To whom shall we go?

May 25, 2009 | 16 comments

This post was originally published on September 11, 2007.

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.” It’s particularly interesting to me since, oddly, my conversion started in a dark night of the soul. After reading stacks of books by the 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 walked away — even after seeing him perform an astounding miracle just the day before — and returned to their old 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, understanding 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. I had always found atheism to be reasonable, with good explanations of life and the universe around us; but Christianity, I found, was more reasonable, taking all that was true from the atheist worldview and adding to it to offer a vastly better explanation of life and the world that spoke to the entirety of the human experience. I had finally found the box top that made all the puzzle pieces come together.

When I think of all the holy people throughout the ages who experienced spiritual dry spells, 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 spiritual dryness borne of periods of doubt are this: sometimes it might be hard to believe it’s true. But it’s impossible to believe it’s not true.


  1. MyID.config.php

    Hi Jennifer! I was halfway through leaving a comment when I realized it was turning into a whole post of my own. So I posted it to my blog instead. Here’s a link. Thanks for the inspiration. Your blog is always a pleasure to read.

  2. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jennifer, I appreciate these post repeats, in light of the fact that I have not been with you all that long. These words, to whom shall we go, have come up numerous times in my mother-faith groups. It is a fair question, for there is simply nowhere else to turn but to Jesus, who offers hope unlike anyone in the history of the world. And hope is what impels us forward in this life. I am so glad you’ve discovered this. Indeed, it is what sustains us during those times of flat emotion, the dark nights of the soul. Peace to you!

  3. SursumCorda

    I think of Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, when the Witch tells them there is no Aslan, no Narnia.

  4. Lana

    Would you mind sharing (in twenty words or less!) what led you to opt for the Catholic over other Christian Churches such as the Orthodox or Protestant traditions?

  5. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Thanks, all, for your comments! Lana, I touched on that a bit in this post.


  6. Pfp3160

    Love your thoughts! I’ve been struggling in my faith for years….what advice have you for someone who can accept emotionally but not intellectually the Christian religion? I seem to have experienced your conversion experience in reverse! Thanks again for your example of faith!

  7. Em the luddite

    I had a Norwegian friend who grew up an atheist and found himself persuaded by the plausibility of Christianity. He spent two years trying to be a Christian, and eventually admitted that he still didn’t actually believe, even though he had tried. Sometimes it still puzzles me, and aside from my frustration with God for failing to meet my friend in a way he could identify, it makes me ponder what faith is.

    I think that I as a Protestant grew up thinking that faith was a feeling… it was feeling something in your spirit to be true that would not be overcome by any other data or hardship. Sometimes we also associate faith with knowledge, I guess, with knowing the right doctrine. I think (correct me if I’m wrong) Catholics seem to connect faith more closely with obedience, with submitting to God and to the Church, independent of whether or not the feelings or knowledge line up at that point.

    Anyway, all that to say, your story made me wonder what the difference between your experience (that indeed seems to be one of faith) and that of my friend (that at this stage of the game does not) is. It seems like you could have easily gone his way. Do you suppose you did not merely because of the evidence?

    Sorry that was long… I’m just thinking out loud here.

  8. Gina

    In this post, you’ve truly summed up what having faith is really about. It’s not about what a person feels. It never was. It’s about accepting truth, no matter how little it makes sense, and applying that truth to our lives.

    Excellent post…totally worth being a rerun!

  9. Megan@SortaCrunchy

    Jenn, thanks for reposting this. When my faith has been the most rattled, this is the statement I have returned to time and again, Lord, to whom shall I go? I would say it is one of the most powerful truths that has guided my spiritual journey.

  10. The Burgess family

    Thanks so much for this post, well put! I have felt this way (esp recently when some friends left Christianity and I couldn’t make sense of how they could live that way), I tried to explain it to people but they just thought I sounded depressed. So thanks for explaining it better. So true!

  11. amy

    Even though I’ve been following your blog for quite a while, I also appreciate the repeats.

    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.I found myself walking away over and over but (in the past) always coming back. Going on three years now, I’m finding it more and more difficult to come back lately. Kind of like Pfp3160, I too seem to be drawn to Christianity on an emotional level but have great difficulty with the intellectual aspect.

    I don’t like the idea of Christianity not being true, or rather I should say I like the idea of a God who cares, and the idea of there being a purpose to the suffering and evil of the world, but just wanting it to be true doesn’t make it click for me.

    At any rate, thank you for your blog. Wherever I end up in my spiritual journey, your words have often been an encouragement.

  12. Anonymous

    Hi Jen, Great post! I think about faith all the time. I see the Church is right in identifying it as a gift. It is. Some receive it and some don’t. I also have observed people losing their faith entirely-so it’s not like once you have it you always have it. Sometimes I think-the earth has always been round even when people believed it to be flat. So if I lose my faith that doesn’t change the truth,just how I am seeing it. My faith is 100% intellectual at this point mostly b/c I have tested the words of Christ and found them to be true in my life. I pray to have an emotional response to faith but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s not really my style anyway-Thanks for this blog!

  13. rebecca

    i love this post. just love it. i have nothing really to say except that i really do understand what you’re saying on a very profound level. thank you.

  14. Lesley-Anne Evans

    Jennifer, I’ve just found you at Conversion Diary 🙂 and I’m loving your approach, loving your face-wide-open no-holes-barred way of writing… and thinking. This particular post is very good, I think, because it’s so simple yet so profound… something I can remember and say in one sentence… not being one who is prone to long discussions about faith (apologetics, nope!)It amazes me that you can write what you do with all your kids milling about… that’s a gift in itself.
    Anyway, reading and following with much interest.


  15. Kelly @ Love Well

    That last sentence is KILLER. It says it all, really.

    When I’ve been most lost in my life, when I’m angry at God and in agony in my soul, I hit the bottom and think, “Yet, where else can I go?”

    He is The Only.

  16. peterr55

    Hey Jennifer, I love your blog. I too made the same journey, whereas I always felt the presence of God, I didn't feel it in the way I thought it should be. Now 13 years a Catholic, I am going to be ordained as Permanent Deacon. I have found in my journey, as you did, that God does not shout, he whispers as with Elijah in the cave in Kings 19:9-13

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