“What’s something you never believed until you experienced it?” The bonus question is, “What is something you believed in, until an experience changed your mind?” but the thing I never believed in — the love of God — far outweighs any of my disillusionments.
(I actually hate prompts like this: It’s practically an invitation for every nut case to come out of the closet and either Witness to Jesus Saving Your Soul, or say that God let him down, therefore there is no God, accompanied by the (in)appropriate potty-mouthed expressions. But I’m flat out of Experiences, except in the Shelf-Life Department.)
Unhappily, I do know someone who believed in God until he was in a coma for four days, and experienced total nothingness. Why this should have changed his mind about God is beyond me. I mean, it’s not like he was dying or anything. What did he expect, a visitation?
Me, I expected nothing. Well, not nothing; what’s the point of praying if you expect that nothing will come of it? I knew that God loved Mankind, in an abstract, impersonal sort of manner, and that He was generally disposed kindly towards us lowlifes, provided we didn’t screw unto others or cheat on our income taxes (or spouses). And I knew that it was okay to pray to Him for others, but not for oneself — that’d be selfish, and was practically daring God to Smite us. It was infinitely better to pray to Saints, because they had God’s ear and could put in a good word for us; whereas we clueless idiots might actually trigger God’s temper, the Saints knew just how to approach Him to get a favorable outcome. Catholicism is nothing if not structured on Hierarchy.
Trouble was, the Saints had never done anything for me, no matter how nicely I asked. And the thing I wanted was important: I wanted to know God’s will for my life, in a certain matter. So I asked. I didn’t actually expect an answer, like a thunderbolt or anything, but I thought something might happen to make things clearer to me.
I guess this state of affairs perked along for three months or so, me asking for just some kind of nebulous guidance, when one day, deep in prayer, I had a thought. It was more than a thought, actually, and much less than a voice; Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green describes it perfectly in her book Facing East. In her case, Christ said to her, “I am your life”; in mine, He said simply, “Do you believe that I love you?” and then, “Will you let Me handle this? Just give it over to Me?”
What did I have to lose? Sure I gave it over. I was sick of worrying about it anyway. I won’t say what the situation was, or what the answer was, but I will say that the appropriateness of it, for all parties concerned, was its own thunderbolt: It had never once occurred to me that the details of my life were so important to God that He would take the time to arrange them Himself.
This has continued to happen in my life from time to time, this sense of being utterly overwhelmed by the personal and detailed attention that God gives to my life. You can’t overcome an entire upbringing with just one experience, although you can (and should) spend your life trying to eliminate the false ideas you may have grown up with.
I’ve come to recognize that this is what Orthodoxy calls the Struggle, the Combat. You may not ever be what the world would consider a truly evil person, but when you get down to wrestling with your own demons, you come to learn a couple of things: (a) They really are petty, mean little creatures, and (b) the hold they have over your life is so out of proportion to their size because you yourself have given them that power to enslave you. There’s only one way to freedom, and that is to trust in the profoundly personal love that God has for you, deep within His heart.
Or, as one Orthodox priest puts it: “Christ didn’t come to earth to make bad men good. He came to make dead men live.” Believe it.