“My dark days made me strong. Or maybe I already was strong and they made me prove it.” Emery Lord
Understanding God has been a lifelong quest. My beliefs about God and God’s role in my life has had a significant impact on my sense of psychological well-being. Ideas about God, spirituality and religion have also profoundly affected many of the individuals I have supported in my capacity, as a mental health clinician. For some understanding of and relationship to God, has brought comfort. For others distress. For me, both.
My early beliefs about God were a source of distress for me. As a child my understanding of God existed in the context of religion. The Roman Catholic religion to be precise. I was taught that God was an omnipotent, male entity. A trinity that included the father, the son and the holy spirit. When I would protest the notion of this male dominance and hierarchy, my mother would claim that the holy spirit was female. I struggled with the incongruence of a deity that was supposedly benevolent and loving but on the other hand was willing to subject one to hell for eternity if God’s rules were not obeyed. Guilt, fear and shame associated with these beliefs were used by my parents to influence my behaviour, growing up. From an early age, I felt forsaken by this God. If God was so loving and so powerful than why are so many people suffering? Why was I suffering? Why wasn’t I loved? Why me? Why does God show mercy for some and not for others? Why are we all required to live by the same rules when we aren’t afforded the same advantage and privilege? I felt both unloved and damned. Damned to spend a life in hell or at best purgatory. By the time I was a teen, I had rejected this notion of God. At first, I decided to be agnostic, I would neither believe nor disbelieve. Nevertheless, whenever I’d contemplate life, I couldn’t help but conclude that life must be influenced by some greater power. I continued to seek answers by exploring other religions. I was hoping to find a belief system with a God and doctrine that made sense to me. I eventually concluded that all religions are too exclusive for me. Despite my rejection of religion, I continued on my search for spiritual knowledge and growth.
When I turned 30, I reflected on my ability to overcome significant challenges from my childhood and youth that I had at one time considered insurmountable. Here I was with 2 amazing children, a successful career, my own home, and a great social life. I was in the best physical and psychological shape I had ever been. I continued my quest for God, but otherwise, I believed I had finally arrived. In fact, I was so confident in my resilience that I challenged life to hit me with it’s best shot. Did I ever regret having this thought.
On September 24, 1996, my beautiful daughter, Jasmine, 14, was shot in the head by a 17 year old male with a semi-automatic gun, in our home, in front of my then 8 year old son, Jordan. I was devastated. I felt as though I’d been plunged to the depths of hell. My world from that moment on was completely shattered. Once again I was confronted with images of that God from my youth. Fuck-you God. Now more than ever, I felt forsaken. I was lost, completely disconnected from everyone and everything. I no longer wanted to be of this world. I fantasized about ending my life.
My mom, out of desperation, wrote a letter to Mother (now Saint) Teresa. As a child, Mother Teresa, was one of the few Roman Catholic leaders that I felt connected to. I have no knowledge of the content of my mother’s letter, but to my surprise Mother Teresa replied to me.
Dear Karen Vanscoy,
God loves you, you are precious to Him. Be in His hands like a child who knows her limits and her frailty, but trusts in the Power of the Almighty Father; let Him take care of you. Sometimes He permits us to pass through the wilderness to make us feel stripped and in need of Him, rich with Him alone. The more you will allow Him to live in you and work through you, the greater things He will do through you for your family and for those around you. Let us pray for this. God Bless You.
When I first read this, I felt anger. How much wilderness and stripping do I need? I’ve had enough. I'm done.
Eventually, I realized that I could not end my life. I didn’t want to cause further harm to my son and I didn’t want to be a contributor to the violence that exists in this world. But how could I live the rest of my life with this level of pain. I prayed. I no longer believed in the God of my youth, but I did consider that there might be a higher power, something more than what I knew at that time. My prayers were answered when I discovered a small book on compassion. The essence of this book I found, was the idea that we can alleviate suffering by cultivating compassion, by cultivating love. This notion became a guiding compass for me. As I reflected on this, I realized that cultivating compassion or love can be applied to any creative process, whether the creation of health, relationships, community, art, gardening etc. I began to practise gratitude and focus on loving myself, others and what I do, as a strategy for healing. It was not long afterward that I had that aha moment. I finally found God when I realized that God is Love, pure and simple. I didn’t need a deity. I didn’t need a religion. I no longer needed a concept of God beyond Love. I realized that if I love, I can know God. It isn’t any more complicated than that.
I now understand Mother Teresa’s message to me. If I hadn’t experienced the darkness that engulfed my world, I might not have known God. I might not have known love. I might not have discovered that the way to know love is by loving. And for this, I am eternally grateful.
“God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” NLT, 1 John 4:16