Updated: Jun 30, 2021
I come to the end of this series writing about faith and fear. It’s really been a journey for me in articulating constructively where I am in my faith, both for myself as well as for the many people I have in mind - some with faces I know, some not.
I have imagined bewilderment, consternation and disappointment upon these faces, that I have not said something, or not said enough, or have said too much. And I fear this has led to me, at times, to not saying what I really want to say: to venture further into the chaotic, uncontrollable ocean of religious discourse and trust I will still be OK.
I also have a hope that there will be faces of recognition, that these words might somehow bear witness to something we all experience. This is perhaps the purpose of all such writing. For these, I fear I have expressed something I did not mean to, a fallacy I slip into all too readily, the fallacy of perfection, and also that I have not expressed something fundamental and crucial in all of my own experience: the radical nature of Love.
So, here are the things, in closing, I want to say.
What I really want to say is…
Here is my underlying thesis: without faith, we cannot love or live well. Instead, we will be controlled by fear. Living between faith and fear is our perennial experience.
This is not politically correct. Faith isn’t a popular thing to talk about, let alone give such import to. I think that’s because in the everyday of many religious people, it’s become simply another set of beliefs and practices to conform to. In my experience, the focus in religious life on justifying and clarifying the content of the stories faith hears, we’ve tried to contain the Ocean in our religious thimbles. The experience of religious life has made faith another stage of fear with its own scripts about what we should or should not do in order to belong; another pedestal by which to define ‘us’ and ‘them’, avoid our ultimate uncertainty and shame ourselves and others; another way to stay safely inland running scared of the untameable, mysterious Ocean. And, on the other hand, it is far too easy for those without religion to picture religious life as this, to other the religious, and make them into straw men with oppressive, unsophisticated, or intolerant views.
But, this is not faith.
This is the message I want both the religious and non-religious to hear. A message of what real faith is: something we all share that transcends our ways of othering; something far more precious than anything else we find ourselves compulsively chasing after in order to be tolerable or have some iota of meaning; something we cannot do without, both personally and socially. Faith is the prerequisite for love and transformation.
I have given (a somewhat embarrassing amount of mixed) metaphors for this and tried to convey my own experience, not because I think this is the way of all, but because I want to point to the vital, shared path of faith: faith that draws and strengthens us to push into our fears and find that these fears are doorways to new stories of belonging, hope and worth. This avoidance and approaching of fear and faith is the constant experience of our lives. Our habits here will define us.
What I didn’t mean to say…
Recently, I have found myself tangled up, disillusioned perhaps. With my life as it has been. As I have lived and chosen and related. I am weary of the constant anxiety of living inland, safely, and with the inner tension of longing for the ocean. I am feeling the injuries of colonisation: how I have been colonised and shamed; how I have colonised myself with self-inflicted mutilation and self-betrayal; how I have tried to colonise and shame others. I’m frustrated by the straightjackets of my life scripts.
My preoccupation has been with how to rid myself of these. How to push into the fears that drive these compulsions, and so be free. I try to set up practices where I am still enough to hear the cries of my spirit, and wait for the whispers of another story. But these are so hard to keep. So much else imposes itself on me, or at least, so much in me imposes other things. Or they become the conditions by which I assess my worth.
I am left with the paradox that that which is most important never imposes itself, must be free to move and free to be sensed, and that which is so much less important is always imposing itself*.
When I try to face my fears, to dive into the seas of relationships, to venture out into seeking a more meaningful life, I feel so hurt, or disappointing, or a failure again. I feel the tug to remain as I am because I feel wounded again. I get tastes, fleeting moments of faith, of touching and being touched by the other, of transformation, but when I try to keep them, claim them, live by them, they fall through my grasp. I fall through to my old pits of fear and shame. And I find that this drives me deeper into despair.
You see, what I fear I have implied is that if we just get in touch with our faith, all will be well. We will be set free. This is a fallacy. This is its own script of how we should live on its own stage that masks the reality of life’s ambiguity, chaos and our own limitedness.
Our own unique dance between faith and fear will constantly define us. Sometimes faith will lead. Sometimes fear. But it will perpetually be the dance of our lives. Faith never lets go of its partner.
What I have not said yet…
And so I find myself living in a deeper sort of wound. Teresa of Avila calls this a ‘delicious wound’. It is the wound of acknowledging all these compulsions, fears and shames, and finding I cannot free myself from them. A wound of powerlessness and frustration. A wound of seeing the stage and audience and script I live on, and inescapably finding myself speaking the lines, acting the part, fearing the critics.
Yet it is delicious because it severs me from my endless, frantic pursuit of perfection, or self-making, of independence. It pierces the endless beating drive to do, achieve, be flawless, make others OK, not be a disappointment, take responsibility for others, for it severs the fantasy that I can. I am faced with my ultimate powerlessness, even over myself.
But more, and this is where my fears of what others might think have limited me, but I now believe is the core of what needs to be said, the core of transformation: this wound is the space in which love can truly penetrate through our hardened, self-protected skin. Again, this is the necessary wound for an influx, a welling up of self-love, transcendent love, where being loved and loving all can occur. For, finally, I know I am loved as I am, however I am, even if I remain stuck in cycles of fear, hurting and oppressing myself and others. Finally, I know that the cosmic flow, or, as Merton put it, the ‘cosmic dance’ of Love flows without me and within me, however I defend myself from it, or diffract and disperse it through my unique fractures, contortions and powerlessness, even as I run scared to the shore, climb up my constructed stages and pedestals to feel like I am safe and tolerable again.
This is radical love. For me, this is the story of the cross. For me, this is what Julian of Norwich meant when she said, ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ For me, inasmuch as the still waters of faith hear this story can I, to that degree, be detached from my fearful ways. And I cling to this hope: that one day, though not in this life, all my fears will cease, and my faith will find a new partner, even the Cosmic Dancer.
Perhaps you will struggle with some of this. Perhaps you will disagree. Perhaps you will have different words. But I hope anything that is other in my story, any difference you feel, will not shut you down from faith, but might invite you to listen into and cherish even more the stories that the stillness of your own precious faith hears and remembers.
I should note that articulating this has been greatly helped through listening to James Finlay’s podcast, Turning to the Mystics.