Losing Our Religion? Or Have We Forgotten It? Thoughts on an NPR Series from the Crucifixion of Our Lord UPDATED

I don’t know if you listen to NPR but they’ve been doing a little series this week called “Losing Our Religion.” It is about the group of folks who when asked what their religion is, they state “none.” Noting that many people turn towards religion when they encounter difficulties and tragedies, this series has been about people who have often times done the exact opposite.

They’ve left their religions, but not necessarily their belief in God (though some have), for various reasons. From listening, it turns out that many who have been interviewed seem to have left because of the illness and death of a friend or family member, pain (emotional, physical, or both), problems reconciling various church teachings, and doctrines,  etc., with the idea of a benevolent, omnipotent, being. Teachings like why would a good God punish people in hell, for instance.

One particular story did make me cringe. It had to do with the experience a mother had with a priest following the death of her only child.

Her son Michael was killed here eight years ago. He was 21, fresh out of the Navy and enrolled in culinary school. That day Michael went to a friend’s house. An acquaintance dropped by. He started yelling and waving a gun around. He shot Michael close up, square in the chest.

(St. Francis Church) is where Bailey sought solace after her only son died. What she found was a priest who told her we all have our crosses to bear and it was time for God to call Michael home. She thought a priest could not possibly understand the pain of losing a child.

Ugh. And the mothers’ reaction?

I just remember thinking that’s it. I’m done with the Catholic religion. I think it got more personal with God when I tried just praying on my own. Then I became more angry and I questioned why do I need to be praying at all. Why is my son dead? And what kind of God lets a child be shot? And I think that was more me not only just leaving the Catholic religion but that was me leaving God too.

Most of the stories in the series are grounded in the real, are gritty, and almost all of them revolving around the problem of evil. The problem of death. The problem of injustice. And at the root of it, a seeming lack of love for us by God.

In my own experience, when enduring trials, I’ve usually turned to the story of Job, and how he was sifted by Satan, much as Jesus told Peter that he would be. As I pondered these stories, I wandered into the electronic halls of the YIMCatholic Bookshelf. I’m not really sure if I was looking for a direct answer for a way to deal with loss like these folks have endured. Instead, I was looking for something about ongoing conversion. But it pays to be prepared, and there is one thing that I am certain of besides taxes: the portal to life is entered through deaths’ door.

I came across these thoughts from a convert to Catholicism whom I became aware of a few years ago. What follows is from Robert Hugh Benson’s book The Paradoxes of Catholicism.

It’s a book that I really need to read, and I wonder if G.K. Chesterton did? Perhaps. The chapter that caught my eye is the one on Jesus’s last seven words which he uttered when he was crucified. They really are the last seven sentences, or phrases. Monsignor Benson, who died at the age of 43, had me with the introduction,

The Seven Words

Introduction

The value, to the worshippers, of the Devotion of the Three Hours’ Agony is in proportion to the degree in which they understand that they are watching not so much the tragedy of nineteen hundred years ago as the tragedy of their own lives and times. Merely to dwell on the Death of Christ on Calvary would scarcely avail them more than to study the details of the assassination of Caesar at the foot of Pompey’s statue. Such considerations might indeed be interesting, exciting, and even a little instructive or inspiring; but they could not be better than this, and they might be no better than morbid and harmful.

The Death of Christ, however, is unique because it is, so to say, universal. It is more than the crowning horror of all murderous histories; it is more even than the type of all the outrages that men have ever committed against God. For it is just the very enactment, upon the historical stage of the world, of those repeated interior tragedies that take place in every soul that rejects or insults Him; since the God whom we crucify within is the same God that was once crucified without. There is not an exterior detail in the Gospel which may not be interiorly repeated in the spiritual life of a sinner; the process recorded by the Evangelists must be more or less identical with the process of all apostasy from God.

For, first, there is the Betrayal of Conscience, as a beginning of the tragedy; its betrayal by those elements of our nature that are intended as its friends and protectors—by Emotion or Forethought, for example. Then Conscience is led away, bound, to be judged; for there can be no mortal sin without deliberation, and no man ever yet fell into it without conducting first a sort of hasty mock-trial or two in which a sham Prudence or a false idea of Liberty solemnly decide that Conscience is in the wrong. Yet even then Conscience persists, and so He is made to appear absurd and ridiculous, and set beside the Barabbas of a coarse and sturdy lower nature that makes no high pretensions and boasts of it. And so the drama proceeds and Conscience is crucified: Conscience begins to be silent, breaking the deepening gloom now and again with protests that grow weaker every time, and at last Conscience dies indeed. And thenceforward there can be no hope, save in the miracle of Resurrection.

This Cross of Calvary, then, is not a mere type or picture; it is a fact identical with that so dreadfully familiar to us in spiritual life. For Christ is not one Person, and Conscience something else, but it is actually Christ who speaks in Conscience and Christ, therefore, Who is crucified in mortal sin.

Let us, then, be plain with ourselves. We are watching not only Christ’s Death but our own, since we are watching the Death of Christ Who is our Life.

The whole chapter is worth reading, over and over again. Benson calling us to not just observe Christ’s humiliating death as just an event, but one that is alive with meaning for us. When we tried to kill God, see, he endured every pain, and all of the suffering, that all of us might possibly endure. To be quite honest with you, I never saw Our Lord’s suffering in this light before. The following section on the Fourth Word really gets to the heart of what we are collectively saying when we suffer.

The Fourth Word
My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?

Our Blessed Lord in the revelation He makes from the Cross passes gradually inwards to Himself Who is its centre. He begins in the outermost circle of all, with the ignorant sinners. He next deals with the one sinner who ceased to be ignorant, and next with those who were always nearest to Himself, and now at last He reveals the deepest secret of all. This is the central Word of the Seven in every sense. There is no need to draw attention to the Paradox it expresses.

First, then, let us remind ourselves of the revealed dogma that Jesus Christ was the Eternal Son of the Father; that He dwelt always in the Bosom of that Father; that when He left heaven He did not leave the Father’s side; that at Bethlehem and Nazareth and Galilee and Jerusalem and Gethsemane and Calvary He was always the Word that was with God and the Word that was God. Next, that the eyes even of His Sacred Humanity looked always and continuously upon the Face of God, since His union with God was entire and complete: as He looked up into His Mother’s face from the manger, He saw behind it the Face of His Father; as He cried in Gethsemane, If it be possible, even in His Sacred Humanity He knew that it could not be; as He groaned out on Calvary that God had forsaken Him, He yet looked without one instant’s intermission into the glory of heaven and saw His Father there.

Yet simultaneously with these truths it is also true that His cry of dereliction was incalculably more of a reality than when first uttered by David or, since, by any desolate sinner in the thickest spiritual darkness. All the miseries of holy and sinful souls, heaped together, could not approach even afar off the intolerable misery of Christ. For of His own will He refused to be consoled at all by that Presence which He could never lack, and of His own will He chose to be pierced and saturated and tormented by the sorrow He could never deserve. He held firm against the touch of consolation every power of His Divine and Human Being and, simultaneously, flung them open to the assaults of every pain. And if the psychology of this state is altogether beyond our power to understand, we may remind ourselves that it is the psychology of the Word made Flesh that is confronting us. . . . Do we expect to understand that?

There is a human phrase, however, itself a paradox, yet corresponding to something which we know to be true, which throws some faint glimmer of light upon this impenetrable darkness and seems to extend Christ’s experience upon the Cross so as to touch our own human life. It is a phrase that describes a condition well known to spiritual persons: “To leave God for God.”

(1) The simplest and lowest form of this state is that condition in which we acquiesce with our will in the withdrawal of ordinary spiritual consolation. Certainly it is an inexplicable state, since both the ordinary aids to our will—our understanding and our emotion—are, by the very nature of the case, useless to it. Our heart revolts from that dereliction and our understanding fails to comprehend the reasons for it. Yet we acquiesce, or at least perceive that we ought to do so; and that by doing so—by ceasing, that is, to grasp God’s Presence any longer—we find it as never before. We leave God in order to find Him.

(2) The second state is that in which we find ourselves when not only do all consolations leave us, but the very grip of intelligent faith goes too; when the very reasons for faithfulness appear to vanish. It is an incalculably more bitter trial, and soul after soul fails under it and must be comforted again by God in less august ways or perish altogether. And yet this is not the extremest pitch even of human desolation.

(3) For there is a third of which the saints tell us in broken words and images. . . .

Our final point, for application to ourselves, is that dereliction in some form or another is as much a stage in spiritual progress as autumn and winter are seasons of the year. The beginners have to suffer one degree, the illuminated another, and those that have approached a real Union with God a third. But all must suffer it, and each in his own degree, or progress is impossible.

Let us take courage therefore and face it, in the light of this Word. For, as we can sanctify bodily pain by the memory of the nails, so too can we sanctify spiritual pain by the memory of this darkness. If He Who never left the Father’s side can suffer this in an unique and supreme sense, how much more should we be content to suffer it in lower degrees, who have so continually, since we came to the age of reason, been leaving not His side only, but His very house.

Pray for the “nones,” and for all those who are seeking an answer, and have yet to find it. Pray for those who has lost their loved ones, and their faith. Pray that the healing and bountiful grace of the Holy Spirit with visit them and comfort them so that they may say,

One thing I ask of the LORDthis I seek: To dwell in the LORD’s house all the days of my life,

To gaze on the LORD’s beauty, to visit his temple.

Amen.

Note: You can find an electronic version of Paradoxes of Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame Archives website.
UPDATE:

Simcha Fisher: God is not fair. Mercy is not fair. The Resurrection is not fair. But Evil is perfectly fair…

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

  • http://thomism.wordpress.com James Chastek

    From the story of the first “none”:

    Why is my son dead? And what kind of God lets a child be shot?

    Understandable as it might be, there is a deep irony in this being the reason for leaving Christianity, whose founding act involved a mother and a father having to watch the death of their son.

  • Anil Wang

    I could understand never trusting or believing in God because of the problem of evil, but I can’t understand abandoning God because of a personal tragedy. People die all the time, when one believed in God. Why does a death of someone close to oneself change anything?

    I think it’s a smokescreen covering up something deeper. C. S. Lewis in “A Grief Observed” (his personal experience with the death of his wife) commented at one point that he didn’t think he would ever stop believing in God, but he was afraid that he might believe that God was a cosmic sadist that loves to spring a trap on you when you least expect it. When everything is good and you don’t need God, God comforts and rewards your faith. But when you really need God, all you get is the door slammed in your face.

    IMO, that is the heart of the issue. When in grief, these people who ultimately abandoned their faith believed that God abandoned them first. I doubt any had been taught about the dark night of the soul and how God was calling them to a deeper faith. Unfortunately, such a thing is not easy to teach when one is in pain, but it’s still possible. As James Chastek hinted at, when the mother said to the priest “you couldn’t possibly understand the loss of a son”, the priest could have given her a holy card with a picture of Michelangelo’s Pietà and if Catholic, say a prayer to our mother together.

  • Arizona Mike

    I don’t know if Chesterton read Benson but Benson read and admired Chesterton. Before Chesterton’s reversion to Catholicism: “Have you read,” Benson enquired of a correspondent in 1905, “a book by G.K. Chesterton called “Heretics”? If not, do see what you think of it. It seems to me that the spirit underneath it is splendid. He is not a Catholic, but he has the spirit . . . I have not been so much moved for a long time . . . He is a real mystic of an odd kind.”

    • Frank Weathers

      Heh!

  • http://contemplativehomeschool.wordpress.com Connie Rossini

    I love Benson!

    On the mother whose son died– It’s really hard to know what to say to a person who has experienced a tragedy. People easily fumble. I’m sure the priest was trying to be comforting. Sometimes a hug or a squeeze of the hand can be better than words. It’s hard to interpret them as anything other than sympathy.

    It does seem to me, though, if someone’s reaction was so strong as to make her lose her faith, there were underlying issues already. I mean, even in sorrow we should not be so quick to be offended by what others say. At least, it would make more sense to say, “That priest is so insensitive!” And then change parishes. But why blame God or the Church in general for one priest’s clumsy words?

  • http://www.mycatholicblog.com/ Erin Pascal

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful post. Trials are said to be testers of our faith–we can either let them break us or draw us closer to the Lord. In trying times, I also take inspiration from the story of Job, which I think is a perfect example of how God tests even His most loved, faithful and obedient children.

    May we all keep our faith strong amidst trials and remember that God never leaves us destitute of His help.


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