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.

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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.