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The Hard, Healing Experience of Faith

David Brooks today: [1]

Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is complex and arduous: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”

This column resonated with me after this intense experience of writing my Dante book. As I wrote it, I was surprised to discover that the particularly religious aspect of my pilgrimage out of sickness and depression — that is, the role that prayer, confession, and liturgy played in the process — was more important than I had thought (and I knew it was pretty important). And it wasn’t just any religion: it was Orthodox Christianity, with its intense focus on the necessity to do hard inner spiritual work on repentance. And it wasn’t just any Orthodox parish: it was ours, pastored by Father Matthew, a tough-love priest who is compassionate, but who doesn’t let that compassion get in the way of compelling his parishioners to own up to and face down their sins.

He does this, I think, because he was once a police officer, and every day went out on the front lines of sin — that is, where sin leads. After seven years, he burned out. Couldn’t handle it — the violence, the injustice, the constant anger he had inside. He told me that he would stand at the liturgy and cry his eyes out during that time — and if you know Father Matthew, you know he’s a tough guy; the thought of him crying his eyes out is shocking. But that’s how broken he was. He told me that his priest, Father Seraphim Bell, gave him the only thing that saved him: the uncompromised and uncompromising Orthodox faith. Father Matthew said that his priest and the congregation loved him back to wellness, but that Father Seraphim would not let him fall back on self-pity, and hold on to his anger. And that was what finally broke the hold the darkness of his police work experience had over him.

Father Matthew gave the same to me, and partly because of that, I am well. I still have a long way to go. Editing this book revealed to me how much lingering anger I had over all the events leading to my sickness. Seeing it so shockingly manifest in my manuscript was a spur to repentance. I had not realized it was there. I am repenting of it now, and will take it to confession this weekend. But if I still retain that much anger within me, it staggers me to think about how much was inside before, such that the stress of it compromised my body’s autoimmune system, and let chronic illness take over. You’ll see in the book how, during the process of reading Dante, both my reading of the book, and the insights it provided me into my family’s actions and my own way of thinking, worked with Father Matthew (and my therapist Mike) to force me to confront the sin within myself, and overcome it.

In a sermon not long ago, Father Matthew repeated one of his frequent themes: that all of us have to “go into the deep” of our hearts, searching for shipwrecks on the bottom, and lifting them up so God can take them away. That is hard work, and scary work. I think of myself as an introspective person by nature, but I had so much farther than I possibly imagined to go into the dark recesses of my own heart to haul out the wreckage. Yet if I had not done this, if I had not been compelled to do this by circumstance and by a priest who takes his role of pastor and healer of spiritual disease seriously, I would still be sick.

My physical illness was, in a way, a manifestation of my spiritual disease. The chronic Epstein-Barr infection (mononucleosis) was no figment of my imagination. But it remained active because my inner spiritual, emotional, and psychological condition was so filled with turmoil and wrath that my body couldn’t handle it. Above all, Dante showed me that all of this came from my profound tendency to make and worship idols, something I had not realized about myself.

Earlier in my life, before I became Catholic, I did it with women, and thought wrongly that romantic love would be my salvation. Later, I did it with the Catholic Church, which is why so many of my Catholic friends withstood the scandal, but I did not. And all my life, I have done it with my family and the place we’re from, which are incarnated in my dad. I had long assumed, without knowing that I had done this, that if ever I was able to return to Louisiana and live in my hometown, I would feel at home in the world. This is how I was raised: in a family that believed family was everything. I believed it too.

Well, they were wrong and I was wrong, and it took coming home and being confronted by some harsh realities — e.g., that my sainted sister had privately raised her children to dislike and distrust me, in part because I had moved away, and that the family reunion I expected was never going to happen — for me to deal with something within myself that I had never grasped, much less understood.

Dante unmasked this. The Commedia is about going on a journey of self-discovery and searching out all the things that separate you from God. Specifically, it is about discovering how your attitude to these things — loving them in the wrong way (too much or not enough) separates you from God. It is about re-ordering yourself to see these things as icons, not idols. The difference is that an icon is a thing that leads you to deeper contact with the transcendent, with God; an idol is a thing that refers only to itself. Anything, even good things like family and the Church, can become idols if we relate to them in the wrong way. Learning this principle and seeing how it applied to myself was the essence of Dante’s gift to me.

The gift that both my therapist Mike Holmes and Father Matthew gave me were the tools for re-ordering myself internally to be in greater harmony with the will of our God, who is Love. Mike is a Christian too, and both men worked on me and with me from within a Christian paradigm of healing. In the case of Father Matthew, my confessor, his pushing me hard on the relationship between love and justice forced me to deal with the core of my conflict. I don’t want to give too much of the book away, so I won’t say more about that here.

What I want to say is this. My own experience with my physical, psychological, and spiritual disease, and my healing from all of it — a healing that spiritually, is still ongoing, and will be for the rest of my life — has confirmed my opinion that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is quack religion. It’s like a doctor who gives the sick sugar pills because they taste good. My priest did not batter me with fire-and-brimstone religion at all, but he insisted, in his quiet, serious way, that my own sinfulness had to be confronted, and confronted repeatedly, if I wanted to get well.

He never denied that I had been wronged in serious ways, but he pressed me to understand that I had within me the power to refuse to let those wrongs destroy me (Mike pushed me on this from a more strictly therapeutic standpoint). And not only did I have the power to do this, I had the obligation to, as a Christian, for whom love is more important than justice. This does not mean, he said, that I have to turn a blind eye to injustice, but it does mean that I need to re-order my perspective so that the fact of injustice, even serious injustice, does not reduce me to a ragemonkey who turns on himself and makes himself seriously ill. As Mike told me on the first day of our therapy, “You can’t change other people, but you can change how you react to them.” Similarly, Father Matthew said that we cannot be responsible for other people changing, but we can and must change our own hearts.

Dealing with all this is not something you do in one or two sessions. It took a year or more of regular confession, as well as a serious daily prayer rule. It took the normal fasting life of Orthodox Christianity, and the weekly celebration of the Divine Liturgy. All of these things worked in tandem to deliver healing grace into my soul, and ultimately into my body. Dante, the Christian visionary poet, and my Christian priest and my Christian therapist helped me break down all the structures within my heart that kept grace walled off.

I’m here to testify that it worked. It was hard as hell to do, and I would have avoided it if I could have, but my body gave me no choice. I am so blessed to have been given a priest who is not a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist, but one who takes sin and repentance seriously. Father Matthew keeps saying, “The Church is a hospital.” It is — but that metaphor only works if you have a pastor who is a real physician, and patients who want to be whole so badly that they are willing to endure some pain for the sake of healing.

The key question for Christians is the same one Jesus put to the lame man at the pool of Bethesda: “Do you want to be healed?” Similarly, for pastors, I would say that the key question is: “Do you want to heal?” Too often, either pastors or laypeople (and sometimes both) think they want healing or to heal, but actually would rather give or receive sugar pills.

Brooks nails it here, about the authentically religious life: “It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice.”

Because Father Seraphim gave the healing faith to Father Matthew, and because he gave it to me, I hope that my book will pass it on to many others.

117 Comments (Open | Close)

117 Comments To "The Hard, Healing Experience of Faith"

#1 Comment By heartright On December 28, 2014 @ 3:01 am

Until HeartRight fills in the blanks with his private vision of who “they” are, on principle I agree.
The State has the sole monopoly on Coercion within a society. On maintaining that depends the ‘Burgfrieden’.

I find it completely preposterous to make a distinction between a Militia Movement, Sinn Fein, the SA, Revolutionaries, Worker Action Squads, that nutter with the farm a while back, or the Branch Davidians. Come to think of it, I would include radical feminists and ALF as well.

Occupy-Wallstreet or PETA? That would be stretching the definitions beyond the credible.

If it is a real and measurable thing, let’s have some measurements.
I don’t need a measurement to know a heap of sand. But if you want a measurement for MTD, use a p-scale to measure how often a Church tells its own followers ‘Penitenziagite!’.

#2 Comment By Stephen On December 28, 2014 @ 6:31 am

The bad news is that Christianity is not about making a person feel good about themselves but actually about making a world a better place…We are to serve. Those pesky verses in Matthew 25.

[NFR: Christianity isn’t about “making the world a better place.” It is about pursuing unity with God and His will. If that improves the world, so much the better for the world. It is possible to make the world a better place without believing in God, which is why the do-goodery of the Social Gospel ends up being a dead letter. — RD]

#3 Comment By Jim On December 28, 2014 @ 10:50 am

“Anything, even good things like family and the Church, can become idols if we relate to them in the wrong way.” There is truth in this and in today’s world the reaction to widespread familial discord and breakdown has in some cases led to an “overcorrection” that can lead to a rather unpleasant hubris and insulation.
However your comment: “Later, I did it with the Catholic Church, which is why so many of my Catholic friends withstood the scandal, but I did not” is a concern. The Roman Catholic Church has always been composed of sinners. But she still claims to be the bride of Christ and his appointed vehicle for salvation. The first pope committed numerous egregious offenses and was told by his Master: Get thee behind me, Satan! just moments after his profound profession of faith at Caesarea Philippi.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. ”
― Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

#4 Comment By Anne On December 28, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

[NFR: Anne, honestly, you don’t know what you’re talking about here. MTD is not solely a “liberal” thing. You can find conservative versions of the same. The fact that you believe we’re talking about liberal Christians is a sign that you have never really read about MTD and the orientation toward religion that it describes. It’s a real and measurable thing, and it is the default position of American Christianity. — RD]

Honestly, Rod, I did follow your link and read the piece on Moral Therapeutic Deism once, although I have to admit it’s a bit hazy in my memory. But I do realize the label can theoretically apply to conservatives as well as liberals. The fact is, though, around here the target of the label is almost always liberal Christians, as it had been in comments preceding mine (not counting the one that referred tentatively to Moral Therapeutic Orthodoxy), which motivated me to write what I wrote.

As Siarlys Jenkins accurately pointed out, my main point anyway was that the label MTD exists in the mind of the labeler, not in the self-understanding of the labeled. But you say it’s real and measurable. How so?

#5 Comment By Anne On December 28, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

[NFR: Christianity isn’t about “making the world a better place.” It’s about pursuing unity with God and His will. If that improves the world, so much the better for the world. It is possible to make the world a better place without believing in God, which is why the do-goodery of the Social Gospel ends up being a dead letter. — RD]

Yikes, Rod, when you put it so baldly, I can’t help but notice a stark contradiction between this point of view and what Jesus said –and for that matter, the hope of justice (on earth!) for the downtrodden which runs throughout Old Testament prophecy. The gospel message isn’t all about individual theosis; it’s about peace on earth, and God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, which would make for profound social betterment, not just spiritual unity between God and believers.

#6 Comment By Anne On December 28, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

PS Consider the Magnificat prayer attributed to Mary. It’s all very Social Gospel, though it begins with “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The Gospel is both — social and spiritual.

#7 Comment By dominic1955 On December 28, 2014 @ 10:36 pm

“Yikes, Rod, when you put it so baldly, I can’t help but notice a stark contradiction between this point of view and what Jesus said –and for that matter, the hope of justice (on earth!) for the downtrodden which runs throughout Old Testament prophecy. The gospel message isn’t all about individual theosis; it’s about peace on earth, and God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, which would make for profound social betterment, not just spiritual unity between God and believers.”

Well, that isn’t what Tradition says it says, which is all that matters. You cannot do anything really worthwhile in the external fora if your internal life is a mess, cf. Dom Chautard.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 28, 2014 @ 11:14 pm

I don’t need a measurement to know a heap of sand.

Generally, a heap of sand does not require, or merit, a name to keep track of and define it. Few human beings would be bothered. Not a bad analogy for the notion of “MTD.” While walking down the beach, someone noticed a heap of sand, and called it “MTD.” Then they saw another heap of sand… Remember the old fable about the story that began “Then an ant came into the grannary and removed a grain of wheat…”?

It is possible to make the world a better place without believing in God, which is why the do-goodery of the Social Gospel ends up being a dead letter. — RD

Now that strikes me as a bit conjectural. According to some lights, the reason communism failed to make the world a better place, although it was founded by men and women with every sincere intention of doing so, is that they neglected the necessity of God, and faith.

Not so the Social Gospel. This is a term that has been bandied about as a term of derision for so long that people forget what the actual practice of the movement that identified itself by the name, Social Gospel, actually stood for. They were mostly Protestant, but very orthodox, evangelical, devout, God-fearing, Bible-believing Protestants of the old school. They simply thought that when Jesus called on his disciples to heal the sick, feed the hungry, release the prisoners from the prison, they should take the words of the Gospel seriously.

#9 Comment By heartright On December 29, 2014 @ 3:59 am

Not a bad analogy for the notion of “MTD.”
Try and substitute the word Heresy.
Not Caring is indeed the Problem. See Zeke 16:49 and following. Either a Church continuously calls for Penitence from its own followers, or it is in MT-territory.

According to some lights, the reason communism failed to make the world a better place, although it was founded by men and women with every sincere intention of doing so, is that they neglected the necessity of God, and faith.

Not so the Social Gospel.
[2]

Nulla salus extra ecclesia.

#10 Comment By Anne On December 29, 2014 @ 4:21 am

I wrote: “Th gospel message isn’t all about individual theosis;it’s about peace on earth, and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, which would make for profound social betterment, not just spiritual unity between God and believers.”

dominic 1955: “Well, that isn’t what Tradition says it says, which is all that matters. You cannot do anything in the external fora if your internal life is a mess, cf. Dom Chautard.”

First off, there shouldn’t be any true conflict between Tradition and Scripture. Secondly, I did say the gospel is BOTH spiritual and social, i.e., transformative for the individual AND for the larger community, good news for soul and world, effective internally and externally, a matter of both/and, not either/or….and not necessarily one before the other either. The Jews never looked on God’s relationship with his people as a primarily spiritual affair focused on an individual’s growth, but communally, as between them as a nation and their God, a relationship through which all the nations of the world would one day be reconciled to God. And Jesus was a Jew. But again, that doesn’t mean individual Christians aren’t personally or spiritually transformed by God through (individual) prayer and the (communal) sacraments, etc., only that you cannot ignore or deny the gospel’s transformative power for the community (nation, culture, world). There is a legitimate social side to the gospel; it’s not all about the individual.

#11 Comment By Anne On December 29, 2014 @ 4:40 am

Mary Meets the Social Gospel (excerpts from the Magnificat):

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliest of His handmaids…
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant,mindful of His mercy
Even as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.
(Luke 1:46-55)

Just an example of the social implications of the gospel.

#12 Comment By Anne On December 29, 2014 @ 5:24 am

@dominic 1955,

Dom Chautard is one in a long line of contemplatives and spiritual writers in the Catholic tradition who emphasized the importance of growth in one’s interior, spiritual life, which is all fine and good as long as it doesn’t crowd out all concern for the external world and communal life, which we’re called to bring in line with God’s will as well. Unfortunately, that has all too often been the case, which is why popes write social encyclicals.

#13 Comment By Kristen On December 29, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

I haven’t read through all the comments so forgive me if this has come up already. This reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. When the police are shocked that this sweet innocent sheltered priest could be familiar with such a seamy world, he sets them straight in a hurry. I sit around and hear people’s confessions all day. If there’s anything a priest is NOT, it’s sheltered!!!!

So, if you want something a bit lighter after finishing up your Dante book, check out some Father Brown mysteries! And does your Father Matthew solve crimes in his spare time? 😉

#14 Comment By Jonathan On December 29, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

Anne,

You have a beautiful name which in the original Hebrew means grace.

There are two messages: one is for the twelve tribes of Israel as a people and the other addresses the world individual by individual. For the latter the social concerns are not the end goal neither is it at the expense of the personal. Rather, it is the means by which the individual walks in the spirit. And that entails service not to a nation, people or tribe but to other individuals one person at a time.

Feeding the hungry from this standpoint does not entail public policy for supplying foodstuffs to whole populations or taxing the prosperous to finance such ambitious endeavors as important as such policies are in the political realm. It is about stocking the shelves of a food pantry, ladling soup to a recipient on line, and handing over money in an envelop to one in need. And better yet it is sitting down with a child and helping him to read. It is about imparting work skills to one seeking training. It is about imparting hard won wisdom to a youngster likewise in need. It is about holding the hand of a frail bedridden person who seeks your hand while facing death. It is about all of these things on a one to one basis. Not the pursuit of social justice but obedience to love’s command.

#15 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 29, 2014 @ 11:08 pm

HeartRight, you have outdone yourself in non sequitir this time. To a discussion of a distinct American Protestant evangelical movement called The Social Gospel, you introduce an official Roman Catholic Church document on the “social doctrine” of the church. Were you hinting that Pope JP2 was the leader of the social gospel for our time, or what?

Anne, beautiful citation. I must listen to Ave Maria again sometime soon. (Its a beautiful and moving devotion, even if I intellectually agree with John Calvin as to Mary’s cosmic presence, and with the Jewish rabbi who maintains it is no coincidence that the first Christian church built in veneration of the Virgin Mary was in… Ephesus.

#16 Comment By heartright On December 31, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

Siarlys Jenkins says:
December 29, 2014 at 11:08 pm

Were you hinting that Pope JP2 was the leader of the social gospel for our time, or what?

No Siarlys, I am stating that there is only Catholic doctrine, and that any protestant consequences are simply mastication.

Chewing the cud is excellent, but imitation – which to my mind Protestantism categorically is – is incapable of being the fount of anything new, unless it be a new error, a distinction that your Social Gospel does not qualify for.

But there is nothing new about it. If you insist on a non-catholic origin for it, try Maurice, Ruskin or Hughes.

#17 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 31, 2014 @ 11:29 pm

Ah, HeartRight is a High Tory AND a Roman Catholic, a confluence only possible in this enlightened liberal era, since the two were mutually exclusive for most of British history. That at least explains how and why his repartee was an unadulterated non sequitir.

I am stating that there is only Catholic doctrine, and that any protestant consequences are simply mastication.

Yes, that is what those who believe that premise seem to believe. I wouldn’t dream of trying to stop you. I know better.