Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
It has been a long, tiring, yet very good week. For those who have followed me on this blog for so long, I want to say thank you. I left my last assignment broken, dispirited, struggling with my faith and calling, but as a result of a series of events regarding my retirement, my faith has been renewed and my sense of calling and joy to serve as a Priest restored. That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience doubts, or question doctrine, or even wonder about the existence of God. I wish that I can say that that wasn’t the case, but the fact is that all of us, believers or unbelievers alike live in what the German Pastor, theologian, resistier and martyr to Adolf Hitler said:
“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”
Whether we believe or don’t believe; are fixed in our religious doctrine or non-religious ideology, or doubt as I so frequently do, the fact is that we live in the uncomfortable middle. Truthfully, we come from a beginning that we can only only make ultimately unprovable theological or scientific theories of origins; and move to an end, that while it certainly will happen, either in apocalyptic fury, or where either we ourselves will destroy most of the life of the planet, save the Cockroaches, or the Sun goes supernova and consumes the Earth and the rest of our pitiful solar system, unless the dreams of Gene Roddenberry come true. Truthfully, I have learned in my almost sixty years of earthly existence to be okay with that. Others religious and non-believers alike aren’t okay with that, simply because they require certitude.
The seeds of this idea were planted over 25 years ago during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency, at Parkland Memorial Hospital confronted me about my “illusion of control” after a case conference. He was frustrated with me, and for him it was a throw away comment, but is penetrated the armored belt that I had surrounded my heart, soul, and intellect with for years, even before I became an Army officer in 1983.
I mentioned a lot of the week last night. I have felt a renewal of faith and call; a joy in ministry and caring for people that I haven’t experienced since my time in Iraq, which was quite literally, “the best of times and the worst of times. At the same time, while I believe, I doubt. As Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain:
“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re present but that may be wish fulfillment. Intellectually, I have no reason to believe. Yet much of the time I act like I do believe …. Only when I have time to reflect do I feel doubts, and then after the doubts certainty that the universe is cold and lonely. I know that I am a hypocrite and a fool. Then I preside over the Eucharist in my unsteady bumbling way and I know that you are. I don’t believe but I know.”
The words reflected what I was going through. I believed, but I didn’t. Of course that would not only continue as my tour in Iraq progressed but got worse after I returned from Iraq. However, I discovered, much to my surprise that I was not alone. That there were a number of other very good, caring Chaplains, Priests and ministers going through similar doubts, fears and pain.
The irrepressible Bishop Blackie continued:
“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”
The words were and still remain an epiphany to me. Belief and unbelief co-existing simultaneously, yet in a way strangely congruent with the testimony of scripture, the anguished words of a man whose son was possessed by an evil spirit confessing to Jesus: “I believe, help my unbelief.” Maybe that is why in the Liturgy of the Eucharist we proclaim the mystery of faith, or as it is translated from Latin into German Geheimnis des Glaubens. That mystery, is that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. That really is the mystery of what Christians call faith
We can be reasonably certain from non-Christian sources like the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman Letter to Trajan, written by Pliny the Younger, that there was a man name Jesus who was crucified by the Romans, and whose followers believed that he had died, been buried, had risen from the dead. Likewise, It was the testimony of those early believers in Scripture and non-canonical writings, that he would come again. Pliny described them as model citizens whose only fault, was that they would not burn incense and proclaim that Caesar was Lord, and sought the advice of Emperor Trajan on what to do with them. Before and after that many gave their lives peacefully as martyrs for this crucified man named Jesus.
That is why as strongly, or as doubtfully we believe as Christians, what we believe is based upon faith, mixed with fact, which until those words become reality, cannot be proven. Which is why some priests, like the fictional Jean Paul in Greeley’s novel and me “ both believe and not believe at the same time.”
I don’t know if that makes any sense, but in this season of Lent where Christians are called to draw near to God in order to be transformed by God’s love, and share it with others through their lives and actions, not just words, platitudes, and certitudes, but being humble servants of others we come to experience a renewal of life which can only be described as mysterious.
So that is it for the night and I hope that no matter what you believe that you experience joy, love, and even come to revel in the mystery that we call life and faith, and share that love, human, and or divine with others. After all, a smile, a friendly greeting, an expression of care from a friend or stranger, looking into someone’s eyes with care and concern, may be the only good thing that a person living a lonely, sad, and anxiety filled life, might experience that day. As my one of my football coaches in high school, Duke Pasquini told me “it’s the little things that count.”