A sense of doubt

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In the time leading up to my decision to become Catholic, I felt as if I had discovered a new sense as I became aware of God’s presence. Up until then, I had only experienced brief snatches of awareness. However, in this period of my life, God seemed very close. All I had to do was be quiet and tune in and I felt as if my inner self turned towards him like a compass needle turning north or a flower growing towards the light.

It was and still is difficult to explain this feeling even to myself. How would you describe smell to someone who had never experienced it? You might try to explain what it does, and say that it warns you whether your food is fresh or rotten, or that it can tell you if the house is needing an airing or a cleaning. It is harder to explain the sense of pleasure we get from smelling flowers, or the comfort that the smell of warm bread or fresh washing gives us. Sometimes a smell can take me right back to an almost forgotten holiday, and the smell of hospital disinfectant makes me lurch inwardly as I remember the topsy-turvy, joyful and tearful period after the birth of my first child.

What did the sense of God’s presence do for me? It made faith a no-brainer, for a start. While I was bathing in the comforting feeling that God was there and that he loved me, it was comparatively easy to trust. The feeling also guided me and gave me a hunger for reading about faith. At times it caught me unawares with sudden deep emotions, or new discoveries about myself and the nature of faith.

I lost the feeling that God was near as suddenly as if I had lost my sense of smell. It had been fascinating and fun finding out about the Catholic faith, but I was suddenly bubbling over with emotion. What would it actually mean for me to do what at an earlier stage of my life would have been unthinkable and actually become Catholic? How would my family and friends react and what would I have to give up? I felt like a large pot of water which has been slowly heated for months and suddenly brought to the boil, or, as it was pointed out to me, a better analogy might be a pot of water with vegetables floating in it which is about to thicken into soup.

In the middle of the turmoil, I waited for the sense of God’s presence to return and show me a way out of the confusion, but nothing was clear. All I had was a sense deep down that if I wanted any peace of mind, I could not get away from what I was being asked to do. One day at Mass, the Bible reading was the first few verses of Galations Chapter 3 where St. Paul seems to be giving the church there a bit of a telling off.

You stupid people in Galatia! After you have had a clear picture of Jesus Christ crucified, right in front of your eyes, who has put a spell on you? There is only one thing I should like you to tell me: How was it that you received the Spirit — was it by the practice of the Law, or by believing in the message you heard? Having begun in the Spirit, can you be so stupid as to end in the flesh? Can all the favours you have received have had no effect at all — if there really has been no effect?

The words were for me. I had already had enough ‘favours’ and evidence from my own experience that God exists and that he is a God of love. Rather than hanging around waiting for more ‘proof’ or for the nice feelings to switch on again, I just had to get on with it. That day I told our parish priest that I had made up my mind to become Catholic.

I hoped that the comforting feelings and the sense of God’s presence would return once I became Catholic. However, I was beginning to suspect that life isn’t as quite as clear-cut as that. The phrase ‘received into the church’, conveys so much more than ‘joining’ or ‘becoming a member’. The day I was received into the church, I felt as if I had stepped out into the darkness, afraid of falling into an abyss, but instead was lovingly received and supported by those who were present to help me start this journey. Nothing dramatic happened, but my anxiety began to ease.

Apart from a few occasions, the strong feeling of God’s presence which I experienced as I investigated Catholicism, has not returned. I hope it will one day. From time to time, I have brief moments in Mass, when I sense God at work, but it is painful, not comforting, as if I have drawn close to a fire and been burnt. Father K says that the Gospel comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comforted. At the moment, I seem to fall into the latter category.

It occurred to me recently that it is perhaps in those times when God seems far away, but we still keep going, that our faith is actually becoming stronger, even when we feel it is weak.

God hasn’t changed, even if my ability to be aware of his presence is a bit dull at the moment. I’ll end with some words from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, in ‘Between Man and Man’, which comforted me many years ago when I first experienced the devastation of doubt:

In the signs of life which happen to us we are addressed. Who speaks?
It would not avail us to give for reply the word ‘god’ if we did not give it out of that decisive hour of personal existence when we had to forget everything we imagined we know of god, when we dared to keep nothing handed down or learned or self-contrived, no shred of knowledge and we were plunged into the night.

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Signs of spring

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I’ve discovered that I can insert photos into posts! I’m not much of a photographer but I’m going to take some photos of our very late spring and start decorating some of the blog. It’s been a long hard winter, but things are starting to grow again, and sometimes, just sometimes, it feels as if my faith is coming out of hibernation.

Clash of two kingdoms

I wanted to use this blog to write about my own personal journey towards Catholicism and how I dealt with some of the issues which presented themselves. However, I’ve recently found myself writing about other things, such as struggles with doubt.

I also want to be honest. I don’t want to put up a post about how I dealt with Catholic teaching on Mary, even if I’ve already drafted something, if I’m feeling, as I do right now, that I’m having issues with trust. It’s easy to lie when I see people, to put on a brave face, and tell everyone I’m fine, and, if I’m in church, to dab the dampness from my eyes just before the sign of peace and shake hands and smile as if I feel perfectly peaceful inside.

What I find difficult, and what I really don’t want to do, is to lie when I’m writing and say that everything is going well when it isn’t. That’s why I’ve decided to write a bit about the problems I’m having at the moment with trust. It will help me to capture the thoughts whizzing around my head and, who knows, it might help someone else who’s going through something similar.

Until recently, I thought that I was the only one, or one of only a few people, who struggled with trusting God. When I became Catholic, one of my in-laws gave me a very helpful little book called Doorway to Faith which has made the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) a lot more accessible. On each page it takes a section of the Catechism, comments on it, and gives a short prayer linked to the comments. With the help of this wee book, I realised that I had read swathes of the Catechism (I gave up around page 250) without understanding what it was about. For instance, I failed to appreciate CCC 397:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. All subsequent sin would be disobedience towards God and lack of trust in his goodness.

Okay, I think that means that I’m alone when I have problems with trust.

My own lack of trust has two aspects. The first is a lack of belief in God’s goodness. I’ve been calling this ‘attacks of a bad image of God’, but I think it is also linked with a bad image of self. When I doubt that God loves me, this is usually associated with the feeling that I’m unlovable. I’m not going to go into my bad images of God, but they’re usually associated with me being some sort of unattractive squishy creature like a worm or a beetle which fully deserves to be crushed, but which God might decide to spare even though he finds it quite unsavoury. I can no longer remember how much of this was spelt out by the minister, and how much was supplied by my own imagination as a child. However, I imagine that other people struggle with bad images of God for many different reasons.

If I can’t believe that God really loves me, it is hard for me to believe that he has my best interests at heart and this brings me to the next aspect, the struggle between two kingdoms. I have my own ideas about how my life should be run, thank you very much, and when God seems to have other plans, I become frustrated, disappointed, depressed and angry.

My dog often thinks she knows best. She barks at strangers, tries to chase cars and bolts off in her own direction so fast that my back jerks painfully when she gets to the end of the lead. I’ve been trying to train her and our relationship is a lot better when she recognises that I’m in charge, not her, and that she’ll be rewarded if she’s patient. However, there are still difficult, frustrating days when she thinks she’s the leader. On these days, I wonder if this is what God feels like, when he deals with me.

Recently it’s been difficult to pray, the gulf apparently uncrossable. After she’s been told off or done something she knows she shouldn’t, my dog slinks reluctantly towards me, head down. I feel like that. There are times when I don’t even want to try praying. I want my kingdom, not God’s, even if it is a dry, barren place ruled by a depressed despot who wants everyone else to be as unhappy as herself.

I’ll give the last words again to Fr. Gerard W. Hughes. From ‘Cry of Wonder’, a glimpse of what could be:

I want my life to be a song, in tune, in harmony with God, with all humanity with all creation and with my whole inner self. I have no desire to be the songwriter, the conductor, or to control the whole choir and orchestra.

What about other people?

I am going to try to tackle a subject which, after confession, presented one of the biggest challenges when I thought about become Catholic. It’s also been a challenge to write about and this blog post has been re-drafted many times over the past few weeks. Unlike Confession, this isn’t a particularly Catholic problem or even a Christian problem. I think I would have had difficulties no matter which religion I was thinking of following.

For close to twenty years, I had as little to do with formal religion as possible. Whatever the rights and wrongs are of this decision, I undoubtedly learnt much from my experience of being outside the church. Apart from a flirtation with atheism which lasted only a few months, I never stopped believing in God although there were periods when I slipped into agnosticism and concluded that God was unknown and unknowable.

Over time, even though I practised no religion, I often felt that I was touched by God through encounters with other people. Sometimes these were people whose lives crossed mine directly and sometimes they were people I read about who had done something remarkable to help others or overcome great difficulties. Not all of them were Christians and many of them were not religious.

After my first and second pregnancy, I suffered persistent health problems and started to practise yoga, meditation and Tai Chi, although not all at the same time. This helped my body to heal, but also helped me, until then a stressed type A personality, to achieve a more balanced and peaceful state of mind. When I concentrated on my breathing, I also became aware of God in me and around me. However, I avoided churches and anything to do with Christianity until I was faced with a difficult situation and it seemed I could do nothing but pray.

Despite the fact that I came to Mass, I had absolutely no intention of ever again making a formal commitment to any religion until I quite suddenly experienced what might be described as a call to become Catholic. This delighted, terrified and confused me. However, I worried that being Catholic involved believing that Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists were outside the limits of God’s mercy, and that even my Protestant family and friends were on paths which led to a spiritual dead end.

If the answer to any of the above questions was ‘yes’, then I was quite clear what my response to Catholicism would be. To borrow a phrase from our recent referendum campaign, I was going to say, ‘No Thanks.’

I had recognised God at work in my life when I was still firmly planted in the Protestant church. After I decided to have nothing to do with churches, I gradually realised that that didn’t change the fact that God was still there, quietly working in my life. Therefore I would be dishonest if I signed up for a religion which forced me to believe that everyone outside it was on a path to hell.

This question particularly affected me because I was brought up in a church which had branched off many times from other churches since the Reformation, each new group believing that they were right and that the prospects of the previous group, as far as salvation was concerned, were at best precarious. We were very suspicious of other Protestant groups, complaining that they did not keep the Sabbath day or that they held only one church service on Sunday. Catholics were probably seen as being at least as bad as pagans, and probably worse since they had corrupted Christianity.

I was very wary about committing myself to a religion if that meant not recognising God at work in the life of another, unless they fulfilled all the conditions which I or my religious group had devised about what God’s work should look like.

When I began asking Father K about Catholicism, he said he would give me a copy of the catechism to help me with my questions. Fine, I thought, remembering the booklet-sized Shorter Catechism which I had learnt off by heart as a child. When Father K, presented me with a black book thicker than the Bible, I thought he was winding me up. Did he really expect me to get through it? I haven’t read it all cover to cover, but it has been useful.

When I asked Father K about the Catholic church’s attitude to other religions, he told me to look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1257, which says that God works through His sacraments, but that he is also above them. The Catholic idea of sacraments still seemed very mysterious to me and so I kept on hunting in the catechism until I found this:

Since Christ died for all and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery (CCC 1260).

That was good enough for me and I took it as proof that I could join the Catholic church without having to mentally condemn all of the rest of the world’s population. I was still faced with the challenge of how I as an individual could reconcile the feeling that God is at work in all people with
a very strong and specific call to become Catholic.

I came back to the verse, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways.” God is infinite and I am finite and limited in my understanding. He may be at work throughout humanity in many different ways, but it was clear that he wanted to work in my life in a very specific way.

I’ll leave the last words on the subject to the Jesuit, Father Gerard W. Hughes, who wrote in ‘Cry of Wonder’:

Experience was beginning to teach me that perhaps God was not nearly as fussy about religious denominations as we the clergy. God was to be found in all kinds of people, manifesting Godself in the genuine love, compassion and truthfulness of their lives.