“Do not be unbelieving but believe”—John 20:27
I remember standing on the deck, enraptured by beauty, as we sailed through the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean to the Amalfi coast. The temperature was perfect, the views spectacular, and my heart soared with delight. I don’t know what the mystical experience of ecstasy is like, but this was as close I had ever come on a merely human level, and it may be that that moment was also infused with something of the divine. “I don’t know how anyone could ever doubt the existence of God!” I remember whispering in awe.
This memory burned within me, when, months later, I was plunged into a terrifying spiritual darkness. I had always paid lip service to the idea that faith is a gift, but I had not really known what that meant until it disappeared.
I had always believed in God, even when other parts of my spiritual life were in disarray. Faith itself had always come easily to me, and while studying had bolstered my faith, it was not the foundation for it. Now, suddenly, the entirety of the faith presented itself as an epic joke. I was tempted to doubt not merely an individual doctrine or practice, but even the idea that there could be a God, the idea that there could be meaning behind all that I saw. All of the cruelty of the universe—in human experience, in the violence of nature, and in particular in the weaknesses and scandals among Christians—screamed in mockery at me as I tried to hold on. The more I tried to reason my way back to belief, back to peace, the more preposterous it all seemed. My will was the only very fragile thread that kept me believing anything at all.
The darkness was terrifying and profoundly lonely. More than once I cried in Confession—an act as mortifying to the poor priest as it was to me. He tried to assure me that God still loved me, while I tried to explain that if there was no God, not only was I unloved but my whole life had been built on an illusion.
The memory of this is still so awful that I mentioned recently to my spiritual director how afraid I am that I could go back there. “Yeah, good thing you got yourself out of that!” he replied, with no little sarcasm.
Because of course I did not, could not, get myself out of that.
I tried, in particular reaching out for answers to the questions that I could not answer—reading, researching and attending Bible Study with the ever-patient Brother John Mary. There was one class in particular that I hoped would put an end to a particularly challenging question, and I looked forward to it with all the hope I could muster. But instead an unavoidable calendar conflict caused me to miss it and so I never got my answers.
Then one day I went to Confession at Catholic Underground. I had zero expectations but confessed my doubts with an almost hopeless resignation. “What do you want from me?” the priest asked. “Just absolution? Or something else?” I was surprised by the question, and said simply, “I don’t know. Yes, absolution. And if you have anything to say from God, I’d love that of course, but I am not expecting anything.”
He then told me then a story about St. Angela Foligno, a mystic whose periodic experiences of “abandonment” by God would leave her screaming like a crazy person, to the great embarrassment of her brother who was a priest. Then she would regain her faith, and conclude that while God’s love was faithful, her own was “nothing but games.” I don’t remember all of the details of the story—it doesn’t actually matter, because it wasn’t the story that was convincing. Somehow, during the telling, it was as though a match was struck, and I was aware once again of the Light. I could not see anything new—my faith would return more completely over time, but I was assured only of the reality of this Light. I was not alone in the dark after all.
I don’t know all of the reasons God allowed this particular season in my life, although I can see some fruits. Certainly I have more compassion for those who struggle with doubt. I understand better now that faith is a gift I did not, cannot, earn, and that I should never take for granted.
But I also learned that faith is about more than answers. It is about the One Who Answers. In a mysterious way, I am in the hands of God, who is infinitely beyond understanding.
This is the One who appeared to Thomas, aware of his doubts and of the obstacles in him to belief. He invited Thomas not only to touch the wounds in His hands, but to put himself into them. “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Saint Thomas, pray for us that we might receive ever more the gift of faith.
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“It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” —Kallistos Ware (Orthodox church author)