Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis

A few days before the confirmation service, she told her father—the pastor of the church—that she wasn't sure she could go through with it. She didn't know that she really believed everything she was supposed to believe, and she didn't know that she should proclaim in front of the church that she was ready to believe it forever.

"What you promise when you are confirmed," said Julian's father, "is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.

All throughout Torah, we find people looking for God, and not finding God, because God doesn't often conform to our expectations. God is somewhere other than the place we think to look. And our sages show that you can respond to God's hiddenness in many different ways. You can, like the writer of Lamentations, respond to God's hiddenness by mourning. Or, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, instead of asking where the God you thought you were looking for had gone, ask what God is like now. Or you can respond to God's hiddenness by being like Esther: if God is hiding, then you must act on God's behalf. If you look around the world and wonder where God has gone, why God isn't intervening on behalf of just and righteous causes, your very wondering may be a nudge to work in God's stead.

Ellie tells me, often, some variation on this theme: that I am a little too invested in how I'm feeling about church and God, and perhaps not invested enough in how I am serving church, God, neighbor.

From deep in the tradition, from The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century text from an unnamed English monk: “You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God.” The words slap. Busyness is not much of an excuse if it only takes a minute or two to move toward God. But the monk's words console, too. For, of time and person, it seems that scraps are all I have to bring forward. That my ways of coming to God these days are all scraps.

I am not a saint. I am, however, beginning to learn that I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God.

... I am not the author of my prayers; when they come, they come from God.

I am not thrilled by the idea that I am entering a vague in-between, after the intensity of conversion and before the calm wisdom of cronehood.

In the false American imagination, West Virginia is a joke or else it's a charity case; but more than anything it is unseen, an invisible architecture of labor and struggle; and incarceration shares this invisibility, hidden at the center of everything; our slipshod remedy for an abiding fear, danger pinned to human bodies and then slotted into bunk beds you can't see from any highway.

It turns out there is something worse than attending a wedding where you don't know anyone: attending a wedding where you know six people, and they are all your ex-husband's best friends.

On any given morning, I might not be able to list for you the facts I know about God. But I can tell you what I wish to commit myself to, what I want for the foundation of my life, how I want to see. When I stand with the faithful at Holy Comforter and declare that we believe in one God . . . I am saying, Let this be my scaffolding. Let this be the place I work, struggle, play, rest. I commit myself to this.

Phyllis and I pray these chaplets together; at three o'clock, every first Saturday. We are never in the same town. For months, we do not speak on the phone or email. We pray these chaplets for just a few minutes, maybe as many as sixty minutes, once a month on a Saturday afternoon. Intimacy with the elusive God is that kind of intimacy. It is the closeness of praying together, apart.

Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt, or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.

Some days my mantra was I will stay in this marriage because I am a Christian and Christians stay, but other days, I thought: if the choices are Christianity or divorce then I will just have to embrace secular humanism because I am not even sure I believe any of this anymore and it is one thing to devote twenty minutes every morning to praying when you are not sure you believe anything anymore and it is another thing to organize your whole life around a marriage you don’t want to be in because a God who may or may not exist says let no man put asunder.

Sometimes I cannot say much about why I go to church other than what people who go to the gym say: I always feel better once I'm there; I feel better after; it is always good for me, not good in a take-your-vitamins way, in a chidingly moralistic way, but in a palpable way.

[T]hat finally is the questions, that is the anguish--to abide in God's hiddenness is one thing, to abide in God's absence is altogether something else.

The anxious heart, in its flailings, loses its hold on whatever grace God has bestowed upon it, and is sapped of the strength to "resist the temptations of the Evil One, who is all the more ready to fish...in troubled waters.

Then perhaps there is a third kind of loss---the loss that comes when you notice the limits of your knowledge of God, when you feel bereft of guidance, when you feel the loss of God's saving power or of God's grace. This feeling of loss is really a way of noting, and mourning, God's hiddenness. This is the loss you name when you ask why God does not answer your prayers. It is the loss entailed when you realize that Jesus is more mysterious and more inscrutible than you had at first understood.

When something needs to be fixed, when I need something to change, my first and abiding instinct is to read. I think I can read my way to a solution. Or at least an evasion.