Death and wanting to believe

It’s a funny thing: I no longer try to convince myself to be Catholic or Christian and am finally honest with myself about my uncertainty. But I still feel like I’m missing out on something big.

One of the biggest reasons I wish I could believe is because the Christian view of death seems so comforting. The Catholic view is even more so because it has Purgatory as the way you can still eventually get to heaven if you tried but screwed up. It’s the soft gray landing pad in contrast to the stark binary black-and-white, heaven or hell of evangelicalism.

My husband’s grandmother just died a couple days ago, and she was one of my favorite people in the whole world. I was closer to her than I was to any of my own grandparents. Nobody ever had a bad thing to say about her, which in my view is a sign of a life well-lived.

Everyone’s saying she’s with Jesus now and I wish I could believe that. If I’m honest about what I truly believe, I believe she’s at eternal peace. But I wish I could believe there was an afterlife. I’m eternally agnostic at heart; I just don’t feel like we can really know what happens after we die. No matter how many apologetics or Bible verses I read that offer supposed proof, I’m still left with doubt and skepticism.

I don’t feel like it’s a waste for people who to live their lives according to what they believe about faith. Even if it turns out there’s no afterlife where we’re with Jesus, it seems that having the belief system brings peace in this life to those who believe. As long as people aren’t using their beliefs to oppress others, I see nothing wrong with having them. It seems like it could be a good thing.

But it’s lonely out here in the land where everything is unknown. And there is no comfort when you think about death, not really. Yet I can’t bring myself to believe. I have really tried. I’ve tried being Catholic, I’ve tried being evangelical, and I could only believe up to a point. That point which hangs me up is always about heaven and hell and that we earn our place in either based on what we believed while we were alive. But what if you just can’t believe?

I know this may sound offensive to devout Christians and I don’t intend it that way at all, but I feel like my efforts to believe are like trying to talk myself into believing in an imaginary friend. I feel like I’m lacking some essential gene that allows me to believe.

I wish I had the certainty that other people do, the sense of deep conviction. Without it, the efforts feel pointless. I want to believe, I really do. But it also feels intellectually dishonest to try to continually talk myself into belief and that feels worse.

Of course, this all has even more weight in light of my husband’s cancer. He has made peace with his own death, but I haven’t. I’m not ready for him to be gone, not even if it’s in 10 or 20 years. Because he believes the Catholic faith is the truth, he has all kinds of reassurances for himself and others. He does partial and full indulgences to try to shorten his time in purgatory. Now he offers indulgences and Mass for his grandmother’s soul.

Yet for me, trying to understand this and adopt it myself is like trying to think in another language. I don’t think I can even put into words how impossible it seems for me to believe.

My very devout Catholic friend, the one who sponsored my kids when we went through the conversion process as a family, posted something interesting on Facebook about marriage. She shared a quote from Fr. John Riccardo that said (paraphrasing from memory) that at the end of your life, you should look at your spouse and see that they showed you God.

And that’s the weird thing: for whatever doubts I have, I feel like my husband has shown me an image of what I think God would be like. Kind. Selfless. Forgiving. Choosing to see the best in people, including me.

My husband also said yesterday that Catholics know about death. I know this is true; the concept of “memento mori” is all about living with an awareness of your own death. Yet I also think about all the saints whose stories I know and how many of them died young. And dammit, he’s as good of a candidate for sainthood as anyone I’ve met in my life, yet I don’t want him to be taken from me. The world needs him around for longer more than it needs me. It feels deeply unfair.

If by some chance, I come to truly believe as a result of his death, it doesn’t feel like a good trade-off. I’d rather have him here. But God or the universe or life in general doesn’t guarantee that good people won’t die young, no matter how loved they are.

I hope there’s a heaven and that God will take mercy on me for wanting and trying to believe. I hope I’ll find some way of making peace with death. Being uncertain is a cold and lonely way to be.

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