Clinging to Religion While Struggling With Faith

(Here are the first two installments in this ongoing exploration: Part One and Part Two.)

The current phase of my non-belief struggle finds me thinking about the Catholic Church a lot, even if I am not spending a lot of time in a Catholic church.

The wonderful range of personal responses I received to the first two columns about this have provided me with a lot of food for thought. They have been from people from a variety of faith traditions, as well as some atheists.

Some non-Catholics, sort of-Catholics, and ex-Catholics have wondered if or implied that maybe what I am really going through here is a struggle with the Church, and that is what is wreaking havoc with my faith and experience of God’s presence.

I can assure you that is not the case.

First, anyone who has known me for a while knows that I LOVE being a Roman Catholic. As the first column mentioned, I never had a “wandering away from the Church” phase when I was a young man.

This did make me ponder whether these suggestions had any merit though. It took me down a path I didn’t expect, as much of this journey has done.

I had been writing about attempting to take comfort in the many rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. Until recently I thought I was doing so merely because those rituals are so familiar.

What the questions and comments led me to ponder was what role the Church has in my journey back (should it be successful) and I quickly came to the conclusion that it involved so much more than reflexive comfort in a routine.

Faith, to most, is exceedingly personal. I have been writing about wanting to get “my faith” back and that phrase has now grown more specific.

“My” faith is a familiar, intimate relationship with God that is made richer through my life in the Church. That’s what I want back.

Should I be fortunate enough to figure this out, many have suggested that my faith could very well be stronger once I do. That would be glorious. If it is, however, it will be a stronger version of “my” faith, and not some new way.

Some may balk at this and say that I should leave myself open for however God wants me to experience him again. He and I experienced each other just fine for decades within the framework of Roman Catholicism, and I hope one day we will get back there. I don’t for a moment think that I am struggling with experiencing the presence of God because God is nudging me over to the Lutherans and everything will be cool if I just get a change of doctrinal scenery.

In fact, the longer I thought about all of this, the more I wondered how much the fact that I hadn’t been a very good Catholic in the months leading up to my crisis might have precipitated it. I have been thinking about when this crisis first hit me, but not much about what led up to it.

Beginning last January, I had a weekend gig that left me with little time and usually exhausted. It was possible for me to make it to Mass on Sundays, but I was usually tired and used that as an excuse not to go. While I may not be the kind of guy who never misses a Sunday Mass, I was a regular churchgoer.

At first, I barely acknowledged the fact that  I wasn’t going to Mass. I was adjusting to the new gig and just sort of assumed that once I did I’d be back on track and going to church.

Ash Wednesday was on my birthday, and I did make it to Mass for that. Lent–which I love–started off strong. I did a lot of spiritual reading and praying the first week. Then I did almost nothing until Easter. I did go to Mass on Easter, although I didn’t make it to Confession for my Easter duty.

This meant that in three months I had been to Mass twice.

In retrospect, I realize that, as my church attendance went from infrequent to nonexistent, my prayer life began to suffer. I didn’t stop praying, I just didn’t pray as frequently.

The temptation here is to view this as me pushing God away. If that indeed was the case, it wasn’t intentional. But there was definitely some distancing going on that I wasn’t noticing.

While I don’t think that this is entirely responsible for the faith crisis, it certainly made the conditions ripe for one to erupt like it did.

This realization has brought me to what I hope is a more sound plan of action. I mentioned before that I was just going through the motions with the Catholic rituals in the hope that something would spark.  Now I’m going to be more devout and present, and I am going to attend to them regularly.

The Church teaches that the sacraments are signs instituted by Christ through which we can better experience grace. Perhaps more frequent experience of them can put me on the way from unbelief to belief.

If, as many have also suggested, and the two books I’m reading insist, this is just a problem with me not letting God be present, then perhaps doing the things that I did when my faith was strong will help “unblock” me.

No more going through the motions, however. No matter what level of unbelief I may be experiencing, I must be respectful of whatever I am trying to do to get back. This includes prayer.

Please do bear in mind that this is all still an intellectual exercise to me, but that’s all I know how to do at the moment. No doubt many of you will be skeptical or dismissive of my plan to try to essentially put things on a reverse path, trying to go from a non-practicing place of non-belief and hoping that practicing more will bring me back to where I was.

I’m still scared that none of this will work, and I will find myself growing more frustrated. I have been pretty numb for the first couple months of this crisis, probably in a state of spiritual shock. That fear hasn’t helped me be more sincere in my efforts to figure it out.

Sharing this with all of you who have been kind enough to hang out with me on this messed up journey is helping me move through that trepidation, however.

God, if you’re reading any of this, feel free to send me a private message.

Soon, please.