To whom shall we go?

September 11, 2007 | Atheism, Conversion, Spiritual Dry Spells | 14 comments

Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about spiritual dry spells in light of all the media coverage of Mother Teresa’s “dark night of the soul”. (Not that Mother Teresa’s loss of spiritual consolation is really news, since Christians have known about it for years, but nevertheless it’s hard not to think about it since it’s getting so much media and blog coverage.)

It’s particularly interesting to me since, oddly, my conversion started in a dark night of the soul. After reading the works of great apologists like C.S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and other less famous authors, I came to believe on an intellectual level that God exists and that the Christian claims are true. Yet I felt nothing. I had sort of expected that God would throw me a bone after all my years of unbelief, that once I said, “OK, Lord, I believe in you, ” that I’d hear a chorus of angels and be flooded with peace and joy. I thought that I would instantly “love” Jesus like all my Christian friends from childhood did, that God would touch me on an emotional level in at least some small way.

But that didn’t happen.

Weeks stretched into months, months turned into a year, then two years, as I plodded along in my spiritual quest, feeling almost nothing. I often started my prayers with little jokes like, “Is this thing on?” and ended with, “I am totally talking to myself here. This is weird…Amen.” I would sit in the pew at Mass and numbly listen to the scripture readings. I watched without emotion as the priest consecrated the host. I looked at the tabernacle and the crucifix and felt nothing.

So why didn’t God reveal himself to me, and why did I keep going?

As for the first question, I would say that he did reveal himself. His presence was all around me, it always was, I had just looked right past it. Kindness, love, peace, hope, joy, recognition of true beauty — these things don’t come from molecules alone. Just because I didn’t immediately feel thrilled about it doesn’t mean God didn’t show himself to me.

But it’s easy to give up when you don’t have strong emotions, what are often called spiritual “consolations”, to make the practice of faith pleasant for you. So why didn’t I, a lazy quitter who is notorious for not following through on plans as soon as they get inconvenient, give up? I thought about it a lot at the time. I made the calculation of how much more free time I’d have if I cut out things like Mass on Sunday, spiritual reading, daily Mass, prayer, praying the Rosary, etc. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t even bring myself to seriously entertain the idea. Walking away wasn’t an option.

The reason I wouldn’t — couldn’t — give up is beautifully summarized in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. The day after Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fishes, a crowd followed him to Capernaum. He started preaching again, and ended up laying out some hard, inconvenient teachings. Many people left him (even after he’d performed an amazing miracle just the day before), and walked away to return to their former ways of life.

Jesus turned to the twelve apostles and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter’s response, so disarmingly simple, often echoes through my mind: “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

When I felt discouraged by never having “felt” God’s presence, by having so few consolations for the great effort I put into my faith, I’d remember the words of Peter. If I leave, to whom shall I go? Now that I had heard the Christian explanation for this crazy experience we call life, nothing made sense without it. Having taken a look around through the Christian lens, seeing beauty and suffering and good and evil and hope and tragedy and life and death as seen by the Christians and their Church, I could no longer make sense of the world without it. It was like finally finding the box top that made all the puzzle pieces come together.

When I think of Mother Teresa, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and all the other great saints who experienced spiritual dryness, I often imagine that this is perhaps how they felt about faith as well. Perhaps they took a look at how absurd life would seem without God and his teachings, at the immense fruits that came from their lives when they lived as if God did exist. Perhaps they also thought of Peter’s simple question, “To whom shall we go?” and realized there’s no one else to go to, for there’s only one Truth.

For me anyway, my feelings on dark nights of the soul are this: sometimes it might be hard to believe it’s true. But it’s impossible to believe it’s not true.

14 Comments

  1. Radical Catholic Mom

    I always thank St. Peter for that timeless question because it is a question that has kept me in the Church during some very trying times. What is my alternative? I always come back to this crucial question and the answer keeps me strong.

  2. Literacy-chic

    Excellent. My conversion started with the realization that it was Catholicism or nothing (meaning no organized religion, only vague “belief”–VERY vague). And I was no longer content with “nothing.” I Admit to having quite a bit of sustained spiritual dryness which, after the initial elation of conversion, is disappointing. I am disappointed in myself, that is. It feels like I’m not trying hard enough. All this by way of saying I really appreciate this post!

    Hope new baby (and fuller house) things are all going well!!

  3. Milehimama

    My conversion/reversion was similar. It started with a Jack Chick tract and ended with… deafening silence from above.

    What really pushed me “over the Tiber” was I had a miscarriage. When I first began spotting, I started crying, praying, pleading… bargaining. “If the baby is okay, I’ll go to church” kind of thing.

    We lost the baby anyway. Apparently my ways are not God’s ways!

    And I ended up converting, anyway.

    Thanks for the post, and hope that baby is doing better! It’s funny how even old pros worry about every little thing with a newborn!
    Baby X is my SEVENTH and I still fret over his fussing, or his lack of fussing or his sleeping or his lack of sleeping…
    🙂

  4. Christine

    Thank you so much for this post, it’s beautiful and great to hear in a world of feelings – and if you don’t feel it, don’t do it.

    I’m so impressed that you can write such beautiful posts with a newborn – I always feel kind of brain-dead for a while after the birth of my little ones.

  5. cordelia

    thank you that was beautiful…hope the breasts are doing better!

  6. fivemurfs

    I’ve had undiagnosed depression for 25 years. During that time the only time I ‘felt’ God was when it was diagnosed and I started taking meds. They had bad side effects and when I changed to a different med, the consolations went away as fast as they came. I’ve battled with atheism for as long as I’ve had depression and I believe they are connected. Consider the case of Friedrich Nietzsche, and my brother who lost the battle because he couldn’t ‘feel’ God. If you can ‘feel’ God, it’s not so hard to believe. If you can dismiss God easily it’s not so hard to be an atheist. I’ve always had to work hard to keep my faith and I have to believe God will reward me someday.

  7. Ouiz

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for such a wonderful post! I would get sooooooo jealous when I would read those “I accepted the Lord/returned to the Catholic Church/whatever and the floodgates opened and rapturous joy just washed all over me” type stories. I felt like a spiritual reject for so many years because all I got were the sounds of crickets… chirping….

    No angels. No “nuthin.” I was sure that God just hated my guts, because obviously He was rejecting me in a big way.

    As time has gone on and I have (hopefully) matured somewhat, I can say that not feeling anything is a grace — for an emotional person like me, I would follow anything that gave me those “spiritual goosebumps”. I can see now that following feelings would lead me down some pretty spiritually dangerous territory!

  8. Sarahndipity

    I am also very impressed that you can keep up with your blog while having a newborn. 🙂

    I love the boxtop analogy. I think it’s perfect. I’m a cradle Catholic and while I’ve always known that God exists and that the Catholic Church is true, I can’t say I’ve ever had any rapturous feelings or anything like that. For me, it’s more of a knowing than a feeling. I just know the Catholic Church is true. My faith is not emotional per se, but it’s also not purely intellectual. I guess the best word to describe it is intuitive. Does that make sense? 🙂

    I do experience emotions relating to my faith from time to time, but they’re more feelings of calm and contentment than rapturous joy. I’ve never had any overwhelming spiritual experiences where I started crying or anything like that. I think I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really need that, though – it might be too overwhelming. I’m more comfortable with a quiet contentment and those sorts of feelings. I guess everyone experiences God in a different way according to their personality and what God knows they need.

  9. Jennifer F.

    I’m so impressed that you can write such beautiful posts with a newborn.

    If there’s ever anything beautiful about anything I write it is ALL Holy Spirit, I assure you. 🙂 Also, the ability to be coherent comes and goes. Here’s my post for today: “Unngh. Rrrrhg. Phhhhhft.”

    Bad night last night, followed by a bad morning. Thank God you can’t die from sleep deprivation.

  10. Denise

    I have to second the comment about writing a beautiful post while having a newborn (although I also see your comment about having a rough night…sorry to hear that!)…but truly, this is such a thought provoking, beautiful post.

    I’ve gone through dry spells and and “the chorus of angels”, but as a cradle Catholic my faith is just something I knew to be true xregardless of what I “felt”. Thank you for pointing me to St. Peter’s quote…I wasn’t familiar with it and it is such an awesome one!!

    Blessings to you for a good night’s rest!r

  11. La gallina

    I have had a VERY similar experience in conversion and the lack of a chorus of angels appearing over my head and singing “Hallelujah.” I’ve never felt the joy or that Jesus was sitting next to me or even the love for Jesus.

    But I also know that there is now no way I can NOT believe. It’s probably good that there are those of us who never feel a big earth shaking presence. Otherwise some would just chalk it all up to overly-emotional people having “pseudo religious experiences.”

  12. Angie

    Jennifer,
    I just have to say that I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. I plan to come back and read more soon!

    Angie

  13. oliver

    I wanted to know if there is no god, then what? my faith was being tried ..like reason had an upper hand proving that all things are just there, and when your gone your no more but a breath that walked the earth . And still my soul wanted to believe though it wanted to give up believing when this verse came to my mind “Lord then to whom shall we go ” So i did a search on the net to find your athiestic past which inspired me, as you i have felt nothing …… and wondered how do i keep the flame of faith burning….. Quest is on everyday when i wake i question my life…

  14. Ken

    I truly beleive that, like you said, God is revealing Himself all the time, I just miss it for one reason or another. I have been on a 20-some year rollercoaster of cradle catholicism, questioning catholicism, coming back to catholicism, then questioning christianity, questioning God, wondering if I really was an ahteist, now coming back to my beleif in God and Catholicism slowly.
    Your blog is the best thing that has happened to me in this struggle, and through the fog, I can tell it is a sign from God that I stumbled across your site 🙂

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