As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.
Jenna LaConte, A&S ’14
“Boston College is as religious as you choose to make it.”
This advice, given to me in various forms by older acquaintances who had gone to BC, became a mantra that affirmed my decision to come to a Jesuit university as a high school senior. As I entered college in a state of religious unrest, I committed myself to ending my rocky spiritual journey by cutting Catholicism out of my life entirely.
Throughout my childhood, my parents went through the necessary motions to raise a Catholic family. We attended church on Sundays (okay, most Sundays), we gave up our favorite foods for Lent, we said grace before eating dinner. As I navigated my teenage years, however, doubt cast a shadow over my Catholic identity.
Standing in church and reciting the same prayers week after week felt robotic and impersonal. I never managed to naturally lock down the script and set of motions that the rest of the congregation seemed to have perfected, and the process became a chore rather than an opportunity to worship. As the church itself felt like an increasingly isolating environment, I began to develop my own set of values, many of which did not align with those of Catholicism. I could not stomach the notion of a God who supposedly denied certain people the right to love freely, especially after having my brother come out to me as I entered my senior year of high school. Within the walls of a church, I felt like an impostor.
In many ways, I came to BC as a freshman enacting spiritual revenge on Catholicism. My religious adolescence contained a lot of questions and very few answers, and my failure to understand my faith left me feeling rejected by the Church. In contrast, coming to a Catholic school where I could actively reject the religious atmosphere felt empowering. I masked my anger with indifference, dancing around the topic of religion by telling people that I had not had any solid religious upbringing in spite of being “technically Catholic.”
Easy as it may have been to shake off Catholicism, my faith in God clung to the back of my mind. My efforts to distance myself from religion stopped me from actively considering the existence of God, let alone praying, but every so often my faith would creep up on me. I am a big believer that coincidences are few and far between, that life is woven together by seemingly random moments, interactions, circumstances and people that are not actually random at all. Attributing the meaning that I saw in life to God felt hypocritical—weak, even. But deep down, it also felt right.
When the topic of God came up in conversations with my fellow Eagles, I would freeze up. How could I justify acknowledging the existence of God without conforming to a religious denomination? The word itself felt foreign and uncomfortable on my tongue: "God." Using such a deeply religious word equated to breaking a rule for me, although I did not know whether the rule belonged to me or the Church, nor did I understand why I felt tied down by obligations to either one.
Eventually, I found a happy medium: I spoke of God only in theoretical statements. I would preface all of my convictions about God by saying something along the lines of, “For people who believe in God…” similar to asking an embarrassing question on behalf of an elusive “friend.” I feared judgment from my peers for speaking assertively about a God that I was otherwise so distant from, and the more that I used this sort of language, the more I began to convince myself that maybe I really didn't believe in God.
The first time I confronted my struggles with religion head-on as a college student, I was sitting in a cafe in Parma, Italy, chatting with a friend who I had only met a few months before. Living in Italy drew out a much more raw vulnerability from within myself or my peers than I was used to. We had been living with the kind of abandon afforded only to American students studying abroad in a country that values food and relationships above all else. In Italy, there was no shame in having questions without answers—an appreciation for ambiguity is the only way to survive a perpetual language barrier.
Over a cappuccino and a chocolate-filled croissant, I faced my spiritual tumult and opened up to my relatively new friend on a topic that I had always shrugged off at BC. As I expressed my religious uncertainty, I revealed my most important spiritual truth: I do, in fact, believe in God, whether or not my image of God reflects that of the church that I grew up attending.
When I returned from abroad, I decided for the first time to take advantage of the spiritual resources that my Jesuit university has to offer. Boston College is as religious as you choose to make it, after all. I signed up for Professor McDargh’s Spirituality and Sexuality course, fascinated by the unification of two concepts that I considered to be so at odds with one another. During one discussion, a guest speaker visiting the class addressed the idea of “Cafeteria Catholics”—people who identify as Catholic, yet pick and choose which rules to follow. He spoke out against this label, drawing a comparison between religious ideologies and Italian laws that struck several chords with me.
As he explained, laws in Italy are rooted in discernment. While Americans will wait for several minutes at a red light at four in the morning with no other vehicles in sight, Italians in the same situation will press down on the gas pedal and run straight through. Religion, the speaker noted, is like Italian law. The trick is to understand the logic behind certain rules—such as stopping at a red light to let the other direction of traffic have a turn—and to decide whether or not the rule should be adhered to from one situation to the next. While I certainly do not suggest that we all start driving like the Italian lunatics who almost killed me as I biked the streets of Parma abroad, I am learning to embrace my relationship with God while making individual discernments based on my personal belief system.
Admittedly, the word “God” still throws me for a loop. As I type this, I find myself hovering over the shift button. Am I allowed to believe in the capital “G” God in spite of my remaining religious uncertainty? A part of me still feels as though the proper noun “God” is reserved for properly religious people, but these hesitations come from the same place that used to convince me to deny my beliefs entirely. I am deserving of my faith, whether or not I see God in the same light as everyone else.
My siblings and I, in our younger, more philosophical days, used to question the concept of color. What if your blue and my blue are completely different, so when we look at the sky we both know that the color is called blue, but you’re seeing my version of green? In many ways, this is how I choose to view my faith in God today. I may be using the same label to describe a completely different vision than that of my peers, but that doesn’t make a clear sky on a sunny day any less beautiful.
Mark Twain once advised against letting schooling get in the way of one's education. I spent many years letting religion get in the way of my faith, but reclaiming ownership as someone who believes in God has done more to heal my spiritual wounds than avoidance ever could.