At the risk of getting myself in trouble with readers, I am going to say it: I struggle to believe in God.
I call myself a Christian. I attend Mass and recite the Creed. I read Christian books and write for Christian publications. And yet, on a day-to-day basis, I find it difficult to pray. I rarely feel the presence of a divine being unheard and unseen. When someone asks me to pray for them, I do. But I often wonder just whom or what I am praying to. Looking at the harsh realities of ecological collapse and civil unrest in the world, of pain and disappointment in my own life, I often wonder if maybe the materialist atheists have it right.
When I encounter people who claim to believe in God without question, or who receive regular comfort and consolation from prayer, I am filled with astonishment and envy. It’s not that such prayerful consolations are totally absent from my life, but I cannot say they come often.
Sometimes, I encounter professed, practicing Christians who confess to similar struggles with faith, but they are few and far between. When I asked a former spiritual director if he thought many other Catholics dealt with the same doubts that I experience, he said he was quite sure they do. “Then why don’t they talk about it?” I asked. With a laugh, he replied, “Because it’s scary.”
However, as much as I struggle, I always seem to circle back around to believing. As David Foster Wallace told the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College in his beloved speech “This is Water,” everyone worships something:
There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you […] Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
From January 2019 to when the pandemic hit in 2020, I regularly attended a twelve-step program. For the purposes of this piece I need not say which one, as in essence they are all the same. AA, Al-Anon, NA, SLAA – the first step in each of those programs involves admitting our powerlessness over something destructive that has made our lives unmanageable. The second involves turning our lives and our will over to a Higher Power that might restore us to sanity.
For me, that Higher Power always ends up being the trinitarian God I was taught about from birth. And while I may struggle to know Jesus as friend and brother, when I read about him in the pages of Scripture I am always confirmed he’s the right person to follow. So far, no one better has shown up.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. There is a certain absurdity to the notion of Jesus of Nazareth as a remotely royal figure. The Jesus of the Gospels was a vagrant who wandered around preaching the virtues of meekness, justice and peacemaking; he befriended those on the margins of society and constantly challenged both religious and secular authority. At the end of today’s Gospel reading from John, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, Jesus cleverly responds, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” He is careful never to claim earthly royal authority; instead, he subverts it, attesting to a truth that is larger than the Roman Empire’s claims.
My own self-destructive tendencies often take the form of people whom I have allowed to take on an unwarranted royal status – at least in the tiny kingdom of my heart and mind. For years, dealing with an ongoing conflict with a work colleague given to harsh criticism and temperamental behavior, I would walk in perennial dread of outbursts and harsh words. When love relationships fail to work out as I would want, I struggle to move forward, clinging obsessively to the image of the one who chose to leave, pining away for years in the false hope that they might come back, pouring large amounts of energy down a hopeless drain. From 2016 to 2020 I was constantly horrified by former President Trump’s crude, racist statements as well as many of his policy decisions. Now, I watch my elderly parents (who ardently supported Trump) display the same attitude toward President Biden. At times I check the news obsessively, fixated on the next horror.
What if Christ were the only King? What if this unmarried, childless, unemployed carpenter’s son who wandered around Galilee laying hands on the sick, forgiving sins, and challenging worldly powers were our sole authority? Perhaps the difficult work colleague’s complaints would not resound so loudly. Perhaps hurts inflicted by others might be put in a different perspective, and the harsh voices in my head would soften. Perhaps the worldly authorities of today might lose some of the excessive power we invest in them, and we might regain some of our own power as followers of Jesus, whose kingdom is in this world but not of it.
This feast day also marks the end of the liturgical year as we move toward the reflective, penitential season of Advent. All around me, I hear several people saying that 2021 was a more difficult year than 2020. As horrifying as the start of the pandemic was, we had a clear-cut certainty about how we needed to change our lives. Now, even with vaccines revealed to work effectively, the virus is not going away as many in the wealthy world refuse the vaccine and most in the rest of the world still cannot access it. Infections and deaths continue; as the news moves on to other topics, they have unfortunately become normalized. Some people are choosing to return to their full range of pre-pandemic activity, while others are choosing to maintain high levels of caution. 2021 began with a violent assault on the US Capitol and has seen civil unrest, political discord, the lived effects of climate change in form of fire, drought, and flood, ongoing destruction of the Amazon, and a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. It’s not been an easy year.
It is so hard not to become overwhelmed by the state of the world as well as personal concerns. It is hard not to feel helpless. But even as Jesus faced his own execution at the hands of the Roman state, he refused to renounce his true power. It is for this reason that two thousand years later his name is still known, and it is for this reason that, today as in ancient times, his teachings resonate so strongly with those who face political oppression. In following him, in heeding his call to justice, mercy and compassion, we discover our own ability to make changes in our own lives that might radiate to change the lives of those around us and those far away. In taking up our cross to follow the King who was crowned with thorns, we can act in this world with his power.