Learning to Walk Again
I was sitting at the counter of Cubby’s in that dingy, perpetually-turning-over strip mall by the Provo Macey’s when my entire metaphysical world was shattered and turned upside down. It is the perfectly mundane kind of place where one, wiping the grease from one’s lips and smugly judging the White Baseball Cap crew, should receive the kind of information that knocks one’s worldview off the precarious ledge on which it was perched to see it shatter on the floor below, irrecoverable, ruined beyond repair. I am a firm believer that the divine and the mundane should be inextricably linked.
My best friend had left the Church. He had weighed all the evidence he had before him and no longer believed that the First Vision had ever happened or anything that followed. He was uncertain as he told me, I think, knowing the weight of the cartoonish anvil he was dropping on my psyche. A slight smile played across his lips as he spoke in order to soften the harshness of the blows or perhaps betraying his own insecurity with his newfound unfaith. I was certain he was joking, that these absurd utterances were leading up to some inscrutable punchline. There was no punchline.
I had been caught utterly unaware, having moments before been self-satisfiedly explaining to him how my own testimony was becoming more and more agnostic, that my certainty was giving way to a loose collection of intangibilities that passed for faith. Perhaps, hearing that my foundations had turned unexpectedly sandy, he had thought it was the right moment to open the flood gates of his own broken faith and wash them away. And he did. And I felt myself falling into oblivion.
We are, of course, clearly taught not to base our testimonies on anyone else’s for this very reason, that once that load-bearing column is knocked down the entire house of our faith collapses around us, but in practice there are columns we think will never fall and so we’ll never be forced to ask ourselves the hard questions of our own belief. My friend was one of those load-bearers, a constant, a paragon, the kind of testimony you could set your faith-watch by. And if he didn’t believe it anymore then the paradigms were suddenly completely gone and I was operating within an entirely new reality than I had known just a few minutes ago. I gave him a ride home and I remember, as he hauled his lanky frame from the car, trying to bear some semblance of a testimony to him, something that would stick a burr of faith into his heart to carry away to his new and eventually godless life. But my well was dry and I had nothing but platitudes so shallow that even I was not convinced that I believed the things I was saying. It was awful.
I spent the rest of the day in the deepest, but not final, existential crisis of my young life. I had been flirting with a crisis of faith for months, giving it coy winks and the occasional late-night-staring-at-the-ceiling come hither gaze, but cowardice and inertia and lingering notions of belief had kept me from taking the leap. Now I had been cast involuntarily into a seemingly endless chasm of complete despair, and even if I were to reach its bottom, I could never hope to climb out. There was shame and fear, I couldn’t voice the pain and horror I was experiencing to anyone; the implications of whiplash non-belief were too devastating to reify through conversation. I had never felt so entirely alone.
Under different circumstances, I may simply have left the Church over the next few months as I floundered in the waters of uncertainty, eventually simply letting myself succumb to what felt like a hopeless, solutionless situation. I was certain I would never believe again, that the glass had been shattered irreparably and that was that. But I was constrained, married to someone with unshakeable belief in the Church and hedged in by ceaselessly faithful family members. I could never betray my wife, who had married me on the expectation that we were engaging in a faith-based partnership forever, or my family. So, instead I simply resigned myself to a hollow life of facsimile Church membership. I went to Church every Sunday (it was three hours long back then) and let my mind drift listlessly. I sought excuses to miss classes so I would never have to engage with anything. When I was eventually called to help teach a group of teenagers I would leave the straight “doctrine” to my teaching partner and I would stick to platitudes, but either way everything I said was nothing but gray ashes, dead words, dead thoughts. I was a shade haunting the church, a reverse Sixth Sense kind of ghost where only I knew I had passed on.
At the time I resented my situation, how I had so little control over my future in the Church. There was little practical upside to my actually leaving the Church but I wanted the choice. I felt as though my mind would never be free if my life weren’t free from the institutional strictures to which I had to submit myself. It was all an indignity. I did not, at the time, realize that I had, in fact, been anchored to the only moorings I had during a long storm, but eventually the clouds of self-pity and metaphysical trauma passed and I found myself in calmer waters. No longer burdened by my best friend’s stark exit from the Church, I found myself in a position where I could begin to start searching amongst the rubble of my own faith to see if there wasn’t anything there worth salvaging. Questions of the divine wracked my brain constantly. My friend (now an atheist) had told me at the time that he still believed in God and Christ, he simply no longer believed in the Church, but I had been unable to disassociate those things from each other and so I was forced to start from scratch, to muddle through the question of God’s very existence.
In the end, it wasn’t scripture that guided me through the first stages of my spiritual renaissance, but Russian literature. I committed myself to finally reading Brothers Karamazov, a book I had been pretending to read for years, and spent my daily long metro commute engrossed in its pages and in those pages I began to be transformed. At first, I was Ivan, rejecting an unjust God, a God who would tolerate wanton cruelty and human misery as the price of a ticket to His Earth and then His Heaven. I would like to say that by the end of the book I was Alexii, ready to devote myself to in personal service to Christ through service to His children. I was not. I was Ivan for a long time. But reading that book sparked me into a years long Platonic dialog within my own head and sometimes outside of it with my friends and family about the nature of God, the Church, the Plan of Salvation, the question of evil, and every other topic a person could get bogged down in during a Mormon-centric faith and self-discovery journey.
I think I was right about some things, then. I was wrong about a great many things (and still am, I’m sure). But I was learning, slowly, being spoon fed, the figurative spiritual baby being raised by the figurative spiritual village. Church still held little value for me except as that same anchor; there was something about the simple act of attendance that kept me on the right gauge. Something I felt there reminded me that there was something to all of this mumbo jumbo, even if hearing the same Gospel Doctrine topics taught the same way I had been hearing them for 30 odd years barely made a dent in my thick skull. Those kinds of details were no longer interesting to me. I knew them by heart and they were simply ornamentation on a larger structure the soundness of which I had to be certain before I was willing to make it my dwelling again. None of it had any meaning at all if God didn’t even exist, after all.
Over time, I was challenged by myself and others to confront my own spiritual experiences and to make hard decisions about my perceptions of reality. I remember a particularly meaningful conversation I had with my brother early on in which I argued that all spiritual experiences were simply questions of confirmation bias. He replied simply that spiritual experiences are evidence of spiritual things and why should anyone be able to dictate whether or not those experiences have inherent meaning or not? After all, you’re the one who experienced them. I think about that conversation daily, now, carefully curating my own spiritual archives and making certain that I don’t let those memories fade to the point where I can handwave them away as Scrooge-esque Jacob Marley experiences, meaningless bursts of emotion tied to nothing more than my own desire to have them or physiological anomalies.
A funny thing that happened when I accepted that spiritual experiences were actually spiritual was that I became far more open to having more. I had carried a cynicism with me for years that had acted like scar tissue, numb to the spiritual world that exists hand in hand with the physical. When people at church bore their testimonies I either simply ignored them or rolled my eyes at every pronouncement that didn’t meet my rigorous intellectual standards (ha!). If I, evolved galaxy brain that I was, had not had genuine spiritual experiences in my life then how is it possible that Sister Janice J. Jorgensen had felt the finger of God touch her heart. It makes me cringe to think about now, but my attitude boiled down to just that. Peeling off that dead tissue to allow the skin underneath to breathe and feel constituted one of the most important steps in my spiritual recovery and allowed me once again to feel that kind of divine osmosis of the Spirit. My life has not suddenly become a constant influx of supernatural warmth and revelation, by any means, but I can retrospectively say that I have had more deep experiences in the years since I made this attitudinal adjustment than in all the years preceding. Each of these experiences, which I tend to secret away and keep between me and God, is another step forward.
There’s something inherently problematic about the term “faith crisis,” really, because the reality is that for most people who experience one it does not really fit all that neatly into the limits implied there. They do not begin suddenly though perhaps, like mine, they may be catalyzed by some acute incident or information. They do not, as far as I can tell, have a crisp and satisfying ending, either. Like everything in life they are ongoing, organic, alive, and threaded into the fabric of our existence. To be sure, I would no longer consider myself in “crisis” mode, but the trauma, recovery, and growth that I went through during the darkest nights of the soul until I could see sunlight again have permanently altered my relationship with the world around me, with myself, and with God. My gnostic certainty really was irreparably broken and cannot be fixed, leaving me with something far more amorphous but also far more inured to the whipping spiritual gales of postmodernity.
I find myself comfortable living out here on the jagged edges of life, peering down into the vast unknown and delving within to see what mysteries are held in the void. It’s a different kind of faith, one more defined by a deep and abiding hope in Christ and His promises. It’s conscious and deliberate and curious. It’s deeply personal and inimitable, a faith all my own and independent of friends, family, loved ones, and religious institutions. I don’t advocate for everyone to develop their faith the way I did; the long walk through mortality to God takes infinite paths as we make our own choices and take our own chances and there is no catch-all methodology for how to discover the divine. But I do truly believe now that the divine is there waiting to be discovered, that if we can look around at this swirling psychic storm of human absurdity then close our eyes, hold our breath, and deliberately take that leap of faith toward God, He is waiting there to offer us the softest of landings.