Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Thorn

Yesterday I staggered through the morning and afternoon, spiritually and physically drained. My wife and I made the 8:15 Mass, and in the middle of it I was struck by an absurdity of doubt: what if it's all a lie? What fools we are, with our candles and Bibles and incense, our vestments and altar and shrines! I considered the possibility that Jesus was only a man after all, a good Jew who wanted heart returned to his religion. Were that the case, he would be horrified by our current blasphemy, raising him to the status of God, forsaking the Mosaic law. Of course, he would say we were all only Gentiles anyway, closed off from God unless we undergo conversion to Judaism. I took communion (probably, as I think of it now, I shouldn't have, considering what was in my heart at the time) but the Host tasted stale and I felt ridiculous accepting it.

All in all, it was one of the lowest moments of my faith I can remember.

But I have a little book of devotions, My Daily Bread, and one of its lessons came to my mind after Mass. When God gives us consolation, a sense of His presence, that's a gift. We don't in any way earn it. When we feel desolate, like I did yesterday, we must carry on with faithfulness anyway. So I read my Scripture, prayed my rosary, spent what felt like a futile hour in focused prayer before bed. I went to sleep deeply troubled.

This morning before Mass began I knelt in the pew and opened my Bible, ready to read whatever opened. I knew I was searching for something, but I had no idea how to pray through my doubts. I found myself at the 4th Psalm:

Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You have given me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

I read those three lines again. That's what I meant to say, of course. I read on, and felt God speaking directly to me:

O sons of men, how long will you be dull of heart?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.

Be angry, but sin not;
commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.

"Dull of heart." "Vain words." "Be silent." "Right sacrifices." "Trust in the Lord."

Saint Paul had a thorn that tormented him, some sin he could not extinguish and that God allowed to remain despite Paul's earnest prayers. For me, the dullness of my conscience after years of denying God is my thorn. My faith is quick to waver, and my mind to run down the old grooves of vain words and doubt. And it does make me angry---at God for not removing this trial? Perhaps, but I can easily commune with my own heart and see that these doubts are left to me for my strengthening. All I have to do is make right sacrifices----do what is good---and trust God to bear me up.

I was so moved by the power of my psalm experience that I enjoyed one of the more meaningful Masses I've participated in in a long time. Every reading seemed to be revelatory, the homily brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to fall on my knees before the Sacrament, put my face to the ground, and thank God for His mercy. Beneath all of that, I marvelled that just 24 hours ago, I wondered if I was a fool for believing. Now I saw my doubts themselves as the foolishness they were. Stupid again! Yet here was God, embracing me, letting me know His presence despite my unworthiness and hard-heartedness.

I don't know what purpose God has in letting my doubts remain, but what I experienced this morning might be a clue. I'm a stubborn and prideful man. Perhaps God uses this weakness in me to show me again and again how reliant I am on Him. And the reward, the truth of the homecoming when I pass out of doubt, is just the sort of "mountaintop" experience I need to strengthen me.

Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe. who hears the prayer of your faithful.