Suppressing the soul

April 12, 2007 | Atheism, Conversion, Spiritual Dry Spells | 9 comments

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science…He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

– Albert Einstein

When I think back on my spiritual journey, I am sometimes surprised that I ever got to where I am today. Even just reading through the archives of this blog makes me recall how little faith I had (anyone remember this post?), how many questions there were and how skeptical I felt. I asked myself as I was getting dressed for Easter Vigil, What kept me going? Why did I stay on this path when prayer after prayer seemed to go unanswered, when I had no great visions or signs, no big religious experiences?

The biggest part of the answer, of course, is that Church teaching smacked of truth. It explained the world far better than anything else I’d ever heard. I thought that this may very well be the box top. But, as I found out, reason will only get you so far when it comes to knowing God. Your heart has to be involved as well — and that was the big sticking point for me. Without having that “personal relationship” with Jesus that so many people talk about, many times I came close to throwing in the towel and simply deciding that having faith must not be for me.

But one thing kept my search moving forward through all the ups and downs: the relief that hit me like a waterfall when I finally acknowledged my soul. All my life I had denied its existence, and I was suffocating.

I remember the first time I ever set foot in an old, great cathedral. I was a teenager on vacation in Mexico City with my family and we swung by the 17th century Metropolitan Cathedral (photo here) as part of our touristy stops. I had been busy looking for a new purse at the street vendors outside and shuffled along apathetically when my parents wanted to go in and see this historic building.

When I first stepped through the towering doors it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. When I could see again, I was awestruck. Never in my life had I seen — and felt — such a thing. I took slow, deep breaths to steady myself as I took it all in. The thought “God is here, ” immediately popped into my mind. I quickly dismissed this random, irrational statement that had just come out of nowhere, and took a seat in a back pew. I wanted to stay here. I felt like I could just sit and sit in this place and never tire of it. I saw a few old ladies praying in the pews in front of me, and for once it didn’t seem irrational. It seemed like exactly what one ought to be doing in this surreal place. As I gazed at the altar way in the front of the building, lit mostly by candlelight, I felt deeply conflicted.

As with other times in my life I’d experienced great awe and wonder, something seemed horribly amiss. I had to consciously remind myself not to get too wrapped up in these feelings I was experiencing since, after all, they were nothing more than chemical reactions in my brain. I kept wanting to place more meaning on them than that, but would admonish myself not to be silly. Any sort of beauty or importance I ascribed to places like this were a product only of some neurons firing in my head, and nothing more.

I similarly had to remind myself not to overestimate feelings like love and sorrow since, again, they were only chemical reactions in my brain. It was hard work. Because what I was ultimately doing was denying my very soul.

Every time I experienced awe like that day in the cathedral there was something inside me that was screaming to be known, demanding that I admit that this place had a beauty that existed independent of the neurons in my brain — that if I and every other person died tomorrow it would still be beautiful and still be important, because its value was not of this world, not given to it by humans. When I heard of people being treated unjustly, there was that inconvenient feeling again, shouting that this was wrong not just because I perceived it to be so and not just because my species had evolved an instinct that drove me to believe it is so, but because there is such a thing as objective wrong, the truth of which comes from a place far removed from the material world. And when I thought of the family and friends for whom I felt deep love, I couldn’t help but feel that they mattered much, much more than a more complex version of a gnat should. I felt so strongly that they had great value that came from somewhere or something completely independent of humans. That if they died, their deaths would be something much bigger than the mere cessation of chemical reactions.

My soul was crying out to be heard, but I suppressed it every time. “Where’s the proof?” I’d think. “Science has not shown that there is something mysterious about this cathedral or something other than evolved chemical reactions driving my feelings of love for my family, ” I’d insist, blowing it all off as wishful superstitious thinking.

It took a lot of determination and a very hard head to exclude all but the immediate, material world from my life. The fact that there is a meaning to our existence, that there’s another realm, that our knowledge of objective good and evil comes from somewhere else, was really the most obvious thing in the world. But I couldn’t get comfortable with the vulnerability that came with venturing into that territory, so I denied it all. And, over time, it made me feel a little less alive. A soul suppressed starts to wither.

I’m not exactly sure what it was two years ago that started my spiritual journey. There were a lot of factors at play. But a big, big part of what kept me searching down this path was the deep relief and satiety I felt when I stopped suppressing my soul. When I would hear a stirring piece of music or drive through the mountains or hold my newborn child, I could finally let the beauty of it all wash over me and recognize it for what it was. After years of suffocation, my soul could finally breathe.

9 Comments

  1. Johnny Vino

    Those are such beautiful thoughts. What makes them even more beautiful is they’re not unique. It seems like everyone who reaches a certain point in that journey of discovering Christ seem to bubble over with joy and awe. If you haven’t read it, I bet you’ll really enjoy this conversion story from the historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.

    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=2597&var_recherche=elizabeth+fox+genovese

    Peace of Christ,
    JV

  2. lyrl

    It’s beautiful that your journey has led you to more fully experience your soul.

    For myself, I believe that “if I and every other person died tomorrow it would still be beautiful and still be important” because it had been appreciated. Time is a dimension like any other dimension – just because you walk down a path does not mean the portion you walked on ceased to exist. Just because we travel into the future does not mean the past ceases to exist – that moment of awe always exists.

    I also find wondrous how connected everything in the universe is. From the undetectable temperature variations in the early universe that caused the creation of galaxies, to the particle entanglement that causes seemingly unconnected objects to dramatically influence each other, to one of the prayers said before Kaddish at my synagogue, which I can’t remember exactly, but reminds us how much good in our life we owe to so many people who have been lost to history. It is owing to these souls that our lives are not half so bad as they might have been. Just because we don’t understand the connection (the butterfly effect is beyond human prediction) doesn’t mean we have to declare it doesn’t exist.

    I hope that at least makes some sense as to how an agnostic can find life profoundly meaningful.

  3. beez

    Jen,

    Recently, I came to a certain understanding and your blog has helped me. This post fits right in with all of it.

    So many of us spend all of our time expecting our hearts to lead and our minds to follow. In fact, our minds do an incredible job of telling our hearts to just shut up! We, as thinking, rational beings, don’t want something irrational to enter into the mix.

    So, how nice is it when we finally say, this time I am going to let my mind lead, and my heart will follow. The great irony is, that when we finally allow ourselves to think what our heart tells us, when we engage our rational thought in those otherwise irrational “feelings,” suddenly the feelings don’t seem nearly as irrational. The irony is, when we think we’re putting our brain in control, what we’re really doing is telling ourselves to listen, quietly, to the voice that speaks to us through our hearts.

    It takes a while, but eventually our heart learns to trust our mind. Eventually, that which we have now chosen to believe in our minds again takes up residence in our hearts.

    The Leap of Faith that God demands of us, isn’t an act of feeling, but an act of will. It’s mental, before all else. You have discovered that, once that mental decision is made, the heart joins in its own time.

    Welcome to full communion with the Church! May God continue to bless you and your family.

  4. Jen

    Wow, Jen! Thank you for your thoughts on your spiritual journey. It seems my own spiritual journey thrives on analogies, and my spiritual epiphanies come because I see an irony or an analogical pattern between the spiritual and physical realities. Everything is joined together in life, regardless if the parts understand it.

    I have always been fascinated by the majestic old buildings of faith, in their design and in their inspiration. Sometimes I wonder if I took a wrong turn and veered away from a calling to work in architecture, but I feel so fascinated by it. I’ve written some of my thoughts in my blog. I am continually amazed by the touch of God that surrounds me.

  5. Jennifer

    Jen:

    I was just thinking the other day what a miracle your conversion experience has been and what a blessing it has been to be able to witness its unfolding.

    There is an interesting book called The Death of the Soul by a guy named Barrett who traces how the soul has been, as you described, “suppressed” as Western philosophy evolved.

    You might dig it, chick.

  6. Tricia

    Divinely poetic and music to my own soul.

    Welcome home…may the journey never end…

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  8. Leah

    This is absolutely beautiful. I had a very similar experience visiting Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Minnesota last summer, almost a year after I’d concluded that there was no God after all. I gazed up and couldn’t help but weep. Inscribed on the wall was “Truly this is none other than the house of God and the gateway to heaven.” Truly indeed. I don’t believe it’s the only gateway, but undenably a gateway.

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