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23 January 2018
The Search And The Meaning
I have a friend who recently admitted to me that he is bewildered by his life, burdened by nagging depression and the absence of consolation, kept awake by doubts about himself and his value as a man, a father and a husband. He has slight evidence of God’s care for him, and no sense of God’s benevolence in his life. He rarely feels an emotional high any more. He is plagued with unruly skepticism and finds a yawning vacuum in his soul where Faith and Hope are meant to dwell.
His middle years are increasingly unsettling. His faith is now faint and fading, driven into a far, dark niche where he is too fatigued to go. Worst of all, he added, he has doubts about God’s very existence.
Then my friend asked what I thought about all this.
Time For Candor
Were I a younger man, less familiar with the weight and tenacity of such a spiritual quandary, I might have offered him a wan smile while I hemmed-and hawed, asking myself, “What can I possibly say to this man. How can I help this man?”
Truth be told, I am indeed familiar with his plight, as is every honest believer whose search for Faith is not glibly based on Sunday’s hymn-singing and whose Hope is not without price or test.
So, I responded candidly to my friend, admitting that I, too, have carried the same weary uncertainties often enough in my lengthy years. I told him I have had head-scratching bouts of doubt. And I told my friend that wrestling with the clouded side of my often-frustrated heart has also given me some soul-sustaining insights which I want him to consider.
I have, I told him, learned several personal truths. Here are a few, for starters.
- God does not act on our terms to meet our wants or soothe our wishes. Indeed, God seldom acts in ways we would dictate, were we in charge.
- So, obviously, God does not part the waves nor speak from burning bushes any longer. In real life, the drama of the miraculous has been replaced by the muted graces of the mundane.
- As a rule, therefore, I expect God to remain inconveniently secretive, without fanfare, rarely a’bubble with emotional consolation. But let us not miss the obvious, because His presence among us is downright obvious – if we look and then see – recognize - what is already at hand.
- The fact is that God chooses to reveal Himself everywhere we look. God reveals Himself everywhere in the details of creation and in the nuances of daily life. God is here, quietly, steadily, inherently embedded in us.
- When these truths are lost to us, whenever the weight of doubt and anxiety drags us down -- or we reject the obvious and lose our common sense, then it’s time to seek a trusted soul to talk to. The burdens of life are not meant to be carried alone. Relationships are essential.
- Our ego, our arrogance and our narcissistic romance with ourselves lure many of us into denial and avoidance. We justify our reliance on these barriers, and we avoid hard personal truths because we are, at heart, afraid of these truths, fearful of seeing the work we have to do.
- Thus, we stifle insight and reject personal wisdom. Thus, we flee from those virtues which are meant to speed us on to maturity. Thus, we establish barriers against our best interests.
- Spiritual maturity calls for humility of heart, generosity of spirit and the courage to face our needy selves and our errant egos.
The Freedom Of Uncertainty
Easy for me to say, I suppose. I am older; I have had time to hash out, kick around and weigh the evidence that God is active amongst us. I am old enough to realize that it is us, not God, who has work to do in this life.
Surely it is difficult for many people -- such as my wounded but healing friend -- to accept the reality that God speaks not with thunderous voice but in the routine, often discomforting, complexities of daily life.
God’s voice is not loud, but it is constant. We hear it in the sounds and movements of Nature. We hear it in the presence of others around us. And we hear God’s voice especially in the challenges - and consolations - of our relationship with life all around us, starting with our own lives, with the mystery of who we are, and how we are ... and what we are.
God is Mystery --- and so are we…. and it is the very mystery of life itself which must enliven our gratitude that we are alive to think and wonder and seek.
God is life itself. His language is so common and repetitive that we regularly miss the sameness of His presence. We miss the endearing rhythms of His routine revelations, the customary components of His ineffable, mysterious Life – a share of which He has given to us.
Sounds good … to a point … but to a teetering soul (or anyone else), these ideas beg to be explored.
A Look At The Kindly Unknown
One fact we often miss, I told my friend, is that God works in normal, often humdrum, ways. But these apparently normal ways are also radically ennobling and potentially consoling -- if we allow them to be, if we accept the inherent nobility of life and the power to choose virtue over despair.
We err when we assume that we -- precious bundles of joy that we are -- should always be immune from harsh experiences in life. We should not be touched by difficult, strenuous, painful, frightening events which are beyond our control. We should not suffer; indeed, a good God would not let anyone suffer.
Whatever wonderment we have about God’s ways, whatever doubts we may experience, whatever spiritual ennui or anxiety of soul we may undergo, whatever anger or rejection we may toss back at God in retaliation for His seeming indifference, our lives are never out of God’s Hands.
We may shout and pout. stomp and wail. God hears all and remains God, i.e., the Mystery who sustains us, despite our attempts to withdraw or alienate or dispel the very thought of His Being.
We may resent His failure to prevent pain and loss, may curse him and deny Him for His tolerance of evil … then say He does not exist and, in doing so, make ourselves feel better – but His Mystery prevails. He is God and we are His, still His.
Somehow -- in ways which are known only to God -- we are ever in His keeping, even when He is silent to us, even when we are plagued with doubt and burdened with mean, angry thoughts; even when the clouds of our weariness hover heavily and life is sprinkled with incessant travail; even when uncertainty and negativity prevail; even then, God is at hand. Even then, God is with us … and our lives are His and all the earth, His Creation, is His.
The Familiar Unknown
Then I reminded my friend that Mother Teresa, of all people, spent her entire adult life in precisely such a state of doubt as we undergo. Her "secret" was not her spiritual superiority or her conspicuous holiness. Her “secret” was her guts-it-out perseverance, her simple human tenacity, even when she was riddled for decades with the deepest doubts, even when she was burdened by doubts about God's existence.
Her perseverance took the form of rote Faith and she slowly matured within the routines of her daily life. She went tenaciously through the motions of prayer and endured the spiritual dryness of empty meditations for decades, all the while experiencing no consolation or uplift.
Why was tedious constancy and persistence so crucial for her? Why are these so crucial for us?
Because these routines of our lives are the stuff of reality for us. They are the ingredients of our lives. Honoring each moment, year after year, was Mother Teresa’s simple way of living out her commitment in her relationship with God ... and all the small but crucial details that such a commitment entails. And so must we live. So, too, is God with us.
A commitment to a relationship is most often a demanding act of the will, stretching over decades, testing our soul’s depth and our character and our sense of personal honor and dignity. Living our commitments defines us and ennobles our very life. It is the foundation of our identity.
Mother Teresa’s “secret” was really her commitment to love God and his suffering creatures as best she could – even if her Beloved God seemed fickle and elusive and hard to reach and distant and, at times, uncaring about those to whom He had given life. She persevered. She persevered in her attempts to love and attend to wounded souls in her daily life. She stayed the course -- and so must we.
She persevered. So must we.
Relationship Means Perseverance
Perseverance. This is what commitment means in a relationship: to stay with it, loving the Beloved as best we can, even when we feel like fleeing. We persevere; we pay the price which love always asks in the long run. We sustain our side of the relationship with God and His creatures as best we can, no matter what … even when others do not.
The good news is that our relationship with God has a true and constant basis beyond our weary selves.
God is the driving force in our relationship with Him, not us. Even when we doubt ourselves; even when we waver and are emotionally drained, God is constant and steady and trustworthy. His word is a given, His friendship constant. His relationship with us is unwavering, even when pain and isolation eclipse every other awareness.
How long do we put up with all this, especially when we are fearful and doubting? What does God expect? It sometimes eases our question to realize that Mother Teresa spent more than forty years to finally come to terms with this revelation, but only because she persevered.
Watch Out For Emotions
I told my friend that recurring feelings of alienation are not alien for us humans. Our insistent sense of emotional distance from God is not an indication that God is distant from us.
BUT ……………………. the inevitable tug-of-war between our thinking and our feelings is our weakest link, so let our Faith and our Hope be sustained by our reason, not by our emotions.
Believing, even when we are in doubt, is a choice of our will and intellect, not of how we feel.
Perseverance does not rely on feelings. It is a rational commitment which does not demand or rely on emotional consolation. It is a commitment which we make because it makes sense. Constancy is a deliberate choice, not a feeling.
Our best intentions can be side-tracked by our strong feelings of loss or absence or emptiness or need or fear or loneliness. Our internal dispositions often have to exist side-by-side with nagging doubt.
True, soothing feelings can be helpful. But when we rely too much on feelings, our fragile emotions can weaken our commitment when they falter, can bring us down, debilitate us, cast shadows over our choices, fog our clarity, create deeper doubt, sap our convictions, render us to self-pity, seduce us into victimhood. And the resulting doubt can delude us into thinking that how we now feel is who we are.
When feelings let us down and self-doubt absorbs us, our emotions can then undermine our resolve and cripple our willingness to trust God and persevere.
Perseverance tells us that no emotion is more powerful than commitment, no traits more essential for us than generosity of spirit and humility of heart. We will have doubts, but let no feeling of doubt ever overshadow our choice to uphold our portion of this friendship and persevere.
The Choice To Endure
To persevere is to choose to go forward and to endure. We may burn out badly enough to ask God to stop all this, to let us out of it, to call it a day and be done with it. But then, after expressing our weariness, let us add that single phrase which still rings for us through history: "Not my will, but thine be done."
Doubt and wonderment come naturally to human nature, but faith in God does not come naturally. Having Faith and Hope in God is an act of the will, a choice we make to persevere … even though clarity is missing. Simply put, perseverance is work; we have to work at it. But that is what life is for……
And I told my friend that the best lesson I have learned is this:
Any relationship which has authentic meaning will take us through periods of darkness and doubt and the pain of ambiguity and the wonderment of God's silence.
Nothing of lasting value in this life comes to us except through some measure of pain, except through some period of aloneness, except through some test of our mettle, except through some challenge to our fidelity, except through our dogged persistence, except through our perseverance.
A Final Notion.
Finally, I said to my friend, I hope all this makes sense to you. For some people, it makes no sense at all. They prefer temporary, too-soon dwindling, rewards which dedicated egotism offers.
But for those who are willing to accept periods of doubt while remaining open and patient with God and one’s self, a measure of understanding eventually dawns. Eventually, we begin to see what is not obvious: that perseverance is actually more sustaining than clarity when we pursue our friendship with the Mystery of God. We understand that the key is not what happens to us but how we manage our reactions and how we choose to respond. It is not the events in our lives which define us. We do. We make the difference and persevere in trust.
All persons have doubt -- but not all persons have the insight and courage to persevere, then to believe and trust in our Creator, and to accept the reality that doubt is part of our journey to God.
God's ways are surely not our ways, but we grow in our awareness of God’s closeness to us when we awaken to the fact that God does indeed lead us in Mystery -- but always and everywhere with a steady, knowing hand.
My friend and I are still talking about all this. We talk together with earnestness and candor … and, now, we also talk with smiles as well as doubts. And we agree that our dialogue and our relationship are what it’s all about ….. and we are grateful to be in each other’s lives.