The Morning Call, April 29, 2017
In The Marriage Plot, a prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, two Brown University graduates decide to backpack through Europe. They part when one wants to go to India to serve at Mother Teresa’s guesthouse for the dying.
After a week in Calcutta, working within his comfort zone, he is challenged by an older man to do some of the dirty work. Begin with bathing a dying man. The older man removes the dying man’s bandages that hid ugly and awful smelling infections. He pours water on the man while saying “This is the body of Christ.”
The young man soon leaves. On his way out of Calcutta, he begins mouthing a different prayer he knows because he has been a student of religion: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Centuries earlier, John Wesley brought the gift of spiritual Methodism to many Anglicans. Some say he reformed England, though in the early 1700s, he was close to despair and did not have the faith to preach. He was about to give up the ministry when a Moravian friend counseled him to “preach faith till you have it. Then because you have it, you will preach faith.”
For years, Wesley felt dry within, not motivated even to pray. He found himself crying out, “Lord, help my unbelief.” One evening in 1738 he reluctantly attended a meeting where someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. While the leader was describing the change God works in the heart, Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” and he trusted in Christ.
I served with the late bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, Mark Dyer, who used to advise people in the depths of their spiritual dryness to “act as if you believed.”
Everyone experiences doubts about the faith at times, said Pope Francis. He did, many times – but such doubts can be “a sign that we want to know God better and more deeply. One who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith.”
A quote attributed to one of my favorite "saints," Dorothy Day, says: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily."
Mother Teresa, however, who received the Nobel Prize and has been declared a saint by the RC Church for her compassion with the poor and the sick and the dying, is the 20th century winner of the spiritual dryness derby
Letters made public years after her death in 1997 revealed that this “living saint” spent nearly 50 years without feeling God’s presence, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist."
Because I have experienced doubts, dryness and spiritual crises, and continue to do so, even at 80, I find comfort in such admissions from people I admire.
Have you ever been beset by doubt about your religion or spirituality, about the presence of God in your life, about the existence of God? Know above all that faith is not belief so much as it is acting-as-if in trust and hope.
Sharing your doubts, dryness and spiritual crises with those among us who need comfort and courage in our own lives would be, I think, acts of integrity and works of mercy.
Finally, listen to Jesus. How many times did he say something like: Fear not. Be not afraid. Be not anxious? Listen to Jesus. Stay connected to the vine.
[Canon Bill Lewellis, firstname.lastname@example.org, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the staffs of two bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for nearly 25 years and on the staff of the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 15 years before that.]