First Communion First Holy Communion at Our Lady Supporting the Faithful church in Dobczyce, Poland. Photo by Marcin Bajer/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

At an early age, I learned that God was a being who dwelled in a place far from where I ever stood. I learned to commune with the transcendent God of the above, not the immanent divine within. But over the years, as I let go of childish thinking and took responsibility for my spiritual life, my perception of God changed dramatically. I am guided now not so much by teachings that were handed down to me, but by ideas that have risen up from within — a shift that began 30 years ago when I was a young postulant nun in a religious order taking my first theology class.

The Jesuit priest stood in front of the room and asked us what we believed about God. One postulant raised her hand, stood up, and said, “God made me to show His goodness and to share His everlasting life with me in heaven.” I nodded my head in agreement, having memorized this years ago just like everyone else in the room.

The priest looked dismayed. “That’s it?” he asked.

“Yes, Father.”

“Sit down,” he barked, looking around for the next hand.

Up it went, and the next brave soul stood up saying, “In God there are three divine persons, really distinct, and equal in all things — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

I nodded again, and the priest frowned. “Is that the best you can do?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Next,” he yelled, as she took her seat, looking around in wonder.

By now, we’re all confused, but one more raised her hand.

“God can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him.”

“Sit down,” he said.

He rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and surveyed the whole group of us with a kind of silent disdain. By now, I’m feeling anxious and blood is rushing up my neck. I feel hot and sweaty. My first anxiety attack.

“How could he do this?” It seemed so mean. He asked for our ideas about God and yet, when we said them, it felt like he took a sledge hammer and smashed our beliefs into a thousand pieces. A tear rolled down my cheek.

It was a moment of devastating loss, incomprehensible sadness. I felt as if everything I believed in, everything on which I had based my life, was now being challenged. We sat there, 30 of us, for what seemed an eternity, reckoning with the obliteration of God as we had known Him. What if everything we believed wasn’t true? Did Father Grabys know something we didn’t know?

Finally the priest spoke. “You should be ashamed for having nothing more than catechism answers to this question. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve been taught? Hasn’t anyone here gone beyond the Baltimore Catechism in your thinking?”

The air was thick with silence. Hands were folded, eyes cast down. Tears cascaded down my face. I prayed he wouldn’t call on me.

“You must come to know what is true about God from your own experience,” said the priest. “If you are to be a nun worth your salt, you have to arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concerns and rises up from the nature of who you are.”

I looked up at him, wondering how in the world to build a faith from my human nature. Wasn’t faith something I was born into — something I inherited from the outside?

I was a Catholic by default. They told me everything I was supposed to believe. That was the point, wasn’t it? I was just lucky to be born into the one true faith. I certainly didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s what infallible popes were for.

I raised my hand and asked him how someone could create a faith from the inside out, and why we even needed to since we knew what we needed to know from the catechism.

“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for — that is faith. And that is what we are here to explore, to create, and to declare — our faith and spirituality. You can let go of your beliefs for awhile as you learn how to create a faith that will see you through everything.”

I didn’t want to let go of any beliefs. They were all I had. And they were enough. I didn’t need anything more, or so I thought. As we continued on in the class, the biblical paradox that says we must lose our lives in order to find them suddenly began to make sense. Taking responsibility for our own spirituality was a painstaking process that lasted the entire semester as we worked to find and define our own commitments and ultimate concerns — a task that was supremely challenging for young women who had been taught all their lives what to think, but not how to think.

We never looked at another catechism, never recited another memorized belief, but step by step we built a new spirituality for ourselves that was deeply personal and rooted in our ultimate concerns. And every day during meditation there was something new and profoundly elegant to contemplate: myself as the creator of my own spiritual path.

Jan PhillipsJan Phillips is a public speaker and author of several books, including the The Art of Original Thinking. She currently lives in San Diego, California.

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I love this. I was raised in a religion where beliefs were handed to me and disagreement was not encouraged. After breaking from that faith, I spent some time looking a new faith/spirituality, and am now at a place where I'm creating my faith and spirituality, learning from the ideas of others, but with the final responsibility resting with me. This really resonated with me. Thanks so much for sharing.

My, how this resonates! Beautiful article. Thank you, Jan.

Thank you for knowing yourself, and your experience, in such an authentic way. It is great that you can share your spiritual journey with us. I am grateful to journey on the same path as others that know God is in the everyday and do not claim to be found but instead always looking on.

I don't think I agree. Surely it isn't a matter of disavowing all doctrines, catechisms, etc., but giving them their appropriate place, as a part (not all) of that which teaches and inspires us, not as our own thought and voice. I don't think if we built our own spirituality from scratch, we'd have much of a chance of putting together anything worthwhile, that would actually sustain us. Surely the wisdom of the past and of present faith communities have their place.

Of course, the wisdom of the past and present has its place and is important for many. But we have to remember also that our faith has to be our own, our relationship with God is our own and it must be personal. Many belief systems, such as Catholicism, are a good starting point from which to build our faith. But in order to be the witnesses that God called us to be we have to know why we believe what do. The best way to show the importance of anything is by personal testimony. It's not just a matter of knowing beliefs; you have to know why you believe them.

Wow! She has put eloquent words to my and countless others' experiences!

Love the third to last paragraph. What is so sad is...I went to a church where we were encouraged to do that kind of searching, a Catholic church...but there was a change of priests and they went back to the old ways of treating parishioners...just listen, do not think. Talk about heartbreaking! But it is all part of the cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube, as they say. Thanks for a great post.

I still think the priest was an ass, but an otherwise excellent essay. Truth is, if you go on with the spiritual journey and verbalize it, you will run up against the institutional church. If you question enough of the institution, you will be silenced.

I love that priest, I wish you had named him, Jan. He was destroying the cultural religous box that we have been taught to play nice inside of. Love the photo by Peter Grima.
Thank you for writing and sharing this. I may know you-aren't you from Syracuse, NY?

yes, i'm from syracuse

I grew up and continue in a tradition that both holds to doctrines and encourages thinking and questioning. But the doctrines aren't ends unto themselves. Faith as we understand it is not and cannot be our own creation. It it trust in specific promises of God in Jesus Christ, trust that is created by the Holy Spirit only when those promises are communicated again (and again) to us. Our "spirituality" then we understand as an actual encounter with an actual God with something specific to speak and do in and for our lives. Knowing ourselves and God in this, encounter is something that takes a whole lifetime and is never completed on this side of the grave, and may even continue after that. But it is not our own creation.

As the Viatlist Henri Bergson observed in his book of the same name, there are two sources of morality and religion. The first and most authentic is rooted in our direct experience as the children of a God who is neither a matriarch or patriarch, who loves us and wants nothing more than our love in return, for we were created to be his companions. The second source is the transmitted experiences of those who have had that direct experience, and seek to express the wordless and formless joy of God's presence. This second hand experience is always in danger of becoming a false replacement for direct experience, and can be easily manipulated to satisfy mankind's need for power, material wealth and physical gratification.

Simple story of a wonderful journey. Thanks so much for sharing it.

That is safe for those already in a system, but dangerous for those not. We need to make our faith our own, but not on our own.

As an ex-nun, I enjoyed the author's awakening, albeit painful at first, that we are the creators of our own lives, not parrots repeating the party line. After 20 years as a nun, I went to a Methodist seminary, where all that I knew was questioned, where people from many backgrounds, Christian, Hindu, UU, etc. were able to gather to honor the Divine. And that was when I first realized, God is beyond any description or prediction we can come up with. The Buddhists teach that the mind is a quagmire. It can keep us busy thinking, questioning and arguing about belief. The only question is: Do I surrender to the Mystery?

Have you forgotten the Eucharist?

I am so grateful for these thoughts and most especially for this: "What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for — that is faith."

Last night I saw Of Gods and Men, the French film that tells the story of Cistercian Trappist Monks, deeply beloved in their Islamic community in Algeria, who were kidnapped and executed by Islamic extremists in 1996. The insight of your theology teacher comes as close as anything I can imagine of capturing these monks' extraordinary courage and faith, as well as the enduring gift to us of their example, in a very few words.

Thank you for sharing your insight into the difference between religion and faith. People through out centuries have been fighting over doctrine, Jesus had a different message. Two simple commandments, Love the Lord God with all your heart, mind and spirit and love your neighbor as yourself. I attend, Marshill fellowship where the motto is "Love Wins", Rob Bell is one of the teachers.

Good teachers DON"T shame students. Oh-what ego!!
It really angers me that parochial schooled students were brainwashed into being obedient automotons and then expected to have matured into critical thinking adults. We were denied any introduction into the whole field of spirituality- and what a loss that has been! I had to find a 12 Step program to discover the LOVE and JOY and CONNECTION that I intuitively longed for!!

In my opinion, every one of us must "change our religion," as Jesus did--grow up to fulfill the law, not just "parrot" it. In some cases it does mean leaving one religion for another, but in many instances, it simply means seeing the "inside" or "spirit" of a religion, as Paul did. The discovery is--or should be--associated with "confirmation"--a confirmation of faith as we enter adulthood (at whatever age).

Interesting thoughts. But isn't Christianity based on revelation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and not on personal insights?

Wonderful piece, Jan! Hope you are well!

The priest challenging the sisters strikes me as having enacted a most Christ-like role, challenging rudimentary foundational beliefs as not to the point. And thereby the Sisters, as this luminous essay makes clear, embarked on the path that replaces mere belief with faith. 'Your faith has made you well,' is Christ's greeting to those with the courage to move across the threshold, as these Sisters have done. They are very well indeed. And inspirational.