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That God exists and that He is good, I have no doubt. But I don’t know what His goodness means.

Some time ago, my old friend R. left the Church. She left because, she said, the pressure of trying to make her everyday experience, all things manifold and strange and painful and joyful and contradictory, fit within the structure of Catholicism, was making her crazy. So she stopped trying to make it fit. I don’t know if she’s happier now, but I suspect she’s closer to sanity than she was before.

That’s not a recommendation for leaving the Church. I don’t think that the thing she left behind was Catholicism, per se; I think it was neurotic guilt over Catholicism. Somebody said1 that whoever runs away from what is hateful is running towards Christ, even if the thing they are running away from is (apparently) Christ too.

So the girl who leaves Catholicism because the only Catholicism she knows is her father’s ultra-conservative, more-Catholic-than-the-Magisterium brand, a Catholicism that is only a mask for misogyny, puritanism, sexual confusion, and the desire for control2 — isn’t she right to run? Won’t she be more likely to find Christ elsewhere, at least for a time; a Christ that won’t call her a whore for wearing pants?3

But isn’t it possible to do what R. did — to run away from what is hateful, untenable, crazy-making — but without leaving? It is good to run from what is toxic. But it is better still to run away from toxic people and toxic ideas while remaining connected to the lifelines of the Church, those streams of cool, healing water that flow ceaselessly from the Sacraments. Healing water that, better than anything else, can wash all the toxicity away.

Towards the end of my four-month ordeal of intense, 24/7 depression, I stopped trying to make sense of it. I stopped asking why God allowed me to experience such pain, and what it meant — whether he was inflicting it on me somehow (whom God loves, he also disciplines) or just allowing it, whether it was a punishment or a purgation or just an inevitability, whether it was my fault or somebody else’s; what I was meant to learn from it, and whether I was failing or succeeding in learning that lesson.

When I stopped trying to figure it out, it wasn’t a decision so much as a submission. I suppose I could have decided to set my teeth and keep wrestling, to try to wring some answer from the Lord. I could have devised some theorem as to how my daily experience — from waking up crying, to choking out the words of a Rosary on the way home from work, to collapsing exhausted by sadness but still unable to sleep at the end of the day — fit with the God of Psalm 23, the God who provides rest and cool water and oil, the God who restores and comforts.

But I couldn’t do it. Whenever I piously told myself that God rescues us from all our troubles, I knew I was lying. Where was God in Auschwitz? Where was God for the 5th-grader who, when I was a teacher, showed me the bruises on legs and throat that his father had given him — showed me casually and with a strange smile, because he didn’t know that normal fathers don’t do this? Where was God for me?

I couldn’t make it fit. And this was a mercy: because belief in a God who never lets his children suffer is belief in a lie. If we believe in such a God, the atheists are right to mock us for it.

The overthrow of a tyrant is a great and dangerous time in the life of a nation. Great, because there is a chance that the next regime will be better than the last. Dangerous, because there is a chance that the next regime will be much, much worse. As with a tyrant, so with an idea or an idol; as with a nation, so with a man.

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walks through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he says, I will return unto my house from which I came out. And when he comes, he finds it swept and in order. Then he goes, and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.4

I am grateful that my false god is dead. I was tired of being disappointed in him, making excuses for him, calling it mercy when all I felt was abandonment, calling it presence when all I felt was absence.

But for the moment I find myself in a power vacuum. I am cautious of all my ideas of God, for fear of setting up another false idol. I want no more tyrants. I want the King to return…

Show me, Lord, finally:

Who are you?

What are you like?

So I cling to the Sacraments, to the Mass, to the word of God, to the wise and holy men and women in my life. I read, and I pray, and I seek counsel, and I wait.

1 Anyone know what quotation I’m thinking of, or who said it?
2 I’m not talking about my R.’s father here. Unfortunately, I am talking about several other real people.
3 Yeah, no joke. That isn’t Catholicism, that’s insanity.
4 Matthew 12:43-45.

33 thoughts on “Power Vacuum

  1. Rebecca

    Emotionally difficult times sometimes cause intellectual confusion. Remember, our hope for happiness centers on happiness in heaven.

    Reply
  2. Christine

    If you find answers to those questions, I hope you will post them. I went through several years of deep depression (including almost a full year of being suicidal), and I’ve never fully come back to a better understanding of who God is and why he allows His children to suffer, even though I’ve come to accept that suffering in my own life.

    Reply
  3. mary

    Well…I too had fallen into the abyss of sadness when I realized years ago, that God was not the God I thought he was. But…in the past few years I have come to understand truly, that in a world without suffering there would be no freedom…no free will at all. This is all I can understand.

    Reply
  4. Melissa

    “I stopped asking why God allowed me to experience such pain, and what it meant — whether he was inflicting it on me somehow (whom God loves, he also disciplines) or just allowing it, whether it was a punishment or a purgation or just an inevitability, whether it was my fault or somebody else’s; what I was meant to learn from it, and whether I was failing or succeeding in learning that lesson.”

    I pray that I’ll get to that point sometime. Sooner rather than later would be nice.

    I admit I’m not completely sure what you’re referring to when you mention your “false god”, though…

    Reply
  5. Will

    Thank you for your sincere and honest words about your questions. I remember when I was 19, going back to Mass after having suffered a very serious depression. I found it hard to believe in a loving God after I had suffered so much. Over time, I have regained my faith and my understanding of God has evolved. I now feel that God is always with me, whatever happens to me. But I need to listen in order to hear God. God wants to reach me, but I have to get out of the way to make room for God. I cannot conceptualize God—when I empty my mind of thoughts and images, then God can enter in.

    Reply
  6. Steves

    Wow! Very personal yet it happens to each of us so it is also a very common experience. I think your questions and exhaustion demonstrate great growth by means of experience. You are right to relate your situation to that of your friend R.

    “But for the moment I find myself in a power vacuum. I am cautious of all my ideas of God, for fear of setting up another false idol. I want no more tyrants. I want the King to return…

    Show me, Lord, finally:

    Who are you?

    What are you like?”

    Would you have recognized God if he had come to the you with your old idea of God? Have you been able to personalize God at all? You read Scripture often and as Catholics we are taught to understand the Bible as the history of humanity’s relationship with God. This is correct but not all of the story. We also teach that God did not whisper in the ear of the human author/dictate the Bible to them. The human author had a real and personal experience with God and out of that God speaks to us and all of humanity, personal yet common to all.

    My questions to you and everyone I meet are, “What’s your story? Tell me about your unique relationship with God. How did you meet? What have y’all been through together? When have y’all been disappointed by each other? It happens! It is 100% okay to tell God that you are disappointed in Him and you were expecting different from Him. He’s a big boy, He can take it!

    Ultimately, you say you are wanting and waiting for the King to return. Is it the King or someone who fits the role, someone distant, unattainable, impersonal, and thus could not possibly know you, judge you fairly, or love you.

    Would it not be better to know a friend who just so happens to be the King too!

    You say, “Show me Lord finally:” What if you just haven’t noticed Him already with you. He is there the same way He is in the Scriptures, lurking beneath the personal experience of the people you encounter each day whispering a message to you.

    I suggest starting with Christ. He took the time to become man so it would be easier for us to encounter/understand Him in our woundedness and treat Him like a friend, not an adult authority figure who is evaluating you and what you say and how you say it and if you were on time or late or in a crappy mood. Just a friend who likes hanging out with you. You know the good kind who don’t hang around expecting you say something profound or waiting to be impressed but just want to hang.

    I hope it helps! The painful part will be letting Him take you back through your early life and show you where He was during those times you don’t like to think about but are always right under the surface. You do come out a stronger more healed person who can finally stop worrying so much. Find the buddy Jesus first then realize He is king! Who knew George Carlin had it right!

    All my best, God Bless,
    Sincerely,
    Steves

    Reply
      1. Tara S

        I can’t find it and so am thinking it mayyyy have been over at Elizabeth Esther’s blog. But yes, it’s probably been said before. :-)

        Reply
  7. Eddie

    I once found great help during a time when I was trying to figure out why God had allowed a particular suffering. I feared I would lose my faith and my pondering was very exhuasting. I was blessed when a friend, a theologian, poet and writer explained something to me. Slowly and kindly. He gently pointed out that God is infinite and our minds are finite. That no amount of thinking or reading to search for answers would lead to an answer I could be sure was correct and stop my questioning. My only choice was to trust God. It was a great help to me and reminded me of how my late Father would quote a verse about trusting God when “dark doubts asail thee…trust Him when to simply trust Him is the hardest thing of all.” I stopped my exhausting thinking and rested in trusting God. One other thing helped. It came to mind that Saints like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, etc. knew, far better and close up, the evils of the world and they continued to believe in a merciful loving God. And in the Catholic Church.

    Now I actually came here today to beg for prayers. For strength and fortitude in coping with being gay while being a caregiver for my Mother and living without one friend and far from Home, a place of exile to me. Being gay isn’t such a problem except when the dark loneliness decends and I just want to go to sleep and not wake up. It is so much worse than I can express. Only G. M. Hopkins can (and did) put it into words.

    Please pray for me. Thank you and God bless you.
    Eddie

    Reply
  8. Christina Grace

    Beautiful reflection, Steve. In my life, the death of my ideas about God and the revelation of who He truly is has been a continuous process. I fall so easily into my ideas (they are easier to handle because I can understand them–after all, I made them up) about Him that allowing Him to be God, really and truly, is part and parcel of the whole lifelong conversion thing. Sigh. I wish it were a once-and-for-all, but at least whenever I fall into worshiping an idol, I become so miserable that I am brought once again to those questions: Who are you? What are you really like?

    Reply
  9. CK

    “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

    I heard that line during a theater production of the Screwtape Letters (http://www.screwtapeonstage.com/) and wept with emotion. What a remarkable, saintly thing, to feel abandoned but remain faithful. You have my prayers Steve.

    Reply
  10. Karyn

    And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Gen. 32:24-28

    Reply
  11. Laurie

    “When I stopped trying to figure it out, it wasn’t a decision so much as a submission.”

    Love this. We’ve all had our own brand of suffering… mine comes most memorably through the death of my child and through a later (seemingly-unrelated, but who knows) period of depression.

    And then came the submission. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts – His ways higher than our ways. God gives and God takes away – blessed be the name of the Lord.

    I can’t explain it now (frustrating because I wish I could just pass it out), but I’m now in that sweet spot where the joy of the Lord is my strength and I’m pretty well living with that peace that surpasses understanding.

    But submission is most definitely easier said than done.

    Thanks for yet another excellent post.

    Reply
  12. Maria

    What if, that is all there is?
    What if that is faith, belief? hope? Trying to trust a weird instinct, and trusting your christian friends and trying to pray and failing, and underlining beautiful things somebody else said about God? But never seeing for yourself.

    What if all I ever know of God is in my weird imagination and glimpses of all the single episodes of my life having one true meaning, but then I say, that’s just me making up a narrative, forget it.
    It’s a bigger mystery to me that God is a mystery- that I am somehow banned from getting to know (well I’m to blame probably but WHO CARES)-than the mere mystery of God & evil. Why aren’t you simple, mmh, God?

    I remember having this feeling all my life. Oh how I would pray as a little girl to Our Lady for just.one.apparition.for.the.tiniest.second.

    I like to pray, stupid as it sounds: God set my life on fire, over and over.

    Reply
  13. SRHS

    When Jacob wrestled with the Lord – literally – in Genesis 32 the Lord asked him a question before He ceased to fight him and finally blessed him: What is your name? (Gen. 32:28). When Jacob was able to know and identify himself, which really only comes from struggling with one’s self, he was able to hear how the Lord identified him, as “Israel” with a very specific purpose and a very specific mission. St. Catherine of Siena also writes very eloquently about self knowledge as a window into knowledge of God.

    Wrestling with God is no picnic. And it’s a fight you WANT to lose in a way. We WANT to know that God is stronger than us, that He is bigger than us. These fights, agonizing as they are, seem to lead to a deeper knowledge of God and of self. And it sounds like you’re getting to that point of surrender, which is exactly where God wants us. Let God be God.

    Lord, you be the cause and I will be the effect. Jesus, I trust you.

    Reply
  14. Brandon

    I heard the statement a few years ago, “Let God be God”, and I think the meaning behind that is kind of what you are describing in this post. We all get it into our heads that God is supposed to be this or that, or give us this or that, or do this or that for us, but a lot of the time, none of what we think is true, or ever comes to pass.

    I remember a passage in the bible, I forget which, but it is of Jesus basically saying that following Him is not always easy and that not all rewards are to be given here on earth. I think of that and try to remember that God’s will and His timing are not my own. I’ve been learning over the years that God KNOWS BEST. And when I start to think about how unfair something is or feel like blaming Him for something or fussing at Him for not helping me as I think He should and when He should, I just try to remember God knows best. My life is in His hands, and I can stop worrying so much because whatever happens, I know it’s for some greater purpose (even if I may never know exactly what purpose it is).

    And I think, overall, God just wants us to live. I think He wants us to live for Him, but I also think He doesn’t want us to be so consumed with rules, regulations, laws, and traditions that we forget how to live or that we spend so much time worrying and striving for those things that we forget to do the good we could be doing. Jesus taught this concerning the old law.

    Anyway, I think you’ve written a really good post here, and I’m glad I read it. Thanks. :)

    Reply
  15. April

    Have you heard of Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross? It’s taught me a lot, and provided comfort. Incidentally, if you have heard of it, what do you think of it?

    Reply
  16. Marcus

    I’ve always wondered, in light of suffering, how in the world religions other than Christianity survive (given that their God didn’t come to earth as a human and suffer.) Quote I happened across on the ‘net:

    “I do not understand suffering – but I know it is real. But a God who is in any way responsible for this terror of our lives, such a God must be terrible, a Molech consuming the children we love in contempt for any individual’s striving and selfhood. But that is not the God revealed in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a man whose life is written to echo the history of his people. Our God shows that he is with us – Emmanuel – in the slime of life, in the pain of life, in the joys of life, and in our death. I still do not know why people should die meaningless deaths, but because God is with us, he can look me in the face and I will not turn away in disgust. This story is so powerful that its symbols grip me absolutely. If all the details are wrong or ahistorical, the story itself remains true. Perhaps it is a dream, although I think not, but the story of Christmas is that life has meaning, humanity is worthwhile, and ultimately “all will be well, and all will be well, and all things will be well”.

    Reply
  17. TS

    Great post. I guess in the end if God wants to protect free will then we have to have an earthly probationary existence in which we hopefully say “Yes”. If it were only bliss, 24-7, I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a choice. Not overly satisfying but… One can look on the bright side: “To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance.” Chesterton’s “Heretics”

    Reply
  18. marcus

    From the Collegeville Commentary on the first reading from a few days ago:

    “The gospel Paul preaches is the power of God (see 1:18; Rom 1:16–17). The gospel is not like any other truth human wisdom can discover. Indeed, human wisdom can obscure the truth of the cross of Christ. The cross IS the gospel.
    The cross divides humankind into two parts, into those who reject it and those who accept its message and are experiencing the power of God. In this sense, the cross is the judgment of God. The cross is also the fulfillment of Isaiah’s warning that God reverses the wisdom of the world (Isa 29:14).

    Suffering, the message of the cross, is certainly one of the greatest human mysteries. This mystery, expressed in Jesus’ passion, is at the center of the gospel preaching. Such preaching rejects two obvious “answers” which make suffering comprehensible, and therefore somewhat acceptable, to human wisdom. These options are either that suffering is punishment for sin or that, in its absurdity, innocent suffering reveals an unjust God. These are the options of the unjust. Both of these possibilities are defied by the mystery of the cross whereby Jesus, the innocent Just One, did not break faith with God.

    Since the cross does not follow human reason, it is an obstacle, a scandal, a stumbling block for both the Jews who expect signs and for the Greeks who look for wisdom. Such expectations blind them so that they cannot see what comes to them, but stumble instead against the “scandal” in their path (see Rom 10:1–2). Conventional wisdom, in the light of the gospel, becomes foolishness: “Whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35). And the folly of the cross that confounds the wise, empowers the foolish for salvation.”

    Reply
  19. Daniel

    Only the Architect of the bridge to Himself can tell us why the bridge was built over dark and swirling waters. A good bridge tender will keep the bridge strong for us, and will help move us forward, but he only knows his own span of the bridge. Don’t look for him to explain the decisions of the Master Architect. That’s not his or our job. Stay on the bridge – with faith and hope — and when you get to the other side, go ahead and ask the Architect to explain the love of it all. I don’t think He’ll mind. At least I hope He won’t mind — because I intend to ask myself. One step at a time, I will cross the bridge.

    Reply
  20. Sarah

    I just wanted to thank you for writing this. I have been having some issues in my relationship with God, and faith, and I’ve been talking to my priest about it, but I could never quite say what I meant.

    I sent him the link to this post and said, “THIS. This is what I mean.”

    Reply
  21. Ellie

    I don’t know the answer, either. It’s a question I keep coming back to, and then putting back on the back burner in hopes that if I take it out a few years down the road, it will make more sense. It hasn’t yet. I hope, I PRAY, that it will for you soon. God Bless.

    Reply
  22. Teresa

    The one silver lining to your suffering that’s obvious to me is that it helps us, your fellow-Christians tarry on knowing we’re not alone in this battle.
    And about your friend R- she sounds just like me. I toyed with the idea of leaving my faith just because I was sick and tired of consulting with God and my conscience and feeling deprived of all the fun and joy I was giving up for Jesus..that was the beginning of a downward spiral- I did go far away from God, and it was horrible, but the stark contrast of that life to the life I knew spent with Jesus- made me turn back[God's grace and mercy found me]. And turns out that my whole relationship with God needed changing. God works in ways we cannot understand. If St.Augustine could be saved by the prayers of his mother- who’s to say R won’t be?:)

    Reply
  23. T

    I’ve battled with depression and anxiety for a long time but having been to counseling for as long and being a moderately intelligent person I feel like I have the tools to overcome or deal with it. Therefore, I feel really guilty for falling into slums and even more for staying there. Am I lazy? I do keep moving on and doing what I can do, but my relationship with God is just as much up and down as everything else in my life. As always, thanks Steve.

    Reply
    1. Steve Gershom

      I doubt you’re lazy. There are people who work at it less hard than you or I do (or maybe not at all?) but just don’t get depressed and anxious to the same degree. Go figure, right?

      Reply
  24. Natalia K.

    Hi! It’s the first time I’ve read your blog (sorry! Didn’t even know about it) and, well, i thought this post was very touching and the most questionable subject about Catholic Religion: suffering. I’ve come to the conclusion that suffering is the consequence of our free will: if you eat too much and too quickly you’re probably going to get sick and God has nothing to do about it but to let us know that eating too much is not good for us. If you got sick because you ate a lot, you can offer (offer?) it as a sacrifice AND it’s a great opportunity for someone else to take care of you and show compassion and charity. So, everything is finally connected: no, you shouldn’t eat too much very often, but when you get sick from eating, you are making opportunities for others to take care of you and show mercyfulness and goodness. Now take my silly food example to a greater level and you get a network of chances and interactions between human beings. Suffering and Happiness are just two ways in which we can show our Love to one another and to God…Did I made any sense to you?

    Reply

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