“Absolute faith and its consequence, the courage that takes the radical doubt, doubt about God into itself, transcends the theistic idea of God.” a quote from the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich. He describes this as when we realize that God is the “ground of our being.”
This resonates with me because by my age, I’ve walked through not only my own valley of doubt, but that of beautiful life-long Christians who in the last stage of life come to grips with the challenge of recognizing their own limits of understanding.
This isn’t loss of faith, but instead the loss of the delusion that we can grasp what God is by cutting God down to our size. It is facing our own limits and becoming comfortable with our “unknowing,” because we have simply finally become grounded in God. God, whatever God may or may not be, has become our home.
I studied Tillich many years ago and didn’t have a clue what he meant! Recently, this spoke so clearly that I was dumbfounded. It was a bell ringing, a moment of clarity, a light bulb going on in my mind! But even more, it was a sense of finally being home.
Wow! I am filled with wonder, but also humbled. It has taken me until the age of seventy-eight to experience this. I am a very, very slow learner.
Long ago in my thirties, I was in a Catholic Charismatic (Pentecostal) prayer group that was led by several Sisters of Mercy at their convent.
I, along with Pat, another woman member, were registered to attend the annual Charismatic Renewal Conference at Notre Dame University. At the prayer meeting two days before the conference, a young woman in her early twenties asked if she could go with us. We had spoken about a priest that led a small group of sisters and nurses in a healing ministry, and Dorothy had curvature of the spine with one leg shorter than the other. This caused her to have to wear an ugly built up shoe, it also sometimes caused her pain, and she feared that when she married and became pregnant it would cause more problems. It was too late to register her and probably too late to get her a room in the dorms, but we told her to bring a sleeping bag and stay in our room. So, Dorothy set off with us. We were running a little late and I was worried that we would miss the first large session in the gymnasium, which was the presentation on healing. A couple of weird time changes later we arrived just as it was beginning, but had to sit almost at the very top of the gymnasium. We were supposed to wait until it cleared at the end to find Pat’s sister, who was coming from Pittsburg. As the gym emptied, I prayed nervously about whether to take Dorothy down to the group with the healing ministry. I finally said, “God, if you want them to pray for Dorothy, please bring them up our aisle, and I’ll ask them to pray for her.” The gym was almost empty, but we had not spotted Pat’s sister, so we were still sitting almost at the top on an aisle. Just then, the priest and the others with the healing ministry started up our exact aisle on their way out. As they came near us, I spoke hesitantly, “Father, would you pray for Dorothy here. She has one leg shorter than the other.” He stopped his group and said, “Of course. Let Dorothy sit in your chair here on the aisle.” So, Dorothy moved into my seat and the several prayer members and Pat and I put our hands on her shoulders and held her hands, while the priest led us in a gentle quiet prayer asking God for healing in Jesus name. No frills, no dramatics. Then he stopped abruptly and asked Dorothy, “Did you feel that? I think your leg jumped.” Dorothy with tears flowing, agreed that it had. He then led us in prayers of thanksgiving, smiled, and continued on up the stairs.
As we sat stunned into silence, Pat’s sister appeared next to us. Following her out of the gym, we excitedly recounted our experience with a mixture of laughter and tears of joy. Dorothy suddenly stopped and said in amazement, “I’m limping. My built up shoe is making me lopsided.” So, she took off her shoes and continued on, literally ‘leaping and dancing and praising God.’
After we got to our dorm room, my inner Twin to Thomas kicked in. It ‘just so happened’ that Pat was a physical therapist. For the next hour, I kept making Pat measure Dorothy’s legs over and over. Pat kept reassuring me that they truly matched. No doubt about it. But there was still some visible curvature of her spine. When, in the wee hours of the morning, we began to tire, Pat went to the communal dorm bathroom to brush her teeth. There she met an older woman and told her of our experience, ending with the curious fact that Dorothy’s spine was still curved. The woman reassured her by telling her that her own husband’s leg, which had been a whole inch shorter than his other one, had been healed the year before at this conference. She said that the leg grew immediately, but it took six months for the atrophied muscles to develop fully back to normal.
We finally all went to sleep exhausted, wonderous, thankful, and at peace.
Funnily, since Dorothy now had no shoes to wear, two days of June’s hot sidewalks left her with some blisters on the bottoms of her feet. Maybe we should have prayed some preventative prayers also 🙂
Over the next several months I, of little faith, looked each time our prayer group met to assure myself that Dorothy was indeed happily wearing sandals, flip flops, or tennis shoes.
And almost ten years later, now married and the mother of two children, Dorothy came to our parish to tell her story to our women’s group.
Yes, she was still happily and painlessly wearing sandals.
The Book, Mother Teresa * Come Be My Light is a collection of her letters and her journals, which she had wanted burned when she died. Through them we see her terrible interior struggle with despair and feelings of abandonment by God.
She had mystical experiences and years of a sense of God’s presence when she was struggling to get permission and the means for the ministry she knew God was asking of her. But once she actually begins working with the poorest of the poor, she loses those, and not only feels abandoned, but sometimes even doubts the reality of God.
In her uphill battle to get permission from Church Authorities all the way up to the Pope, she harasses them incredibly, all the while saying, “I accept your authority and your decision. But could you hurry, because this is God’s call and people are being lost.” I love that.
She says that she has no ego left, just her desire to love God more than anyone ever has. Hmm. I’m not sure that’s not a form of ego, but it beats heck out of most forms.She is honest with her Spiritual Directors about her spiritual darkness, but fakes it with her community for fear she will damage their faith.
At eighty years of age, she never slows down in her exhausting physical ministry and even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she still humbly does dishes and cleans along with the other sisters in her community.
All the time she is without faith, joy, or even meaningful prayer, she is having tremendous success in her ministry and accolades from the world. But she is only able to go through the motions, heart-broken, doing her duty by fulfilling her promises to a God that seems to be gone.
That seems to me to be more awesome, than her mystical experiences or winning the Nobel Prize.
And it confirms what my minister answered one day when I asked him, “What’s it all about?”
He replied quickly with great assurance, “Perseverance.”