Attending Mass with a boyfriend was new for me. Having a boyfriend also was new, as I had dismissed my last real boyfriend midway through the first semester of my freshman year. This current relationship had taken root not because of any great reformation on my part but simply due to my growing boredom with the campus party scene, from which our weekly dates – at real restaurants, complete with real conversations – relieved me.
Like nearly every man with whom I had been involved in the previous three years, this one was a nominal Catholic but practical atheist. On this particular night, he initially had agreed to attend Mass with me, then begged me to skip it and lounge on the couch with him instead. In the end he succeeded only in making me fifteen minutes late for a thirty-minute Mass.
There were no seats left by the time we stepped through Gesu's massive wooden doors, so we huddled in the back of the nave with the rest of the stragglers. As my boyfriend leaned in to whisper a wisecrack to me, I brushed him away and strained to see over the crowd and catch a glimpse of the altar. We had missed the Gospel reading, missed the priest's abbreviated homily, and now he was well into the Eucharistic prayer. Feeling flushed and irritable, I wondered how my once-ardent childhood faith had been reduced to this. Was there a connection between the malaise that had settled over my spiritual life and the nagging discontent I had first noticed on that window ledge?
It had been a year since I recognized that emptiness, and I still had no clue what to do about it. My feminist theory class had not helped. Nor had the series of cosmetic changes I had made recently: switching apartments and roommates, cultivating a more temperate group of friends and an older boyfriend, devoting more attention to my freelance writing career and an application for a Rhodes Scholarship and less attention to aerobics classes and barhopping. I had worked hard to get my life into better order, to make myself into the kind of woman who indulges her desires with discretion and never feels as lost and desolate as I did that October morning.
Still, I could not shake that aching feeling in the pit of my stomach. As I stood in the back of church that night, I realized that my lingering melancholy might be connected to the intimacy with God that I had abandoned shortly after arriving at college.
For more than three years, I had given God the scraps of my time and attention, put him last on my list of sources to turn to for answers and fulfillment. Now, after having chased my every whim and put everything and everyone before God, my spiritual life consisted of just that: scraps.
When Mass ended a few minutes later, I found myself caught up in the herd of students barreling down the church stairs and into the frigid night air. My boyfriend and I were halfway down the snow-lined block before I stopped and turned to him.
"I need to go back into church," I told him. "I left something behind."
"Okay," he said. "I'll go with you."
"No!" I snapped, a little louder than I intended. "Just go ahead. I'll catch up with you later."
His brow furrowed and I could feel him staring at me as I turned and began pushing through the crowd to get back inside. I probably looked crazy, and I didn't care. My eyes blurred with tears as I fought my way up the stairs, this time moving against the tide of surging bodies. When I finally cleared the crowd and stepped inside the empty, unlit nave, I did not quite know what to do. Feeling a mixture of anger and despair, I knelt in a nearby pew and let the darkness engulf me.
I lingered there for fifteen minutes, allowing myself to feel the full force of that hollowness I had been trying to paper over and outrun for more than a year. So this is it, I thought, as the tears ran down my cheeks. This is life without God. Something about the frank desperation of it all felt good. I was no longer sleepwalking. I finally felt awake.
Words slowly began to come, silent pleas from a soft, vulnerable voice I had not heard in years: "I want you, Lord. I want to know you. I know there's more to life than this. There's more to you than this. There must be. But you have to show me. I'm opening my eyes, finally, but you have to show yourself to me."
I paused, waiting for a thunderbolt or a warm wave of consolation. I got neither.
Minutes passed and my mind began to wander. I found myself thinking about my parents, about their various trials and tribulations through the years. They never had enough money; they were always struggling to make ends meet thanks to jobs in the charitable sector and with the church; and lately Dad had been acting particularly odd, forgetting things and driving Mom crazy around the house. Yet they were joyful together, full of laughter and love and confidence about the future despite their crises. They always seemed sure that God would care for their needs. And in the end, it seemed, he always did. I envied their deep-down, joyful peace. I wanted it for myself. I had experienced it throughout my childhood, but now it seemed to have disappeared. How could I get it back?
I thought of the spiritual disciplines I had seen my parents cultivate through the years: faithful attendance at daily Mass, daily contemplative prayer, and regular reading of scripture and spiritual books. I thought: I can do that. I will do that. I won't tell anyone, of course; I don't want anyone thinking I'm a religious nut. I'll seek God again after all these years, but I'll do it on my terms – in secret.
I waited in the silence for some divine confirmation of my resolution, but nothing came. So I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, stepped out of the pew, and shuffled down the church stairs for a second time. I strolled out into the black November night with no answers, no miracle solutions, none of the can-do energy that had spurred me on after my earlier experience on the window ledge. I felt nothing at all, aside from a vague sense of anticipation. I had opened the door to God. The next move was his.
Excerpted from chapter 1 , "Party Girl" of "My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir" by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Copyright © 2012 by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Image Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.