The experience of losing your faith, or of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this. I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.
— Flannery O’Connor
Have you ever had to reformat your computer hard drive? For whatever reason, the darn thing needs to be reformatted, that is, everything, all your programs, files, pictures, music—everything—is lost and needs to be reloaded. Now, if everything has been properly backed up, it becomes a minor inconvenience. If not, then each program, each file, each piece of data, is worried over. Is it lost? Do I have a copy somewhere? Everything that you can remember that was on the old hard drive needs to be evaluated to see if it is worth it. Is it worth the time and effort of painstakingly relocating it, and then reloading it back onto the hard drive? Do I really need each piece of the old stuff cluttering up my newly cleaned and reformatted hard drive?
In a way, reformatting a hard drive gets rid of a lot of clutter—useless or outdated stuff. It is a painful process. Maybe some good things were lost, but now everything is fresh and clean and ready to start again—made new again.
Something like this has happened to me and faith.
Februaries are hard months for me, and this one has been the hardest one ever—dark depression coupled with spiritual dryness. I feel comfortable enough to write about it now. Not sure if it is because February is over, or the anti-depressant medication has finally kicked in. I guess it doesn’t really matter either way. I am not out of the valley of darkness yet.
To make a long story short, the early morning of February 11th was probably the worst few hours of my life. I had trouble sleeping, so I surfed the television channels until I found a movie. It made me sad, deeply sad. Then suddenly a whole bunch of suppressed thoughts and feelings kind of hit me at once. I fell apart. The darkness from the depression I had been holding back caved in on me. I felt so alone and empty. My heart ached. I despaired. I felt abandoned by God.
I hate to admit that. It really bothers me to admit that I reached a point where I felt abandoned by God, to feel forsaken. I never thought I would say that. I never thought I would reach that point. Not me. I never really understood that sentiment in the psalms until now. I guess that is pride talking, and well, that got crushed that night too. As they say, it is darkest before the dawn, and in the middle of my tear-soaked prayers, my pleading and begging to God for help sounded like empty and hollow echoes bouncing off cold walls.
Jump to later that day. I started thinking about the idea that everything is pure gift from God. Everything! I am sure I have known this since about the time I was baptized two years ago. I have grown to accept this simple fact more and more the further I have traveled down the road of faith. But the thing is, I think I only knew this in my head, not in my heart. Then it kind of all hit me like a punch in the gut. If everything is a gift, then nothing that I have is really, truly mine—nothing! This includes all the relationships and love that I have been blessed with and treasured so much. None of it was mine. I owned nothing, not even my soul.
Like I said, I knew all this in my head. It is easy to intellectualize it, but when it finally hits you in the stomach, in your heart, it is an awfully big blow to your ego, to your worldly created self. Nothing belongs to you. Nothing! Except, maybe, your choices.
So, I offered up a prayer, “God, if nothing belongs to me, then I give it all back to you. I am not worthy to have any of it. Take back all the love you have so graciously given me through my relationships with family and friends. It is all Yours. I give it back.”
In the next instant, it almost felt like God directly replied to me, “Mark, I give it back to you. You take care of it.”
Okay…it’s my responsibility, my choice. Not sure what to say to that… “Yes, Lord.”
Life and love goes on…
The next evening, in the middle of Saturday night Mass, a tsunami of doubt and unbelief swept over me, knocking the coin of faith out of my grasp. I felt swamped by deep water. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t hold on. I couldn’t believe for the longest moment. It scared me. I do not know where it came from. I was trying to concentrate on the words of the liturgy, trying to put my heart into it and be present to the Real Presence. I was looking forward to Communion, and then suddenly, it was all gone. I wanted to run out of the church. None of it seemed to make sense anymore. I could not feel anything. My heart was gone. I would have walked out if I did not have to serve as a Eucharistic minister. I felt so unworthy to serve the Lord, to serve the community. If they only knew what I was not feeling at that moment…
How could I believe in God only in my head and not my heart? That’s what held me up for the first 39 years of my life. I am one of those people that if something is not in my heart, if I do not feel it, it will not last very long. I will quit. I won’t be able to make the long haul without heart. How could I stop believing? How could I loose faith? Why couldn’t I feel anything? My life had changed so much over the past three years, all because of faith and God. How? Why? I was scared.
Usually, the sign of peace gives me a literal sense of peace, a certain measure of calmness deep inside. Not this time. The anxiety was growing. I approached the side of the altar with the other ministers. I was such a fraud. “Please Lord, help me through this. For You, for them. Not me.” A moment later, Father placed the consecrated Host in my hand. I half feared that it would burn me for the demon I felt I was. It didn’t. It just laid there in my hand. I wanted all of time to just stop as God sat in the palm of my hand. I felt alienated, isolated, alone, tiny and insignificant. I wanted to stare and talk with God sitting there in my hand. Ask Him why? I don’t understand. Help me. Heal me. But before I could do or think or say anything, duty called. I chose to place the Bread of Life in my mouth. I felt nothing.
In that moment, God had waited. He waited for me to make a choice. God always waits for us to make a choice. He never forces Himself on us. Never! It is up to us to freely choose Him. My simple gesture of placing the Bread in my mouth, to touch and to commune with Him and all of Creation, was my “yes”, my choice to believe, a choice that literally needs to be re-confirmed every day. I did not know that at the moment. I felt nothing yet. I still hurt, still ached, still felt empty and alone. I hoped I managed a convincing smile to those who received the Precious Blood from the chalice I held for them, for Him.
Uncertainty and confusion abounded. Blindness…deafness…numbness…the valley of the shadows…
The next morning, by the grace of God, I managed to muster up a little feeling of belief in my heart. It was tenuous at best. Nothing prior to the night before seemed right. All the trappings of religion felt superficial. All the signposts had all been knocked down by the tsunami of unbelief. I felt lost and confused. But despite the uncertainty, I still could say that I believed. I was not sure about much beyond that.
I continued to pray a few traditional prayers from my prayer book. I did not have any words of my own to say. It all felt mechanical and dry and empty. I no longer felt abandoned by God, but it sure felt like He was being awfully quiet about things.
A seed of hope landed nearby in a line from a hymn the next day in the Sunday morning’s prayer in the Magnificat, “Who bids us to walk by faith, not by sight”. I remember crying Friday morning for God to heal me from my depression, to end my desolation. I begged God to let me see again, to see the joy and happiness and love in my life, to let me feel it all again. I desperately wanted to feel His presence in my life like before. But believing is not about seeing, not about feeling.
And then someone pointed me to Psalm 42:
As the deer longs for streams of water,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My being thirsts for God, the living God.
When can I go and see the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
as they ask daily, “Where is your God?”
Those times I recall as I pour out my soul,
When I went in procession with the crowd,
I went with them to the house of God,
Amid loud cries of thanksgiving,
with the multitude keeping festival.
Why are you downcast, my soul;
why do you groan within me?
Wait for God, whom I shall praise again,
my savior and my God.
Wait…wait…wait for God—no, God is waiting on me. I need to wait for myself too.
And then I stumbled across a Thomas Merton quote I had posted a year and a half ago. It described much of what I was going through although I do not think that it really applied to me and my circumstances. The advice was the same—be still, wait, persevere. Struggling and forcing things can only make things worse. Be still, and as the old saying says—let go, let God—trust.
A week later on a Monday morning, I found myself waiting in a chapel before Mass at the archdiocese teacher in-service. I had this feeling come over me that I needed to forgive God. I was not sure for what I needed to forgive God. Maybe it was for allowing me to get depressed, for allowing me to suffer, for allowing me to feel abandoned that one night, and for almost taking my faith away. My first thought was who in the universe am I who dare need to forgive God. Besides, all forgiveness really goes through Him, not me.
I resisted the idea that I needed to forgive God. It just seemed too presumptuous of me, a mere creature to forgive the Creator. I leaned over to a very dear friend and asked him if he ever felt the need to forgive God. He nodded yes. I put my face in my hands and started praying. I soon began to tear up. I said in my heart that I forgave God for the pain, and then asked Him to forgive me. After a moment of just sitting there silently sobbing to myself, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt a certain small measure of peace.
After Mass, my friend asked me what I had mumbled to him earlier. Oh no! I sat there for a while in the chapel as it emptied out and hoped that my school’s pastor would come by. He did. I asked him about feeling the need to forgive God. He said something about it being an honest feeling, and that God is big enough to understand. I asked him if that was a blasphemous thing to say. He didn’t think so. He wasn’t even sure what it meant to be blasphemous. He also mentioned something about anger, but I was not sure if I was angry with God. I was not even sure that I blamed God for anything. All I knew was that I had been hurting.
Later in the afternoon when I got home, I laid down and started crying again. I couldn’t believe that I felt like I had to forgive God. I reasoned that my depression is probably ultimately the result of my own sin, result of my own choices, result of my own brokenness. I cried for forgiveness again. I cried that I wanted God at the center of my life, and that I had really been fooling myself for the last two years. I thought that I could put God in the center of my life by myself. No! Only God can put Himself in the center of my life. I am not the one in control. He is. I needed to stop trying to control my life and really let go and let God. I also cried to God that I did not know how to let go. I did not know how to let Him take over my life. I cried some more, and eventually fell into a peaceful little nap.
I am still very confused about things with God and faith and all. I am not in any hurry to solve this “problem”. Any certainty that I thought I had about faith is gone. I feel like a grain of sand lost in a desert. The hard drive has been wiped clean for a fresh start. All I know is that I love God and the people around me. I want to be with Him, and them, while I journey back home. I still feel lonely despite all the wonderful, caring, loving people in my life. Someone told me this loneliness, this longing is a deep desire for God. I hope so. I am not sure how I will be able to live the rest of my life with this ache. Some feeling is slowly starting to come back to my heart. I am beginning to see and hear again, and what very little I do see and hear is beautiful.
Father, I believe; help my unbelief. Please become the center of my life. I can’t do it; You must. I love you.