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.