HOLY DOUBT

This past week, holy week, a student from the university where I teach went missing. Her name is Mary Owen. I’m not here to tell her story (it’s a good one, but not mine to tell; you can read more about it here). I want to tell a smaller, quieter story that sits half-hidden in the shadow of the other one — a story about living with doubt during holy week.

I heard that Mary was missing on Friday afternoon from the great oracle of Facebook. She went hiking on Mount Hood the previous Sunday with minimal supplies and was thought to be lost somewhere on the freezing mountain, maybe injured, maybe dead.

mary owen

I don’t actually know her personally, but our circles are intertwined, and when I heard she was missing I felt instantly invested in the story. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I shared a post on Facebook, asking for prayer — which meant, I quickly realized, that I probably had to pray for her, too.

Here’s a little secret. I’m not very good at praying, at least not the typical ask-for-specific-things-from-God kind of praying. I’m afraid to believe in that kind of prayer, because as soon as I admit that God works that way, that God chooses to regularly and directly intervene in human affairs and can be swayed by our petitions, well, then I have to face the idea of God choosing NOT to intervene and prevent some really horrific shit, like tsunamis that sweep away cities, and children being sold into sex slavery, and so on. It’s easier, and more comfortable, for me to avoid that whole mess by sticking to wordless or contemplative-style prayer – when I pray at all.

But this time I felt compelled to pray for something specific. And I did, all night long. I held a breastfeeding vigil. My baby, currently many reincarnations away from the Nirvana of “sleeping through the night,” wakes up around 4-5 times to eat between 9 PM and 7 AM. So that night, Friday night, whenever he woke me up, my thoughts immediately turned to Mary, and I prayed while I nursed.

We’re talking really simple prayers, here, almost awkwardly so. None of that flowery, preachy stuff I ceased being able to pull off years ago (We know, dear Lord, that you are a merciful God and you hold all things in your hands…).

Just: Please find her. Let them find her.

In between nursing sessions, while I slept, I even dreamed about Mary. I dreamed about hiking up the mountain with a bunch of people to rescue her, each of us armed with ski poles and snowshoes, white flakes falling softly all around, a bright beacon of moon guiding us.

In my dreams, I was confident she’d be rescued.

In waking life, I was almost certain that she would be found dead.

Sure, I was praying — but I severely doubted that what I was praying for would happen. I’d checked the weather and the temperatures on Mount Hood; I’d combed over the news stories, trying to imagine a realistic scenario to explain how Mary could still be alive after almost a week in frozen wilderness, with little or no food, underdressed, without shelter, most likely injured. I couldn’t think of a convincing one.

On Saturday morning, still assured in my doubt, I was once again feeding my baby and checking Facebook on my phone — and I saw the news that Mary had been found. Alive. After six days of freezing and starving in a hole she’d carved out in the snow, she’d been rescued. Upon reading this, I literally exclaimed: “Holy shit!” (still working on that not-swearing-in-front-of-the-baby thing). I was honestly surprised, almost shocked, to be proven wrong. I’d been so sure that my analysis of the situation was accurate.

There’s no way, I’d thought.

This is a constant refrain for me, especially when it comes to matters of faith.

There’s no way… 

We live in a time and place where jaded, skeptical thinking is presented as far more sophisticated, far more intellectual, than hoping. But the events of this (holy) week have reminded me that my chronic inclinations toward doubt and cynicism are not necessarily the truest mirrors of reality.

Don’t misunderstand – this isn’t a post about me feeling a complete renewal of faith because GOD ANSWERED MY PRAYER!!! JUST IN TIME FOR EASTER!!! There’s more subtlety to it. I am feeling a sense of renewal, yes — not because I happened to pray for the thing that came true, but more because what I believed would actually happen did NOT come true.

And there is my doubt, unmasked, revealed to be resting on the arrogant assumption that I can climb high enough to have a God’s eye view, when I’m really down here, with the rest of the humans, fumbling around in the dark.

Mary Owen was not the only Mary on my mind this week. There’s another one, Mary Magdalene, on her way to the tomb of a dead friend. It’s tempting to skip to the happy ending. But I’m compelled by the moment before the end of the story, the moment when Mary gets to the tomb and sees that it’s empty, the moment when her heart sinks and she feels sick to her stomach and she wonders What have they done with his body?

This is where I am stuck, most of the time, when it comes to faith. I tend to get trapped in the silent moment before the resurrection, my voice echoing back to me in the stillness of a tomb that has been emptied of God.

Where is he? What have they done with his body?

Maybe there is more to doubt than cynicism and pessimism – maybe there’s hopeful doubt, holy doubt, like that of Mary as she searches in the shadows, wondering what has happened.

I’m no more certain about God or the way God works now than I was last week. I’ve long since abandoned any quest for certainty. There will always be impenetrable mystery, unanswerable unknowns. But now I’m beginning to realize something: Disbelief is not the only way to respond to the darkness. Uncertainty also offers the possibility of hope.

So, I’m going to keep showing up at the tomb, even if most of the time it is just to sit in God’s absence. Because sometimes God shows up. And if I’m there, waiting and watching, I might catch a glimpse.

MagdaleneSkullDore

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17 comments

  1. Anonymous

    I love this. I can’t help but think of all the flurry over Mother Teresa’s diaries, in which she confesses feeling the absence of God. The response seemed almost gleeful, that this holy woman could experience doubt, as if that is proof of unbelief, and then of course proof of hypocrisy. Those assumptions are so far from the truth of a real faith, a faith that actually has a life that reflects that life we all live. Thanks for your honesty.

    • Abigail

      Thanks for this, “Someone” — it is weirdly comforting to think of Mother Theresa feeling this way. And so frustrating that people conflate faith with certainty, as if faith are doubt aren’t necessarily intertwined.

  2. Melanie

    So good, Abby. I’m there with you, about everything. Giving my own sense of this being a miracle, I can only imagine how much more profound it must have been for Mary’s parents.

  3. Mommy V

    Damn. Now I’m sitting in a pile of unfolded laundry (ok, ok… 7 loads of unfolded laundry and 4 more yet un-washed)… Crying like a blathering idiot. At the risk sounding like a freakish groupie who probably deserves a restraining order, I think sometimes that I am living some parallel Rine-reality on the opposite side of the country. Stop writing my thoughts! It’s freaking me out.

    I am living the “don’t pray that kind of prayer” battle. Because half a decade ago, my cousin held her 6-month-old while she gasped her tiny, tortured last breath… on Easter weekend… retching out a mother’s prayer with every fibre of her being… to a God who apparently said no. And two Thanksgivings ago, my best friend clung to her one-year-old while chemotherapy poisoned his tumor-ravaged form before he’d ever taken his first step. And while her missionary family in the Philippines held church-wide prayer vigils… and while her friends scattered across every last mile this shattered broken globe petitioned the throne of God for days and nights and months… and while I paced my DC apartment for sleepless darkened hours, clutching my own newborn son, crying out to a God who’s name is “love” until I woke the neighbors and shook from exhaustion… her baby boy gave up his life, emaciated and disfigured and barely 18 months old. And, a few weeks later, somebody broke into her home and stole her camera, her laptop, her hard drive, and just about every place she’d recorded a moment of her son’s too-short life.

    And I have not recovered. I have no idea how in hell she ever could. I am terrified to hope, terrified to breathe the joy of life for the inevitability of the moment when it’s all ripped from me, terrified to expose the vulnerable fleshy underbelly of my heart… the part that faith demands I hand over to this God who can do all things, but sometimes just doesn’t… And, Morgan Freeman’s voice plays over and over again in my own personal Shawshank nightmare, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

    And, I hate it… I hate myself for living in the airless casket of self-protection that keeps me from fulling weighing any present moment with all the power and glory and sanctity it holds. But, the moments when I do it… when I crawl out of my own hermit heart and look at my children’s souls and breathe in the fullness of their perfection… the fear presses in with such weight and force that even breathing hurts for the effort. And I think, “SERIOUSLY?! I am supposed to TRUST this God?! THIS GOD?!”

    So, that’s where I live. Almost all the time. In an empty tomb.

    • Abigail

      Wow. I almost want to copy this comment into a post all by itself. So powerful and wrenching. I’m right there with you. And the stakes feel so much higher now that I’m a mother, now that the most horrible tragedy I can imagine has become infinitely more horrible and more tragic — and yet that tragedy, the loss of a child, is something so many women experience. The whole “problem of evil, problem of suffering” was complicated enough before becoming a mother. Now it seems all but insurmountable. I’ve developed a particular sensitivity to the idea of babies going hungry, or women being too undernourished to produce breast milk to feed them — just thinking about this makes me physically ill and want to weep. I’ve had to turn off podcasts and TV shows because of this; I’m just not strong enough to go there emotionally. Yet I know that that is happening to REAL BABIES and REAL MOTHERS at this very second, and it makes me… I don’t know the words. There are no adequate words for this stuff. And that’s why faith, prayer, why all that is so hard. That’s why I’m here with you, waiting in the tomb.

  4. Natalie Trust

    So maybe I’m just a total mess today and that’s why I’m wiping tears off my son’s forehead while I read this. Or maybe this is the best thing I’ve read about prayer and doubt in awhile. Probably a combination of both.

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