First Aid for an Existential Crisis: Part 2

Please see part 1 here.

The pictures in the Baltimore Catechism say it all.

Did you ever try to talk yourself out of sadness or depression by “counting your blessings”?  I don’t mean to disparage this important exercise in gratitude, but it doesn’t usually work for me.  For one thing, I may be in the kind of mental state mentioned in Part 1, where external blessings seem irrelevant; or I may be in such a difficult stage of life that it seems impossible to find blessings meaningful enough to outweigh my troubles.  But the core of the problem is that even when I do feel blessed and happy, it doesn’t always reassure me of God’s love.  Where was he when I was unhappy?  Where is he when others are suffering?

Fr. Jacques Phillipe, in his short and wonderful book Searching for and Maintaining Peace, gently reminds us not to lean on our blessings–or lack thereof–to answer the question of God’s love.  Because happiness is so fleeting, we must place the source of our peace in something deeper, something that remains true beneath the cycle of sorrow and joy.  He later asserts that peace can only be found in contemplation of the Cross; but I never understood what that meant until now.  (I hope to post more fully on Fr. Phillipe’s book later this week!)

Here, as far as I can figure it out, is the answer: God proves his love for us by sending his Son to save us from Hell.  Everything else is extra.  We don’t have to rely on mental contortions to try to justify the apparent imbalance of God’s blessings; instead, we can rest assured that the only truly necessary thing–salvation–is given to everyone. Dayenu.

This also helps me deal with the paradox of the Bible’s promises.  How can God promise peace, happiness, prosperity, and freedom from fear to the just man, when we see good people suffer all the time?  These promises only make sense when they are interpreted in the light of eternity.  They do not promise peace and happiness according to earthly definitions, but heavenly ones. I think this must be the secret to the serenity and happiness of the saints even in the face of torture and martyrdom.

Most mornings I pray the Canticle of Zechariah, which contains a long list of God’s promises to

save us from our enemies…to show mercy…to set us free…to worship him without fear…to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)

Usually I find this comforting, but sometimes it is very hard to believe.  I know so many people who are at the mercy of their enemies and feel no peace.  But as I read the Canticle more closely, I noticed that it provides a specific answer to this problem: God will “give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”  The shadow of death may be more present at some times than at others, but in this life it will always be there.  The only remedy, the knowledge of salvation, is guaranteed to us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  This is the certainty we were looking for at the beginning.

The next time you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, I pray that God will send you comfort and aid.  But if he doesn’t, remind yourself that, although you have nowhere else to go, everything you really need to prove God’s love and to bring you ultimate happiness is already there.

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First Aid for an Existential Crisis: Part 1

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” by Paul Gauguin, 1897-98

One of Evelyn Waugh’s novels gives a moving description of a clergyman who’s lost his faith: he can’t figure out why there is something rather than nothing.  If he could only get a sure answer to that question, everything else would fall into place naturally: creation, the Fall, the redemption, the Church of England, and so on–but none of that matters if he can’t figure out why everything began in the first place.

There are times when I am overwhelmed enough by the suffering of the world that the usual apologetics don’t work for me.  Like the clergyman, what I need is a very basic reassurance that a good God exists.  Once that is resolved, everything else eventually follows.

When I was younger, the traditional proof from creation was enough: there must be an ultimate principle of Goodness from which our consciences, and all that is beautiful in the world, draw their goodness.  But, as C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity,

If we used [the created world] as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that [God]was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place).                                   (Book I, Chapter 5, p.37)

If we rely solely on the goodness of the world for our proof of God, then atheists can counter with their proof from the evil of the world.  And besides, there is a certain point of darkness or depression in which the beauty of the world seems like more of a mockery or a great deceit than a reassurance.  I remember one time, during a study abroad semester in Rome, when I was literally surrounded with every kind of beauty–weather, nature, art, architecture–but I still had trouble thinking of a reason to take the next step up the stairs.  When your interior world is plunged into darkness, the outside world has nothing to say to you.

Here is my first aid prayer for this situation: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)  These are the words the apostles used to explain their faithfulness to Jesus, even when the “hard saying” of the Eucharist caused others to turn away.  My wise mother once pointed out that this is sometimes the only response we can manage when God’s will seems completely incomprehensible.  We can’t understand it, but what’s the alternative?  Would you rather believe in a world where every bit of goodness and beauty was actually meaningless?  I wouldn’t.

This doesn’t leave us with a lot of comfort; but it does provide the first step out of desperation.  The world and God’s plan for it may still seem bewildering, but now that we know there is “nowhere else to go,” we have the first principle we were looking for and we can start working on everything else.

In part 2, I want to talk about the next step: how Jesus’ love unto death is the key to interpreting all God’s promises of protection, happiness, and peace, even when everything in the world–or in your life–is consumed by suffering.