It was Christmas afternoon, about 1:30 (2009) and I was helping an old friend take his luggage to his car. As we were leaving the retreat house, I saw a man outside the front door who looked very familiar to me. So I stopped and asked him if we met before. As soon as he started talking, I remembered who he was, though not his name. He used to come out here many years ago when I was still in my early 20’s and would stay over for Christmas. So we shook hands and I continued on my way with my friend to his vehicle. As I was coming back towards the front door I saw that he was still standing there and I could tell that he wanted to talk. So we conversed a bit about life in general and how we both were doing. He then asked me if we could go into one of the conference rooms so we could converse some more. I had the time so I said yes.
Frank (not his real name) was a big guy, well over six feet and a bit heavier than I remember him being when young. He was a teacher in the past and also a veteran, divorced from his wife and living alone in a log cabin up in Minnesota. He is also dying; he picked up some sort of fungal infection that is eating up his lungs. At first they thought it was lung cancer, but when they went in to see, they found the infection. He also has leukemia, both of which he picked up from serving in the Viet Nam war; Agent Orange they call it. So he gets 100% disability, which he needs to survive since he can’t hold down a job. They have no idea how long he has to live, which in my mind can be worse than actually knowing.
He is a very devout Christian (Catholic) and he wanted to talk a little about his inner life, which I will of course not go into here. However he did bring up something’s that is common to the human species: well at least I could resonate to what he was saying. He had a lot of fear in his heart. I guess he had a checkered past, he was 62 years old and was in a war, so I guess he saw and did some things that he is not proud of and very sorry about. As I listened to him talk I had to refrain from trying to change him, for his open and honest speaking about his inner fear made me a bit uncomfortable.
I did come away with an understanding of how fear works in my life a little differently, which is often covered over by anger. Fear, anger and anxiety can be ways of keeping the world small enough wherein it can be easily handled. I suppose it also works in our relationship with God. Well at least those who believe in God. From listening to and reading what atheist have to say about God, images that they perhaps get from their discussions with believers, or perhaps from their own past experience, it would seem that the most sophisticated of us can have images and ideas of God that are infantile at best and sadistic at the worst. We can’t seem to be able to get away from projecting and then believing what is mirrored back to us.
For me, faith is a choice and I would think that for atheist his or her unbelief is the same. However I think that choices have to be made over and over again, they just have to be made at deeper and deeper levels as we mature and grow. So some atheists as well as believers can come across as thoughtful and respectful of other people’s paths, while others can do the opposite, making caricatures out of each other. Shallowness seems to be a human trait and it takes study, thinking and contemplation to try to overcome that tendency; of which of course I have in abundance.
So what does it have to do with fear? Well I am only speaking for myself. For how can I possibly take it upon myself to articulate for others, what goes on inside them? As I was saying, any true belief has to be a choice, if it is not, well it can carry the believer or non-believer through life, as long as they don’t speak to anyone who is outside their own in group. It sounds so high schoolish doesn’t it? Belief or unbelief ghettos, where we pat each other on the back and on the upside, if truth be told, encourage as well. However it can all be unconscious and in the end based on fear of the perceived threat from those who are different.
So how does choice come into play with me, in regards to my own faith? For me, as I enter my middle old age, it is becoming apparent that it is a ‘heart’ thing….the longing aspect of my humanity that will not go away but keeps manifesting in different ways. Some of them healing, others still painful, probing, forcing me to move forward, again after choosing to. Perhaps in the end it is all about love? Our literature, poetry, movies and music seemed to be eternally stuck on this level of meaning, and in the end it all comes down to relationships, not only with others but with reality as a whole. The mystery of being, which we all face, consciously or not, in this very large waiting room we call life, waiting for our number to be called and then we are forced to go through that final exit… or is it an entrance? The dividing lines of our different belief systems; and perhaps the one that causes so much demeaning debate, indeed if it can be called that (squawking seems more like it); when it is all said and done is “does love live on, and do our struggles actually have any meaning at all?”
So with me; there are times (perhaps it is a breakthrough), when the truth of what my faith teaches, the very center of it,; it’s depth and intimacy seems to dissolve for a time my protective covering, or is it a bubble (?) and confronts or challenges me to step out into a different world, one that is filled with heart wrenching love and deeper longing. In a way it is a call to deeper suffering and love. For any kind of expansion of the ‘inner heart’ implies new life, which means a kind of death. It is then that I have to make a choice because at that moment I am tempted to atheism, for I don’t want to be taken in, fooled, and besides it is all too good to be true… right? So in order to continue I have to say ‘yes’. For is it possible that our individual longings, that seem to be part and parcel of what it means to be human, are they just an element of the calling from that which is the only source, that can fulfill them? I know that at that moment I have to choose, to go deeper or to back away and live in a world that is godless. I am not sure faith is an escape from reality, but an invitation to dive ever deeper into its bottomless depths.
The ‘inner heart’ has to die in order for fear to be let go of. “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust”, not something easy to do in a world such as ours. In order to do that I have to let go of all kinds of emotional barriers that in my 62 years I have not been able to let go of completely, for it seems to happen (the letting go) one choice at a time. Who would I be without my fear and the covering of anger that protects it? So little by little, my fears of the ‘Other” lessens and my longing becomes deeper and yes a certain type of suffering becomes more intense; yet it is the healing kind, though who says healing is not a fearful thing in itself.
I still have fear and I know this because of a species of anger that I still have. Anger in itself is something good, healthy and holy, if used according to justice and charity, though that can be difficult. No, I still have that kind of anger that is more primordial than actually human, or perhaps flowing from some part of me that is just angry, fearful and two years old. However it is less than when younger, though more pointed and painful in a surgical sort of way. A lessening of fear of the ‘inner heart’ takes away its armor. For I feel that much anger and resentment flows from a desire to protect oneself from the inner hurting of others, it blocks out empathy, keeps up strong, though I feel unhealthy boundaries which only leads to isolation; which is what anger wants, to block out the unpleasant and suffering that others carry. Anger demands from others what it cannot do itself. A form of perfection and if not forthcoming, indignation is not far behind. So no, I am still fearful, but less so, which I feel is because when the mystery draws close and my boundaries melt for a time, I am giving a choice for in the end we all choose, though each person does this in their own unique and personnel way.
I can’t speak for others, but being human we are united in the fact that we are all on a dark and often lonely road, sharing a common humanity, so I doubt my inner experience is that different from most. So I am not revealing anything really, just my often fragmented humanity. For after all, I write for healing and one day I will be able to stop, or not… perhaps to the day I die I will be fighting my own species of inner demons, but that is ok, for I will continue to go deeper in and higher up… as I feel we all do in the end. I am not a pessimist, though I have been accused of it. Without faith perhaps I would have become the worst sort of nihilist, for I seem to have a bent towards the darker side of reality… but faith transforms that into hope that has to live over the abyss upheld by faith and grace. Again, I know I am not alone in this. Faith is not what many atheists want to think it is, but I have given up caring really about that. For again, we each have our own road to walk, often lonely and dark.