Southern Beliefs

Juan (not his real name), has been a friend of mine for almost 20 years now.  He was born in Cuba, but came over as a very young boy in 1960 and his family settled in Miami.  He is a very intelligent man who has a master’s degree in psychology and for awhile he worked at rehabilitation clinics, which dealt with both drug and alcohol addiction.  Being an addict himself, with other serious problem (he being bi-polar, that can become full blown paranoia if his medicines do not do their job), led him to believe at the time to be the perfect career choice for him.  I said he worked for awhile as a psychologist and he was very good at it.  He had to quit because he identified so strongly with the sufferings of those he was trying to help and he burned out quickly. He never could build strong boundaries, so was vulnerable.  So he left the profession and I think it was a good decision.

(Photo by VitaminSea)

He calls me from time to time and I often don’t have time to talk to him.  I have never known him to voluntarily end a conversation over the phone and once I had to actually hang up because he would not take my three very strong hints that I had to go.  In spite of this, I love the guy and have a deep respect for his struggles and how he deals with his ‘issues’.  He is humble enough to call for help when he needs it and as far as I know over the last 10 years has never stopped his meds.

I am humbled when he starts talking about his faith and how he strives to live out his belief on a daily basis, which of course is not always easy.  I have come to the conclusion that people with deep seated problems are often the strongest people I know.  Juan for instances never gives up, he is self aware and that leads him to having compassion for others, which is the fruit of his own struggle to become a better person.

One of the modern myths that seems to be believed by many is that those who have faith need it because they are weak and afraid.  Faith is treated as if it is some type of a crutch (and yes it can be for some), but when it helps people to live up to their ideals and to do what is necessary to overcome all that gets in the way of that, well I would say that their faith is something deep, mature and leads to a deeper and more fulfilling life.

Faith leads those who follow the path of grace (from whatever tradition) to actually deal with the pain and tragedy of life better than those who have no faith.  Here I am only speaking from my own experience of those I know and see on a regular basis.  I am not speaking about all people of faith, or even of those who have none.  My personal experiences are limited, but that is all I have to go on.  I don’t trust polls, or articles that take different sides of the fence when they try to make sweeping generalization about everyone on one side of the divide or the other.   I believe people are just too complex for that…. we are each unique in how we live out our lives, even if we are on a path followed by many.

Now because I have experienced this with my friends and acquaintances, does not mean that I have absolutely certainty that my faith in God is factual.  No, faith means to hope for what is unseen.  Yet, if it allows people to live mature, decent and often holy lives, I fail to see where this is some kind of escape.  Alcohol, drugs and, yes, sex can be crutches that people use to get away from the actual pain that simply comes with existence.  The pleasures that these addictions give can mimic the real gifts that come from God.  While high, or drunk, or in the middle of having sex, there can be a feeling of deep contentment and a certain peace, yet it is only a release of tension, a respite from life, and when it is over things over time become worse.  Our addictions give us no way of dealing with our deeply felt human alienation; they only give a temporary escape.

Faith in God is based on a relationship; such as Juan has. Which over the years has allowed him to leave behind more than one addiction; which was a painfully slow process for him to go through and in fact he is still going through.  It has also helped him to deal with his mental illness and inner fragmentation.  This happens because faith in God is an actual relationship that does bear actual fruit.  It is not based on childish ideas that God will take everything away, but on the reality of being journeyed with and that relationship will go on eternally.  Failures, depression and even despair, do not have the last word when in relationship with God.  For in fact, from experience, those who are on the path experience this infinite love in ways that those outside cannot fathom nor understand.   People believe in God because they understand that to be the truth, not because they fear existence without God.  There is also a maturing process that takes place.  So talking to someone, say my friend Juan, about God when he was 40, will be different on many counts, if the conversation is taken up when he is 50.

There is something that goes on in the depths of the soul when a relationship with God is nurtured and developed.  It is not easy and in fact, is an answer to an invitation (grace), that is offered over and over again, especially when times get chaotic and dark and one is about to be swallowed up in the inner hell that I believe we all carry within us.  Juan has experienced this inner hell, in fact he was in it for years before he answered the call of grace to live life and face it squarely.

This relationship that many respond to is based on an ever deepening journey into trust.  For infinite love is not human love, though as a Christian I believe that love has been revealed in Jesus Christ.  Jesus did use human metaphors to try to express this mystery that we call God’s love, but it is something that goes way beyond the metaphor.  Perhaps that is why God is so often feared, what to do with a love that is infinite and not based on some kind of need or instinct?

I believe Juan is much further along on his spiritual path than I am. He has more courage and faith that I do as well.  When meeting him, he seems average, but within there is a deep and loving soul, covered over by imperfections and failures, yet his soul shines for he has truly kept on the path and I feel has entered the realm of trust in life process, no matter how painful it is for him at times.

I think he has learned that no matter what inner room he enters, no matter how dark or filled with pain, or fear, he knows that the infinite is there waiting for him. Or is journeying with him on his journey of growth, towards union with what we are all made for and I believe that is love, of a kind, that if we felt in now while alive, we would not survive.  It is a slow birth for all of us, or most of us, especially for me and I am grateful for his example and friendship in my life.

People can mock those of us who have faith all they want, for the path towards the infinite is one of pain, struggle and failure that forces us to stretch our hearts to accept the love that is given to us freely…the heart stretches, old ways die, new life is experienced in ways not understood, for indeed eternal life begins here as well as eternal death.  We choose, but we can’t judge another, for the heart of others is closed to us, for only God knows each of our names, our past, our struggles and in the end, what we freely, actually choose.  The heart is either opened or closed, most people I know, of all paths or none, seem to have an open heart, hopefully that ‘judgment’ is true.  Those that I think might be closed, well in the end it is none of my business. For again, I am no man’s judge; none of us are called to that.  It is love and truth, that sees and knows us, I only see the surface, not only in others, but also in myself.

If you want to meet real people, well, it is those who have lots of problems but work with them and who have the courage to continue on their journey, no matter what things look or feel like, who come across as the most genuine; again this is from my own personal experience for I can speak for no one else.  It takes faith, something strong and pure to believe that our lives have a purpose, even if it is often hidden.

I think the failures are probably more important than most people understand.  Humility is very freeing, self knowledge frees the soul from the need to hide, or cover up, or to pretend.  We live in an age wherein people want to come across as together, rational and on top of things.  Well, as we age life has a way of leading us down roads that in the end may be good for us, but in the living it out, very painful and confusing.  Infinite love, not being human and not based on some need, will go to any extreme to lead us deeper into the mystery of our eternal life, which is even now being lived out and experienced.  Perhaps for some that knowledge is not a comfort and they would rather have one life and then oblivion, well that luxury is denied us I believe.

Hell is not a place, just as heaven is not; they both are states of being.  We choose, grace prompts us to make the loving and often difficult choice.  If there are those in hell, it is where they want to be, it is who they are, what they have chosen freely to become over a lifetime.  Love or not to love, that is the question that we all must answerer in our own unique ways.   In the Christian path, Christ came to save us from ourselves, and our world at its worse can show us what the stare of hell is most likely like.  What we need to fear is ourselves when we choose to work outside of graces love and promptings.  We are free in the end, but no one knows the choices that another makes, no matter what their beliefs or actions are.  For we can’t judge at that depth, the place wherein we stand in the truth of who we are and want to be is seen only by God, for it is in that place where our true ‘Name’ is.

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Mark Dohle

Mark Dohle

I am 62 years old and have lived in the Atlanta area since 1971.  I am Catholic and my faith is important to me, yet as I age the mystery continues to deepen, so I read broadly and try to keep things somewhat open ended. I work with the aged and the dying. I was in the Navy for four years and I guess I am life of center when it comes to politics, but not too far left. Actually, I am kind of a political moron.

I am the third of  11 children; ten still alive, one died in in 1958, three days after birth.