I sat in a crowded pew, staring at golden swirls on the ceiling of what might possibly be the smallest church in Pennsylvania on Christmas Eve of my senior year of high school.
The single, ornate room was full of the Christmas and Easter churchgoers that I had become not too long after eighth grade confirmation – a Catholic ritual that turned 13-year-old children into adults in the eyes of the church. The ceremony commits them to living a life devoted to Christ and following through on the rest of the seven holy sacraments – the next being marriage.
I remember feeling as uncomfortable hearing those plans for my life as some of the people around me looked. It was an overcrowded, overdressed room of people that, if they were anything like me, were waiting for the mass to start and then end.
The favorite phrase of my bright, sincere journalism teacher popped in to my head: “Question everything. If your mother says she loves you, tell her to prove it.”
She said this in one her grand lessons about integrity and ethics in the many-windowed room of my school.
In my head, as mass began, I listed the things that I could believe in because I could prove them: My name is Paige Christine Gross. I was born in October. I have a younger sister. The year is 2012. I have red hair.
I thought again to the room on the second floor that housed the student-run newspaper and smelled constantly like vanilla and brewing coffee.
In that school, we had debates over newsworthiness and science. In my classes, we talked about realities and how they could differ for each person. I learned about sexuality and psychology and biology and chemistry. I slowly began to love the line of true and not true and proof – it made things clear, concise.
I then listed things that I believed to be true, but couldn’t prove: I have been in love before. My favorite television show is The Office. I am going to be a journalist. I am a feminist.
I glance at my mother, who saw Christmas Eve mass as a comforting routine, part of her childhood she could relive one day each year. She squeezed my hand, and I thought of my journalism teacher and the comfort in knowing I could prove her little saying with that squeeze.
I then thought of things I believed were not true: Marriage should be between a man and a women under the eyes of God. Sex should be about procreation between two married people. Hard work will always lead to success. Unwavering faith will earn a great reward.Our souls will go somewhere when we die. God exists.
I tried to imagine proving each of these things and making them part of my lifestyle that I had decided to dedicate to reporting truths. Were they truths if I could not prove them?
As I queued in line behind my extended family to take communion, I recalled lines from an anonymous poem I read the week before about an atheist on a date.
“Her lips didn’t taste like church, but her hips felt like God. I wonder what her pastor would have thought. I wonder if that cross around her neck means more to me than it does to her.”
In that moment, feet shuffling against the century-old, cobblestone floors, I decided it would be my last walk down an aisle for a long, long time. I could make commitments to many things I was sure of – a career, a school, my family – but not this.
I couldn’t be one of the Christmas and Easter churchgoers, slipping in and out of a religion that requires so much discipline and unwavering faith when so much of my lifestyle was challenged the moment I sat in a pew.
While I have found identities in many things – a feminist, a writer, a daughter – a Catholic is not one of them.
Paige Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @By_paigegross