Part of what forms your self-esteem and self-confidence is knowing who you are. I had images of a wallflower who was unsure of what to say, convinced everyone else’s opinions were more important, images of a clumsy kid who didn’t need any help tripping over her own feet. While to some degree I was shy and quiet, there was so much more going on beneath the surface. Things that I couldn’t quite put my finger on to explain. (I’ve illustrated some of that here.)
What I’ve come to understand, though, is that the true strength of knowing who you are is in your relationship with God and Jesus, in your faith. It’s through faith that you really achieve a true, complete sense of self. The flaws, talents, insecurities etc. are put into more proper perspective.
Not that I completely knew it at the time, and certainly not during eighth grade. I knew God and faith were important. I knew prayer was important. There were reminders for me all over the house. We had multiple crucifixes throughout the house, and I had one in my room near my bed. I even had a small plastic statue of St. Joseph that glowed in the dark. There were other devotionals, tools and images of our faith in different rooms.
But I didn’t understand how God was actively involved in my life. Bad things happened to me, and I knew they were other people’s responsibility; God didn’t cause them to happen. As far as I can remember, I got very abstract answers to questions like “What do you mean the way you live your life can be an example for others?” Responses didn’t seem very tangible. I guess I wanted a straight forward, step-by-step guide, and that wasn’t offered.
Going to public school meant not receiving religious education five days a week or attending a weekly school Mass. Life became filled with other classes and activities. But I went to Sunday school at our parish for religious preparation.
I remember praying with my family on a regular basis. We prayed the rosary after dinner, and I was not very cooperative. I think I was even a bit angry at being forced into it. The rosary seemed to take forever to get through, and I was resentful of being asked to lead part of it. I stayed on the verge of falling asleep the best I could. My brother was more interested in this time and would often be the one to remind my parents we needed to pray.
But in my journal (non-school versions), I would address entries to God. Writing things out as if I were talking to God directly. That was an early form of prayer for me.
I didn’t want to miss Mass on Sundays. Partly as a way to see friends. But also I generally liked going. There would be times when I was in a foul mood, angry and spiteful, and vowed to myself that I wouldn’t join in with the hymns. But that never lasted long, and I always left church in a completely better mood, the anger a memory.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table when I was younger while I enjoyed a snack. I’d have a plate of crackers or whatever and something to drink. There would be moments when I pretended that I was helping distribute communion at church. “The body of Christ” I would tell the empty chair, holding up a cracker or whatever I was eating at the time. After eating it, I’d lift up my glass and say “the blood of Christ” and then drink. Then, I would wipe the cup with a napkin, partly dipping it too far in the cup and partly getting the spot where I had just taken a sip. I have no idea if I fully understood that at church we believed bread and wine changed into the body and blood of Christ. But I was interested in repeating these actions.
In sixth grade, when I came home from school and visited with our pet guinea pig, I also think those were moments of prayer. Trying to figure out and wondering why I was having so much trouble and why it was so difficult to make friends. In some ways just talking to God about what was going on, and petting the soft fur of the guinea pig was kind of a consoling reply.
Going to Catholic school for several years and being around several religious sisters, I got to see a glimpse of religious life. These women were much, much older than me (older than my parents, actually), but I was still left with an impression of their self-assurance. They didn’t seem to question who they were. There was confidence in their actions and words. Obviously that confidence also comes through growing up and maturing, but I guess I didn’t see that as the entire answer. I think I related this confidence to the supernatural impact of religious life. That their vocation and commitment had given them this freedom and confidence. Which is probably why it seemed like a more appealing option when I felt so isolated or unsure of what to say. That maybe that is where I belonged. I’m not saying I was fully aware of these ideas at the time, but it might have been there on a subconscious level. It could have started during those lonely years because religious life was something I kept considering and wondering about and wrestling with as I got older.
At some point during my time at the Catholic school, I received a gift of a handmade doll, complete with a cleaning bottle for the body and clothes that matched what these sisters wore. I don’t remember the circumstances for receiving it. I had a large collection of dolls and stuffed animals as a child, including some rather expensive ones. But this one of a religious sister is the lone doll in my possession that I considered of greatest value. The one I kept from childhood.
All this leads up to eighth grade confirmation. We learned that the Holy Spirit offers gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear (awe) of the Lord.
I had no idea how these gifts were distributed or how they were used in daily life. It seemed very abstract. But isn’t that how it works? Faith will always seem abstract and possibly out of reach until you have a personal encounter. Until someone, something or some event reaches you in a personal way and it finally beyond the hypothetical. I had several of those encounters later on. But in eighth grade, it still seemed theoretical.
In preparation for the sacrament of confirmation, there was a lot of memorization of facts and characteristics, but I don’t recall many practical conversations or discussions for what confirmation means, how you will be changed. I knew that a sacrament was an outward, tangible sign of an inward change, but no one really talked specifically what that change could look like. Or maybe it was discussed but it didn’t resonate with me at the time and was forgotten.
I know from an early age I had a distinct understanding of right and wrong. Hence my insistence on being a rule follower. And I had a strong sense of morals and values. I trusted what my teachers, parents, church leaders and authority figures shared about morals, values and ethics. I accepted their word. Later in life when those around me began to question things, I had to face the reality that I only had a surface level understanding, taking things at face value. It was important to dive deeper and take ownership for my faith and what I believed instead of blindly following others. For me, diving deeper happened some in high school, but mostly during college.