Helplessy Hoping

Wordlessly watching he waits by the window and wonders
At the empty place inside – Crosby, Stills & Nash
Taize

The last few weeks have been quite a special and important time for me.
But if I could underline one main feeling that has threaded its way through this time it would be empty longing.
Faith is a bit like this for me. I’m walking through a desert and every now and then I find a small pool of crystal clear water. Pure and cool, it soothes my parched tongue. But I have to move on and I stagger onward through the shimmering heat.
But always I long for the next pool, the next place of revival. They are always unexpected. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever reach another one and sometimes I doubt if I did in fact actually find one.
Often I feel foolish for entering this desert, frustrated and angry. Sometimes I want to stop, or maybe turn back but somehow I know that I must keep walking and somehow I do.

This longing for that cool water, this desire to be filled, to be content to me speaks of a deep human desire for God. I believe everyone can relate to the feeling of not ever really being completely satisfied. We’ll never have travelled enough, seen enough, done enough, made enough or received enough likes on Facebook.
But why do we have this desire in the first place? How can we desire a perfect contentment if we have never experienced it? How can I crave the water if I have never seen or tasted it? I was created to drink water. I need it to survive. So, I can conclude that I was created for perfect contentment too.

Water in Taizé

If we distract ourselves enough we can fool ourselves into thinking that desire is not there but in the loneliness of a dark night, we know.

Coming back to my empty longing, this can sound quite bleak at first but this empty longing is paradoxically a feeling of closeness to God. In the very fact that I desire God to be with me and within me and the frustration at the feeling that He hasn’t satiated that desire is a closeness and peace.

I spent a week in The Taizé Community in France at the start of December. In the people I met, in the chants we sung, in the quiet presence of the brothers I was drawn into a stillness and calm. There was no lightning bolt moment or emotional outburst but just a contentment with my discontent.
Perhaps this is what joy is. An underlying “okayness” despite exterior circumstances or feelings.

This empty longing has underscored my experience of Advent this year. It wasn’t conscious. Advent is traditionally a time of waiting, waiting for the birth of a saviour, but also for the ultimate fulfilment of our longing for God. But I didn’t try very hard to enter into this waiting, the waiting came to me.
This Advent has placed Christmas in its proper place, the pinnacle of this waiting. The point I can stop and realise that although I am walking through a desert, God is walking next to me.

Happy Christmas!

Lost Faith

Lost
“Your hope is not a mocking dream… We cannot hope until we know, however obscurely, that there is something to hope for…”
Maria Boulding

Some may have noticed a lack of posts the last month or so. Rather than explaining I will share some journal excerpts that I wrote this weekend during a retreat at Worth Abbey:

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I’m finding a slowness in my soul. A pain that is just ahead of me that I want to feel but, like in a dream, I’m weighed down and can’t catch it. I only ever get the tail end – a dull unsatisfactory ache. I long to pass through the pain, to weep it out; the fear, the insecurity.

I long for peace, for healing, for forgiveness. Where have I gone? Father…
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There is a firing range nearby, I can hear the shots through the forest. In this peaceful place, a faint reflection of war.
Somewhere deep inside, hidden in the woods, a battle rages – but on the surface it seems calm.

Where will peace come from? From Christ? I’m told… I want to believe that.

But the echoes of the firing range follow me as I walk up the muddy path back to the monastery
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Advent has begun. A time for new beginnings. This advent I want to let go, to be okay with being lost.

My journal entries speak of a desire to feel. To encounter my emotions, letting them flow and to encounter Christ. These are my prayers for advent.

“If you want God, and long for union with him, yet sometimes wonder what that means or whether it can mean anything at all, you are already walking with the God who comes. If you are at times so weary and involved with the struggle of living that you have no strength even to want him, yet are still dissatisfied that you don’t, you are already keeping Advent in your life. If you have ever had an obscure intuition that the truth of things are somehow better, greater, more wonderful than you deserve or desire, that the touch of God in your life stills you by its gentleness, that there is a mercy beyond anything you could ever suspect, you are already drawn into the central mystery of salvation.” – Maria Boulding – The Coming of God

Who Needs to be Saved? Part 1: Certainty and the Nature of God

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Lately I’ve been asking myself a lot of hard questions. I’ve also been trying to teach myself long multiplication because my mathematical abilities are atrocious but that’s another story.

I’ve been wondering about the Christian concept of “Salvation”. What is that? Why do we need it? Is it fair? Is it unfair? You know, the usual queries. I won’t address that specifically in this post but I will lay down the groundwork.

I am someone who craves certainty. This probably says something about me… Perhaps that I am insecure. Because if I wasn’t insecure, I would have no issue with uncertainty (I’ll try elaborate on this a little later)

And so I find myself asking, “How do I know that what I believe is true? How can I be sure?”
It is difficult to find valid evidence to support my beliefs. I cannot rely on spiritual experiences, weird coincidences or other people’s testimonies as they are personal and relative experiences. So as pieces of evidence, for me, I find myself torn as to what to think.

This, some will say, is a lack of faith. Maybe so. Or maybe it is a deepening search for authentic faith. Either way, it means I examine the very core of what I believe and I have to be brutally honest with myself, which can be scary.

Ultimately though, as someone wise once told me, the only thing we can be certain of is that nothing is certain. It is a scary step to admit this as it makes me vulnerable. I personally feel that sometimes when people aggressively hold onto their beliefs and are uncompromising, it is because deep down they are afraid they might be wrong. I am like that often. Hence, being okay with uncertainty brings a peace and removes the fear of being proved wrong. Because, yes, I could be wrong! As I write I realise that this is all very reminiscent of Alan Watts, who I love but don’t agree with on a couple of key points. (digression)

But, I still search for certainty, I haven’t reached that Buddhist/Wattsian level of detachment and so, in order to try and understand what I believe, I try and strip down my beliefs to their essentials. In my search I usually start at, well, the start.  Here I ask the cosmic void, who are you? Who caused this?

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. – Ancient Creation Text by Moses… potentially… but probably a whole host of anonymous authors.

Table Mountain from Somerset West

So, I weigh the evidence and rationalise that something can’t just appear from nothing (and not the scientific version of nothing, which is actually something but as in nothing… which we can’t even imagine because you can’t imagine nothing. So stop trying to. Or you could look at my bank balance, that might come close) and I conclude that something must have caused all of this. It had to be a creative force, beyond human understanding.

In having determined that their must be some kind of Divine Being or God, I then have to decide  who I believe this God to be. Here it is up to me to look at the various Faith traditions and the world around me to determine what I believe about God. This is where being objective becomes particularly difficult as I am inevitably influenced by my cultural upbringing and environment.  That being said,my view of God is that He is a loving, creative being who is actively involved in His creation and who reveals Himself through people, sacred tradition, sacred scripture and ultimately in Jesus Christ.

Now you might ask, given the fact that I said earlier that I crave certainty, how I can jump to such specific conclusions when I am not able to logically work out why I believe them?
Great question! I don’t know either. Except to give the trite and unsatisfying answer that I just do.
I speak about this a bit in some of my other posts about God and Jesus.

Suffice to say, I cannot be certain and I find it very hard. But if there is a God, and He created me, do I not belong to Him? Do I not owe Him everything I have because it is His anyway? And if He placed me on this beautiful earth, surely there must be a purpose for that too?

One thing that I has been growing in my heart over the years is the realisation that Love is the most important aspect of my life and faith. If I can truly love, in a self sacrificing way, wanting the best for others, then I am taking steps in the right direction. And if that is what I desire, can I assume the same and more about the Being that created me?

There are questions, but God is in the questions.

All this I have put to the test of wisdom. I said, ‘I am resolved to be wise,’ but wisdom was beyond my reach – whatever has happened lies out of reach, deep down, deeper than anyone can fathom. Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) – circa 3rd Century BC

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Everything has to start somewhere, right?

The evening in rural KwaZulu Natal

I believe in God.

Sometimes I wonder why I do and sometimes I wonder why it seems as though I can’t not.

I believe in God for two reasons:

My mum told me to.

He changed my life.

But let’s track back a little. I’ve already made three (apparent) presumptions: That God exists, that God is involved in human affairs and that God is “He”.

I believe God exists – The honest reason for this is that it has always seemed impossible to me that there is nothing; That the universe willed itself into existence and that matter was just like, you know, hiding in gaseous vapours and stuff before it decided  to randomly explode into thousands of complex planetary systems. I do accept the concept of the Big Bang; I just believe someONE commanded it to happen.

After that it all gets a little hazier. We can’t prove empirically that God intervenes in human affairs (although some might say we can) and we can’t prove God reveals himself as “He”. This we draw from our religious traditions.

I’m not going to rattle on about the arguments for God, Thomas Aquinas and the first cause theory yada yada. Look it up if you like. What I am more interested in sharing is my own experiences of God.
And that is why I have started this blog.

Here are some Cereal Box Facts about me:

I am Catholic.

I am 25 years old. (at the time of writing!)

I was born in Zimbabwe, went to High School in Zambia and then College in South Africa but I have a British Passport and the EU is the only place in the world where I can lawfully reside without a visa, yet I have spent a grand total of 4 months living in the UK in my whole life.

I struggle with my Faith on a daily basis.

I love my Faith.

I have Purely Obsessional OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)

I have considered becoming a priest.

I have considered getting married.

I am single. (At time of writing – but most probably even if not time of writing)

I have slowly come to realise that there is very little I can be certain of in this life.

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Let us expound:

I grew up feeling that God was important. I went to a Catholic primary school, went through the usual, first confession, first communion routine and I sincerely believed that there was a big guy in the sky watching over us all.

I was a very impressionable youngster and also very easily frightened (these fears were in fact the first manifestations of my anxiety disorder). I was afraid of the devil and I was afraid of offending God somehow. I had repetitive prayers and tics I would do to ease my anxiety.

However, I ambled along through life and I had a reasonably good childhood with mud flinging, romping with the dogs, fishing and all the rest. In 2001, when I was 12 years old, my family (i.e: my mother, sister and I) moved from Zimbabwe to Zambia. Although a hard time for me, life in Zambia wasn’t bad and I grew into a skateboarding, Taekwon-Do obsessed, pimply teenager.

Me with my Taekwon-Do group back in the day

God didn’t feature that much except for an occasional trip to Mass at the Jesuit seminary and my phases of obsessive prayers to ease anxiety for whatever reason.

Finally I came to Cape Town with my mother and I studied at a film school while she looked for work.

In my second year at Varsity my life came crashing down. My father had died a few months prior and my anxiety disorder finally caught up with me. I plunged into a depression and a truly dark horrid time. I scraped the bottom of the barrel and while I was down there I turned to God for help. Eventually I got through and emerged, rather shaken, on the other side. God receded into the background again but I still knew there was something important in all of this “God stuff.”

Third year came and went and I bumbled along as usual. I can’t say my life had any spark or joy, my main focus was finishing film school and being a good editor. My psychological state was not good and I was desperately looking for comfort and companionship.

In this time I went to Mass sporadically and on one evening I showed up, not too happy about life and heard the priest announce a Prayer and Life course was starting the next day. Why not, I thought and the next evening I showed up in all my scepticism.

It was the beginning of a wild ride. We were challenged to read the Bible daily and reflect on certain passages for half an hour each night. We experimented with different forms of prayer: contemplative, imaginative, written etc. Once the course was over I definitely felt a stronger connection to God but I was still unconvinced about this whole Catholic/Christian thing.

I hadn’t been confirmed so I decided to do the RCIA course (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) which is basically a yearlong course that introduces people to the Catholic faith (which most Catholic churches offer). At the end of the course the catechumens (as they are called) get either baptised or confirmed or both depending on what their story is. I was pretty sceptical about the whole thing but once I started I slowly found myself wanting to learn more and more and before I knew it I had fallen in love with the Church (you will notice I didn’t say God).

Does that mean I finally knew without a doubt that God existed? Nope. Since then I’ve been up and down and all around in regards to my faith but what I can say is that I can note a stark contrast between my life before I decided to commit myself to God and after. This is not a difference in quality or joy or “goodness”. The difference for me is the sense that I am not alone. The thought that the Being that created the Universe knows and cares about me is a comforting one. But just because I believe it, doesn’t make it true. The only thing I can compare it to is breathing through a piece of cloth your whole life so you are always struggling to take in a deep breath and then one day it’s removed and suddenly you can breathe. I am not talking about mystical experiences or divine revelation but simply a shift in attitude, a shift in perception and perspective that occurred only once I gave God a little bit of myself to work with.

Yes, I believe in God. For me, without God there is no reason for this moment to exist, there is no reason for the universe to hold itself together, to function in an ordered way. And if there is no God then consciousness is one heck of a cruel joke of nature.

But this blog is not an attempt to prove or disprove anything, rather it’s a dialogue. A person of faith trying to give people a glimpse into what goes on in the mind of one, OCD, displaced believer – and why he continues to believe when it sometimes doesn’t seem logical.

Enjoy the ride.

Matchbox pinhole camera picture taken by Kirsty at tea time!