Thursday, August 9, 2012

Stuck in the Middle:

Confronting the Mid-Faith Crisis

"I was just about the most enthusiastic new Christian you had ever met—in church all the time, reading about church things when I was not at church, wanting nothing more than prayer, Communion, hymns.

What happens in conversion—at least, what happened in mine—is that a person concludes that the truth is in Jesus. That conclusion will carry you to baptism; it will carry you to church, or back to church, or to your knees. But then where does it take you? Or, more precisely, how does it take you? How do you continue to allow the truth that is in Jesus to be your rudder?

The kidnapping dream and the prayer book and the baptism made a path; they were my glory road, and I thought that road would carry me forever. I didn't anticipate that, some years in, it would carry me to a blank wall, and at that wall a series of questions: do I just stand here staring at this wall? Do I go over? Under? Do I turn around and retrace my steps?

The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God's closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone.

And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me.

Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.

In the American church, we have a long tradition of telling spiritual stories that culminate in conversion, in the narrator's joining the church, getting dunked in the waters of baptism, getting saved. But this is just the beginning, and what follows is a middle, and the middle may be long, and it may have little to do with whatever it was that got you to the font.

I was carried to the middle of my spiritual life by two particular events: my mother died, and I got married, and the marriage was an unhappy one. Had you asked me before—before my mother got sick, before I found myself to be a person thinking about divorce—I would have told you that these were precisely the circumstances in which one would be glad for religious faith.

Faith, after all, is supposed to sustain you through hard times—and I'm sure for many people faith does just that. But it wasn't so for me. In my case, as everything else was dying, my faith seemed to die, too. God had been there. God had been alive to me. And then, it seemed, nothing was alive—not even God.

Intuition and conversation persuade me that most of us arrive at a spiritual middle, probably we arrive at many middles, and there are many ways to get there. The events that brought me to the middle of my spiritual life were dramatic, they were interruptions, they were grief.

But grief and failure and drama are not the only paths to a spiritual middle. Sometimes a whole life of straightforward churchgoing takes you to a middle. Sometimes it is not about a conversion giving way, or the shock of God's absence. Sometimes a life of wandering takes you to a middle. Sometimes you come to the middle quietly.

You may arrive at the spiritual middle exhausted, in agony, in what saints of the Christian tradition have called desolation.

Or your journey to the middle may be a little easier, a little calmer—it is not that God is absent—it is, rather, that your spiritual life seems to have faded, like fabric. Some days the fading doesn't trouble you at all; other days, it seems a hollowing loss. You're not as interested as you once were in attending to God. You no longer find it easy to make time for church, for prayer.

Whether you feel a wrenching anguish or simply a kind of distracted listlessness, the middle looks unfamiliar when you get there. The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. A God who was once close seems somehow farther away, maybe in hiding.

I don't have instructions for "getting through" the middle. I don't think the middle is something to be gotten through. It's time when the things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living. The challenge is

continuing to abide in faith amid uncertainties, in the interstices of belief.

The middle opens us up to a new way, the new glory road that might not be a glory road after all but just an ordinary gravel byway, studded with the occasional bluet, the occasional mica chip.

In my case, the middle has had three phases.

First, I am at the wall. I have been standing at this wall a long time. God is absent; perhaps I am absent from myself. The conversion is over. Everything has changed, everything needs to change.

The second phase is a picture of wrestling with a God who isn't there, or maybe who is: what do you do in the midst of this absence? Where do you go? What do you try? I try all kinds of things, all my old tricks for getting through—I try anxiety, I try bourbon. I pray, I don't pray. I go to church; I keep going back to church. I make myself busy, so that I don't have to look at the wall. There is boredom here, and loneliness; there are also Eucharists and angels. God darts by; sometimes I notice.

And then there is a third phase. It is a moment of presence. Something has shifted, something has moved: you are looking for God and you are looking in ways you hadn't known to look before. Sometimes, in the days when I felt furthest away from God, I thought that my goal was to recover the kind of spiritual life I had once had, to get back to that glory road.

Increasingly, I understand that I don't get to go back (increasingly, I don't want to). I am living in a place, a house, a room, and I begin to understand that something will show up in this room, and what shows up will be faith. I am less certain now than I was ten years ago, fifteen years ago; but I sense that this place is certain; it is sure.

Once upon a time, I thought I had arrived. Now I have arrived at a middle. If life is long, I am still at the beginning of the middle.

Once I would have said, "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine." From here, I say with the poet, "O Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you."

May you find good company for your own climbing."

Lauren F. Winner


C. S. Lewis also had this sort of Mid-Faith Crisis
He writes about it in "Surprised by Joy."

"A rebirth not a birth,
a reawakening not a wakening,
because in many of us,
besides being a new thing,
it is also the recovery of things."
Page 71

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