Are You There, God?
I had wondered why we no longer heard much from longtime commenter Geoff Guth anymore. This might explain it. Here’s his comment on the decline of Christianity in the Northeast thread:
I don’t live in the northeast, but perhaps my personal experience can shed some light here.
I’ve spent the last year on a kind of spiritual retreat. I’ve been living in a place surrounded by theologically orthodox Christians (mostly protestant) and have spent a good deal of time immersing myself in Catholicism (regular Mass attendance, attending catechism classes with a friend who’s converting, regular confession, a few day trips to a nearby Benedictine monastery).
I think the best way to describe the experience is one of frustration and disappointment. I’ve met very many wonderful people whose faith is clearly incredibly important to them and motivates them to do extraordinary acts of charity, generosity and kindness. There is very clearly something of great importance in their lives that somehow I just can’t see.
Now I’m gay, but I think that my sexuality has little or nothing to do with this problem. I think if I could catch a glimpse of what they have, the problems posed by how to be a Christian gay man would shift radically. I can see how having faith would precipitate a reexamination of how I lived my life.
But for whatever reason, that spark of faith is simply not there. It’s like a sense that I seem to lack. I’m not even aware of not having it until I’m around people who do.
I think part of it is the sheer absurdity of the central claims of Christianity: the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, the various miracles. On their face, these seem entirely impossible to me. And the mere fact that I can’t bring myself to believe that God can make the impossible happen tells me that a fundamental cornerstone of faith is missing from my life.
But that’s an overly intellectual argument. And faith, while not incompatible with reason, cannot depend on it. So maybe that’s part of the problem. Too much intelligence and not enough—I don’t know—something.
Or maybe it’s the mere fact that I’ve tried and tried so hard, and faith isn’t something you try, it’s something you do.
So where this leaves me, I’m not sure. But it seems likely that if faith can’t come to me in this environment, maybe it can’t come to me at all (and what that means for me in terms of eternity is more than a little disquieting).
I wonder if this might be part of what’s going on here.
Geoff, thank you for your honesty here. I bet a lot of people can relate to what you’re going through. In my case, I believed that I could think myself into Christianity, and it just wasn’t true. It isn’t true. Reason can take you right up to the edge, but you still have to take that leap of faith. You can make a long list of reasons why you should marry N., but none of them add up to love. The same is true with faith.
I think you are on to something when you identify the problem in your will — that is, your unwillingness to believe in the fantastical claims of Christianity (the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and so forth). If you believe something is impossible, it will be very, very difficult to see it, even if it is staring you in the face. This is one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn, having to do even with things that have nothing to do with religion. The greatest barriers to communication and reconciliation with some members of my family is their inability to recognize things that are true because these things violate what they consider to be the right order of reality. Again, I’m not talking about religion at all. The will is far more powerful than most of us think.
With religion, we all know the danger of wanting to believe religion is true so much that you accept things you ought not to accept. But we don’t pay as much attention to the danger of wanting to believe that atheism is true so much that you refuse to accept things you ought to accept.
I will put to you the question my therapist put to me once, which is the same question Jesus put to the lame man by the pool at Bethesda: “Do you want to be healed?”
Of course I do, I said.
No, said my therapist, look deeply within yourself. Because for someone who wants to be healed, you sure are falling back into old patterns of thinking and reacting, patterns that work against your healing.
He was right. I wanted healing, but I did not want to commit my will to the hard work of overcoming barriers between myself and wholeness. I wanted healing to descend like a dove. It rarely happens that way.
You may be given the gift of faith like that. But you have to be prepared to receive it. If your will is predisposed to rejecting faith as incredible, you will find a way to rationalize every manifestation of the divine presence. Hey, I’m a believer, and I struggle with this too. In fact, looking back over what happened to me in the past year and a half, I see that my priest’s decision to impose a strict prayer rule on me was absolutely key. He told me recently that he knew from the beginning that my weakness is living in my head, in the realm of the Ideal. This is how I got myself into trouble by idolizing the Family and the Land, and then by idolizing the Church.
Father Matthew had me pray 500 Jesus Prayers each day. If you pray it in the Orthodox way, you center yourself, and allow no thoughts to enter into your mind. It’s really hard to do at first, but over time, once you get used to it, it gives you an hour each day when you are not thinking, and reacting mentally to what’s around you. It trains you to feel, and to detect the presence of things — even the presence of God — that are always there, but that the busy-ness of your mind prevents you from experiencing.
It was all very subtle, but I see in retrospect how much that helped shake me out of the bind of my rationality. Giuseppe Mazzotta, a Dante scholar at Yale, says that in the end, the Commedia insists that our conversion must be a conversion of the heart, or it won’t be real. The heart is the seat of the will.
If you’re anything like me, faith will be born in you with an experience of awe, of wonder. For Whittaker Chambers, it was awe over the perfection of his infant child’s ear. For me, it was the Chartres cathedral. Who knows what it will be for you? But you have to make yourself ready to receive it. God will not force Himself on you.
If you will send me your mailing address, I will send you a prayer rope. You might find that the experience of saying the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox manner will center you, clear your mind, and open up your heart. As you know, I’m at rod (at) amconmag (dot) com. Also, why not take the time in the next few days to watch the Terrence Malick film To The Wonder? [UPDATE: Friends, I should clarify — I’m only offering to send a prayer rope to Geoff. They are not cheap. A number of you have written to ask for one, but they are at least twenty dollars each, and I’m sorry, but I can’t afford that. If you would like to buy one, please go here. Thanks, and sorry to disappoint. — RD]
I would like to hear from readers who were once where Geoff is. How did you find your way to faith from that place? Of if you didn’t, why didn’t you? If you once believed, but deconverted, how did that happen? Let’s keep this from being a contentious thread. I’m not going to post comments that disparage others.