IS THERE A GOD?
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When I was a child, God was very much a part of my life. My father talked about God as if God were part of our family or, more appropriately, we were part of God's family. My mother leaned over my crib when I was really small and prayed to God for me. Later she knelt at my bedside and taught me prayers. God was a very real, almost a tangible part of my life. The world of the spirit was as real as a parade on Armistice Day, or the parade of circus wagons just off the railroad cars and carrying the lions and tigers down the main street on their way to the fairgrounds. My guardian angel was always by my side, and I had no difficulty believing when I was almost run over by a car one day that my guardian angel had saved my life.
Was that real faith in God? Or was it like faith in Santa Claus? Whatever it was, it gave me strength to face many childhood difficulties. I felt without any doubt that God was very much a part of my life and was always there to guide me and give me strength. When I made my First Communion, I firmly believed that in some beautiful way Jesus became present in my soul, in a way much more intimate than God's presence in nature. I hardly ever missed daily Mass and Communion. It was so beautiful. I talked to Jesus as my best friend.
That kind of faith is, like much of childhood, almost a world of fantasy, so wonderful and comforting and so secure. Adolescence, however, abruptly changes so much of that beautiful world, as what we accepted as fact because our parents told us it was now becomes the object of doubt and sometimes disillusionment. We question all that we have been taught to believe, wondering whether it is something that we can accept and believe because we conclude that it is believable and not just because our parents have told us so. It is a most shattering experience if we take it seriously. My first problem was the guilt I felt in questioning what I had been taught. But then I began to realize that I was not being disloyal; I was just trying to understand. My next question was: Am I losing my faith? I knew that my faith was still strong, but I had a need to understand why I believed. And that did not mean that I was losing my faith. Questioning is part of the process of adolescence. It is a time of growing and understanding, a time when we take stock of our childhood beliefs and reconsider them in the light of our own emerging intelligence. This process is inherent in our nature and prompts us to evaluate what we have been taught as children and either make it our own or reject it as unacceptable or unbelievable.
One of the beliefs that is the first to be questioned centers around God, a God we cannot see, hear, or in any way perceive, as God never responds when we talk to Him. The first question that crosses an adolescent's mind is "How did my parents know about God? Who told them? Do I just believe what they told me about God because they are my parents? That is no reason to believe." But my crisis was not put into words like that. My crisis occurred after I had gone into the seminary at the age of fourteen. During my first year there I felt such peace. God was more intimate than ever, and I would spend time alone just thinking about God and feeling the wonderful closeness of a divine presence. That lasted for about a year. Then in my sophomore year it came to a devastating end.
I could no longer feel God's presence. I could no longer feel the love of Jesus in Communion. My heart had turned cold and empty. I became depressed and frightened. With whom could I share this agony, or who could even understand what I was going through? I felt so alone. We spent a lot of time in prayer in the seminary, and read scripture, and had beautiful talks about God and the spiritual life, but it all left me cold. The only experience that lifted my spirit was a daily class Father Gregory Smith taught about the life of Jesus. To hear him talk about Jesus made Jesus real and brought Him very close. But after the class the emptiness took over again. I could not pray. It was a drudge. It was without feeling or comfort.
Had I lost my faith? No, not really. I still sensed that underneath my parents' belief in God and the world of the spirit there had to be some solid evidence, but now I felt I had to find that evidence for myself. Saint Peter's counsel to the early Christian community, "Find a reason for your faith," became my mantra. My whole life, every waking moment, was a relentless pursuit of evidence for the reality of God. It was not always conscious, it was often subconscious. I began to see evidence of hidden influences in the many coincidences that took place in our lives, not just in my life but in the lives of other students and in the lives of the priests who taught us. Most of them were Irish priests who had seen and heard much about the Irish people's four hundred years of struggle to preserve their faith through brutal persecutions. Their rulers did all they could to annihilate them because they would not abandon their Catholic faith. Nothing seemed to be haphazard. The lives of these priests were an inspiration to me, and in a subtle way they hinted at the existence of a God protecting these people's faith through all those cruel centuries. It was not a direct proof for the reality of God, but it insinuated in me an attitude of trust in a being who cared enough to bring those people not through forty years in the desert of Sinai but through four hundred years of hardship and persecution under tyrants determined to destroy them.
Scripture study of the Exodus was another stunning example of outside influences on people's lives. The Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt through a barren desert--which people seemed to accept as historically true--was a great support. A minimum of a quarter of a million people (many scholars estimate that number to be too low) were led by Moses to the Promised Land. The trip took forty years. Many died along the way; many were born along the way. What was the source of food for a quarter of a million people every day for forty years? Yet religious scholars do not doubt the authenticity of that monumental passage of a whole population. Moses attributed the success of the trip and even the steady supply of food to the benevolence of God. Evidence of God's existence? Not scientific evidence, but a powerful phenomenon to be considered. I accepted this whole story as historically true, though for centuries there was no evidence outside of scripture that those events ever took place. And many people did question the authenticity of the Exodus story, and cynics ridiculed the suggestion that God fed the Israelites miraculously for forty years. And I knew that I would not have wanted the responsibility of providing for a quarter of a million people every day, and for forty years. Even the thought depressed me.
These thoughts passed through my mind not as conclusive evidence but as suggestions of possibilities. My soul was still empty and obsessed with a frightful feeling of being alone. I had left my family, and I knew it was for good, and had chosen to live with a group of strangers. Some I liked; some I could never relate to. I felt like a pilgrim in a world of people so different from the way I was raised. I felt deprived of the comfort of the God who was always so much a part of my life.
At night I would slip down to the chapel and, in the darkness and emptiness, hope I would find God again. It didn't happen. I just sat there dumb and broken. Gradually a deep depression drifted through my being like a heavy fog that settles on a mountainside and obliterates all reality of the village below. The spirit world was now deeply lost in that fog, and all the joy and comfort it used to bring me.
I still clung to my calling to the priesthood. Deep down I knew I had to be where I was. I don't know why I knew it, whether it was destiny or a need to bring something important to people. My calling never wavered. I just knew, and that knowledge was like an anchor that held me secure, like an anchored vessel on a stormy sea. Nothing could shake me, not even the realization that I still had ten more years of study before my ordination. How could I endure it? What was the force that held me so tenaciously and would not let me waver or be shaken? Was it just a teenager's dogged determination? It could not have been that. The pull to go home and enjoy the companionship of girls was strong. Yet even that could not shake my resolve to follow what I felt was my destiny. Was "destiny" just another word for a divine plan? Was it God hiding beneath all the anguish? Something that happened frequently made me wonder even more about God's involvement in life. Insights about God, and flashes of understanding about people, even bad people, taught me to look on even the most contemptible as immortal beings with a personal destiny given to them by God and to recognize that even they had within them a goodness that God decided was necessary to touch some people's lives, people whom no one else could touch. It was therefore important for us to see these people not as the rejects of society but as children of God whose limited goodness was needed by God for a special purpose. I had many other flashes of awareness and insights into the nature of God, and our relationship with God, and the place of sinners in the plan of redemption. These and other lights emanating not from my own logical mind were beginning in a very subtle way to tell me that, even though I no longer had the emotional sense of God's presence, that presence was revealing itself in a much deeper way and at a higher level than mere emotion, as if God was leading me somewhere that was unfamiliar, communicating with me, sharing with me His own understanding of life and of so many things that were powerfully shaping my thinking.
When someone talks to you, you know they are talking to you. When these flashes of light came to me, I knew someone was communicating messages to me. I did not know who, but I knew the messages were not mine. One insight in particular was shocking. I had always felt that capital punishment was theologically justified because it was allowed and prescribed in the Old Testament. But this new insight told me that when people execute someone, they are tearing that person out of God's hands and refusing to allow God to continue His unfinished work in that soul. The thought frightened me; I began to see capital punishment as more evil than murder, because it was the act of the self-righteous intentionally snatching from the Creator a person whom God was still in the process of saving. From then on I saw execution as an arrogant assault on God's control over human life and as a subtle denial of belief in God. I could see clearly then that the executioner and those demanding execution are no different in God's eyes from the murderer who tries to justify his crime. Both deny to the Creator control over human life, the right to finish the divine work of redemption in the souls of those they execute.
Another issue I grappled with was God's ability to know what goes on in the life of every single human being and in each part of this vast creation. One night, in a brief flash of awareness for which I could take no credit, a most beautiful thought crossed my mind. The experience lasted for not more than one second. God's presence is throughout all creation. When the sun rises in the morning, its rays touch everything in creation at the exact same instant. If God's mind is like the sun's rays, then God knows all the intimate details of all our lives in a single instant. From that day on I could see clearly how God could be everywhere and also continuously aware of every detail of our lives, and of every happening in the universe, in one moment of time.
Biology class was for me a gold mine of ideas. Studying the structure of the human eye, with all the complex components of highly specialized tissues and nerve cells and fluids, all coming together perfectly synchronized in the fully developed eye, was so impressive it made me wonder. Did this happen as the final product of a haphazard evolution? And did that process also include the independent development of the human ear, with all its complex parts, especially the cochlea, with its twenty thousand specially designed hairlike nerve cells, each one sensitive to a certain wave frequency, which gives us the ability to distinguish such a wide variety of sounds and combinations of sounds? And all this is perfectly synchronized with what the eye is seeing at any particular time, so there is not the slightest lapse of time before the ear hears what the eye sees.
Some would have us believe that this marvelous phenomenon was the product of an evolution haphazardly driven by the natural need of living organisms. For me to accept that would have taken more faith than to believe that there was some kind of intelligence behind the complex working of creation. It was still not exactly real scientific evidence of the existence of God, but it was a powerfully persuasive suggestion of the possibility of the existence of some kind of intelligent force manipulating nature into producing highly complex organisms and organs capable of working together in an intelligent and highly efficient fashion, and even more remarkably, with the ability to reproduce themselves. Some insist that these phenomena occurred as the need surfaced. By chance? By accident? To insist that I believe that, I felt, was an assault on my intelligence.
But the next question that came to my mind was about the existence of the world and the whole universe. Was it just always here and in need of no explanation, or was it created by an intelligent force? If it was always here, then it must be responsible for its own existence, and must have all the intelligent forces of chemical, magnetic, electrical, and gravitational powers automatically present within itself from all eternity, a god unto itself, which gave rise to all the complex forms of life on earth today. That idea troubled me because everything in this universe seems to function intelligently, and mere dirt or primal gases cannot possibly have intrinsic intelligence. This all led me to the conclusion that the universe cannot be responsible for its own existence, which would have to be the case if there was nothing outside itself. What would further follow from that is that the universe would have to be holding itself in existence at each moment and at each moment be responsible for the continuity of its processes. That seemed an impossibility.