(Novel note: I have been writing for 31 days and written 53,864 words. Personal NoWriMo: success! But my guess is that there's still at least 25,000 to go. Thanks for your patience everybody.)
First I talked about how I don't know anything. Then I talked about seeking. This is kind of what I've been driving at: I don't feel I know God, and I want to seek him.
This has been a very humbling realization to come to. I've been Catholic almost my whole life, obviously. At the age of twelve I decided I had a vocation. I left home at fourteen in the hopes of getting close to God. I spent hours of every day for years trying to talk to him. There were many moments when I could have sworn I heard his voice. How could I be asking the question, "What is God like anyway?"
And yet here I am, asking it.
Since I got out of boarding school, my spiritual life has been kind of a slog. The "highs" I used to get there, I now realize were just a drug to keep me hooked, so it's no wonder I don't get those anymore. The problem is that I'm a little religion-shy now. Anything that looks like a wonderful, spiritual experience makes me cagey. As a result, the dark night is really the only place where I feel safe.
Prayer is so, so hard. I mean, what is it even supposed to be? What it is it supposed to look like? Everyone gives me the same answer: "Just talk to God." So I try. It sounds like this:
"Lord, I want to talk to you about my day. It sucked. That was probably my fault. Yeah, definitely my fault. If I were more patient, more kind, more understanding, more hardworking, this kind of thing wouldn't happen to me. You're probably really disappointed in me. I want to do better, but honestly I'm not feeling a heck of a lot of confidence about that. You know what? Forget it. I'm going to go play Words With Friends. Amen."
Not exactly ... a recipe for success.
Here's the thing. In boarding school, we did have a recipe for prayer. In fact, our morning meditation consisted of kneeling down in the chapel while a consecrated sat in the back with a portable microphone and "directed the meditation," i.e. said the things they thought we should be praying. It went something like this:
"Lord, I'm in your presence right now. I know that you're right here beside me. I know you see me, that you love me. I'm overwhelmed by your love for me. You died on the cross for me. You would do it again, just for me. I don't deserve that. What's worse, I don't return that. I let you bleed on the cross for me, and I give you so little in return. I sin so much. And every time I sin, I jab those nails a little further into your hands."
And on and on, for half an hour. There would be "points" to reflect on, and at the end of every prayer, EVERY prayer, there was a resolution. I have trouble praying without a resolution. I feel like I must not be doing it right if I can't think of some way to change my life in response to the prayer time I just had. But that makes prayer really scary, because if I have to think of something to change EVERY time I pray, I end up overwhelmed with all the stuff about me that's wrong.
Which brings it back to guilt. I know Catholics are famous for guilt, but I never had any of this growing up, nor did I ever hear about it in church. I DID hear it at boarding school. Not the hellfire guilt stuff, but more the emotional manipulation kind. God has done so much for you, and what have YOU ever done for him? Oh, you think you did something for him? Did you die on the cross? Didn't think so.
Obviously this isn't right. God is not trying to have a one-up "who loves more" contest with me. But I do not need more answers about what God is not. Every time I start to try to pray, I think of another thing I have been told God is not or does not do.
God does not just want to be asked for things. He's not Santa Claus.
God does not just want to be talked at all the time. You have to listen too.
God doesn't talk so you can be sure you heard him.
God doesn't say what you would want him to say.
So, what exactly IS God like? So many people claim to know. Usually it's people who I think probably know better than I do. People who spend hours in prayer instead of truncated five-minuteses. But some of what they say ... just seems wrong.
God is pleased with the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and my favorite current military action.
God wants you to donate to X cause.
God hates gays.
God would totally be okay with this slur I just dropped because that person deserved it.
God punishes the wicked.
God loves you, BUT he is disgusted by all your sins.
Someone is probably reading and saying, "But God does punish the wicked!" And they're running to my combox to tell me so. Please don't. First off, I am not trying to debate so much as reflect, and I admit to feeling kind of fragile about this whole thing. And second, you know how God punishes the wicked? By respecting them enough to give them what they ask for, which is to have nothing to do with him. Imagine you've just divorced your husband in the most insulting way you can think of. And in response he says, "I'm very sad that you don't want to be with me. So sad I'm going to punish you by moving out of your house. But here's my number and if you call me back I'll move back in with you before you've hung up the phone."
I mean, you can call that punishment, but it's not really very punishy. Sure, eternity without God really is the worst thing imaginable. But if you don't want God, what else can he reasonably give you but eternity without him? And I do think that, being so very merciful, he finds ways to reach those people who WOULD want to spend eternity with God if only they really knew what God was going to be like.
Anyway, I found myself in a bind. To know who God is, I would have to spend time with him, i.e. pray. But I couldn't very well pray with no idea who God was. First off, that's very unpleasant, trying to spend time every day with someone you don't know and are kind of afraid you might not like. And second, I think prayers like the one I wrote down above prove that maybe I haven't been praying to God at all. I've been praying to someone I call "God" who actually is kind of a jerk.
It's a test I'm trying to apply, when I ask myself a question about God. Is this something a jerk would be or do? If so, that's not God. That's a creation of my own mind, whom I've named "Jerk-God." (My apologies if that sounds irreverent. Since it's a made-up being in my head, I don't feel the need to be polite.)
My brain finds workarounds for all the explanations of God. Take this one: God loves me. Simple, right? But then I add in some other bit of information which I find myself believing: When God sees me, he is unhappy and disappointed. Conclusion: Love is something that involves unhappiness and disappointment.
The worst thing about this is that you become like the one you love and spend time with. During the many years I've spent worshiping Jerk-God (part time, I do believe I have prayed to the real God too), I've become like Jerk-God. When I was in boarding school and immediately after, I was a judgmental jerk. No one was good enough for me. I had some reason to dislike everyone. And yet I convinced myself I "loved" them, in the same way God "loved" me. You see, new definitions for words can bring you a lot of grief.
It was only when I stopped praying so dang much, with my printed Regnum Christi meditation and my journal of self-hatred and resolutions, that I stopped being such a jerk. I'm beginning to realize that the years I've spent doing more or less the bare minimum have actually been absolutely necessary. I had to stop listening to Jerk-God if ever I wanted to know the real God.
The one thing I have kept, in which I have total confidence, is the Mass. I go to Mass every Sunday. I listen to the words and I realize, "This is true. This is real. This I can be sure is the real God." Sometimes I have to cover my ears for the homily though. Last Sunday it seemed to be on the topic of, "Why aren't you giving up more for Lent you shameless heathen?! You're only giving up ONE thing? Jesus died for you! Also, give to the Bishop's Lenten Appeal please." Sometimes I find that talking to atheists leaves me feeling firm in my faith and listening to other Catholics makes me want to run off and join Hare Krishna. It isn't always that they're wrong (though sometimes they totally are). Sometimes it's just that I have heard the "God did so much for you, what more can you do for God" spiel so many times I've developed an allergy.
So here I am, seeking God. Finding the way has been difficult. It involves no journalling, no rosary, and a minimum of spiritual reading, because all of these have issues for me. I try to pray, but only sentences at a time, not minutes and certainly not hours. When I do, I try to run things past a "decent person" test. If I said to John, "I had a bad day," he would not reply, "It's your fault." If I said to my mother, "Here's a present for you," she wouldn't say, "Is that ALL? I gave birth to you with NO DRUGS, I'll have you know!" So I try not to assume God would say things like that to me. I'm also on the lookout for the kind of spiritual reading that ISN'T just trying to get me to do more, mortify myself more, examine myself more deeply and find more that's bad. Those things might be useful in some seasons, but right now they are only hurting me. I want something that's straight up "All About God," or something like that.
I've had a lot of good things happen already on this search, but it's going to have to wait until another post.