Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Seeking God

(Novel note: I have been writing for 31 days and written 53,864 words.  Personal NoWriMo: success!  But my guess is that there's still at least 25,000 to go.  Thanks for your patience everybody.)

First I talked about how I don't know anything.  Then I talked about seeking.  This is kind of what I've been driving at: I don't feel I know God, and I want to seek him.

This has been a very humbling realization to come to.  I've been Catholic almost my whole life, obviously.  At the age of twelve I decided I had a vocation.  I left home at fourteen in the hopes of getting close to God.  I spent hours of every day for years trying to talk to him.  There were many moments when I could have sworn I heard his voice.  How could I be asking the question, "What is God like anyway?"

And yet here I am, asking it.

Since I got out of boarding school, my spiritual life has been kind of a slog.  The "highs" I used to get there, I now realize were just a drug to keep me hooked, so it's no wonder I don't get those anymore.  The problem is that I'm a little religion-shy now.  Anything that looks like a wonderful, spiritual experience makes me cagey.  As a result, the dark night is really the only place where I feel safe.

Prayer is so, so hard.  I mean, what is it even supposed to be?  What it is it supposed to look like?  Everyone gives me the same answer: "Just talk to God."  So I try.  It sounds like this:

"Lord, I want to talk to you about my day.  It sucked.  That was probably my fault.  Yeah, definitely my fault.  If I were more patient, more kind, more understanding, more hardworking, this kind of thing wouldn't happen to me.  You're probably really disappointed in me.  I want to do better, but honestly I'm not feeling a heck of a lot of confidence about that.  You know what?  Forget it.  I'm going to go play Words With Friends.  Amen."

Not exactly ... a recipe for success.

Here's the thing.  In boarding school, we did have a recipe for prayer.  In fact, our morning meditation consisted of kneeling down in the chapel while a consecrated sat in the back with a portable microphone and "directed the meditation," i.e. said the things they thought we should be praying.  It went something like this:

"Lord, I'm in your presence right now.  I know that you're right here beside me.  I know you see me, that you love me.  I'm overwhelmed by your love for me.  You died on the cross for me.  You would do it again, just for me.  I don't deserve that.  What's worse, I don't return that.  I let you bleed on the cross for me, and I give you so little in return.  I sin so much.  And every time I sin, I jab those nails a little further into your hands."

And on and on, for half an hour.  There would be "points" to reflect on, and at the end of every prayer, EVERY prayer, there was a resolution.  I have trouble praying without a resolution.  I feel like I must not be doing it right if I can't think of some way to change my life in response to the prayer time I just had.  But that makes prayer really scary, because if I have to think of something to change EVERY time I pray, I end up overwhelmed with all the stuff about me that's wrong.

Which brings it back to guilt.  I know Catholics are famous for guilt, but I never had any of this growing up, nor did I ever hear about it in church.  I DID hear it at boarding school.  Not the hellfire guilt stuff, but more the emotional manipulation kind.  God has done so much for you, and what have YOU ever done for him?  Oh, you think you did something for him?  Did you die on the cross?  Didn't think so.

Obviously this isn't right.  God is not trying to have a one-up "who loves more" contest with me.  But I do not need more answers about what God is not.  Every time I start to try to pray, I think of another thing I have been told God is not or does not do.

God does not just want to be asked for things.  He's not Santa Claus.
God does not just want to be talked at all the time.  You have to listen too.
God doesn't talk so you can be sure you heard him.
God doesn't say what you would want him to say.

So, what exactly IS God like?  So many people claim to know.  Usually it's people who I think probably know better than I do.  People who spend hours in prayer instead of truncated five-minuteses.  But some of what they say ... just seems wrong.

God is pleased with the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and my favorite current military action.
God wants you to donate to X cause.
God hates gays.
God would totally be okay with this slur I just dropped because that person deserved it.
God punishes the wicked.
God loves you, BUT he is disgusted by all your sins.

Someone is probably reading and saying, "But God does punish the wicked!"  And they're running to my combox to tell me so.  Please don't.  First off, I am not trying to debate so much as reflect, and I admit to feeling kind of fragile about this whole thing.  And second, you know how God punishes the wicked?  By respecting them enough to give them what they ask for, which is to have nothing to do with him.  Imagine you've just divorced your husband in the most insulting way you can think of.  And in response he says, "I'm very sad that you don't want to be with me.  So sad I'm going to punish you by moving out of your house.  But here's my number and if you call me back I'll move back in with you before you've hung up the phone."

I mean, you can call that punishment, but it's not really very punishy.  Sure, eternity without God really is the worst thing imaginable.  But if you don't want God, what else can he reasonably give you but eternity without him?  And I do think that, being so very merciful, he finds ways to reach those people who WOULD want to spend eternity with God if only they really knew what God was going to be like.

Anyway, I found myself in a bind.  To know who God is, I would have to spend time with him, i.e. pray.  But I couldn't very well pray with no idea who God was.  First off, that's very unpleasant, trying to spend time every day with someone you don't know and are kind of afraid you might not like.  And second, I think prayers like the one I wrote down above prove that maybe I haven't been praying to God at all.  I've been praying to someone I call "God" who actually is kind of a jerk.

It's a test I'm trying to apply, when I ask myself a question about God.  Is this something a jerk would be or do?  If so, that's not God.  That's a creation of my own mind, whom I've named "Jerk-God."  (My apologies if that sounds irreverent.  Since it's a made-up being in my head, I don't feel the need to be polite.)

My brain finds workarounds for all the explanations of God.  Take this one: God loves me.  Simple, right?  But then I add in some other bit of information which I find myself believing: When God sees me, he is unhappy and disappointed.  Conclusion: Love is something that involves unhappiness and disappointment.

The worst thing about this is that you become like the one you love and spend time with.  During the many years I've spent worshiping Jerk-God (part time, I do believe I have prayed to the real God too), I've become like Jerk-God.  When I was in boarding school and immediately after, I was a judgmental jerk.  No one was good enough for me.  I had some reason to dislike everyone.  And yet I convinced myself I "loved" them, in the same way God "loved" me.  You see, new definitions for words can bring you a lot of grief.

It was only when I stopped praying so dang much, with my printed Regnum Christi meditation and my journal of self-hatred and resolutions, that I stopped being such a jerk.  I'm beginning to realize that the years I've spent doing more or less the bare minimum have actually been absolutely necessary.  I had to stop listening to Jerk-God if ever I wanted to know the real God.

The one thing I have kept, in which I have total confidence, is the Mass.  I go to Mass every Sunday.  I listen to the words and I realize, "This is true.  This is real.  This I can be sure is the real God."  Sometimes I have to cover my ears for the homily though.  Last Sunday it seemed to be on the topic of, "Why aren't you giving up more for Lent you shameless heathen?!  You're only giving up ONE thing?  Jesus died for you!  Also, give to the Bishop's Lenten Appeal please."  Sometimes I find that talking to atheists leaves me feeling firm in my faith and listening to other Catholics makes me want to run off and join Hare Krishna.  It isn't always that they're wrong (though sometimes they totally are).  Sometimes it's just that I have heard the "God did so much for you, what more can you do for God" spiel so many times I've developed an allergy.

So here I am, seeking God.  Finding the way has been difficult.  It involves no journalling, no rosary, and a minimum of spiritual reading, because all of these have issues for me.  I try to pray, but only sentences at a time, not minutes and certainly not hours.  When I do, I try to run things past a "decent person" test.  If I said to John, "I had a bad day," he would not reply, "It's your fault."  If I said to my mother, "Here's a present for you," she wouldn't say, "Is that ALL?  I gave birth to you with NO DRUGS, I'll have you know!"  So I try not to assume God would say things like that to me.  I'm also on the lookout for the kind of spiritual reading that ISN'T just trying to get me to do more, mortify myself more, examine myself more deeply and find more that's bad.  Those things might be useful in some seasons, but right now they are only hurting me.  I want something that's straight up "All About God," or something like that.

I've had a lot of good things happen already on this search, but it's going to have to wait until another post.


Belfry Bat said...

Yeah, God doesn't need us to do things for Him. The supreme and self-sufficient Being, and all that. He does want us to do things for those actually helpless without us. And guess what! You have a family! So, enough with the guilt.

Hmmm... the kneeling actually sounds like a good idea; it's one of those things that the kind of set-up you were subjected to couldn't have ignored or left out, or it would have been sniffed-out much sooner, I'm sure. But since it's also good to uproot weeds and plant good seed instead, you might be glad to peruse an account of St. Dominic's prayer habits, the "nine ways". N.b. these were written before the Western practise of reserving the Blessed Sacrament became wide-spread, as the heresy of Real Absence hadn't yet come to a head; happily, this means you don't need a tabernacle! Also, clearly, you won't need all nine ways.

Oh, look! It's tomorrow!

Good night to you!

Kori said...

Wow. I absolutely 100% needed to hear this today. I, too, am a guilty follower of Jerk-god. In fact, last Sunday found me sobbing in the confessional for this very reason. I have been afraid to examine my faith because I am afraid of what I will find there. If you find spiritual reading that fits your criteria please please share it.

Sheila said...

I certainly will.

I have spent a lot of time paralyzed for fear of what I might find if I asked questions. But my husband reminds me often, "If you are afraid to question, you already don't believe." If God is truth and goodness, surely he wants us to know the truth and be sure about it. If the truth is not in what I believe now, I'm sure God doesn't want me to keep believing it.

But I also DO believe the truth is in the Catholic Church, which means I trust that if I unpick all the threads and follow them down, I will find the God I know at the bottom. I *have* to ask these questions. Forcing myself to pretend I believe just makes me miserable.

Anna said...

God bless you, I'm sure you're on the right track.

It helps me to remember that God is our father, in the truest and deepest sense of the word. We are Jesus' brothers and sisters. God doesn't look at us with disappointment or accusation or just tolerance, He takes delight in us. He gives out of unconditional love and not to put us in debt. I find this incredibly freeing and it actually makes me want to "do more."

Charming Disarray said...

Sheila, so much of what you've described here is very familiar to me. I also read your pieces a while back on your experience with Regnum Christi and although I had no idea who they were and only spent one night in a Catholic boarding school, I identified with so much of what you described going through psychologically and emotionally because of how you were taught your Faith and how you internalized it.

I, too, am very religion shy now, although I still care deeply about Catholicism and receive the sacraments. I even hate it when my friends want to say the rosary in the car--in fact, I hardly ever say the rosary. I can't listen to anyone talking about the Faith for more than a few minutes, so I tune out during sermons and if I hear anything along the lines of "why aren't you doing more" it can upset me for days. Just recently I was remembering a priest who encouraged me to keep fasting during Lent even though I was under a crazy amount of stress in college and barely holding things together. I lost a dangerous amount of weight and had to take a whole year off school...years later, I'm still affected by it. Bad spiritual direction can leave so much damage, especially emotionally.

One thing that helped me "find out who God is" instead of the legalistic, demanding God, was to just tell Him that I was confused and that I was doing the best I could. Not in the sense of apologizing because I didn't think it was good enough, but just that I gathered up all the frustrations and said, "Here, You take it. That is a best I can do." I think it's okay to be a bit sulky with God sometimes.

Once I started doing that and stopped trying to be someone who got anything out of long, dull prayers and elaborate devotions I found it easier to talk to God like a person. I don't know if that's helpful to you or not but it did help me. Even now I find that God tends to listen to my shorter, more heartfelt prayers, which are usually mixed with quite a bit of defiance, rather than any novenas or devotions. "Please, God, take me out of this place" was one prayer that I said over and over at a time when I literally couldn't pray anything else and then guess what...I ended up moving.

Sorry for such a long comment. I guess all I'm trying to say I know what all that feels like.

Charming Disarray said...

"An Introduction to the Devout Life" has a section called "On Gentleness Towards Ourselves."

Also, I read this book as a teenager:

It's called "Our Best Friend" and I don't remember it being at all about admonishing people to do more or being guilt-inducing. I don't remember a ton about it except that it focused on friendship with Jesus, but it seemed worth a mention.

Charming Disarray said...

Here's a review of it:

Okay, I'm going to stop spamming your combox now and go to bed.

Sheila said...

Thanks for sharing, CD. I'm beginning to see how very widespread this is. I think there's a vein of conservative Catholicism that is very Jansenist, based mostly on guilt. And it's a HERESY. Sometimes it's okay to pray to God, "Yeah, I know everyone around me is praying the rosary. I think you'll understand if I don't do it too." Or, "Oh my gosh, Lord, if this priest says 'And that's a MORTAL SIN' one more time, I'm outta here."

Intro to the Devout Life was actually the one book I read after boarding school that helped me. It's a very "beginner" kind of book. And it had the very helpful advice that if you're neglecting your family or being a jerk to them so you can get to daily Mass, you should stop going to Mass and start being a decent person. Because of that, I stopped being so insufferable about my special quiet prayer time and started being more pleasant to my family ... which definitely was a good move.

Meredith said...

I've been meaning to comment on this post for quite a while now, but my spiritual ennui has prevented me. Sheila, I think I've been going through exactly the same phase - it seems to come in waves, getting worse over the last few years. I am intimately familiar with Jerk-God, although I don't have the excuse of Regnum Christi.

The mood I fall into, which I honestly don't enjoy at all and would like not to experience anymore, is one of profound bitterness. The bitterness goes away after I go to confession, or listen to Palestrina, or think of Fr. Heisler's sermons, but it returns when I contemplate suffering or listen to an overbearing priest or Catholic radio personality trying to guilt me into things.

The core of it is this: "Having a relationship with an infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful being who doesn't talk back is really, really hard." It's just so hard to see how God can't be Jerk-God when you apply the decent person test. Because I know that if I were God, and my child were crying for me, I would actually come to them and say something. Not hide while my friend tried to soothe them, saying, "God really does love you, she *is* listening, even though it doesn't seem like it."

I know God is bigger and better than us, but still, why should that translate to him being silent and invisible? It doesn't seem fair. Humans are so trusting - I think of how I created an elaborate game to convince my little sister I had a time machine, and sometimes I can't help but wonder if the sacraments are like that.

My fiance doesn't seem to experience this bitterness as much. He is involved with Communion and Liberation, and he wasn't raised with the Jansenist-like sternness. I thank God for him all the time - you see, I'm not a lost cause!

Sheila said...

I definitely know the feeling. I wrote last Christmas about how God has revealed himself to us despite original sin ... I guess my answer for that is mainly, "God wanted to speak to us, but sin broke our "God sense" so that we can't hear him anymore."

But that begs the further question, "Couldn't God overcome that, though, and make himself heard anyway?"

I guess it has to do with faith, and freedom, and would we really have so much freedom if God were sending angels all the time ... but Our Lady was free, and SHE got an angel, so ... I find myself sometimes yelling, "What the heck, God?"

It's a struggle. It helps, like you said, to expose oneself to real believers, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Simcha Fisher. People who are willing to be real. But every exposure to the harsh, unloving kind of Christian hurts me. I wonder if they worship the same God as I do at all.

This poem has meant a lot to me lately:

And also this:

Sheila said...

Okay, I thought more about what you said (maybe think FIRST, and then type -- that might actually work better for me, hm?) and here's what I got.

I can't believe that God would doom anyone to hell if a word from him would have changed their mind. God does give us what we need, though it might not at every moment be what we want.

In that case, if God speaks to someone, it's because they need it, either for their salvation or for someone else's. If God doesn't speak to me, he must know that I don't need it ... that he has given me the messages I need to find him in other ways, from poetry to nature to the Bible. If these are all he gives me to make himself known, that that IS all I need, even if it doesn't feel like it.

It follows, then, that God must be glorified by my struggles in the dark, that perhaps he uses them to witness to others. Perhaps he's just waiting for me to be ready to hear what he has to say. But either way, he knows -- he HAS to know -- that I am doing my level best here. I can't imagine that he is anything but pleased with my best, or yours.

Simcha Fisher has done it again with her post on praying like the devil. I swear that woman keeps me Catholic.

Meredith said...

I think you must be right, Sheila. There's a wry little voice that tells me I'm only going through these histrionics because I'm really scared of talking to homeless people... or even my own family sometimes, when they need help.

And Simcha Fisher is a goddess! ;)

Laura said...

Okay, I'm poking around your archives still. . . . I know what you mean about the Jerk-God concept. I read a book called "Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try Hard Life" by Emily Freeman. A lot of it is repetitive fluff, but still it really changed the way I think about God and my relationship with Him. A lot of the "good girl" struggles she talks about are similar to what you describe having gone through w/ Regnum Christi.

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