conversation with me about what it’s like to live as a Christian and guide me through a workbook about what Christians are called to know and do. For example, the first chapter was on the “Bridge Diagram,” a common tool to explain to non-Christians how Jesus is our bridge to God. These meetings always lacked something for me, as I still felt at the end of the seven weeks that I was still a “Christian fraud.” I could talk and pray like the people around me, but I didn’t really feel that I was living a God-centered life. I had accepted Jesus as my savior, yet I didn’t truly believe this or understand what it meant.

Although I was working through these feelings, there was a gnawing feeling that I had to be “fixed” to receive God’s grace. No one said God’s grace was just the beginning. Yet I stayed because the music was loud, the room was dark, and I had finally found a place I could say father again and not cry.

Hearing God’s Music

My time with Cru eventually came to an end. I completed my workbook and purchased my first Bible, which I still carry around, hoping to absorb its stories through some kind of spiritual osmosis. I began attending a small group with New Life that I had chosen because of some friendships with seniors at Michigan that developed. As classes and involvement in other organizations began to pick up, my attendance at small groups and church was declining. By the end of fall semester in my second year, I decided to give up on finding a solid group of friends I could “secure” myself to, the way an anchor secures a boat in water. I thought, Maybe I wasn’t hearing God’s call to me; maybe I’m holding other Christians back. I felt as though I was lying through my teeth with every prayer.

The winter break of 2013 gave me some time to think. I had lost sight of what was important to me; I had forgotten the importance of being anchored to God. While at home over the break I reconnected with some friends from high school; we had all been in choir together. Something about connecting with those who knew me longest and had seen my darkest moments brought me back to a familiar place. We chatted and sang songs, one of which was “Requiem” by John Rutter. The only song I could remember word for word was “The Lord Is My Shepherd.” Its marked depth and hopefulness resonated, painting a beautiful scene in my head. The line “He leads me beside still waters” draws me back in everytime. It is as if God knows what I need to hear to reconnect me to my watery roots. Imagining myself lying near a lazy river on a sunny day knowing that God is ever present, how could I fear evil?

On New Year’s, before returning to school, I had vowed that my resolution would be to attend church every Sunday. I wanted to be intentional in doing this; I wanted something to meditate on for the week that was relevant and meaningful to my life. Again I returned to New Life, not knowing where else to go to hear God, but I was feeling anxious once again, confined in that space. My spirituality wasn’t growing any more, and I finally recognized that my spiritual waters had grown stagnant. No wind, no land, no healthy challenge to persuade me to seek out God. But this recognition provided me with the next steps.

Around this time I started dating my current boyfriend, Alex. He has been a practicing Catholic all his life. When I would visit him at Wayne State, we would attend Mass at the Newman Center. Going to Mass with him for the first time in years revealed to me that my notions about being Catholic were badly misguided. I wasn’t really angry at the church, I was angry at circumstances. The prayers, the traditions and the symbolism that I had once considered irrelevant and forgotten began flooding back. “And also with you…. I mean also with your spirit…. I mean and with your spirit”.... Oh that’s new…. Have I really been away from the Catholic Church this long? I left that first Mass and told Alex on the way back, “We should do that again.” In Ann Arbor, we were still attending New Life, but I was eager to move on. The tides were turning within me. I knew the inevitable was coming.

By my junior year at Michigan, I had seldom broken my resolution; I had only missed Sunday Mass five times. As the tides turned within me, as the sails guided me toward the faith-filled life I desired, I soon realized I had spent so much time ignoring the obvious: God, my anchor, surrounded me, everyday. He does not just exist in church, at Mass.

This became most evident to me when I was in Kenya, when I felt the true power of God’s presence. I was never more challenged spiritually than when I was in Kakamega. Everyone praised God before they introduced themselves. I was blessed and welcomed by all, and my host mother would pray over us every dinner, uttering, “With God in my heart I can smile through the storm.”

By the time I returned to the United States, I was ready. I had asked God to prepare my heart for whatever he had in store for me. I prayed for him to meet me where I was spiritually and guide me to grow in love with him. On a breezy fall afternoon, as I innocently sought out free things from the different tables at Northfest (a collection of clubs on campus looking for new recruits), I intentionally passed by the St. Mary’s Student Parish table. Although I had reconciled with my Catholic identity, I wasn’t Catholic enough to make it part of my life on campus. But I was compelled to turn around and ask about Mass times. In that moment, my words and my body were not my own. Someone believed in me and trusted me to teach children about their own Catholic faith when I felt so infantile myself.

My faith is my own, it is authentic and growing. It is rooted in the tradition of my family, a line of Irish Catholics. It is the faith of my father and my Father. My faith does not ask me to come to the altar whole. On the contrary, it compels me to share my brokenness and be vulnerable just in this way. Life’s roughest storms prove the strength of our anchor, and I choose to anchor myself to God. I place my trust in knowing he will sail alongside me and wait patiently for me to call to him if I steer off course. He will share his love for me through genuine friendships. He will make his presence known through music. He will call on me to share my faith with others with all my imperfections. Anchor cast, I fear no storm.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 2 months ago
As you grow in the Lord, your belief in the grace of Jesus-God come in the flesh will grow. Hopefully then you will recognize the Gift that the Trinity placed in your soul at the moment of your Trinitarian Baptism. For Faith, Hope and Charity were conferred and we all continue to unpack its wonders. Sadly so few, although Catholics bring their own children to the Church for Baptism... My Own Mum was Irish-Catholic and I often remember struggling to be more "Irish" than "Catholic". Happily, that has been resolved! Lord have mercy. Deo Gratias, in Christ,
Vince Killoran
1 year 2 months ago
What a thoughtful essay! An honest exploration of the faith life of a twenty-something. It's too bad AMERICA doesn't do a short volume of these kinds of reflections.
Paul Czarnik
1 year 1 month ago
Beautiful essay, thank you for publishing.

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