Serving God When You’re Not Sure God is There

MC_TheLettersPoster_1Last fall, I was chatting with a church friend about a blog post I had written, pondering Brittany Maynard’s plan to undertake assisted suicide rather than waiting for a brain tumor to kill her. At one point, my friend said, “I so admire your faith. I’m just not there.”

This comment, intended as a compliment, felt like a slap. Is that what people think of me? I wondered, that because I write about faith, my faith must be strong? There was so much that my friend didn’t know.

That I rarely pray, and when I do, it usually involves distractedly whispering the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) while driving around town or cleaning up the dinner dishes.

That I write about God and Jesus and Christianity, and about a Christian perspective on hard issues like assisted suicide, reproductive technology, and disability, because I have no idea what I’m doing, and writing is one way that I engage with things that confuse, move, or anger me. I write to figure things out, not because I’ve already figured them out.

That I have never felt close or particularly emotionally connected to God or Jesus. That while I say I believe that God is grace and love and compassion, the image of God that comes most naturally is of a somewhat annoyed, imperious, and disconnected overseer whom I regularly disappoint. That I wish God would come in a different kind of incarnation—a mother, perhaps, or someone whose body fails them daily—because I can’t figure out how I’m supposed to follow a single, childless, able-bodied male savior.

That I’d much rather read—and am far more likely to be inspired by—a good novel than the Bible.

That I have turned to God in moments of anguish, but have never felt God respond.

I said none of those things. Instead, I stopped talking, and eventually said good night. I went home feeling disoriented, even a little ashamed, wondering if I was doing something wrong, if in my writing, I had accidentally implied that I wake up in the morning feeling deeply connected to God, that I don’t worry or fear, that my faith is strong, when it is, quite simply, not.

I felt misunderstood, and lonely.

I thought of this incident as I watched The Letters, a film opening next week chronicling Mother Teresa’s work among the poorest of the poor in Kolkata (Calcutta), India

The film’s title references letters Mother Teresa wrote to Father Celeste van Exem, a Jesuit priest who served as her spiritual confidant. In those letters, she expressed a profound loneliness and a sense that God had abandoned her. These feelings were not occasional, but constant over a period of about 50 years.

Mother Teresa’s loneliness and despair, of course, are the exact opposite of what her admirers all over the world would expect. Surely someone who gave up so much to work among the poor in Jesus’s name must have a strong faith, right? And how tempting it is for us, so invested in our own comfort, so afraid of those who are not like us, to say of Mother Teresa and ourselves, “Her faith is so strong. I’m just not there.”

I am no Mother Teresa; my twin vocations of motherhood and writing require far less personal sacrifice, far less sheer physical work, than Mother Teresa’s and the Missionaries of Charity’s vocation to Kolkata’s poor and dying. But when I first heard of Mother Teresa’s spiritual alienation a number of years ago, and again watching The Letters, I felt great empathy for her, because I understand just a little how it feels to struggle daily with your faith, and have others look at the work you do and distance themselves from it—from you—by assuming that you must have it all figured out. Admiration can be just as alienating and dehumanizing as insult; this is the very reason that I so abhor being admired by strangers because of my obvious disability.

After the conversation related above, I asked one of my priests if he feels this way sometimes—put up on a religious pedestal that he doesn’t wish to inhabit—or if he thinks I was doing something wrong, writing in a way that implied a spiritual confidence I don’t feel. He answered “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second. He also pointed out that we can’t control other people’s perceptions, and that our job is not to get people to do or think as we do, but to “inspire the inquisitive mind and curious heart.”

Mother Teresa inspired many people with her compassionate service; The Letters’ closing credits point out that even as the Roman Catholic clergy is shrinking, the Missionaries of Charity continue to grow. That Mother Teresa inspired even as she was haunted by a sense of abandonment and loneliness must become part of what inspires us to do as she did, not an unpleasant detail we smooth over. In the film, van Exem says that, “The darkness [Mother Teresa] lived with was an essential element of who she was.” Father Benjamin Praagh, assigned by the Vatican to research Mother Teresa’s potential canonization, likewise says that her “loneliness had its root in the mystery of Jesus’s mission.”

Scripture reminds us that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9), that we are to be “content with weaknesses,” (2 Corinthians 2:10), and that the power of resurrection is “sown in weakness.” (1 Corinthians 15:43) It is a continual struggle to resist putting others—and ourselves—up on pedestals. It is a grave mistake to assume that to serve God, we must have things all figured out, to feel deeply connected to God always.

Initially, after I realized that other people see my faith as something it’s not, I resolved to be more careful about what and how I write, slower to engage in conversation about matters of faith—even at church—lest I unwittingly reinforce this notion that my faith is strong. But while I must certainly avoid writing with a condescending tone that implies I have things figured out, the fact is that God has called me to do the work, not to control how it is received. Every time I decide I need to quit writing and do something else, for financial or more personal reasons, I eventually end up back at my keyboard.

That answering God’s call entailed a measure of loneliness, questioning, and despair even for someone as renowned as Mother Teresa isn’t comforting exactly. That a woman who devoted her whole life to Christ, forgoing the daily distractions of home and family that most of us live with, and still felt disconnected from God is mostly just plain discouraging. But I gain a little comfort from the notion that following God’s call doesn’t require that we feel a particular way, only that we show up to do the work. And I’m reminded how destructive is the temptation to assume that those whose work we admire are more faithful, stronger, more certain than we are; we assume that we can’t possibly do what they do, that God only calls the most faithful to the hardest work, when really, God calls all of us.

This post is part of a Patheos Movie Club on “The Letters.” 

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