Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I thought I was over this

In the earlier part of this year, I wrote about seeking God.  I confessed some of the struggles I have with my Catholic faith.  And then I wrote some hopeful posts which seemed to close the story.  I felt like the story was closed.  I had some doubts; I prayed about them; I read some things (The Case for Christ and the Pope's homilies, mostly); and I put my doubts to bed.  I just kind of made up my mind that I was sure enough that it's all true that any continued doubting and dithering was just holding me back.  I wasn't going to be held back from practicing my faith just because I was having a hard time with it.

But it's not that simple.  These things don't go away.  Mostly, it's not even a matter of having questions.  It's more of a shift in perspective.

Here's an image that might help me explain.  My mom has terrible astigmatism.  She used to wear contacts.  The trouble is, contacts for astigmatism only work when they are the right way up.  She'd blink -- yay! clear vision! -- and then blink again, they would rotate, and everything was a blur.

It's that way for me.  I'm kneeling in the pew, at the consecration.  I'm listening and watching what's going on.  I'm believing in it, or I think I am.  And then suddenly my perspective shifts and I see myself as one of a crowd of credulous sheep watching a man in a dress do some curious hocus-pocus that obviously means nothing.

It's terrifying.  I guess I doubt my own mind.  I've been deceived in the past.  I'm not really very bright, when it comes to making judgments like that.  I easily believe what other people I respect believe.  How can I ever know I'm not just being played on by an enormous hoax?

Now I have many answers for this, reasons I've looked up and evidence I know of.  I think about Jesus and how the historical evidence is better for him than it is for most people in the ancient world and that the apostles clearly wouldn't have died for their belief if they knew it was a hoax.  I know enough about cults to know that usually someone profits off them, and no one was profiting over early Christianity.  I know that the beliefs of the early Church look very much like what is believed by the Catholic Church today.

But I don't know.  I don't know at all.  I wonder then if I should still go up for communion and hope that the grace of the sacrament helps my unbelief ... or if I should run screaming from the church because I just can't bear this another second.

Most of the non-Catholics I know are ex-Catholics.  These are people I also like and respect.  And I wonder, maybe they're the ones who have seen the light and we haven't?  The questions they ask, I can't answer.  Like "Why do you believe?"

I believe because Jesus' message is better than any other message anybody else has.  I believe because loving someone enough to die for them is an admirable thing.  Enough that, if Jesus never rose from the dead, his moral teachings would still be a good thing to follow.

And I believe because I'm not the sort of brave, principled person who says "I am not going to lie and pretend I believe when I can't."  I am the sort of person who would keep going to church for sixty years just because it doesn't hurt me, whereas leaving would hurt everyone I love.

But that's sort of a long way from what we call "faith."

I'm pretty good at answering people's questions with a "Catholic answer."  But I still have questions that keep me up at night, questions I can't answer.  I know the Catholic answers, and they just don't strike me as adequate.  Questions like these:

* In the New Testament, after baptism the apostles would lay their hands on people and the Holy Spirit would rush upon them, in such a way that it couldn't be ignored.  Wind, tongues of fire, speaking in different languages.  They would rush out and preach in the streets.  When I was confirmed --- in fact, when everyone I know was confirmed -- I felt nothing.  Not one person spoke in tongues.  I was just as scared to run around preaching as before.

What happened?  Is confirmation broken?  Why doesn't it appear to work?

* How much stuff is infallible?  It bothers me that we can claim to possess infallible teaching, but no one can tell me which ones they are.  If we don't know what it is, can it really be infallible?  Take "no salvation outside the Church."  Infallible, right?  But we've changed the understanding of it to the point that it means something completely different from how medieval Catholics understood it -- which was that any person not part of the visible Church goes to hell.  Are we next going to find that some other doctrine isn't really true the way we have all been understanding it?  This is no small problem.  A huge contingent of Catholics and schismatics still holds onto the old understanding and claims all non-Catholics go to hell.  Meanwhile an even larger group takes the change as evidence that "everything changed in Vatican II and so I don't have to believe anything I don't want to anymore."

And don't get me started on "stuff that isn't infallible but we have to believe or practice anyway."  That just makes me mad.  I want a shortish list of stuff to work through, to try to believe, not a 1000-page catechism to read and believe in.  That's a lot of stuff.  How can we be sure about that much stuff?

*Why is grace undetectable?  I know people who will tell me, "I always feel worse when I haven't been to confession in awhile," or "I'm always on top of a cloud after Mass, must be all that grace."  I am not one of those people.  I never in my life have been.  I'm highly sensitive and very introspective.  I can tell when a friend of mine is out of sorts from across a crowded room and I frequently analyze my own moods and try to find the roots of them.  But I can't find any connection between how I feel or my interior disposition or how easy it is for me to do virtuous things and the level of grace that I supposedly have.  I was so miserable and made so many bad choices back when I went to daily Mass.  Now I am not so good with the praying but my life seems very much on track.  How can something be going on with my soul on a spiritual level and be completely undetectable to myself?

*Why are there so few people who believe a Catholicism that is both rational and merciful?  On the one hand you have pious people who believe that they shouldn't make decisions, but seek signs from God for every one.  Saw a rose today?  It's from St. Therese, it means you should totally do whatever it was you were thinking about.  That is not rational to me.  It doesn't appear to be supported by Catholic teaching, either.  On the other hand are the Catholic jerks, like the guy who leaped on my agnostic friend's wall and told him he was going to hell before unfriending him.  I don't see that supported by Catholic teaching either.

But why are there so few good Catholics out there?  Is it possible that I'm just following my own gut and moral code which tell me things like "looking for signs is dumb" and "you should never be mean," rather than actually getting this stuff from Catholicism?  Maybe the "bad" Catholics are the real kind, and the people I like aren't reflecting true Catholicism.

*On that note, why don't Catholics behave any better than anyone else?  Sure, there are outliers.  The saints were good people.  So was Gandhi, and he wasn't Catholic.  But in the Middle Ages, the whole of Europe was Catholic and they still killed each other incessantly -- and I mean apart from religiously-motivated violence.  Nowadays Europe is almost all nonreligious and it's at peace.  Weird, huh?  If just being Catholic didn't make all the kings of Europe better people, what makes me think it will make me a better person?

Now these are all just questions.  I don't necessarily think there's no answer; I can think of okay ones, but not good enough answers to keep them from bothering me again.  Sometimes they just motivate me: if Catholics aren't good, I should be better.  If no one really follows Jesus' teaching, I should do it at least.

And sometimes I just think, "There has to be a better reason to stay Catholic than the ones I have."

I'm reading Pope Francis, I'm reading the Gospel, I'm trying to pick up on the beautiful words of these good people and bring them into my life.  I figure even if Jesus were an imaginary friend, he'd be a good one to have around.  I try to live like a good Catholic, and much as I dislike going to church, I still go.  But that isn't really enough for me.

I want to believe.


Kori said...

I've commented before when you've posted similar things and I can relate to everything you are saying. My husband says that the chastisement of the modern age is spiritual dryness and I am inclined to agree with him. And so, I keep plugging away at it, hoping that ultimately I'm doing the right thing.

Enbrethiliel said...


So is next year's word going to be BELIEVE?

Now, believe it or not (Ha!), I've been thinking similar thoughts lately--not just about what my word for next year shall be, but also about some of the issues you bring up here.

You might recall reading in my private Grace blog that I used to believe very strongly in the occult, to the point that I even interpreted the Scriptures and other Catholic traditions by their light. I snapped out of it thanks to two things: the grace of feeling revolted when I saw clearly, for the first time, the links between occult/pagan beliefs and abortion . . . and the grace of faith.

But it is so easy to snap back. One reason being that I was able to believe in all those occult things in the first place because they made some sense. And they were never debunked or disproved to me, though they were exposed as monstrous. Another reason is that I often idly think that a certain person would make a perfect textbook example of someone born in a certain year or a certain month . . . and turn out to be right! A third reason is that I grew up in a haunted house. =P

Then there's the grace of faith. Only by receiving it did I really come to understand how mysterious it is. If someone were to ask me why I believe, I wouldn't even attempt to give a rational answer. I would say that I believe because God, in His mercy, decreed it to be so.

I still fall off the wagon a lot, but I've made a new commitment to stay on. I'll write more about it in a while . . .

Tiffany said...

Shelia, I've been thinking about you a lot. Praying for you, dear one.

Sheila said...

Aw, thank you, Tiffany.

Kori, that's pretty much what I'm doing. Plugging away while feeling so unsure. I figure it's better than leaving.

I hate the occult passionately. Not even tempted. Even thinking about the devil gives me such a sense of spiritual oppression that I don't do it. If I heard a house I lived in was haunted, I'd move. Can't stand the stuff.

And yet as a kid I truly believed in psychic powers and also pantheism. Those don't bother me somehow.

One thing that is helping me is developing a whole worldview of the imagination ... that is, the mythos of my fantasy stories is Catholic, but with enough color and detail to satisfy my imagination. I don't think it's heretical to have my own mini-theology in this way. At least, I hope not.

The grace of faith is another thing I don't really get. How do you get this wonderful thing? Just by praying a lot? If you spend an hour of every day thinking certain things and studying certain things, you will tend to believe it ... even if it's untrue. How can you tell the grace of faith from the reality of convincing yourself?

Enbrethiliel said...


There are times when I can't tell the grace of faith apart from my own personal convictions, but the last time I truly felt it as a grace was the Sunday after Pope Francis's election, when I was still depressed over it. While waiting for Mass to start, I thought about my options if it got any worse, and I ended up paraphrasing St. Peter to myself: "But where would I go? The words of eternal life are here." And I cried through the whole Mass because I knew that I could never leave.

But yes, it's tricky. There are some days when I "remember" all my past lives again, or when I sense someone else's "karma" and turn out to be right. Those are doozy days.

I love the image Pope Benedict XVI borrowed of a man tied to a cross, which is in turn tied to a raft, which is adrift in the middle of nowhere: he said that this is the situation of every Christian, and it is certainly so for me. And it may seem the equal of all the other rafts in the world, but for one difference: that we believe it stays afloat because in the beginning there was reason.

R. T. Sender said...

If faith were something that you could be certain of, it wouldn't be faith, it would be knowledge. For us living humans, we are always going to have to approach faith from a standpoint of uncertainty, and that is why Catholicism defines Faith is an act of the will. It is a choice we must make, so to me it's rather odd to speak as if it lacks personal integrity to profess something you "can't" believe. While I can see that perspective, I don't ultimately agree with it. You either choose to believe or you don't. What you feel like you believe doesn't really matter in the end. "Going through the motions" of this religion regardless of my feelings - to me, that's not hypocrisy any more than "going through the motions" of acting loving towards my family regardless of how much I want to wring their necks is hypocrisy.

The reason I have chosen to continue to believe is pretty much my agreement with Dostoyevsky's proposition "Without God, everything is permitted." I can see no reason why moral rules should be followed if God does not exist.

Maybe I just naturally incline towards a utilitarian view, rather than a pure "search for the ultimate truth" philosophical view. You can't know the ultimate truth with any certainty. So why angst over it? Just use Pascal's wager and wait 'til you're dead. Then you'll know. Or, in the absence of knowing, you won't exist to care one way or the other.

Salixbabylonica said...

Whoops, that's me (salixbabylonica), in case you can't tell. Somebody keeps using my computer and forgetting to log himself out.

Sheila said...

I didn't think that sounded much like RT!

You remind me of a motto I try to live by, "Never let fear of being a hypocrite stop you from doing the right thing." After all, if people think I'm a hypocrite, I'm not much of a success at being a hypocrite!

However, it is rather frustrating to attempt to pray when you aren't sure you're not talking to a wall. And I'm not convinced you can get to heaven simply by going through some motions because "what the heck, can't hurt."

The moral law is a better proof than anything I can think of. Simply reading an atheist forum arguing about what the moral law should be makes me think that, if God exists at all, he would have been beyond cruel to give us no guidance about how to live.

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