In the spring of 2014, I found myself in the last place I’d ever expected—the dark, close-set box of an old confessional. The wood muffled all other sounds as the priest slid open a little screen before me.
I knelt down and said I couldn’t remember the last time I was there, and I began to weep.
I had been dragging a suitcase with me all that day. It was cold still, it had been a very cold winter. I had spent a lot of time up until then dragging that giant suitcase in the cold, moving my few belongings and gentle cat from one temporary place to another. Up and down the stairs to train stations, shushing my companion and tucking my scarf around my face in the wind.
But it was spring now, and there I was, in the quietest place in a great stone church in downtown Chicago. I had leaned my suitcase up against the outside walls and I was leaning on the little ledge underneath the screen, shaking. The priest asked, “Is this difficult for you to confess?”
It took some time before I could speak. Up until then, I had done my best to keep this long chain of events a very private thing, more private than the words passing between a parishioner and her confessor.
But I gathered myself together and poured the words through the window.
I said, “I was homeless this winter, and I’ve finally found a place of my own again.”
In 2009, I had walked out of the Catholic Church and intended never to walk back. Years spent grappling with my sexuality, and eventually, my gender identity had left me bitter and resentful.
When, during this same period of my life, I was sexually assaulted, I reeled in search of support. I yearned to find some positive connection with God in the Eucharist, and relished traditional devotions. But I couldn’t feel welcome in God’s “house.” While I was struggling to find a spiritual home, I was also seeking legal protection against the man who had raped me. I swiftly discovered that the domestic violence court system included open courtrooms with a collection of abusers and abusees listening along with an unsympathetic judge to the grimy details of an unfortunate sexual incident.
Every time I walked to my seat in the courtroom, nestled with dozens of others seeking or fighting similar outcomes, I felt each eye read me up and down, and settle with disgust.
One cold, February morning after an agonizing court hearing, I woke to an early glare dripping through the crust of ice on my window.
I thought of the brutal cold beyond the window, between me and the church, and the bristling suspicion and judgement I read in the other faithful. That was the moment I was done. I had no more time for judgment. I was only seeking to survive.
I struggled with the hole in my spiritual life for years. I wondered if I’d find a home again, seeking solace in private practice, spiritual readings, and a wide net of religious experimentation. I talked often about faith, and its value. If I felt nostalgic, I’d sneak into the end of a service and follow the prayers. But mostly I felt betrayed, sullen, and bitter. Nobody loved me there, and I had run out of love to share in return.
Seeking to heal from sexual violence in a society and heritage that left me unwelcome, I had to go deep within myself. I burrowed through strata of shame and soon discovered the root of my isolation. I was a woman who had been raised with the expectations of a man. The expectations on which I based my judgement left me always condemned, mirroring my very feelings in every other human interaction. I was in the wrong place, always.
How would I find a home if I hadn’t found a way to settle into myself?
There’s an adage that what bothers you most in a person or situation is usually the thing that reminds you most of yourself. With no foothold for my own heart and sense of self, I naturally looked around me for support. I couldn’t find that in a Christian culture that demanded legalistic self-shaming and sycophantism. Perched at the beginning of the marriage equality movement, the Catholic Church had stumbled backwards into a reactionary rhetoric that encouraged accusations, mistrust, and judgement.
And this is why I left. The pain of the institution hit too close to home, and I hadn’t found a way to protect myself. Instead of inspiring love and peace, the Cup of Salvation turned to poison at my lips, resentment that I had to share a meal with so many people who I assumed would rather see me dead.
Sacraments happen when you meet God in the middle. An everyday occurrence, such as the blessing of a meal, becomes an avenue for God to show up in a special way in a physical place. But the magic doesn’t stop there—it interacts with the special gifts we bring in ourselves. Mingling God’s grace with the character, needs, intention, and nature of the person participating, God manifests in a particular way in that individual’s life.
Because I kept bringing my hurt, coddled with resentment (“How could this happen to me?”) and magnified by the critical culture around me, I left the Eucharist with only more anger.
And that anger was fair: I didn’t live in a world that wanted me.
I had been born into a body that betrayed me. Because I couldn’t find a way out of the pain, I stepped away. I needed to find relief. I couldn’t keep bringing only anger.
I was missing a special key to transform my faith. This key would change not only me, but my experience of Church and Sacrament. I would lose much more than simply a spiritual community—I was embarking on a journey that would find me at times both destitute and homeless. And ultimately, I would discover the only thing that could bring me home again and give me peace.
This special key, the key that I needed, is Love. This is a story about how I found it.
Photo credit Aubrey Schuster