Anxiety and Failing at Religion

Sometimes, during my more melancholy moments, I feel like I “failed at religion,” much in the same way I failed at basketball when I was in seventh grade. My inability to continue in religion certainly wasn’t from lack of trying; I went to the most “traditional” parish in the archdiocese (at least until I got blackballed), prayed the rosary every day, did Louis de Monfort’s “Consecration to Jesus through Mary,” read about theology, liturgy, apologetic, and the saints, etc. But in the end, it still wasn’t enough, because nothing I did could resolve the doubts I had accumulated. I had hoped that “finding religion” would help solve some of my existential crises, as well as my ever-present anxiety and depression, but I soon discovered that adding theology to the mix not only gave me new things to be anxious/depressed about.

Liturgy, in particular, was a huge source of anxiety for me. The Catholic blogosphere spends a huge amount of time obsessing over rubrics, missals, vestments, music, the gender of altar servers, and all the other accoutrements of liturgy. “Irreverent” or “invalid” masses are spoken in almost apocalyptic terms, as if being exposed to guitar music at mass is enough to damn one’s soul to Hell for eternity. For someone like myself, who wanted to do everything “right,” the fear of “liturgical abuses” became a crippling obsession that erased whatever joy or peace that the certainty of religion might have provided. Transferring to St F helped with the liturgy anxiety, but once the drama started (not to mention my own doubts about the Catholic church and issues pertaining to race and antisemitism), I began to seriously doubt that changing the liturgy could really change the world, to paraphrase a popular Catholic blogger.

Would I have been “better at religion” if I had less anxiety? I doubt it, especially since the historical record seems to indicate that being overly scrupulous and somewhat OCD can make for a great saint. Augustine of Hippo and Jerome in particular both come across as being very anxious and OCD with regards to sin. Augustine went from philosophy to philosophy as a way to assuage his anxiety, first with the Manicheans and finally with “orthodox” Christianity. However, it doesn’t seem like his anxiety was ever truly abated, which would explain why he obsessed so much about original sin, sex, and pears. Like many Christians living in late antiquity, Jerome thought that following the strict rules of monastic life was the best way to defeat sin and get into Heaven, but a quick perusal of his writings indicates that his obsession with sticking to the rules of cloister simply lead to more anxiety.

Perhaps my problem is that I’m just temperamentally unsuited for religion because I’m not content to just accept things on faith. About six months ago, Rod Dreher did a post about how millennials are supposedly being drawn to “traditional” forms of liturgical worship like traditionalist Catholicism and the Orthodox Church, and I posted a bit of my story to explain how I was attracted to and eventually left the Catholic church. One of the posters asked me why I had to analyze everything and why I couldn’t just believe with a child-like faith. To this I replied that I didn’t think that “just believing” was a good thing, and that we shouldn’t have a “child-like faith” in anything or anybody. It was easier to “just believe” in the past, when people in general were ignorant of the world outside of their particular villages and seldom, if ever, met someone who was really different (however “different” might be defined). This is probably why religious conservatives are increasingly disengaging from mainstream secular society, so they can ensure that their children grow up in a bubble where their religious beliefs are never challenged.

Unlike many people, I approached religion with the same intellectual rigor that I would an experiment; I formed a certain hypothesis (“The Catholic church appears to be the ‘True Church.'”) after I took that fateful history of Christianity course back in 2005, and then I revised my hypothesis (“Catholicism is one religion out of many and is no more ‘true’ than any other.”) when I received new information that invalidated the original one. I entered the church of my own volition and left under the same circumstances. Maybe I did fail at religion, but succeeded at independent thought.