8 minute read

Hotel For Saints




Weary from her travels and in desperate need of good fortune, a young woman checks into her hotel for saints and patiently awaits her Great Awakening.

I’d never anticipated spending the majority of my summer vacation in a confessional. And yet here I was, trying to scrub my soul clean before a man I’d never met.

“A variety of emotions can lead us to sin,” the priest warned me, his stare poignant through a pair of thick glasses. “Anger, boredom. Even extreme happiness. It is our responsibility to act on our emotions in a way that best aligns with God’s commandments. Remember that.”

As I sank my weight into the church’s heavy doors and stepped out into the July sun, I lifted my face towards the sky and waited for the relief to kick in. I had been to almost every Catholic Church in the Austin area that summer, disclosing embarrassing parts of my life to different priests who didn’t know a thing about me. Hoping their pardons would be enough to turn me back into the confident Catholic I once was. I took their instructions seriously — recite these prayers daily. Sit at the foot of the cross. (Whatever that means.) Know the emotions that lead you to sin and do your best not to act on them.

I bent down on the pavement and buried my face between my knees, trying to feign the peace that so many other Catholics had assured me I’d feel after being forgiven of my sins. Feel better, I ordered myself between breaths, pushing down the pressure beginning to rise behind my ribs. Feel better already.

Some people grow addicted to the way a glass of spirits or a poorly-rolled joint takes the edge off their most neglected of wounds. I grew addicted to the clean slate I was promised every time I confessed my sins. And the obsession was pulling me under.

Two Summers Ago

“He’s going to be fine, Jackie,” my boyfriend told me for the tenth time that night, studying my troubled expression over the video call. “I’ll even ask my family to pray for you.”

“Please, you don’t have to do that,” I reassured him. While I appreciated the sentiment, the idea of my boyfriend’s family phoning God about my father’s illness felt invasive. “Can’t we just watch a movie instead?”

It had been two days since my father’s hospitalization, and in the few hours I’d attempted to sleep, I feared waking up to a world in which he wasn’t alive anymore. I kept my phone two inches away from my face in constant anticipation of bad news. I tried to sit with the agonizing pressure that had taken permanent residence inside my chest. Eventually, I resorted to cleaning the house — scrubbing disinfectant into my father’s empty couch and wiping the pill bottles strewn across our dining room table. Ibuprofen for fevers, an antiemetic for nausea…

He’s going to be fine, Jackie.

I heard some iteration of those words all the time now — from family friends who were kind enough to drop off groceries at our doorstep, from the deacons who prayed rosaries with me over the phone. But whenever I made eye contact with the figurines of Santo Niño and the Blessed Virgin Mary on our mantle top, I found not comfort in their porcelain faces, but more instructions.

Keep praying. Have faith. Allow God to use your suffering for good.

I didn’t want to do any of those things. All I wanted was to sit in the passenger seat of

my dad’s old Nissan and listen to Carole King sing to us over the summer heat, back when Judgment Day was but a point in the distant future that would never, ever draw near to us.

“I don’t know if I like being Catholic anymore,” I admitted to my boyfriend later that year, after my father had made a slow and shaky recovery. We were sitting beneath a blanket of stars, the campus street lights illuminating the anguish on my face. “I don’t want to believe in a God that uses my dad’s suffering for some kind of greater plan.”

I didn’t know what I was expecting of him — a nod of understanding, a hug perhaps. Instead, he drew back from me with a cautious expression in his eyes.

“What?” I asked. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Sorry, I just…didn’t know you felt that way.”

He proceeded to offer me advice, all of which I tried using against the religious resentment that had infected me over the past year. But his proverbial words only frustrated me to the point of tears. My first boyfriend — who had stayed by my side throughout the entire summer — had grown determined to cure me of my emotions when all I wanted was to be held among them. I don’t blame him. If anything, I’m still silently apologizing for my depressive phone calls, frequent outbursts, and complete inability to communicate to him what I needed.

My father had lived, and I was grateful. Though I was fairly certain a part of me died in that house.

One Summer Ago

I slouched further into my pew, twitching nervously as the lips of unmasked faces sang the words to a hymn I’d never heard before. The organ’s dissonant notes clamored in my brain like spare change in a pocket, and a phlegm-filled cough escaped the lips of a man sitting directly behind me.

Thirty more minutes, I promised myself, pleading for the clock to revolve faster. Just get through these next thirty minutes. That’s two sets of fifteen minutes, three sets of ten…

Four months single and plagued by the guilt of having hated my religion, I was determined to reclaim my Catholic faith and live it boldly. I did everything my campus ministry suggested I do — I registered for weekend retreats; I attended Bible study on Tuesdays. I spent my evenings reading the blogs of Catholic mothers trying to perfect their Natural Family Planning calendar while raising six kids. I had convinced myself that the only way to heal from my hellish summer was to drown my sorrows in Catholicism and never look back.

But the more I enmeshed myself into Catholic culture, the more my brain seemed to reject it. I was still wholly incapable of attending mass without the blinding anger of my father’s illness. What more, I spent the entire hour not praying, but extinguishing the

questions that ran rampant through my mind.

Why aren’t women allowed to be altar servers at this church? Who do I listen to — my priest or my professor? Are biblical translations even accurate?

I craved space for doubt — for my growing anxiety towards the mass and the ideological tug-of-war it initiated in my head. I craved conversations with people who didn’t believe that sex, swearing, or skipping church on Sundays would stain my soul until I went to confession. The fact that I craved these things in the first place made the angel on my shoulder weep.

Heretic, she chided me over the organ’s ear-splitting cries. You can’t just cherry-pick what you want to believe. Stupid, naive girl.

Perhaps it was the man coughing up a storm over my shoulder or the young mother two rows ahead of me, wrestling her army of noisy kids into a neat little line. But I stood up from my seat 25 minutes early, the rotting pressure in my chest now spreading to my hands as I searched for the nearest exit.

Present Day

There’s a phrase in Catholic writing that goes, “The Church is not a hotel for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”

As much as I would like to proclaim that these words have changed my life for the better, I can’t help but admit I have difficulty believing in them. From my compulsive confessions to the all-nighters I’ve spent trying to appease my spiritual anxieties, I’ve grown tired striking the match of my Catholic religion against my heart, hoping that it will catch flame.

Still, I like to believe I’m intuitive enough to recognize God in the people around me. My childhood best friend, who reassured me that my feelings were valid over bowls of pho and bright pink tarot cards. My college roommate, who gave thoughtful answers to my existential questions over the kitchen counter at four in the morning. A stranger in the middle of a San Francisco hotel lobby, whose crude sense of humor made me belly-laugh for the first time in months.

I’m still not completely comfortable going to church or participating in other religious activities, but I’ve taken gentle steps towards managing my scrupulousness. I talk to a therapist every other week; I take dance classes in my free time. I resist the temptation to believe that God only exists in traditionally religious spaces — and I am learning to seek Him in healthier ways.

I may have checked out of my hotel for saints, but I’ve embarked on a journey far greater. Where I’m headed, only time will tell. ■