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Finding Forgiveness In A Church-Free World

03/18/2015 08:34 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

My husband and I were in Montreal, at the Notre-Dame Basilica, when I realized how much I needed forgiveness in my life.

The church was spectacular, golden and regal in a way that filled me with awe--though for what, I could not say. We'd taken a tour and I was so entranced, we returned the next day for mass. In front, a priest intoned prayers in French. We found a pew about halfway up the aisle and I turned to whisper to John--my husband of seven years--then watched in disbelief as he genuflected and crossed himself.

I had known, vaguely, that he grew up Catholic. But I'd never understood what that meant. I had a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. My mother, age 78, still goes to church every Sunday. My father, now 79, remains part of a large group of secularized, intellectual Jews. But because they could not agree on how to raise my sister and me, they sanitized our childhood--giving us no religious upbringing at all.

After a service that was austere yet strangely comforting, we walked back through the frigid air to our room. There we opened a bottle, listened to Leonard Cohen, and talked long into the night.

John told me about his parents, about the way he and his five siblings lined up at church. He talked about confession, how he worried that he didn't have enough to say when it was his turn, how admitted his youthful transgressions and thoughts.

Of course I'd seen movies in which mafioso dragged their bloodied bodies into a booth to confess. What fascinated me was the idea--new to me--that you could cleanse yourself of more mundane guilt. I had plenty of that. I was at this point 45 years old, stewing in my middle years, looking back. And I craved absolution more than anything in the world.

"A couple of years before I'd begun waking up at night, reliving mistakes and bad acts.""You mean," I asked, "there's a place where you can go and confess anything, no matter how small? You can just hand your guilt over to someone and get forgiveness in return?"

He nodded and I drank silently, contemplating the wonder of such a thing: some mythical world where I could lay all of my regrets and wrongdoing down.

A couple of years before I'd begun waking up at night, reliving mistakes and bad acts. I was haunted by the fact that all of these things were in the past and irretrievable. There was no way to go back and make them right.

What was I fretting over? Start with my first marriage: 12 hard years that went sour at the end. We tried, both of us, but it was a bad match. There were terrible fights and cruelties. The children were witness to way too much of it. So yes, start with that.

Then there was my oldest child, born in 1988 when I was just 21. A magnificent baby: strong, bright-eyed and advanced. He talked early, he walked early. It's no wonder the doctor we consulted when he stopped speaking at three assumed that we'd shaken him or hit him in the head.

There were years of theories as our son sank into a fugue; most of them had to do with something I had done wrong. We pursued ridiculous, expensive, sometimes painful cures. And if you think all of the guilt disappeared when our son was diagnosed with autism, you're wrong.

I could go on and on. The times I lost my temper. The way I focused on my child with special needs to the detriment of the other two. The friends I lost to carelessness. The people I ignored, misjudged or hurt. By 45, I'd built up literally half a lifetime worth of errors and regret. Yet there was no answer to my late-night remorse.

When I mentioned this to an older friend, she nodded. "It starts around your age," she said. "The ticking clock. You catalog all those things you can't take back."

I started talking to people 45-plus, asking them how they dealt with the regret of middle age. I expected a variety of experiences but instead my subjects divided neatly. There were those like my friend and me who admitted to a roiling sense of wrongness, panic that they couldn't roll back time and correct their mistakes. To a person, we suffered from insomnia and random melancholy. We dabbled in yoga, talk therapy, St. John's Wort. Nothing helped.

The others--equally intelligent, flawed and thoughtful people--had religion. It didn't seem to matter which kind. Some had practiced all their lives, others had only recently rediscovered it. But they had some organizing principle for their lives and their problems and even for their own behavior. Everything happens for a reason. God made human beings imperfect. Jesus Christ died for my sins. Each one is a ticket to serenity. They own something that I, raised with no religion, do not.

Last winter, an Episcopal deacon I know posted this on her Facebook page:

There are times I get called to do a funeral, visit a hospital or intervene in a crisis for people I don't know. They call because they don't know who else to call. The church-free lives they've constructed don't offer the kind of resources they need to navigate the death of a child, the loss of a job or the break-up of a marriage.

She linked to an article about church finances and a movement among clergy to refuse help to people who are not of their faith.

I reacted strongly. This tapped into all the unfairness I'd uncovered in my survey of the middle-aged. Those of us raised without religion were at a huge disadvantage--socially, psychologically, spiritually. (Also, it turned out, if we happened to suffer some heinous tragedy, such as the death of a child.)

It's an unfortunate byproduct of liberalness and freedom to marry. There's a large swath of Gen X'ers walking the world with no formula for life. According to the deacon's post, we have "constructed" our church-free existence--as if we had something precious but carelessly lost it along the way. I say we never had it at all.

"People assume that religion is something you can shop for and pick up. But that's rarely the way it works."

To her credit, when I commented (angrily) pointing out that some of us were raised with-out religion and have no basis through which to construct one, she agreed.

People assume that religion is something you can shop for and pick up. Take the classes, convert, devote yourself to faith. But that's rarely the way it works. Nearly everyone I know with religion either inherited or married into it. I've seen dozens of people live "church-free" lives then discover a spiritual path when the middle-of-the-night memories kick in. But everyone I know who's done it returns to the religion of their youth.

Some of us have nothing to return to. We try on different faiths as if they're someone else's clothes--too short, too gaudy, pretty but ill-fitting. We read books, we go to art museums and look at 400 portraits of Jesus, we sit in churches in foreign cities, listening to the service in a different language, yearning to be a part of something but knowing we never will.

So how do we lost souls seek forgiveness or solace, without the benefit of faith? Here's what I've decided: There are certain generous, spiritual people in this world who will extend a hand and hold on to us, linking us to theirs.

I'd actually begun writing a book about just such a person--an errant priest based on the one I heard in Montreal--when, almost magically, it happened to me in real life. In my novel, the priest from Notre-Dame had left the church in disgust but continued hearing people's confessions, offering them absolution, eventually developing an enterprise that provided spiritual cleansing to the non-church-going set.

For me, it was a former opera singer--a woman who'd seen drama and hard times of her own--who appeared during a terrible stretch in my life. One of my children was in trouble, addicted to a drug that was killing him, and I was powerless to help. One long night I sat with this woman whose belief was so pure and deeply rooted, she shone.

"This is not your fault," she told me. "I can't tell you why it's happening. But you're going to live through it, and so is your child. There is hope, I promise. You just can't see it now."

I shook my head, looking at her through tears, and she reached out to touch me. "I know you don't have faith," she said, "but I do. Here. I'm giving you mine."

Ann Bauer is the author of the new novel, Forgiveness 4 You.

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