I was raised Catholic. Although I'm not any more, I was very religious as a child. I couldn't imagine ever not being Catholic. In fact, one of the biggest shocks I can remember is when I found out that my best friend's father "used to be" a Catholic. I didn't believe that such a thing was possible. The vision of this man burning in hell was one of the most vivid images I've ever dreamed up.
In my childhood I was devoted to the church and comforted by its rituals and assurances. My grandfather died when I was eight, and I needed to know that he was both safe in heaven and still with me, and that I would see him again.
When I lost my faith, it happened suddenly, but the realization within me was a much longer process. I had been an altar boy since sixth grade, and at one time I let myself believe that I would become a priest. When I went away to college, one of my concerns was to find a church I could attend. I went to mass there exactly once, my first weekend away from home and family. I was never a regular churchgoer again, although for most of my freshman year I would go to mass whenever I went home on a school break.
That next summer, when I could once again go to mass every Sunday, was when it dawned on me that I no longer wanted to. It was that first month or so away, when I was in the first flush of learning new things never before dreamt of, that religion lost its urgency for me, and by that summer it no longer mattered at all. There was no sense of loss, then. I was a newly-minted humanist, believer in the innate goodness of the human spirit, defender of the weak, fighter for freedom and justice.
The trappings of the old world, the solemn incantations and candles in the shadows, all of this now symbolized the strictures and boundaries that I came to view as an artificial imposition of the will of the old. My world was now young, expanding, limitless. There was no place in it for a canon that said no to the freedom I so lustily embraced.
It wasn't an easy break. The habit of belief held me still, at times anyway. I still prayed, but I could no longer see the face of the God I prayed to, and I no longer heard his answers or felt his presence. Over time the old ties withered and habits were broken. But although the faith was gone, I missed the ritual, until even more time erased that need.
This was not a sad story, because I felt liberated from what I considered the rote orthodoxy of the church. As more time passed, though, and I met people comforted by their own belief and secure in their place in the world as defined by that belief, there was an occasional twinge of regret that I could no longer share such fellowship.
If I miss anything about the church now, it's probably the routine of having a sizable portion of my life planned out for me, and knowing that I would be in familiar surroundings with like-minded people for a few hours each week. It's this that I sometimes miss, not the belief itself.