I remember the exact moment when I realized I lost my faith in religion. I was a Tuesday evening during my second year at Huron Collge. I sat in my Anthropology lecture, listening to the professor explain what he found on a recent dig in Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula. He turned to draw the layout of the small village that they had uncovered, illustrating the position of houses, rooms, and where pieces of pottery were recovered. The year before, I had spent time living in the Casamance, a province of Senegal. I thought about the near death experiences I had while there. Thought about the people I had left behind when we were rushed home after one of the members of my team fell victim to malaria and in a altered, fevered state stabbed the man whose house he was living at the time to death. I thought about the abusive situation I left to go to Africa,and what living with nothing taught me while I was there. I thought about mass on Christmas Eve in the village, spoken in a mix of Latin and Diola. I thought about the drums that beat through my soul. I thought about everything that brought me to that night, sitting in the Social Sciences building on the Western University campus and somewhere between the sound of the chalk scraping across the board, and the image of roped off areas in the Mexican jungle, I let go of everything I thought I knew about God and religion. I did not believe. It wasn’t that I no longer believed in God. I did. I was suddenly faced with the unwavering certainty that I no longer believed in the religious system I was part of all of my life. The chalk that my professor was using to write with snapped in half, falling to the floor. I stared blankly while the TA fished another piece of chalk out for him to write with. Losing my religion both terrified me and filled me with possibility.
I continued to go to church every Sunday for another six years. The next push came just as unexpectedly. A silver brooch that somehow became pinned to by bag while going into the grocery store. A blue Buddha was enamelled on the front. It stopped me in my tracks, forced me to pause. What was going on? I had no idea but I wanted to find out.
People love labels. Need them. I thought I needed them as well. Needed to label what I believed, what I didn’t believe. Who I was, who I wasn’t. I thought I needed labels to understand the world around me. Studying Anthropology helped me to start to understand the labels. Paying attention, and studying Buddhism helped me to understand the limit to their usefulness.
As a child, I was a good girl. I was told to believe in the church. I did what I was told. I went to church with my father. My mother never came. I loved going to church. I loved sitting on the wooden pews in St. John’s Anglican Church in Antrim, Ontario in the early morning. I loved the way the morning sun would pour through the stained glass windows and throw colour across the skirt of my dress, along my forearms and hymn books. I loved the music and prayers we sang. I went to Sunday school. Ate the tiny sandwiches at the picnics held in the summer. Took my first communion standing at the altar of the old church, wearing a snow white dress and my only worry was dripping wine down the front of it after drinking from the chalice.
St. John’s was built in 1873. Maybe it was the history I felt sitting in the services or in Sunday School that I felt most connected to. More than a hundred years of people coming together on Sunday mornings to listen to the priest speak, to take part in communion, to visit after the service… it felt powerful to me then as a child. I believed in the familiar warm wood and the smell of candles. That church felt like home, but it was not meant to stay that way. My mother left suddenly and without warning. I was eleven.