You would never expect that a school uniform, choir practice and a weekly Wednesday mass were all once huge parts of my life. But sure enough, for eight straight years my routine was comprised of just that. Suffice to say, a lot of things have changed since then — including my belief system. And even though I haven’t sung a hymn (or worn a quilted skirt) since 2008, my strict Catholic upbringing shaped a large part of who I am today.
It’s hard to imagine that the pious little girl sitting in those pews, anxiously awaiting each week’s Eucharist, is now the same woman who hasn’t believed in a higher power for almost ten years.
I used to be incredibly religious, inside and out. I respected the Catholic Church and constantly felt secure growing up in God’s presence. I vividly remember what it felt like to feel connected to someone taking care of you, watching over and protecting you — it’s something I’ve tried to force myself to feel again, but it’s a sensation I doubt I’ll ever understand in the same way.
During my time in Catholic school, each week, we would all congregate in the church next to my school. Ash Wednesday was no exception. It marked the beginning of Lent; the 40-day period where Jesus fasted in the desert before facing his crucifixion. We were all told to give up something that we really loved, and as soon as the priest drew little ash crosses on our foreheads, our self-discipline marathon began. I was (and am) a naturally lazy person, but still wanted to show my love for God, so when asked what I was giving up, I would sheepishly name items I didn’t have much of a penchant for anyway. Sure, I didn’t mind giving up hot dogs (I don’t eat pork) or Sour Patch Kids (I’ve always hated sour candy). It was a loophole in the system, and I, clever as I was, thought I had cracked it.
After my eight-year stint at Corpus Christi Elementary, I transitioned into a new spiritual phase in my life: not having one. My mother used to say that religion usually has two different outcomes on people; it either sticks, or it rubs off like Teflon.
Ironically, my disillusion with the church came during the time of Lent. I remember thinking how ingenuous it was to give up a luxury in the name of God, when the act itself didn’t do much for the greater good. Does giving up chocolate for a month really help eradicate world hunger or impact anyone else’s life in a positive way?
Once I lost that connection to God and the church, it felt like I lost a very important piece of myself. Not only did I lose the comfort religion gave me, I soon realized my entire calendar needed to be reworked.
Do I still celebrate Easter believing that the story of the Resurrection probably evolved from an ancient game of “Telephone?” I soon became the non-stick pan my mom predicted, and I gave up every religious practice in the book. I didn’t hang up a nativity scene during Christmas, Easter became solely about egg hunting, and I definitely wasn’t about to give up anything I “loved” for six weeks anymore… in the name of the Lord.
However, as time went by, the intense rejection of my childhood institution wore off over the next couple of years. When I entered adulthood, I shed my resentment and the last of my Catholic-induced guilt, and began appreciating the church for what it gave me — an opportunity to develop a new perspective on spirituality. For someone who prided myself on being an iconoclast for the duration of my formative years, it surprised many that I actually did adopt back a few practices from my Catholic education.
I used to think there were only two ways to look at life: writing everything off as meaningless entropy or living your life believing in a grand design. At this point of my life, I can say I’ve blended the two trains of thought and adopted a general sense of wonder when it comes to a grand plan — but nothing to the extent of worshipping an altar.
I then re-evaluated my complicated relationship with Lent and began to understand its intrinsic benefit. Perhaps the way I was doing it as a kid was defeating the purpose; maybe giving up an unhealthy habit or luxury could actually be a useful exercise and contribute to my self-discipline and growth.
So, even though I walked away from Catholicism, I tried participating in Lent as a well-intentioned non-believer.
The chocolate gimmick not quite inspiring my confidence, I asked myself, What if I used this practice to actually make a small difference in the grand scheme of things?
I decided to focus on a way I could blend my health and wellness with an impactful deed. The month before lent started, I calculated the monthly costs of my trips to bars and liquor stores. I decided to set aside that money, donate it to a no-kill shelter at the beginning of the month, and (now with those funds gone), I had no choice but to give up alcohol for six weeks. Not only did I feel much healthier, I felt like I was making up for the years I cheated my way through the system.
Even though I’m using a religious observance to embark on a challenge, I don’t want to compare this to something of a New Year’s Resolution. With most New Year’s promises, people flock to purchase short-lived gym memberships and vow to get a certain amount of daily steps in, everyday/365, but I found that focusing on one specific thing to give up for a small amount of time proves much more effective. Rather than an entire year, why not try 40 days — just enough time to, perhaps, form a habit?
Today, Lent doesn’t have the same significance for me that it once did, but I found this practice to encourage a healthy level of discipline once a year. We all have unhealthy vices, and at least a hard look at them is the first step in our ongoing improvement, religious or not.
Sonia Gumuchian is a writer based in Los Angeles. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, she received her film degree from the USC School of Cinematic Arts and has been working in the TV industry for several years. Sonia recently worked at ABC Studios and HBO, where she learned the ropes of creative development. Additionally, her work has been showcased at film festivals in the UK, the US, and Canada. Earlier this year, one of Sonia’s original pilots won an award at the London Filmmaker Festival. Her entertainment articles have also been featured in USC Annenberg Media and Neon Tommy.