Stories of Doubt is a Doubters Anonymous series featuring the reflections of members of the community. Stories are shared in a spirit of understanding and healing, and reflect the personal beliefs and experiences of the person sharing, not necessarily the group as a whole. We are always accepting new stories and would love to hear yours at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read the first part of Lauren’s story here.
“We have prayed about this for a long time,” Samuel continued and Rebecca nodded in agreement. “We feel it is God’s will that you step down from the leadership team.”
I couldn’t breathe. It was like a blur – like a video camera in an earthquake, choppy and unfocused. I hadn’t expected those words, never could have prepared myself.
“As always, you are still welcome to come to activities, but not as a leader, as a member only,” Rebecca included this addendum as though it wasn’t clear.
It was everything I had feared. A member only. The words were a mere courtesy. We both knew what it meant. I was on the outside now. Just another project in a sea of 1700 students. I gulped and drank down their words like poison. I wasn’t good enough.
“But, I didn’t do anything wrong – I always upheld my contact,” I pleaded though I didn’t believe it to be true. They were just and fair and good people. It must have been me. My mind raced – did I push my relationship with David too far? Was I not strong enough to balance my life in a way that appeared put together? Did I talk too much? Share too much? Feel too much? Or too little? I wasn’t sure. I knew I was grasping at straws as I held my tears back in my throat; their comments were clearly commands rather than suggestions.
Then, in many more words than necessary, they tried to explain, tripping over their sentences as they went. I had too much going on. I needed to take care of myself. I kept things from them that I should have shared earlier. This is what they said. My brain didn’t record the rest.
I knew the chapel well – over time I had memorized its layout. But all of a sudden everything was blurry and I wasn’t sure how to get out. I grabbed my things, leaving any pride I had left at the altar, stumbled off the stage, and ran down the aisle towards the back door. They called after me, but I couldn’t speak without letting loose the flood of tears caught in the back of my throat. I quickly decided against a response and kept my eye on the door. So often those doors had meant protection for me. Anything within the doors was quiet, safe, sacred. On the outside, people I loved died, my sister wasted away with an eating disorder, men in power took advantage. On the outside, I felt on my own in a big, scary world. On the outside wasn’t anywhere I wanted to be, yet tonight, I was running for it.
I got in my car and I screamed at the sky, my voice hoarse, feeling like if I could somehow bring my vocal chords to a place of breaking, I could ease the pain. “Why? Why? Why?” I screamed it over and over again, louder and louder, in the car by myself. My tears were thick and coming fast. It wasn’t safe to drive, but I did. I punched the steering wheel again hoping the pain in my body would align itself accordingly. With nowhere else I wanted to go, I pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot. The lights were bright, glowing against the 1am sky. Several people were in the drive-thru, securing a late night snack, but it still felt desolate. Looking back now, the whole scene looks like the climax of a B-roll movie, but then, it was more real than anything.
None of the believers followed me that night or the next day, none checked up with a text or a call. In fact, they forbid my boyfriend from checking on me as well. It was best if I handled it alone, they said. The people I had grown to rely on, whether because I loved them or simply because I felt so isolated from everyone else in my life, went away. For a long time. Some, forever, never speaking to me again.
Months of rumination later, I decided I needed escape and so one night, five days before the study abroad deadline, I decided to fly to Italy for my next semester. I could be alone, I could heal, I could reinvent myself.
Viterbo, Italy – Chiesa de Santa Maria della Salute
8 Months Later
I entered the cathedral as if traversing undiscovered land. I hadn’t been in a church with my heart open since the day I ran from that chapel.
Complete silence –
only to be broken by the sound of my feet, tentatively stepping along the hard, cold marble floor of the gargantuan cathedral. From ground to ceiling, the space is void, cool, dim. Every step again echoes. Every move of my body is amplified. Slowly I enter, self-conscious of my vibrant steps against the empty background even though I know no ear is present to judge my gait. Flanked by stone columns on every side, each of them five times my size, any ego shrinks in comparison. The silence bounces off the dense and barren walls, amplifying the voices that ricochet inside the limitations of my mind. Never had the lack of sound, the lack of activity, the lack of anything, been so terrifying. After my escape from the chapel in March, my paradigm had flipped – I decided life was much safer outside of any church doors and I made sure to keep my distance. But there was only so long that I could run.
In an unlikely mix of partial disgust and utter awe, I slowly, reverently, take a seat on the firm stone benches that line the chapel. My gaze moves gradually upward as though a weight sits heavily on my forehead and it takes every ounce of my strength to move it. My glance passes ever so deliberately over the grandiose arches, and the hollow marble aisle. Moving slowly, slowly. Part of me wants to run towards the altar and take back everything I left behind on that March evening. The other part of me is so traumatized that I can’t begin to think of taking another step.
Breathing heavily, every breath labored, my eyes attempt to prepare my soul for the sight of the altar, as though I could ever be prepared. When my eyes meet the stone sculpture of Jesus hanging from the cross, I freeze. The apparently simple structure presents emotions that are powerful enough to overwhelm a bustling city, wounds cut so deep they may never heal over. Can I ever again feel comfortable in a holy place? Will this emptiness endure forever? My fear and confusion seem an unwelcome piercing of the pristine pureness. I just wanted to be Yours. Why won’t you have me? Can I ever come back? I pleaded with what now seemed like a distant God. The sensation of desperate longing, yet certain refusal before this image of all sufficient grace was familiar, like the protruding sound of an old bell in the dead of night. And every recurring tone of the bell makes louder and louder the silent church. Does anybody hear me? And with every sly game of tug of war inside my head, the bell repeats, again, and again, familiar and grinding. My body aches as though it is being torn apart at the seams, one part compelled to fall face first before the altar and the other running as fast as it can the opposite direction. Pulling, stretching, tearing, every stitch of what holds my flesh and soul together begins to separate slowly. Each thread sliding through and breaking. And finally it is torn, and in a moment of relief and unutterable pain, I am finally, undone.