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June 5, 2009

Religion as Therapy

In these hard economic times, we could all use a little faith. Meet four modern career gals who found answers in that old-time religion.

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Photo Credit: Lauri Wiberg/iStock Photography

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The Recovering Catholic
By Lauren Iannotti

I grew up attending a working-class Roman Catholic church in New England. We were hard-core — everything literal, like the jihadists. And as a would-be shoe bomber might, I accepted church teachings as unquestionable Truth. All other versions were knockoffs; you were Catholic or you were hell-bound. Or — as was my case — you were both. A little matter of taking the Lord's name in vain. Oh, and that whole sex-before-marriage problem.

During my semester abroad in France, I decided to jaunt over to HQ in Rome. Leaning on the railing outside the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, I took in the pristine Vatican gardens and considered the cost of keeping the place polished to a sparkling shine. I imagined the Pope, wrapping his infallible frame in a cashmere blanket at night, laying his head on a gilt-trimmed pillow. Then I thought about the parishioners back at Holy Angels, who turned over a chunk of their weekly take-home to ensure that J.P. II could maintain the lifestyle to which he'd grown accustomed. Didn't add up.

Back in France, over tea at a quiet café, I told my pagan (OK, Protestant) Norwegian boyfriend that I was confused. I'd always believed that the church was Good and I was Evil. He asked why — had I stolen from orphans? Killed someone for fun? I'd had sex, I said (as if he didn't know). "Why would you go to hell for having sex?!" he raised his voice, and up with it went a few French eyebrows. "There are a lot of churches," he said, quieter. "And I don't think you've chosen the right one for you." Chosen? I have a choice? I can leave?

So I did. All it took was a little questioning, and the spool came unraveled. Soon enough, I'd changed my classification to "agnostic/recovering Catholic." Abandoned my odd attempts at bedtime prayers. Stopped feeling guilty for enjoying a good hookup. Good-bye, eternal fires. Hello, happiness. I suddenly saw the world in color.

Fast-forward to age 29. My husband and I had been married for such a short time, we hadn't even cashed in all of our Crate & Barrel gift cards — but it wasn't working. Our apartment teemed with the collective disgust we felt, not for each other, but for the life we'd forced ourselves into, and I knew it wouldn't be long before the place caved under it. So one Sunday morning, I did the only thing I could think of: I wandered into Mass at a Catholic church in our neighborhood. Shock No. 1: I didn't burst into flames upon crossing the threshold. I sat down and took in the hymns, which were exactly as I'd remembered — though the organ and old ladies' choir had been replaced by a hippie on a Gibson acoustic. Then the priest spoke: "I know you are lonely, but you are not alone. If you aren't having a tough time, look to your left and right: Your neighbor is. Take care of her." He wasn't talking about hellfires, about being perfect and without sin. He was just asking us to look after one another. I remembered how, when I was a kid, the church had girded me against uncertainty. And that's how I felt now: girded. It felt like home — one I knew could be misogynistic and inclined to protect the priest over the fifth-grader on whom he broke his vows. But at that moment, the church's sins felt as far away as Rome. And it was only with some creative blinking that I was able to hold back the tears (Shock No. 2).

Now I'm in the market for a new place of worship, because just as the marriage survived, so has my need to believe in something — clichéd as it sounds — bigger than myself. Amen to that.

NEXT PAGE: The Budding Buddhist


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