Doubts

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Doubts have been getting to me, like maggots burrowing under my skin, nibbling holes in the beliefs I took for granted:

Was Christ just a good man or was he really God? Even if he is God, how can I believe he’s really present in that scrap of wafer and sip of wine? I don’t feel anything. Shouldn’t I feel something? 

Square up to hard, cold facts and face life alone without clinging onto this comfort blanket you call faith. Or if you need some consolation,  make up your own beliefs. Cherry pick a few things from the smorgasbord of New Age religion. Much better than unpalatable beliefs about a man who was God dying on the cross and hiding himself in the form of bread and wine.

So say the doubts.

Do doubts have a place?

I thought that this blog was mainly going to be about faith, but I quickly realised that it was just as much about doubt. If I look at the word cloud on the right, I see that I’ve categorised 20 posts under doubt and 30 under faith. In fact, many are under both categories

The priest who instructed me in the Catholic faith encouraged me to ask questions and even said that doubts and questions are part of faith; they can’t be separated from it. At one point, I hoped to eradicate doubt through asking enough questions and reading enough answers. However, I’m beginning to accept that I’ll never run out of questions or reach certainty about belief.

Probably a good thing; there is nothing so frightening as someone who is certain they are right.

Doubt and uncertainty have their place because God is infinite and I cannot know Him in the way that I might know a book, a place, an animal or even a human being.

Doubts and questions are part of learning

Doubts and questions are also vital to the process of learning. From his research on child development, Piaget concluded that children are continually constructing a model of the world. When they encounter a new piece of information which doesn’t fit their previous ideas, they have to modify their model to fit the information. However, if the information is too many steps ahead of their current ideas (try telling a five year old child or even many adults that astronauts aren’t actually weightless; they’re just falling), they will reject the new idea and not learn anything.

 

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Photo credit: NASA

 

As adults, we risk becoming too rigid and no longer learning. We carry with us our ‘facts’ and way of seeing things, and reject anything which doesn’t fit into our world view.

However, if we go into any branch of knowledge at an advanced level, we find that it isn’t just about facts. True, there are things which we are fairly certain about, and which are unlikely to change, but at the edges, where the research is being done, ideas are being thrown around, models are tried out, rejected, modified, tried again.

Science progresses through questioning

Over the course of the 20th century, huge advances were made in physics. Old models could no longer explain observations and new theories were developed.

Newton’s theories of forces and gravity were superseded when Einstein showed that they no longer applied to objects travelling close to the speed of light. If you travel fast enough, all sorts of weird things can happen: time dilates and lengths shorten.

Strange things happen when you look at very small particles. An electron can behave like a wave under certain circumstances, but if you measure its exact path, it will behave like a particle. We can’t say what state a fundamental particle will be in until we measure it; we can only give a probability. It’s not just that it’s difficult to measure, it actually isn’t in either one state or the other until it is measured. (Look up George Gamow’s story of the bank clerk Mr Tompkins who plays quantum billiards).

Even Einstein struggled with the idea that quantum theory deals with probabilities rather than definite predictions. He made the famous statement, “God does not play with dice.”

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Perhaps nothing beats the advances in our understanding of the universe. Astronomers have recently admitted that only 4 % of the universe is in the form of the ordinary matter and energy with which we are familiar. The rest is dark matter and dark energy

No, don’t think Star Wars. Dark matter simply means that it reacts only very weakly with the ordinary matter of which the earth, the sun and the other planets are made of. We can’t see it and it also doesn’t emit measurable radiation such as microwaves or radio waves. However, we know it’s there, because of its gravitational effect (see Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall).

It was my job to ask questions

As a research scientist, it was my job to constantly ask questions and take nothing for granted. For each problem solved, many more opened up. When data didn’t match my model, I couldn’t just ignore it; I had to find out why.

When I think about it, perhaps science and the development of faith have more in common than I realised. In science, absolute proof is impossible. However, we can test an idea to see if it works. If it doesn’t, we reject it.

The same goes for faith. The test is life. I can look at how I feel when I let the doubts convince me that all I am is animated dust, and I can look at what happens when I try to trust that there is a purpose in life, even in the difficult things.

In science, questions can be painful. A model might have served us well up until now, but we have to let go of it, when it no longer explains all the observations. Sometimes the new model, like relativity or quantum theory can make frightening predictions.

In faith, too, it’s hard to detach ourselves from an image of God or an idea of faith which no longer matches our life experience. Faith which doesn’t acknowledge our experience of life, which causes us to warp ourselves or erase a part of our personality is not genuine. Perhaps, as in science, questions and doubts are a necessary part of moving on to a deeper level of understanding.

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Plunged into the night

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I’ve taken the title of this post from a quote by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, from his book “Between man and man”. I wrote it down many years ago when I was questioning the strict religious faith in which I had been brought up.

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 knew 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.

When I left home to go to university, I questioned everything and dared to keep nothing. As I danced to R.E.M.’s song ‘Losing my religion’, I thought, that’s me (yes, I know that’s not what it’s about). All the certainties of the religion I was brought up with where slipping away like sand through my fingers.

The other song which spoke to me was ‘Every River’ by the Scottish band Runrig:

You ask me to believe in magic
Expect me to commit suicide of the heart
And you ask me to play this game without question
Raising the stakes on this shotgun roulette

The church demanded unquestioning belief and I couldn’t do that. It was like trying to believe in magic. If I had forced myself to suppress my doubts and questions, I would have killed a part of myself.

I lost my faith, not for an hour or days, but years. I’ve described some of that process in these four posts: Don’t go to church …, I took a scunner to churches, Do we need to be born again? Sent into Exile.

Even though I had no religious faith, Martin’s Buber’s words held out the possibility that one day I, too, would be able to answer, god, to the questions of life.

‘God of Surprises’ by the Jesuit priest Gerard W. Hughes also gave hope that I could eventually go beyond the questions and doubts without reverting to unquestioning belief. He devotes a chapter to discussing the stages of religious development: infancy, adolescence and maturity, and argues that all are necessary.

In the stage of infancy, our senses are involved: smell, sight, sound, taste, feeling, and this is also important in worship. When we are children, we like clear rules and boundaries. We aren’t able to understand grey areas and complex issues. Rules and clear teaching are also necessary in faith, but there is a danger that we may get stuck there. When this happens, our religion can become separated from our experience of life.

In order to integrate religion with our life experience and reach a holistic understanding, we need to question. This is the adolescent or critical phase of religious development. Hughes writes that God is present in all things and that there is no issue, however complex, which falls outside the scope of religious inquiry.

He warns that when a church doesn’t allow questioning and exploration, ‘There will be a disharmony between the teaching of the Church and our everyday life, and the teaching presented will split off and become a part of our consciousness which has nothing to do with the rest of our human experience. A church isolated from our human experience can only survive as long as it can succeed in forbidding its adherents to ask questions and think for themselves.’

These words summarise my experience of church as a child and adolescent. My questions could not be contained within the church setting, and as a consequence, I left.

I still believed that there was a God, but I rejected Christianity with a bitterness which was related to the way my questions had been suppressed. Sometimes I even longed for God, but I knew that I could not go beyond this stage by myself. Moving on required some kind of grace.

Gerard Hughes describes the third stage in religious development as the mystical element, where we encounter God not through external rules or intellectual reasoning, but through our inner thoughts and feelings. He emphasises that elements of all three stages are crucial for religious maturity.

I became caught in the adolescent or critical stage for many years. I would have described myself as an agnostic who leant towards a belief in God. I didn’t make much of an effort to move beyond this stage. Sometimes, it takes crisis for us to turn back to God and try prayer again.

How I changed from criticising and kicking back against religion to being to turn to God is a mystery, a matter of grace. If I go back to Runrig’s song ‘Every River’, the next verse says:

But you came to me like the ways of children
Simple as breathing, easy as air
Now the years hold no fears, like the wind they pass over
Loved, forgiven, washed, saved

It speaks of the mystery of faith: going through questioning to a child’s trust with an adult’s understanding.

PS – I had a pretty difficult week, but managed to look at some other blogs and am going to try to keep on reading other peoples’ stories.

Doubts and reaching out to God

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One thing I really missed and sometimes still miss about being Protestant is socialising before or after church as well as discussions about faith.

I learnt that I have to go to Mass with only one aim: to encounter Christ. If I go to to meet people or catch up with friends, it is likely that I will be disappointed. The person next to me may be on their knees in prayer before or after Mass. My friend may leave immediately after Mass has ended. Sometimes I catch up with them on the street outside and sometimes I don’t.

I can usually forget about chatting to the priest about my struggles with life or faith. He disappears into the sacristy directly after a weekday Mass, and on Sunday he is busy shaking hands at the door with every single person who comes out.

Discussing faith as a Protestant

As a Protestant, I was presented with a smorgasbord of churches. Each had different agendas, different forms of worship and sometimes even different beliefs. I treated churchgoing a bit like clothes shopping; I tried different places in an attempt to find the church which suited best. People were usually eager to talk to a visitor. Often these conversations were a subtle attempt to find out if the other person’s beliefs were ‘orthodox’. If we agreed on belief and the form of worship we preferred, we would both feel more comfortable.

When I began to express doubts, I felt as if I was put in quarantine. People still talked to me, but in a cautious way. They approached me with the attitude that they had the answers and that they could talk me back to faith.

Getting used to being silent

I might have shopped around as a Protestant, but as a Catholic, I pretty much have to take it or leave it as far as forms of worship are concerned. When I visit a Catholic church I haven’t been to before, the church may look different. It could be old and lavishly decorated, or modern with minimal decoration. However, the priest will follow exactly the same liturgy that our priest follows at home. Across the world, Catholic churches follow the same Mass, Bible readings and feast days.

Likewise since belief or practice doesn’t vary from one Catholic church to another, there’s less to discuss. I don’t have to enquire about whether they prefer adult baptism or infant baptism when I visit another Catholic church.

Whether we become Catholics as children or adults, we all receive instruction in the faith. After that, we follow a journey from the head to the heart. We are all somewhere on the spectrum between belief and doubt, and God alone knows where we really are.

 As a new Catholic, I wanted to talk about the journey my soul was making, my struggles as well as new insights I’d been given. I wanted to reassure myself by having someone listen and accept what I said, and maybe even say, ‘I’ve felt that too.’

Discussion has its place. This blog is a way of expressing my thoughts on faith and I am thankful to have it. If I couldn’t write about my thoughts and try to put some order into them, I would probably burst. I have also really appreciated reading about other peoples’ faith journeys in their blogs.

However, I have few opportunities to chat about faith face to face. One of the most difficult things about being Catholic has been offering God my silence. Only be living through boredom, doubts and a frustrated desire to express myself, do I finally turn to God. Faith is much more than what I assent to in words. Ultimately it can only be lived by me as an individual, even if it is within the context of a wider community.

Doubting Thomas

I’ve been trying to follow this train of thought ever since the Mass reading on doubting Thomas. I always thought that Thomas was a bit of a numpty (that’s Scots for intellectually challenged). He didn’t believe the other disciples and Mary Magdelene when they said that they had seen the risen Christ. He even said that if he saw Christ he wouldn’t believe the evidence of his own eyes.

In his homily, the priest put a different spin on the story of Thomas. Rather than pitying him for his doubts, he said that in many ways Thomas was right. The way we perceive things with our mind or with our eyes, is not the whole story. We can be misled. Only by taking hold of something and living it, can we fully experience it.

When I first began attending Mass sporadically, our priest asked me how I was doing. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I believed anything at all when it came to God and Christianity. He didn’t react with disapproval or try to convince me with arguments. He simply said that when it comes to faith, you have to do it, and then he got up and walked away.

Thomas realised that when it comes to faith you can’t trust the evidence of others. Sometimes you can’t even trust your own senses. However, despite his doubts, Thomas reached out towards the risen Christ, and cried out, “My Lord and my God.”

Like Thomas, I find that the evidence of others, however powerful their experiences, can’t convince me to believe. Discussion can be helpful, but it will never clear away my doubts. The paradox of faith is that only by practising it, can I move towards belief. I go to Mass with my doubts, problems and failures. I reach out to Christ in the shaky belief that He is present in the Eucharist. I take it in fear, because how else can you take it, and I ask Him to be my Lord and my God.

Just a piece of bread?

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There’s still a lot I am discovering about the Catholic tradition.

A few weeks ago, a friend unexpectedly sent a link to a Youtube video of Adoration. She said that Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament through this video had a similar effect on her to actually going to church.

Scepticism

I was a bit sceptical, but I thought that I would give it a go. When it comes to religion, I operate on at least three levels. The top one is rational and scientific and only believes in the evidence of my senses, and in things which I can test and analyse and describe with numbers. This part of me says that a piece of bread and a person are very different things. While I accept that a tiny seed can grow into a plant, and a caterpillar can turn into a butterffly, it is quite clear for this part of me that a piece of bread cannot contain a person.

On a deeper level, I still experience doubt about religion, but this part of me reckons that since I am in a mess, and the world is not in a great state, I might as well give it a go. This is the part which keeps me praying and going to Mass, even when I don’t expect too much from it.

That isn’t the whole story. I am sometimes surprised by something which I cannot taste or see or touch, but which nevertheless moves me on a deeper level than thought.

A part of me struggled to believe that Jesus was present in the Host in the church where the video was recorded many months ago, and it seemed like a stretch too far to believe that Christ’s presence could be experienced through an image on my computer screen.

I watched the video twice. There was a lot going on in my life, and each time I ended up in tears without even being quite sure why I was crying. I wrote to my friend that I didn’t think I had felt especially close to Christ, but that I had ended up in tears. She wrote back and said that this was exactly the effect it had on her.

A few brief moments

If the internet version of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, moved me to tears, then I definitely wanted to experience the real version. Unfortunately Adoration takes place in my parish church at a time when I am never free. However, I recently travelled away from home for work, and public transport somehow conspired so that I arrived earlier than expected. I realised that if I hurried, I might just make it to the church before Eucharistic adoration finished at midday.

I didn’t quite run, but I must have been more rushed than I realised, because I clumsily crashlanded into the pew, trying to take off my heavy rucksack at the same time as I knelt down. This had the effect of overbalancing me so that the empty pew in front wobbled forward under my weight and righted itself with a crash. The nuns further down the church kept their heads firmly turned towards the front.

I stared at the thin wafer in which, my religion taught me, the Lord of the Universe dwelt. It wasn’t a symbol or a reminder of His presence. He was really there, or so I was told.

I searched the surface of the wafer, looking for the trace of a face in the shadows and light patches. I wondered what I was meant to see or feel or pray, and told myself not to be disappointed and doubtful if I felt nothing.

Deep inside an emotion jerked, like a string pulling open a floodgate. The tears started and once again I didn’t even know why I was crying. There was something in there of longing and recognition. Deep calls to deep. I wept because the way I had entered the church, late and rushed and carrying a heavy bag, seemed like my hurried and worried life at the moment. I cried, because being a convert is like entering a strange land where you don’t know the customs and haven’t learnt the language properly, and are always a step behind everyone else.

I had hoped that the priest would be late, and would give me a few minutes longer with the Sacrament, but, bang on twelve, he strode efficiently up the side aisle. A few minutes later, he emerged from the Sacristy in white robes. I was confused. Was there going to be a Mass?

He said a prayer and held up the monstrance, the metal stand containing the host. He held it over his head, swinging it from side to side, like a sportsman holding up a cup, and then he returned it to the gleaming tabernacle at the back of the church.

I had had two minutes, perhaps three, in the presence of that sliver of bread. For the next ten minutes I remained in the church, crying tears into my hands. Those few minutes strengthened me for the rest of the day, like a brief and unexpected encounter with a loving friend.

So is it just a piece of bread? The rational part of my mind still struggles to believe that Christ our Lord abides in a brittle morsel of wheat. However, on a deeper level, I know that it wasn’t just a scrap of food which moved me to tears.

What have bank cards to do with faith?

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What have bank cards to do with faith? Since starting this blog, I’ve had a lot of mishaps with bank cards. Even though I didn’t really intend this blog to be about bank cards, I felt a need to vent my feelings by writing about these muddles. I thought that the unfortunate series of incidents with bank cards had come to an end in the spring. However, I made another careless mistake recently, and this time I was not quite so sanguine about it. I began to wonder if bank cards and faith are not quite such wholly unrelated subjects after all.

The muddle started off simply enough. I relaxed. I was on holiday abroad, and I sat in a busy cafe and ate ice cream with my family and didn’t think too much about the purse I had shoved deep into the rucksack beneath the swimming stuff and the sun lotion. We went for a swim in a lake, and hiked back along a quiet mountain path as shadows lengthened in the soft evening light. We didn’t quite reach our holiday house, before the children began to flag, and we stopped to rummage through the rucksack for the emergency food rations. By the time we got back, the hillside was in shadow and we cooked a quick meal and bundle the kids into bed. My husband unpacked the rucksack afterwards. I knew that I should really have checked where my purse was and put it back into my handbag, but I was far tired and it didn’t seem to matter. I was hardly going to need it that night.

The next morning, I was just about to hunt for my purse so that I could go out and buy milk when I suddenly fell victim to the holiday tummy. The least said about the next few hours the better, but I can report that I was not in any condition to worry about where my purse was, never mind try to locate it. I wasn’t quite sure where this evil bug had come from. A few days later, when we were out and about, I caught one of my children filling the water bottles from the bowl of the fountain where people spit and pee and let their dogs bathe, rather than from the stream of running water. All was then clear.

To give me a bit of peace and quiet, my husband took the kids out for a longer hike. I recovered remarkably quickly and decided to hike up the mountain to meet them. Before I left, I hunted unsuccessfully for my purse, but expected that it was probably still in the hiking rucksack, which my husband had taken with him. Mild anxiety turned very quickly into total panic, when I met up with the rest of the family and found out that my purse wasn’t in the rucksack.

I walked back to the holiday house to check again. Although I was walking through some of the most stunning scenery in Europe, I was utterly miserable, because I was coming to the following conclusions:

– My purse must have either been stolen the previous day in the cafe or been lost on the way back to the holiday house.
– In either case, I was very unlikely to ever see it again.
– Because it had taken me almost twenty-four hours to realise this, someone had probably used my bank card and my driving license to take a large sum of money out of our bank account.

I tried to pray, but my faith felt like a threadbare rag which no longer covered me. I was assaulted by feelings that I was a bad, good-for-nothing person whom God couldn’t possibly love, and that God had just been waiting for me to relax and let my guard down, in order to punish me.

A thorough search of the holiday house, including under beds and in drawers and kitchen cupboards, revealed no sign of the missing purse. I phoned my bank to cancel my card, and just before the credit on my phone ran out, I heard the assistant gabble something about all cards held in this name will be cancelled. Now I had another thing to worry about. It was a joint account. Did that mean that the bank would automatically cancel my husband’s card too?

Because half of our holiday money had been in my purse, we didn’t have enough money left to pay for train fares to the airport. While my husband went out to try and make another withdrawal from the cash machine, I went through the following worst case scenario:

– We won’t be able to get any more money out because
a) a thief has already emptied the account, or
b) the bank has also cancelled my husband’s card
– We won’t have enough money for food and so we will have to starve ourselves so that the children can eat.
– We won’t have enough money for trains to the airport. I couldn’t think of a way around this one.

My husband returned with some money, and none of these fears were realised, but it was still a pretty grim evening.

The morning sun, brought a little more hope and optimism, even though my schedule for the morning was going to be a long, hot hike to the tourist office on the off-chance that someone had handed in a lost purse, with possibly a detour via the police station, to officially report a missing purse.

Just before I set out, my husband said that he would make one last search of the house. I didn’t have any hopes that this would yield anything. However, he shook out the covers and checked the bed. There it was, wedged between the bed and the wall. I had checked under the bed the day before and had totally missed it. All night, I had been worrying about the missing purse, while I was lying right beside it.

I am utterly convinced that God must have a sense of humour.

I am still not sure quite how or why this mix-up happened, but it showed me that when push comes to shove, I still have a shockingly bad image of God as a petty tyrant who is waiting to pounce if I let down my defences for a moment and actually enjoy myself. There’s no point blaming it on my Calvinist upbringing. It’s my problem now, and I have to deal with it. The incident also showed me how vulnerable I feel and how little faith I have when the security of my bank card and access to money is (apparently) taken away.

I think I need to revisit ’30 Lies About Money’ by Peter Koenig, an unusual book which begins by stating quite frankly that it is about the relationship between money and soul.