In what is perhaps the best written work in novel form describing the dehumanizing reality of war, the toll on those both who wage war and those who await the often denied return of warriors to hearth and home, Erich Maria Remarque, in: All Quiet On The Western Front, no doubt unintentionally, gives us insights that are applicable to spiritual warfare as well.
For example one of the characters remarks: “To me the front is a mysterious whirlpool. Though I am still in the water far away from its centre, I feel the whirl of the vortex sucking me slowly, irresistibly, inescapably into itself.”
Grief, depression, fear, doubts – there are many emotions on the ‘front’ of ordinary daily human life, and of the spiritual life, which can be experienced as that ‘mysterious whirlpool’ or that ‘vortex’.
I had expected when I began this three-part reflection on rejection, loneliness, doubt, one would easily flow from the other.
Suddenly a beloved friend died unexpectedly. She had had a hard life as a child, wife, mother, divorcee, yet throughout most of those years not a Catholic, she hungered for Eucharist, eventually saying yes to Jesus, becoming Catholic, devoting herself, now that her children were adults, to serving the poor, helping out in her local parish, eventually joining one of the ‘new’ communities of faith in the Church and then, like for example St. Brother Andre who spent most of his life as a porter, a doorkeeper, she spent most of her years in the community doing such hidden, little tasks.
Then shortly thereafter one day in the soup kitchen, run by the same community mentioned above, the Director took me aside to tell me two other women, one who had joined a year before me, the other some fifteen years later, both beloved sisters of mine for over forty years, had been killed in a car crash.
A couple of weeks after that [and this is rather a common experience of falsely accused priests across the expanse of the Church] a letter arrived from the bishop immediately cutting off my pension, thus leaving me without any income except a miniscule government pension, less than monthly rent and food.
So once again I am drawn into the whirlpool and vortex of a battle with my own father-shepherd, with the Church in the midst of the grief over the deaths of three beloved women-sisters.
To borrow again from Remarque, in the ravages of grief, stress, doubt, O God it is as if “…There is a distance, a veil between us.”
When dictionaries refer to the word ‘doubt’ as a verb, reference is made to what is in essence an intellectual process: thinking to the point where we are hesitant to make an act of the will which would ascent to accept some fact, idea, even a person.
It is the intellectual struggle with uncertainty.
On the other hand when the word is referred to as a noun then fundamentally it is a matter of emotion: of being in a state of uncertainty.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2088, distinguishes between voluntary doubt, which is the free will refusal to accept as true what God reveals and the Church teaches, thus it is a type of refusal of the grace of the gift of faith – and – involuntary doubt, something we all struggle with and can be triggered by the trauma of grief, for example, and therefore is not a refusal of the gift of faith, but rather intense struggle to believe in the face of what is experienced as incomprehensible. It is, and I can think of no better example, the Job experience.
St. John of Kronstadt cried out: “I do not doubt, I do not despair of, anything good, although you, my enemy, endeavour to sow both doubt and despair in my in regard to everything good, and especially in regard to the highest good, love. The God of love Himself is with me, whose children we all are. Unworthy as I am, I bear the image of the Father.”
Most of us experience the latter form of doubt, the involuntary, sometimes over a prolonged period of greater or lesser intensity.
Frequently this type of doubt hits us unexpectedly, because the normal ebb and flow of faith life, wherein Holy Mass and Holy Communion meet a deep need within us, where most of what we are expected to believe is reasonable, while some tenets of faith, some of the rules most likely, may be a struggle to embrace, nonetheless failure – sin – is dealt with in confession for there is no doubt, usually, about the efficacy of Divine Mercy.
It is when a child is abused or dies, when someone trusted betrays, when a spouse abandons us, when some weather event devastates our neighbourhood, when prayer becomes like chatting with a mouth full of sawdust with someone, Someone, who clearly is NOT listening, perhaps, even though we may be in our room, door closed, praying to our Father in secret, who sees in secret, He has absented Himself.
Suddenly, implacably, doubt begins first to gnaw, then to chomp, eventually to near devour our sense of self, of other, of God, of faith, of love, of…….
Writhing in full throws of doubt and darkness I will admit I got very mouthy indeed with God and the Saints – not with Our Blessed Mother as one never gets mouthy with her!
I did however contemplate an image of her in the Pieta moment and tried to listen to her, since it seemed you know Who wasn’t paying attention, and besides does He really exist, if He does is He really more powerful than………..does He really love?
Little by little over those hours, days, weeks, first so softly I wasn’t sure I was hearing anything, then more clearly over time I kept hearing the same refrain: “My heart is like wax, melting inside me!”
Immediately I did not get it because my mind went to an image from a famous painting, one which intrigued me as a young student, the melting watches in Dali’s famous 1931 painting: The Persistence of Memory.
The mistake I made was having ‘heard’ I had not lingered to listen!
Once I listened I recognized this word was a line from a particular Psalm, one which contains within it the cry of every human heart which is wounded by rejection, which aches with loneliness, is torn by doubt.
We tend to be familiar with the first line, the first gut wrenching cry torn from the depths of a hurting heart, but rarely do we sit with, enter into, make our own the entire Psalm – we tend just to, perhaps too easily, appropriate the first line in desperation.
Yet if we embrace the entire Psalm, pray it in union with the great Heart which made it the prayer of His Passion, indeed His passionate prayer – ah!
The first line-cry-plea-prayer: My God, my God, why have You deserted me?
In uttering this cry-plea-prayer Jesus reveals His absolute solidarity with us when we struggle with doubt.
The question is not accusatory so much as the plea of a child to understand – when children are told they need a time out parents often get exasperated because to them, being adults, the logical need is crystal clear, yet the “Why?” of the child seems yet another act of resistance.
In point of fact the ‘why’ here is loaded with: Can you, mom, dad, help me settle down without you losing control and if it takes a while will you still love me?
The “My God, my God….”: this is a cry for reassurance.
Some of the other words, phrases in this Psalm sure strike a chord when we are in the pain of doubt, rejection, loneliness: ….You never answer…..I have no one to help me!......my heart is like wax, melting inside me….
It is, of course Psalm 22…21in the Vulgate edition.
Most powerfully the next Psalm is about the Good Shepherd!
Doubt, if struggled through, suffered through, yes prayed through, leads to a deepening of faith, a greater intimacy with the Holy Trinity.
When then we exult in the 23rd Psalm about being pursued by goodness and kindness each day, it is well to remember that the actual pursuer is le Bon Dieu, the Good God!