Lord, I Have Cried

Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me. Hearken unto me, O Lord. Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me. Attend to the voice of my supplication when I cry unto Thee. Hearken unto me, O Lord! Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. Hearken unto me, O Lord!
Above is a portion of the service of Vespers, slightly rearranged from Psalm 140. The Lord, I Have Cried is actually one of the most solemn portions of Vespers for me. Yes, we have the Come, let us worship and I love psalm 103 as the joyful start to the new day and the recalling of our creation but it is only truly at the Lord, I Have Cried, with its repetitious and faithful pleading, 'hearken unto me, O Lord' that my heart is truly called prayer, when I am moved to seek communion with God more fully.

Imagine, then, my pain, bewilderment, and complete sense of loss over the summer of last year, when these words became empty and meaningless in a way that they never had before, when I was going to church and God simply was not there - or so it seemed. It has been known among a small number of friends that I very nearly apostatised last year. I found it immenselly difficult to convince myself that there was even a God left to believe in. It was not something that could be argued logically with any of the arguments from a position of faith that are often presented in debates about the existence of God for this was not an academic rejection of God. It was simply a feeling that God was not there. That God is made perfect sense to my intellect but I could no longer bring myself to believe.

It was the single most difficult part of my Christian life to date. In the past, there had been times that I had felt distant from God - no bad thing in itself and quite possibly nothing more than a realisation of the true nature of my spiritual state during those times. There had been times that I had felt unworthy of God - again, simply a reflection of the reality perhaps combined with a certain amount of faithlessness in failing to trust entirely in the boundless mercy of God. A slow and heart-imbuing reading of Psalm 102 would usually set that to rest. However, never before had I had a sense of the complete absence of God. It runs contrary to all that I knew and loved. Of course, my actions, my identity, the direction of my life were founded on Christ, and suddenly this lost all meaning. I worried about who I was, what I was to be, the practicalities of it all, and such like. One of my favourite prayers that has settled into my heart since having learnt the Eastern Orthodox services suddenly became repulsive to me. I felt so much that there is no God that I could no longer bring myself to say it:

O heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of blessings and Giver of life, come and abide in us, cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One!
I shan't go into much more detail about all of this because that is really not the intention of this post. I only say as much as I do here to give some sense of the distress and anxiety that I felt over those few months. Things are now much better and have been slowly improving for the past three or four months. I pray again, and God is there; I go to church regularly again, and God is there; I try to look for the good in people and try to find it within myself again, and God is there. This turning point came about in large part due to the support of friends, and the patience and understanding of my parish priest, coupled with the quiet exploration of my Orthodox life until this point. I found an e-mail that was sent to me a few years ago when a paticularly ferocious Orthodox person told me that I must shun certain people in my life. The person who e-mailed me told me of a story in A Pearl of Great Price, which is the spiritual biography of St Maria of Paris (and which I currently have on order). After she and her priest were arrested, they were taken to the concentration camp at Ravenbruck. As gentiles, they were treated marginally better than the Jews but they could see the Jewish section through a barbed wire fence. One day, the priest was observing a frail, elderly Jewish man going for his daily ration of bread. On his way back, he passed a starving little boy who was too weak to go for his ration, and who begged from the old man. The man bent down, tenderly broke his own piece of bread into two, and gave half of it to the little boy. The priest wrote that it was only then that he understood what it said in the Gospel: 'They knew Him in the breaking of the bread', for there, in the actions of somebody who was not even a Christian, was a manifestation of the perfect love of Christ. It shows that we must shun nobody but must draw them close for it is through such closeness that revelation and enlightenment take place. More recently, at the instigation of a new friend who spent a day reading almost all of my posts of the last six years and was astounded by what he described as an amazing faith, (something that I found very humbling and at first slightly uncomfortable, knowing my recent faith history), I have read through some of my past entries on this blog, particularly from the early days of my exploration of Orthodoxy, and I realise just how much I almost left behind, and how much it truly is part of me and who I am. I could never leave - not ever.

Since then, my faith has returned and I realise that much of what I experienced during those months was due to my having fallen into the trap of assessing spiritual growth according to feelings. It is now that I realise that the emotional lows that we sometimes feel, as well as the emotional highs that we experience at church feasts and at certain times of year are not always true indicators of our spiritual state, and actually, the fathers do warn us about this, (says he, having learnt all too late). Perhaps I had to have that experience in order to truly understand. In any case, I am grateful to God for having brought me to where I am.

I realise that may come as a shock to some of my readers, both because of the fact of the matter and also because of my sharing it publicly. I am sorry for that but I do not post this here lightly. You see, what made this experience all the more difficult was the sense of loneliness that I felt. To whom in the Church could I turn? Could I scandalise my fellow parishioners by approaching them, as minor clergy, and telling them I did not believe in God? What of those in authority over me? Would I be removed? These were genuine fears. However, I did seek out some clergy, discreetly - sometimes in person, sometimes online - and what I learnt is that, without exception, every single one of them told me that he had at one time experienced much the same thing. I then felt less lonely and isolated, and less as though my world was crumbling, but it did make me realise that the Orthodox culture in which these matters ought not to be discussed too openly means that there can be a great deal of unnecessary angst when a person finds himself in this situation. I really just want folk to know that, while it is a difficult path, it needn't be a lonely one, and what may appear to be spiritual perfection among fellow Christians, particularly clergy, isn't necessarily that, or even a facade, but may simply be the result of a quiet faith that does not advertise its difficulties. Despite this, the true brother or sister in Christ will be a loving guide and support through such difficult times when they present themselves. Please do know and remember this.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
- Galatians 6:2

10 responses:

Anonymous said...

"Lord I call" is probably my favourite hymn. Thanks for sharing this. My crisis of faith happened before I was Orthodox, but we were a protestant clergy family. It's a terrible darkness, but meant for good, by God's mercy. I'm so glad you found your way out of it too.

margaret said...

I don’t find it shocking. Not because I think poorly of you (!) but because the same thing has happened to me once or twice and, like you, I had hardly anyone to talk to because everyone seems to be involved with ‘vocation’ or, because they know about it, I have to keep face. In my worst moments I begin to believe we all know it is a lie and are all desperately being cheerful because we believe others believe when none of us actually do. I’m not sure that makes sense now that I’ve typed it. It is a terrible thing and although it’s not pleasant knowing someone else has suffered from it so recently it is comforting. Thank you.

Jon Marc said...

"Lord, I Cry" is the high point of Vespers for me, unless it's tone 6, in which case it's the first hymn of the aposticha :-).

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Michael, (and Margaret also) I too have been to that dark, lonely and frightening place.

It is indeed terrifying to fall prey to such delusions pepetrated by the Evil One, who will stop at nothing to snatch us away from God.... and especially worse when we feel we cannot tell anyone.

Sending hugs, and keeping you in my daily prayers.

J.Samuel Ross. said...

I actually was feeling the same way about the same time. I'll send you an e-mail. <3

Michael said...

Thank you, all. Yes, it was a difficult time, and continued really until October/November, having started in about May/June. It was worsened by other matters, particularly because my way of holding on during difficult times is to try my best to keep the "externals" in place. The order and structure of the services is the framework of my active faith, and when that faith wavers a little, I know I will be ok when those things are kept in place. With things being transitional and with my efforts having come under criticism, it became very difficult to keep anything going at all. My parish priest gave me sabbatical leave until Christmas, although in reality I returned to church much earlier than that.

I would never wish this on anyone but I am encouraged to learn that so many of you have faced something similar and have come out on the sunnier side of it.

Thank you, all, so much for your words of encouragement and inspiration. I look forward to hearing from you when you have the time, Joe.

AncientBriton said...

I puzzled over the hiatus picture wondering what it could mean.
Faith is a struggle for many. They often try too hard but God finds them again if they remain open to Him.

James the Thickheaded said...

Long ago, I remember reading Merton's comment that great faith was no stranger to great doubt. Some would suggest that this was just his problem, but I think not. It's always stayed with me because, yes, Orthodoxy is hard and there are and will be times when we wonder about ourselves, about others, and even about God: Do we believe in them? Do they believe in us?

I think this is where Elder Zacharias's account of the 3-fold spiritual life is on the mark where the 2nd phase is where God, testy fellow that he is, pulls back to see whether we are in fact serious... that we really do love him.

I think this is in part why I like Fr. Meletios Webber's notion of replacing "I believe..." with "I have faith..." - as it gets more to the point.

Anonymous said...

...this level of honesty and frankness is sadly rare within Christendom..I very much appreciate this posting..much of what I project to others(persona) is a covering of the fear and sense of shame I feel for my weakness and doubts..indeed a lonely place..I may even over-compensate for these'forbidden'feelings in various external(religious?)ways in a sort of psychological knee-jerk reaction from fear i might'lose my faith' through doubting or questioning held beliefs..I've found that doubt and questioning are an integral part of Faith and discovery not only of truth but God Himself....someone once said that the measure of Dysfunction within a family can be seen by the secrets they keep..what does this say about christianity?..

Anonymous said...

Peace to you Michael and to all who have commented and may still yet. I am short on words at times so I will share with you a song I wrote out my similar experience that might express it from a different point of view. It's a take on Psalm 76 (LXX). Alas I've rendered it in the Reggae genre since that's what I'm used to, with our new group Ikons of Christ, but nonetheless. Please accept it for what it is trying to achieve. A confession of faith in the midst of doubt and the searching of the past memories for the solution to the present difficulties. I dont know how to put a link without pasting the entire url so here goes -- it is here -- http://soundcloud.com/ikonsofchrist/in-the-sanctuary May God continue tobless you all

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