I have heard many people who leave the church describe those first days of doubt as “the dark night of the soul.” So it was with me. Those were dark days when my reality began to crumble around me. At the time, I had just become pregnant with my fourth child. I was sick. It was winter–the longest of my life. I remember lying in bed for hours at a time sobbing as though someone had died. To tell the truth, I felt that I was the one dying and I was grieving my own death.
I loved everything about the church and it was everything to me. Every milestone of my life was intertwined with the church–from the day I was blessed as a baby, to my baptism, to my graduation to Young Women’s, to my college years at BYU, to serving a mission, to marrying in the temple, to giving birth to each of my children and my husband blessing them. My eight-year-old son had just been baptized and the “circle of life” was continuing with him. I had often said in the past that if I ever left the church I would lose 95% of my identity. I couldn’t imagine a life without the church, and I felt that by walking away, I was losing all the good things that had given form, beauty, and meaning to my life. I felt that I could not take them with me.
My greatest fear was raising my children without the gospel. What would I teach them? What music would we listen to now? What would we do on Sunday? Where would we find opportunities to serve others? Where could we find a place to nurture our spirituality–to find peace and consolation? How could we be good without the church?
In a way, I had the feeling that the church was the source of that goodness in my life, and that it held some copyright or ownership on that goodness.
You hear this sentiment expressed in testimony meeting all the time. “I’m so thankful for the gospel in my life. I can’t imagine what I would be without it.” Or better yet, “I’m sure I would be __________ without the church” (You fill in the blank with any number of vices–alcoholism, a life of crime, etc.)
At first I didn’t even try to imagine what I would do or be. I just felt empty and lost. My husband and I talked late into the night many nights trying to get a grasp on what we could be without the church. Slowly, as the initial grief and shock began to wear off, I began to lift up my head and look around me–at my nonmember friends and neighbors who I loved and respected for their good lives. I started calling them to pick their brains about what they did on Sunday, how they raised their kids, what they believed about the purpose of life. Slowly I began to realize that there might be a way for me not only to create new goodness in my life, but to take the goodness I already had with me.
Finally I listened to one of the Mormon Expression podcasts (which I highly recommend to help you make sense of things as you contemplate exiting the faith) that helped me work through those feelings of loss.
In this episode, John Larsen, the founder of Mormon Expression, shows how all those good things really weren’t the church’s to begin with. Everything that is good in the church can actually be traced back either to truths that are common to all great religions and philosophies, or simply to the goodness of the members themselves.
Many of us who begin to walk the lonely path away from the church wonder whether or not it’s possible to live a good life and to be happy without it. Somehow we are made to believe in the false dichotomy that we must either keep the goodness and spiritual power we felt there by staying, or else we must lose it if we walk away. The truth is that so much of the beauty of the church is because the people are beautiful. So much of the inspiration is because the people are inspiring. The church didn’t create that beautiful music that I loved. The people did. And I am good and spiritual and powerful whether in or out of the church.
With that realization, I have begun to reclaim what is mine. I choose to pray–not exactly in the way I had always been taught to pray, but I have made my prayers my own creations. I decided that I wanted my new baby to have a blessing–not in church, not by the supposed authority of the priesthood, but in our home, by my husband and me together, claiming power to bless by virtue of our love for our child.
We can create our own rites of passage. We can spend a day each week to rest and turn our minds to the things of greatest significance and sacredness in our lives. We can listen to beautiful music–even the hymns if you love them. After all, most of them are Christian hymns common to other Christian religions. We can find opportunities to serve. We can discover our own personal missions and live those missions out for the rest of our lives–not just for two years.
I have realized that the spiritual death that I feared so much really didn’t exist. Rather it was more like the death that the caterpillar experiences on its way to becoming a butterfly. Yes, I felt a deep emptiness in my life as I walked away. But I’ve found that the emptiness doesn’t last long. The vacuum is quickly filled with beauty and goodness that is more authentic, and more personal than what the church fed me. I’ve learned that I am the source of that goodness and it was in me all along.