A Resurrection Story
After sending the crowds away, he went up by himself into the hills to pray. (Matt 14:22)
The Christian story is not about life and death. It is about death - and life.
by William Glenn
I don't know where to begin.
I've been losing my faith.
While praying this morning (more on that later) I said to Whomever was listening: Who are you and what do you want with me? My little Greek icon of Jesus was no consolation. Rather, a distraction, so I placed it in drawer. I don't quite know what's going on. What is accurate is that I have no words. It feels like I am in that space I have been in the past called losing my faith.
I first lost my faith in 1968. I was twenty and was consumed with ending the Vietnam War. I was, as were so many then twenty year olds, reading Camus and Sartre (Camus was easier) and was mightily swayed by the existential argument, reasonable after two world wars and the Holocaust, that life is meaningless. I could not wring any meaning out of the events around me. And the collection of beliefs and symbols and sacraments and communities that comprised my religion were of little value in assisting me in the work of reclamation.
Losing one's faith: Going dark. The screen goes blank. Feelings are flat. Words lose their potency. Symbols become one dimensional. The desire for solitude seeps away. Community shamoonity. The soul is bereft.
In time, back in 1968, I did reclaim those beliefs and was again moved by those symbols and took comfort in those sacraments and found a refuge of sorts in those communities. But it happened again, and I have learned in one sense life is about regularly losing one's faith.
I've matured since 1968, or so I assert, and I have come to know some of the seasons of belief and the seasons of desert, of the vibrancy of the symbols, and of their vacancy. I have found allure in the sacramental life, and in that life, no life at all.
My friend Alan Jones, dean of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, was on a public radio talk show one morning this past week, plugging his new book on reinventing Christianity, a topic on which I am keen. Alan offered a contemporary contradiction: no one could be on the religious path isolated from community, and yet so little community exists that can sustain an authentic spiritual journey.
I sighed. For I have been losing my faith.
The airwaves were filled with daily reports of the precarious health of the pope, John Paul II, and later of his death. Much of the world prays for him. He'd been in the papal chair quite a long time; long enough to grow sagacious about us humans. The side story along with the health bulletins was the publication of his latest book. I was not too interested until the media reported on one of the book's preoccupations: gay marriage. My ears perked up, having recently been married after an oh-so-long engagement.
The pope wrote that gay marriage is a constitutive part of an ideology of evil.
Wow. That smarts. More than smarts. It makes me crazy. And sad. And angry. And bereft. And aware of the particular plight of gay people who are psychically assaulted by such talk from one with such power, even if we declaim it, and pretend it has no effect.
Marginalized humans unconsciously are required to incorporate the world's projections with the same ease as with which we breathe the air. And gay people are by no means alone. To paraphrase Nietzsche: I must be guilty so you may be innocent.
You may be saying to yourself: Bill, how can you get upset by the rants of that aged, frail man?
I, too, am amazed at my capacity, at this late stage, for outrage. And, to tell the truth, I am glad for it. For I see around me almost no such capacity. We don't get upset about any big thing: we don't protest war nor stop genocide nor feed the hungry nor house the homeless nor…well, I observe we mostly get upset with traffic or when the technology to which we have become enslaved breaks down.
Bill, you're just going on. Give it up. Let it go. Chill.
But here's my perspective: I'm just connecting dots. And, to my consternation, those dots lead me to losing my faith.
As a psychotherapist, I pay close attention to the dots, what they are saying, what they are not, what feelings they muster, and which ones remain they invite to remain hidden.
I don't work with the mentally ill, as we understand that term. I work with persons actually a lot like me. And you. Neurotics. Addictives. Individuals overwhelmed, scared, broken, humbled, lonely, confused, marginalized, disempowered, numbed, self-medicated, escape artists of every stripe. Just like me.
The women and men I work with basically tell me their stories. That's actually all we have to tell, our story. Sometimes those stories are overwhelmingly bleak in each of, and in the sum of, their parts. People typically tell their stories patiently, without fanfare, with a humility that is very moving. What each of us mostly wants is nothing, really, but to be heard. To have our stories heard.
We expect no cure, no accolade, not even necessarily sympathy. To tell our story, our real story, takes enormous courage, and radical trust. In telling our stories, we are somehow woven into the community of persons.
Like many of the people I listen to, perhaps like you, I am gifted with being an addict. We addicts have the marvelous capacity to convert substances or behaviors into mechanical habits which in turn keep a host of other habits, less mechanical, more acceptable, but equally compelling, in place. This infrastructure of habits, a psychic house of cards, is constructed from the regular repetition of an isolated, initially pleasurable behavior. It can become, by extension, one's whole life.
But there is no story. Just repetition. Just more of the same. Day after day.
I was recently invited to surrender a force field of addiction in that mysterious way such invitations come, through a reckoning with love.
In responding to the surrender, in connecting the dots, I noticed over several weeks, I was simultaneously losing my faith. My habits and my faith were linked! My demanding relationship with the god I have worshipped was being ripped away. It feels like flesh separated from bone. It feels involuntary, and I resist it, and on some days, being the addict I am, I resent it.
I am often in the desert. I am wandering. Like the Hebrews, I want manna, and in my precarious state, I could so easily craft a golden calf.
I go to pray and I am uncomfortable, and I am uncomforted. I know the deeply grooved patterns of my relationship to my most previously worshipped god, and though that god would not have me, it often didn't matter, so willing was I to serve him. But that god is gasping now, and I hope dying a worthy death.
I go to pray because I don't know what else to do. I sense there is something more and deeper and more intimate and more real than the current understandings of God that hold valence with the world, and so often with me.
What I do know more clearly, as the habituated life ebbs, is that Presence is always emanating. I experience this all the time, even when I am unconscious to its effects. And I experience it in a fundamental way through the presence in and of other persons.
I came out this past week to the Lifers' Men's Group at San Quentin with whom I work. The group's topic was male violence and what toll the culture of violence takes on men who are required to be its perps, like the men in this group.
I had come out so thoroughly a quarter of a century ago that I had forgotten the fear and trembling, or in my case hyperventilating, it induces. But I had projected my fears tidily onto these men. I knew, somehow, that those very projections were akin to this day's topic.
I asked my colleague and friend Jacques, who was leading the group, for some air time, and I briefly shared some about myself with the men gathered in this circle. Saying out-loud I am gay, so utterly commonplace in every other part of my life, stirred me.
I flashed on the late pope! Would these men, raised as they were in beleaguered cultures, living in an environment besotted with violence and sexual suppression, in that utterly human desire to be better than someone else, anyone else, turn on me and, like Azazel's goat, send me into a further desert, bearing the collective shadow? I was tense.
As I finished my soliloquy, Jacques asked if I would be willing to receive feedback. I said Of course. One by one, men responded, graciously and generously. But several men did not speak. Jacques asked if there were others, especially those who might be upset with what Bill had shared, who might need to speak, for the value of the group existed, he reminded us, only insofar as the members were willing to say their truths.
Two hands shot up, both from the arms of men with significant personal authority whose receiving me, or not, I suspected would determine the group's ongoing response to me.
The first man, a Native American, raised his hand in a kind-of-salute and said that any man who walked with dignity, as he perceived me to do by my willingness to speak, was welcome as a brother, a not-easily-bestowed term in the race-bifurcated world of prison.
Then the second man, who was sitting next to me, put his hand on me, a provocative signal of his acceptance, and invited me to be only myself in his presence, acknowledging that it was in his accepting of the work of becoming only himself that allowed him to be free, now, in this, his twenty-fifth year of incarceration.
As the group ended that day, most of the men lined up and gave me a hug before they went back to their cells. Each shared a word of hope or one of regard. Little sacraments exchanged between human beings. Little beliefs systems about what is possible and what is true. Little bonds of faith that bespeak, not in pronouncements that the other is evil, but in declarations that the other is good, and very welcome. Community indeed.
A mysterious and loving presence was in that concrete- blocked room Tuesday, as I experience every time I re-enter it.
My sense in going to pray this morning, no longer to a god who doesn't exist, was that a Presence that is real lingers beyond the gossamer screen I, we, construct to make sure no one really gets in. That Presence invites me, us, to, in spite of the world, be available for the only one work that matters: the work of love. Really, the work of being loved.
It's all around us. I continually find out that I must surrender my many habits in order to escape the decayed grooves that would have me believe otherwise. I continually find out that I must lose my faith. When I am willing to do that, I get flooded.
William D. Glenn is a psychotherapist. He lives in San Francisco.