It was the late 1990s and the American economy was booming. Money and consumerism were the "new religion." Christians around me seemed to be Christians in name only. Besides having a secular education, I attended Catholic Christian Doctrine once per week from the ages of six to fourteen. I dreaded going there because I never knew why religion or God were important. The person who managed the Catholic educational program was an older woman. She was always very morose and cold. She didn't seem to be embodying the spirit of this loving guy named Jesus who teachers raved about. In the classroom, we were forced to memorize Catholic prayers even though the teachers never told us what the prayers meant. I was taught to read the Bible, but nobody ever explained to me why the stories were important. I was also instructed on how to participate in confession, a Catholic practice where an individual reveals their sins to a priest. When I was about ten, I went into a prayer room for confession and saw a tired-looking priest sitting in a chair in front of me. At first, I thought he was sleeping, but I soon realized that he was actually intoxicated. He was slurring the holy words "In the name of the Father, and the Son..." as if he had drunk for three straight days. That was the last straw in my commitment to Catholicism.
It was hard to take Christianity seriously while growing up in the suburbs of Boston. I had many questions on everything from God to Jesus to the Bible, but no one was able to give me any good answers. When it came time for confirmation, which officially acknowledges that a person has gone through proper Catholic instruction, I decided not to participate. Nobody around me stopped me from avoiding it. After all, nobody was really that Catholic. Catholicism wasn't my religion. In fact, I didn't care at all about religion. I cared about basketball and my sports card collection. Looking back on those years, I was closer to being an atheist than anything else.
Then 9/11 happened. The media said that the U.S. was attacked by Muslims, who I began to see as religious fanatics. News anchors reported that Islam promoted cruelty and violence, and that I should live in fear of this faith. Unfortunately, I believed all the propaganda. When I was a freshman in college, I decided that it was "brave" and "patriotic" for me to try and join the CIA. I wanted to protect America and fight the "bad" Muslims. One of my first college courses was "The World of Islam" at American University. It was my chance to read the Qur'an and learn about what really goes on inside the mind of a Muslim terrorist. Little did I know that I was in for an eye-opening and life-altering experience.
"The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr." This was the first thing I learned about Islam. This hadith, or saying of Prophet Muhammad, shattered everything I previously believed about Islam. To me, this religion went from being a faith that calls for destruction and death to an entire civilization whose founding leader emphasized knowledge, mercy, and compassion. I started to hang out with Muslims more. I sat and listened to them as they shared their religious experiences and family backgrounds with me. Despite developing a love for learning about the Qur'an and Islamic history, I never thought about converting. Even as I became more familiar with Islam, I still didn't believe in God. I didn't think religion was necessary. I thought that it was too unbelievable.
Yet, my interest in Islam grew the more I studied it. When I was 23, I had the opportunity to travel around the U.S. to visit mosques and interact with different Muslim communities across the country. It was an invaluable experience. I learned about Islam through the lives of Muslims and not through Fox News or CNN. I saw the piety of Muslims and their dedication to prayer and charity. The hospitality and warmth that I felt upon visiting their homes, schools, and places of worship were intellectually and spiritually uplifting. Despite critics saying that Islam is an evil religion, I saw it as a peaceful one.
It was Islam and not Christianity that re-opened my heart and mind to God. Witnessing the sincerity and dedication Muslims had for other human beings enriched my spirituality in a way that I did not think was possible. I felt closer to God because I was closer to people who worshipped Him. Considering I was not close friends with any practicing Christians, the Muslims around me were the only God-fearing people in my life. When things got difficult for me in 2012, I did not turn to the priest at the local church, because I was not attending mass or regularly visiting any Christian places of worship. For spiritual guidance, I turned to a few imams who I had befriended when I was living in Ireland. We talked about various aspects of life; the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the sad, and the serene. We prayed together. We broke bread together. We came into God's presence together. The conversations I had with them led me to thinking about the bigger picture of life. Why was I struggling? Why did I feel a massive void inside of me? How have I strayed so far from the straight path? My Muslim friends helped me to grapple with these questions, but it was my own deep soul-searching that brought me back to Catholicism.
I feel like I became a true believer of God when I was 27 years old. To embrace Him was beautiful, but also painful. One Monday morning I walked into Saint John's Lane church in Dublin and forgot nearly everything about how to take part in Mass. I practically forgot the words of basic prayers. I had to watch other people in front of me in order to figure out when to stand up and when to sit down. It was a humbling experience. I felt like a stranger in God's home. Over the next few weeks, I spent hours on my knees praying and asking God for guidance and comfort. I repented for straying away from Him, but I also thanked him for finding me again. Something truly came over me during those days in Ireland. I found God, or perhaps God found me.
My journey has been an unconventional one. I went from Catholicism to atheism to Islam and back to Catholicism. To this day, I'm still in awe about how God plans our life-journeys. I never would have found Him if I hadn't crossed paths with a drunken priest, atheism, or Islam. The beauty of my journey is not that I've come back to the "true faith" of Catholicism. In my opinion, God doesn't minimize himself to a single faith. What's powerful is that God is compassionate and merciful. Despite rejecting Him and leaving Him for such a long time, He let me back into His light without any hesitation. Reflecting back on my religious experiences, it feels as though God has rewarded me for being lost. Perhaps that's the secret to getting closer to God. Maybe we need to be lost sometimes to truly feel at peace when we return home again.