Catholicism and Superstition

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.

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6 thoughts on “Catholicism and Superstition

  1. What a beautiful story, yours and Beryl’s. It is so natural for us to bargain with God, so natural to think we will be punished for bad behavior and rewarded by good behavior. We can believe otherwise most of the time and then when trouble hits, the feelings come back (which can be disburbing and confusing!). Thanks for the book recomendation, as though I didn’t have a long enough list!! ha ha! Thank you again.

  2. What a joy to find this post of yours Lacey and to know that my book touched you as it did. As I was writing the book, impelled by the need to answer my children’s questions about the love that brought their father and me together, I found it becoming much more than a love story between Vittorio and myself, but the story of the lifelong journey to connect with God that continues to drive my life. And, as I discovered in writing the book, suffering is simply part of life — a “gift” that I’ve discovered taught me more about love and compassion than any other life lesson. That God does not reward or punish us through suffering but suffers with us, always there loving us, no matter what dark place we might find ourselves in.

    I was deeply touched while reading of your efforts to bargain with God in the past and awed by your insights:

    ” 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.”

    Thank you for sharing with me and with those who read your post. I shall be checking in on this wonderful blog in the future to learn from what you and other young Catholics are pondering. I had the joy of attending a Call to Action meeting in Milwaukee in 2007 and hope to do so again in the future.

  3. What a lovely post, Lacey! I am so excited to read this book! I remember us talking about bargaining with God, and I think it’s a life-long struggle to get to that place where you’re at peace with just trusting.

  4. I agree with you, Theodora, that learning to trust can definitely be a life-long journey. And I thank you all for your comments. Beryl, it’s an honor to have you here as part of the discussion; I’m still a little floored by the way the internet really does connect all of us! I’m not surprised that you’ve attended Call to Action events; when I read the book, I felt that it really spoke to my whole spirituality without trying to divide the loving and the thinking parts, or the spiritual and the intellectual parts, much the same way I feel within the Call to Action community. I hope our paths will continue to cross!

  5. Pingback: The In-flight Rosary Club | Young Adult Catholics

  6. Pingback: A Faith Big Enough for a Scary World | Young Adult Catholics

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