By Teresa Attridge
I was born to an Irish Catholic father and a Filipina Catholic mother, which is the first and foremost reason for my having been raised intensely, indisputably Catholic. I was named after Patron Saint Teresa of Avila and baptized almost immediately after I was born. I grew up going to church twice a week – Catechism on Saturday and Mass on Sunday. I was the star of my Catechism class, having memorized the most prayers, songs, and bible passages, even amongst the older children. On my father’s side, I was only one of the two grandchildren who had committed themselves to the Church. On my mother’s side, though almost all of my cousins were Christians, I was the only Catholic grandchild. This made me feel special – in my opinion the most special – because it meant that I was the child who had to be the most blessed.
This idea was somewhat supported by the fact that my younger sister, Rosie, was diagnosed with Autism when she was two and I was three. For as long as I could remember, Rosie had been different than other children. She had minimally limited motor skills, couldn’t look people in the eye, and couldn’t do a lot of simple things by herself, like shower or dress herself or tie her shoes. She didn’t speak until she was four and had echolalia for the first few months that she began to talk. Even as a very young child, I understood how easily our lives could have been exchanged and how much more difficult it would be for her to navigate her way through the world. I made it my mission to be her protector and her voice.
It was difficult and trying, but my faith never waivered. I found God to be a great comfort when I would struggle with my sister. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” became a mantra I would often use to cope when things were difficult. Still, I constantly prayed that God would “fix” my sister the way that Jesus had helped heal the sick. I couldn’t help but feel that, with enough Faith, it could be possible. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her the way she was, but I was constantly battling with the rage that came from the growing awareness that my sister was treated differently. Other children made fun of her and adults gave her nasty looks and said horrible things about her to my mother, all on what seemed like a daily basis.
Those things didn’t happen at church. Rosie, my father, and I attended mass every Sunday. We sat in the front to the far left, right next to the side door, just in case Rosie got anxious so he could take her for a quick walk around the block. When he would take her out, I would say a quick prayer and thank God for putting her into a family that cared enough about her to bring her to church. I thought that, if we could show him that she had a good, Catholic heart underneath her Autism, he would be moved enough to make her better. For years, I prayed for her. We went to Mass every week and every week she and my father went out on their walk and I prayed.
Then, one weekend, we didn’t go to church at all. My father went alone. We didn’t go the week after, either. I didn’t even go to Catechism. This was an especially huge deal because I had been getting ready for my First Communion and I realized that something had to be very, very wrong. By the third week, I was finally able to ask my mother why my father had not been taking Rosie and me to church. Always a practical, no nonsense woman, she told me in the most delicate but honest way she could:
“Father Rodey told us that Rosie isn’t allowed at Church anymore. He says her Autism is a punishment from God so she doesn’t belong in His house.”
I was blindsided. I was enraged. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Autism a punishment? How could my sister, the person I loved most in this world, have been cast out by the God I had counted on to save her?
Understand, I was young; I wasn’t even eight years old. To me, God and the Church were one. The Priest was his voice on Earth, the church his mortal dwelling. That is what I had been taught. So, if our priest said that Rosie wasn’t allowed to know God, then I refused to know Him. I took all my Bible stories and children’s books and put them in the back on the bottom shelves of my bookcases. I boxed up my rosaries. I vowed I would never, ever go back.
My father, of course, had other plans. A few weeks later I was back in Catechism, but I was nowhere near the bright, engaged Bible student I had been. I was angry, lashing out at the other kids. I outright refused to go to Confession if I had to speak to Father Rodey, going as far as to start screaming in the church until they agreed to let me speak to another priest. I haven’t been to Confession since. When I was dragged back to church by my father we would both sit in our pew and glare at the priest; my father out of sheer defiance, myself with unadulterated hatred.
After my First Communion, I gradually stopped going to church and my parents were less inclined to force me to go. I had made up my mind to hate God forever. I never told my parents this, but I think they understood the immense pain I felt having finally reached the age where I began to realize there would be no cure. Once the glitter of hope through faith was gone, I started to see that Rosie was always going to be Rosie. She would never be able to play with me the way other children played together. When we got older she would never learn to drive or live on her own. I would never have nieces or nephews. I had to mourn the things that Rosie and I would never share and the person that she would never be. I blamed God for these things. I directed all my hatred towards him.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that this hatred was proof that I still believed. Whenever I said that He wasn’t real and that I didn’t believe in Him, I would feel His Presence all the more acutely. When Rosie reached new milestones I would have to bite my tongue not to thank Him. When I was sorrowful and tried to avoid the comfort of His Love, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was still someone looking out for me. I ran and He remained. It seemed that the more I tried to avoid God, the more I felt Him there. I was immensely frustrated with my failed attempts at Atheism. If God didn’t exist, why was I still so mad at him?
Years later, I was back in Catechism, though the choice was not exactly my own. My father, who had been attending Mass alone for the most part the past six years, had enrolled me once again in order for me to complete my Confirmation, what was essentially my adult commitment to Catholicism. I was livid, but there was no tangible way out. My father’s determination to have a Catholic Child outweighed any sort of protest I could have made. So I went. I studied. I was still, after six years, the top of my class. I engaged in more challenging discussions about what it meant to be a member of the Church. Even then I knew I would not find the same comfort I once found within walls though, from time to time, I will wander into a church to reminisce on other things from the past I’ve outgrown. When the time came for Confirmation, I decided wholeheartedly I wanted to renew my relationship with God. The Patron Saint I chose was Saint Maria, the Patron Saint of Purity and Chastity, to represent this new beginning.
I began to feel less angry as I reexamined my relationship with God, realizing that the act of one man couldn’t and shouldn’t overshadow the many Acts of Love I had felt and given through Christ. Through finally being in a place where I had to ask tough questions I grew to understand the definition of faith. My ethics teacher once said, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is certainty.” I needed to doubt God in order to understand what it meant to truly be a person of faith. I had to deny, defy, and reject that which had always been a part of me in order to understand that God was not just an idea that I had been fed since childhood or an unquestionable fact that I could not dispute. He had always been there, quietly and supportively awaiting my return, and I did. I’m sure, now, I always will.
Teresa Attridge is an actor, singer, and SJW currently living in San Francisco. If she were a pasta shape, she would be farfalle. Her favorite room in her home is her kitchen. Her spirit animal is a duck.