Friday, June 12, 2009

Dark Belief

If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about what someone has called the dark belief. When God turns out not to be who we thought he was, particularly because the circumstances of our life are more painful than the God whom we had imagined would have allowed, cynicism and atheism (or agnosticism, her sister)seem appropriate coping mechanisms. Initially, there is a perverse joy in attributing to others the worst possible motives because, maybe, you feel like you are seeing clearly for the first time —not that others don’t sometimes have mixed or even completely selfish motives. Eventually, however, cynicism leads to intense loneliness and bitterness. If you are lucky, you meet along the way someone who breaks the mold: unpretentious, he just cares about other people. He too has suffered a great deal. He too has passed through the crisis of denying God because God refused to remain in his life the tame, Sunday School, watered-down and simplified God of his fundamentalist childhood. When you meet someone like him, it is possible to have a frightening experience: hope. It is frightening because you don’t want to go back to the anemic cosmology you had before—you know that will just lead you again to cynicism. But instead of going back, what if you went forward, not assuming you know where it will lead. Follow the light, the good. Long for the good. The ancient monks called this Divine Eros. Even in your physical and emotional pain and confusion, you can find pockets of good, small moments and encounters that bring light, in which someone does or says something that seems to be grace-filled. The world is an ugly place (“do not love the world or the things in the world” St. John said), but it is not devoid of good. Following the good is the narrow way. The narrow way leads to life; but the easy way, the obvious way, to death. In Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor chastises Jesus for making the way too difficult. The Inquisitor claims that he (Scholastic Christianity) really loves the people by simplifying Christianity for the people. Whereas Jesus refused to turn stone into bread, the Inquisitor gives bread (easily understood formulas) so the people do not have to struggle with the meaning of the stones in their life. Whereas Jesus refused honor and clear resolution (“If you are the Son of God throw yourself off…”), the Inquisitor provides honorable positions in society and easy answers. How, the Inquisitor argues, could a loving God force people to live with ambiguity? Most western Christians have grown up with the religion of the Grand Inquisitor, not the religion of Jesus.
The question for each of us is will we follow the narrow way? We do not have to run down the path. Limping is fine. Truth be told, if you could see in the hearts of the people you admire, everyone hobbles, crawls and stumbles toward the light. We are all terribly wounded.


Barbara said...

Thank you, Father, this post is very encouraging. I was just thinking today about how in every joy/good there is an element of pain (even if it is just the pain of knowing the joy cannot last). I've become convinced that the pain is as much a part of my salvation as the joy/good.

I like the metaphor of "stones in our lives"! I'm headed to the beach with a 2 1/2 year old. We're probably going to pick up lots of stones and see remarkable creatures. Sometimes you have to look at your stones from all angles. Remind me I said that the next time I am overhelmed by my stones :)

ageleris said...

Dear Fr. Michael,
I so enjoy your blog because of its "earthiness. The stories of the saints that truly experience the Divine Light offer me hope. Oh, how I would long to walk so closely with God. But my own experience often seems closer to the story told by Elie Wiesel of the "Trial of God" carried out by Jews in a Nazi concentration camp. After an extended trial with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and various witnesses a three judge panel "convicted" God of "injustice" in his treatment of the camp inmates. Shortly after the judgment was pronounced someone noticed that it was the hour for evening prayers. Everyone then proceeded to cover their heads with their hands (they had no yarmulkas) and proceeded to pray the traditional prayers as if nothing had happened.
I would so much prefer the "Divine Light" experience of the saints, who, like Fr. Arseny, stayed warm, and alive, for days in the Siberian "freezer." Is the reason I don't experience this because they were far more committed to prayer and purifying themselves from the passions than I am? If so, can someone please help me because I have failed so often in the past that I no longer trust my feeble efforts to even momentarily try? Is the "narrow way" that Jesus told about the way these saints followed? Are they the "saved" and am I among those on the broad way going to hell?

Fr. Michael said...

Dear ag1817,
That holy fathers have been warmed by the Divine Light encourages me move towards the faint warmth, the small sparks that even in my weakness God has allowed me to notice. Accepting that I am only a beginner on the path to holiness is the only sanity. My life is not very holy, at least not by any monastic standard. Neither am I very loving by any standard. But I do say my few prayers. I do try to do acts of kindness. These are not "works" that save me. These are practical, albeit minuscule in comparison to what others do, steps I take toward the Light in the hope that God will see my weak faith and rescue me. I am not and will never be a saint, I have accepted that; but I am a beginner on the road to sainthood, and I may not make it many steps down that road before I die (In fact, at best, I lean down that road and fall and get up and lean and fall--I haven't yet learned to walk on the road to holiness--but I'm on the road, I haven't given up).