A few weeks ago, I finished reading The Scent of God, Beryl Singleton Bissel’s memoir of leaving convent life after falling in love with a priest. While people might pick up this book for the “scandal” implicit in its storyline, what stuck with me as a reader wasn’t the love story between Beryl and Father Vittorio, but the love story between Beryl and God. By the time I closed the book, I had been crying for the last thirty pages, and the thought in my mind was: that was the strongest spiritual reaction I’ve ever had from a book.
I was totally floored by the depth of Beryl’s trust in God, which survived even after she’d suffered tremendous pain, including the death of a child. I thought, I want to have that kind of faith. And immediately on that thought’s heels came a panic: But if my faith is that deep, will I also have to suffer pain that deep? Because in that case, perhaps I’d prefer a lukewarm faith for a life of minimal pain.
The thought surprised me because I’ve been fairly successful in the past two years at “getting over” superstitious beliefs that interfere with my real faith. What I mean is that I’ve stopped trying to bargain with God. I began bargaining with God when I was in middle school, after suffering a year of intense bullying and feeling as though my life was totally out of my control in a hostile world. I latched onto the rituals of Catholicism as a way to feel as though I could gain some of my power back, and I made bargains with God: “If I pay attention during Mass, I won’t get sick at school.” These bargains followed me into adulthood: “If I say the rosary every day between now and when the test results come back, the lump found on my sister’s neck won’t be cancerous.”
Intellectually, I knew I didn’t “believe” that we are necessarily “punished” or “rewarded” here on earth, so there was no direct correlation between the rosaries I said or the piety I displayed at Mass and the outcome of my life. But believing that was true and living that belief were two very different things.
Now I realize that my reliance on ritual and bargain showed a fundamental distrust of God. I was constantly “proving” to God that I was worth kindness, mercy, and protection. I tried to “buy” God’s favor rather than trusting that God was good and would rain blessings down on me if I only opened my arms to receive them and my eyes to see them. I tried to control God rather than trusting that even the unanswered prayers were part of a loving plan for me.
These days, I’ve begun trusting in myself and God more. I say fewer rosaries, but I feel greater love, faith, and yes, security.