My faith journey begins with the forest before its trees. Looking back, the trek of my faith follows that of the monomyth, the outline of The Hero’s Journey as designed by mythologist Joseph Campbell. I am not a hero, I am not a heroine; but most journeys – including my own evolution of faith – trace the Departure, Initiation, and Return of the protagonist.
Before The Hero’s Journey begins, the protagonist goes about their days in the comfort of normality. To me, this meant growing up in the normalcy of being a home-schooled half-orphan. These were the truths in my life: I was home-schooled, my father was dead, and I was Catholic.
Throughout my childhood I received the sacraments of Baptism, Confession, and First Communion. For the latter, I wore a white dress that hinted at marriage, and my grandfather cried. The What, When, and Where of these events were written in the front of the Bible given to me when I was a baby. The only time I was allowed to be absent from church was in the presence of a fever. I was told that to obey my mother was to follow the Commandment, so I was to do everything I was told to do, and a guilt trip would follow if I refused. While home-schooled, reading was highly encouraged. At eleven years old, I was assigned to read books such as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Karen Andreola’s Beautiful Girlhood. I started attending “Real School” as a freshman in a Catholic high school; during this time, I was made to sign a contract that came with a True Love Waits purity ring. This was my normal, and high school is when the “Departure” stage of this monomyth begins.
Until this time in my life, I was a good little Catholic girl because that was what was expected of me. That’s what I was told to believe, and I believed it. I was a reader at my church on select Sundays, and I was an altar server for most of my first year in high school. I looked forward to the Mass days my school would host, and every summer I participated in Catholic out-of-state volunteering activities. I wore a bracelet of wooden saints around my wrist as a prideful indicator of faith.
The first time I remember questioning my faith was one particular Saturday morning. My mother woke me up early, and we got dressed in casual clothes and headed to church. Grumpy upon being woken up so early, I had forgotten that my mother had planned for me to get even more volunteer hours by holding a sign for our church. Without my agreement, there I was – one of a small crowd standing on a busy intersection down the street from our church, holding an anti-abortion sign. Back then, I believed what my church told me to believe about abortion. At fourteen, I did not know the intricacies of the debate. All I knew was that I had to be there for the majority of the morning. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
By my senior year, my beliefs evolved – slightly. While my opinion on gay marriage evolved from I-guess-I’m-okay-with-it-as-long-as-they-don’t-kiss-around-me to they-are-people-too, I was still kinda-pro-life. I never gave much thought to politics until America’s very first black president was voted into office. This marked a belief-shift. While I agreed with everything President Obama stated when his speeches echoed through the living room from Fox News, I found myself disagreeing more and more with my stepfather’s reactions: remarks of the n_____ president also echoed through the living room, and remarks of how “the White House was no longer the White House” surprised me. My mom’s head would nod with most of his statements, while staying silent during the worst ones. How was this a Christian response?
By the time I left for college – a Catholic college – I started turning an independent eye away from everything I was taught to know. In the classical monomyth, an event occurs which launches the hero’s journey. My monomyth began with a text.
It had not occurred to me that the priest from my old church knew the priest at my new college. It had not occurred to me that they would talk about my own church attendance. It had not occurred to me that my stepfather would give my phone number to the old priest without my knowledge. It had not occurred to me that my former priest would choose a cell phone as the means to communicate that I needed to go church for the sake of my soul. With cell phone in hand, I dug my heels into the figuratively spiritual ground beneath me. It had not occurred to me that while I thought my faith journey had ended, it was only continuing.
The Initiation phase of the Hero’s Journey focuses on temptation, and while in college I was tempted toward a belief system that seemed to give me all the answers I wanted. The Initiation part of the monomyth consists of various tests, followed by atonement. My tests came in the form of a belief system completely opposite from the religion I was indoctrinated into: Wicca.
I found everything I thought I needed in Wicca. Independence, answers to the supernatural, and a celebration of womanhood in the form of goddesses. In the monomyth, the tests come in threes. Three also happens to be an important number to religious beliefs: in this time in my life, I focused less on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and more on the maiden, mother, and crone.
These three tests came after graduation in the form of crystal meditation, spells, and finally, tarot.
The crystal meditation seemed harmless enough – it was just sitting quietly with rocks in your hands, right?
The spells followed. Usually this meant cutting apart tea packets for the herbs and mixing them together while muttering various words over them. I was convinced that not only did I possess magic, but that my magic worked. During this time in my life, I suffered from multiple paralyzing anxiety attacks a week.
Finally, one year in autumn, I worked up the courage to purchase a tarot deck. Each card had images of crystals. I started reading them the next morning, and I felt an addiction so immediate, so strong, that for the next three mornings I knew my day would not be complete until I read the tarot.
But I could tell something was wrong. Something was very wrong. How could a harmless deck of cards grab hold of me with such a tight grip? How could I feel this sudden addiction? I knew I had to get rid of the deck. First, I tried to rip them – but the cards were too durable. Then, I went to the backyard fireplace and tried to light them on fire. To my dismay, I realized the cards had been made with an anti-inflammatory material. The flames would singe the edges, and sizzle out. While leaning over the fireplace in a panic, I fumbled through the deck and the cards fell from my hands.
While the rest of the deck fell to the grass at my feet, the only card to land in the fire pit was the one depicting the devil.
Users of tarot will say that the devil card does not really mean the devil; it’s merely symbolism for the end of an era. But in that moment, I felt a soul-deep terror. I felt I had come face to face with the Fallen One himself.
After some frantic texts to the religious people in my life to pray for me, I gathered the deck and stuffed each card, one by one, into the shredder. I bought some holy water, sprinkled the garbage, and placed it outside.
I sprinkled holy water everywhere – the front yard, the backyard, the front door, every room the tarot deck had been in…and at the advice of a close family member, the room of my roommate, who taught me how to use my tarot deck. The moment I invaded her privacy, I realized the importance of respecting another’s beliefs, even if I was terrified. I apologized, and they forgave me.
Within the week, I unearthed a picture Bible I got for my First Communion from the depths of my bookshelf and bought a Bible. The Return phase had begun.
I read the comic book Bible from cover to cover. I attended Confession. I began attending church on a regular basis – beginning on Mondays, not Sundays. I prayed more. I downloaded a Bible app on my phone to help me read it throughout the year. I experienced less frequent anxiety attacks.
But I held myself back from going to church on Sundays. This is what is known in mythos as the Refusal of the Return.
Where would I go? Which parish would I truly belong to? I had never chosen my own church in my adult life. Not until Easter. Homesick with nostalgia for a time long gone of tights, gloves, pastel dresses, faux fur coats, and petite straw hats, I bought a white dress and walked to the nearby Catholic Church. It seemed fitting that my return to Sunday Mass was the day celebrated as the Return of Jesus. I continued to attend this church until my move forty minutes away. I could no longer enjoy the five-minute walk to church that had become a weekly spiritual pilgrimage.
I was called to a Protestant church, where I attended on and off for a few months. But I couldn’t help but feel not only guilt, but a tug at my heart. The Catholic Church was familiar. It was my history, my ancestry, my culture. What grew from this experience was the realization that God is truly present in every church, no matter which side of the schism they are on. “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20, NASB).
I know I have been welcomed back in His arms. If He could forgive the Israelites after their multiple transgressions against Him, I could be forgiven too. And I was. And I am.
My faith journey is not over yet, nor will it be until I have passed from this earth. But in the meantime, I can keep trying, I can keep reading, I can keep worshiping Him. I experienced the Departure, the Initiation, and the Return, and I have found the spiritual warmth in Returning to Him.