I think I've mentioned here before that a stumbling block between my novels and publication is that the fact that they aren't religious enough for that market, but they're too religious for the regular market.
My argument has always been that I think that's where most of us live.
Over the last couple of years, I feel like I've been living there more than usual. There are about seven factors that have contributed to a dulling of my faith (in no particular order, I believe them to be Facebook, busyness in the church, anxiety, unanswered prayers, outward busyness and the beginnings of midlife hormones. And apparently one more that slips my mind right now.)
I think it's kind of rare to admit it though. Recently, at church, we were asked a "have you ever experienced x...?" question -- and one person I was talking with said, "I'm in the middle of such an experience right now and I'm not sure how it's going to end." I really do find that rare. We're supposed to pick a side, I think - faithful or faithless, devout or profane -- and if we secretly start to pray or stop praying, we're supposed to keep that hush-hush.
I've had quick moments of conversion in my life: at camp, as a child, someone explained the Bible to me and it was an ah-ha moment. After years of random Sunday School stories about all sorts of characters, I suddenly understood that at the centre of the Christian message was Jesus and God's love for people. Then, ten years later, I had another experience where scales fell from my eyes, and I broke up with a guy who was really destructive for me, and got back into a healthy place, emotionally and spiritually over the course of a weekend.
But a lot of the time, it's a slow process with two steps forward, one step back, and a few side shuffles thrown in for good measure. At least it is for me, and for my characters.
A former professor of mine wrote a book a few years back, on murder mysteries, in which he offered the idea that the absence of God was an argument for God's existence. It is not, he thought, the settled experiences we have of God that are proof of God or our faith, but our longings and cravings. By this measure, I'm a faithful egg.
The last time I really had a crisis of faith was just after university. I was living in one corner of Toronto and commuting to the opposite corner -- by bus, subway and streetcar. My streetcar took me through some bleak neighbourhoods filled with bleaker, ravaged faces and lives. But, between the prone bodies of the addicts and homeless hopped little sparrows with bright eyes, being sustained even in winter. I thought of the verses about sparrows - Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Mt.10:29-31) - and somehow I was able to believe.
This time around, I have been very certain that the struggles I have are with my ability to believe and not with the object of my beliefs. But at the same time, I've wondered how I can make myself find God?
Part of my problem has been an absence of problems. I don't have any philosophical issues with God and faith, really. What I've come to see, though, is that more than anything, my spirit has atrophied. I have always identified with Mary in the pairing of Mary and Martha - the one who wants nothing more than to sit and listen at the feet of Jesus. But my life has demanded Martha-ness of me and you know what? Stop sitting and listening, and you start to become Martha-like.
I think about my dry old gardens and how they sigh with relief when it finally rains. But first, the rain runs off the parched ground, right over top of it, because it's too dry and hardened to allow it in.
Some time ago, I got away and my Bible reading was the book of Jonah. Maybe you know the story beyond the whale part: God tells guy to go and invite the people he hates to redirect; guy says no, runs in opposite direction and is thoroughly redirected himself. I had heard someone say once that if you felt distant from God, you should go back and figure out where you went off track. In my reading of Jonah, I asked myself: what is the Nineveh I'm running from?
Honestly, I was stumped.
Until it hit me over the head: Nineveh is me. I can't say how profound that was for me, to recognize that I can't find God when I run from myself. Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, writes,
"For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained from him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end. (287)
"When we know and see, truly and clearly, what our self is, then we shall truly and clearly see and know our Lord God in the fullness of joy" (258).
Exactly how do we run away from ourselves? Well, I do it when I get like Martha - continuing on in my superhuman tasks until my human strengths give out and my human emotions spill over.
It's funny to think that what God calls us to might not be India or Africa or no-more-fun, but precisely the opposite: to laugh, to rest, to be, to hope, to play, to dance, to sing, to grow.
Funny but true.