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The Hard, Healing Experience of Faith

Religion and the search for wholeness and meaning

David Brooks today:

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.