The Fear of Purpose

Many of us spend much of our lives searching for a purpose to the lives that we lead. For some, the purpose is found in the small things; walks by our favorite pond, the cat that always meows outside the window as dinner is prepared, the smell of coffee steeping as we step outside of the shower. For some, purpose must be found in temporal usefulness; the work we do Monday through Friday, volunteering to clean up around our communities, donating time to a local soup kitchen. For others, purpose is found outside of our daily lives; worshipping God, attending our local church, taking solace in the beauty of His creation. The purpose that we all find can be quite different from the purpose that the person sitting next to us has found, or it can be almost the same exact thing.

Within all of the different meanings that we use to get out of bed in the morning, is the prerequisite – the search for it. I will not burden the reader with a description of this search, as there are so many writers who have provided so many beautiful and moving depictions of it and I do not want to sully their works with a mediocre depiction of my own. No, it is not the search that I wish to talk about, but the abandonment of what the search has given.

Many people reading this will remember as a child or a young adult, or even into their full adulthood, being plagued with a fear that they will never know what the meaning of life; never know what their purpose should be. For most of us (although, I would argue that the number has decreased in these modern times full of distraction and noise), we find that meaning. It may be a slow percolation that leads to a gradual realization, or there may be a person or event that rocks meaning and purpose into our lives, a meaning and purpose that may be rather different than what was once expected.

The search may continue for many years, and the findings that it turns up may change over time, leading to a morphing of meaning; the birth of a child, the loss of a spouse, the ending of a relationship. In all of these is the distinct possibility that one may not like the meaning that their search has turned up, and this dislike may undoubtedly turn into a fear.

The young man who always seems like he goes wherever the wind blows finds that his meaningful moments are in the routinization of his daily life, in the things that repeat over and over. A young woman, intent on shedding the manacles of an oppressive society finds that her meaningful moments are when she provides love and care to those who cannot provide it to themselves. I speak of these because they are close to my heart, but the scenarios are manifold, far beyond my limited personal experience to delve into.

Many are faced with the finding that purpose is to be found in their lives in a manner different from what they had hoped, pointing them towards a different life than they had imagined living. For some, however, this difference between truth and hope resolves itself in fear and avoidance; seeking meaning and purpose in areas that they know are wrong. Fear of a purpose leading them to a life of challenge and outside of a life of comfort lends itself to a life of avoidance, a life of superficiality and emptiness.

Face the fear and welcome the challenges that your search has delivered unto you. Pick up your cross, embrace the purpose that the Lord has set out for you.

Doubt as the Temper of Faith

One aspect of the faith of others that I find myself wavering back and forth between admiration/jealousy and derision is complete and utter faith. The kind of faith that is immune to logic and reason, impervious to the tendrils of tragedy, unyielding in the face of all that can be proven.

I waver back and forth between these outlooks, depending on what I am struggling with daily, and what I find myself in need of. When I am looking for the comfort of an answer, for the surety of righteousness and the unyielding firmness of dogma, I find myself wallowing in envy for the doubtless faith that others hold.

However, when I am (in those rare moments) more honest with myself, I thank the Lord for the gift of doubt that he has given me. It allows me insight into my weaknesses, and to come closer to an understanding of why my doubt is necessary if I am to follow the path that God continues to reveal to me, bit by bit.

One of the things that I envy in those who have a more unshakeable faith that I is the, perhaps erroneous, belief that they can see, or at least imagine that they can, more of the Lord’s path than I am privy to. Each day, I feel as if I am discovering just enough of the path that He has set forth for me so that I may keep from falling off the mountainside. For those with a deeper faith, I cannot help but believe that they may be able to see far enough to not only keep from tipping off the mountain into oblivion, but to feel confident in the steps that they take.

I am sure that, at least in part, these intimations of mine are fanciful hopes, hopes that I wish to find if God blesses me with a deeper and firmer faith. But I am also aware that this weight of doubt that rests upon my heart at is, at the very least, a call to introspect and try to understand why I doubt. Hopefully, through this doubt, I can be led to understand the task that God has set forth for me.

Continuing with Hope, there are moments where this doubt that I have is tempered by hope, which then, I hope, tempers my faith, and makes it stronger in the face of hardship and challenge as I move forward in life. Hope allows me to try and find a purpose in the doubt, and the purpose that I see is that it allows me to develop an incrementally more profound understanding of why I doubt. Oftentimes, the reason for my doubt is not a doubt for the Providence of God, but a doubt at my ability to serve Him faithfully. I know that I am unable to do so, at least not always, and when my doubt is strong, it says that if I am unable to faithfully serve God at all times, then it is not worth it at all. When my doubt is tempered by hope, I can see that the moments of weakness, the failures, the missteps and sinning is a chance for me to look inwards at how I can be a better man, and look outwards as to how I can create a life and existence that is more conducive to living a holy, purposeful and God centered life.

When my doubt is tempered by hope, it has the chance to temper my faith and lead me to a place of firmer belief, more active worship, more engaged living and a more honest account of my inherent sinfulness. When doubt is tempered by hope and faith by the hopeful doubt, then perhaps I may be able to find my way to a more meaningful journey of faith.

The Far Side of Reason

As someone who has spent a significant amount of time in both a deeply religious and belief based world and one that is verging on what can be called scientism, I have struggled, at times quite deeply, with the seemingly irreconcilable nature of these two modalities of thinking.

Faith and belief, even in the face of my years conducting research and being ingrained in the scientific method is something that has always fascinated me. Beyond that, it has been something that I have always felt just out of my reach, just too far of a leap for me to make. Seeing those who fully believed, who had a deep faith that colored all facets of their lives, made me long for this grounding to live my own life in.

Within this longing, I perhaps saw too great a dichotomy between the world of science and the world of belief – in my particular case, in Catholicism. How could a world that is 4.5 billion years old, in a universe that is almost 14 billion years old, be defined in a book that only addresses 15,000 years at most? While perhaps not articulated at the time, it was this conflict that first brought me out of my belief and into a world that was not even defined by a lack of belief, but by a constant searching.

Throughout the millennia, from Plato to Saint Augustine to Kierkegaard to Nietzsche (and far beyond), there have been thinkers who have been both able and unable to reconcile the world of belief and the world of material knowledge. I am far from unique on this topic – it was my biggest struggle for many years, and still follows me today, and I am grateful for those teachers and thinkers who have come before me and laid the groundwork for my own discovery.

Perhaps the most important lesson that I have come to learn is defined by the saying, which I steal from Bishop Robert Barron, that true faith is found on the far side of reason.

To me, this means that we have a duty to engage in a structured, disciplined and reasonable attempt to understand the world around us. This activity does not require the Bible, the Torah or any other religious text (although many religious beliefs from these texts are present, in an implicit manner, in the reason that we do engage in). It is only after, in good faith, that we have run up against the limits of human reason and understanding that a true, living faith can find its way into our lives.

This is a faith that I find I can comfortably sit within. It is not a faith that I have yet defined with definitions provided by any major religious institution, but it is certainly one that enrichens my life and my understanding of the world around me. This is what faith has done for me – it is not something that I seek in order to abate the terror of death, to justify the primacy of my worldview or even provide me comfort. In many ways, the faith that I have found has made me far more uncomfortable than I was before. No. For me, faith is the ability to see my life in a manner that is more than simply reasonable or logical, something that is based in the material world, something that is defined by no more than the scientific method. Perhaps this is a way for me to cope with the materialistic and painfully capitalistic world that we find ourselves in. Even if this is the case, I believe that it is so much more than that as well – and the reason that I believe that is, well, faith.

A Crisis of Faith on Easter Sunday

For me, faith was something that was taken for granted throughout my childhood. With my mom being a convert and working for the Catholic church, and my dad being a “cradle Catholic” belief in Jesus, the trinity and my salvation through the Church was always something that I didn’t just believe in – it was something that just was.

Many times, in my current stage in life, I find myself wishing that my faith was similar to what it was back then – not even unquestioning, as the idea of questioning such a cornerstone was something that wouldn’t even cross my mind. I often wish that my faith could be something that imbued every facet of my life, elevated my actions and directed my goals.

In reality, my faith is a constant struggle. It is something that gives me fits and starts, certainly not something that makes my daily motions easier. And I am learning to accept that. Learning to integrate that into my understanding of God, of life after death, and of my role in the lives of those around me.

It is struggle that makes man grow stronger, even if all that this man wants is to sink into his couch and enjoy the luxuries and comforts that the modern, secular society can provide. My crises of faith (which are far more often than I would like to admit) are chances for me to grow in understanding of who the God of my understanding is.

In a time where I have lived with people who I love and respect, people who have incredibly different faith systems from my own, I find that I am unable to sit in comfort with the beliefs that I grew up with. While there is the ever present struggle to believe that someone who believes in a different belief system than me will end up in Hell simply because of that difference, there are so many other challenges that I find myself confronting. The beauty that is present in their beliefs, their rituals and practices, and in their books. The kindness in their hearts and the generosity in their actions. The conviction of their beliefs, as well as their solidarity with me in their own crises of faith show me just how fragile my own religion is.

It is here that I find the struggle to be the most prescient. The conflicts that continually arise between my religion and my faith. For better or worse, I find myself to be a man of deep convictions – whether these convictions will change as the wind does is another matter. With this, though, is the convictions that I have in my faith that contradict what is taught in churches, cathedrals and religious communities. Many aspects of my faith are molded and shaped by the teachings of the Catholic church. At the same time, there are aspects that are shaped by Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and others. Just as many Christian denominations teach that the relationship that we have with God is a personal one, I have found that my relationship with faith is in many ways similar to this personal relationship that I am taught to seek with God. All I hope with that is that it does not become so intertwined with myself that I cannot see God through my own ego and pride.

On this Easter Sunday, I continue to ask myself what it is that I hope for. The answer to that is not one that I yet have, and I am quite grateful for that. I find that the questions encourage far more growth and change than the answers ever do. On this Easter Sunday, I am grateful for a God that allows me to stumble through His challenges of faith, so that I may find Him. For when I do ultimately find Him, I fully believe that He will have His arms wide open for me.

The Importance of Spiritual Mystery

Perhaps the biggest thing that I struggle with when it comes to my faith is just how small my faith is, and how it flickers at the slightest breeze, as compared to those around the world. My faith, grounded in Catholic theology, seems so small and weak when I look at it in comparison (which is already my first mistake). Whether it is the Uighurs facing a modern day Holocaust, or Jews battling for a homeland (and the Palestinians as well), Christians in countries openly hostile and violent to them or any variety of person, strong in faith even when faced with active persecution, my faith seems like a sham.

Not only is it difficult to watch those who hold the flame of faith in hurricane force winds when looking at my flickering matchstick, there is the added difficulty of which faith system is the right one. Even within American Christianity, there are more denominations and individual faith systems than I could possibly be aware of; and if I am not even aware of them, then how do I know if my faith system is the one that is best for me?

It is perhaps in this last sentence where I find myself getting into the most difficulty – what is “best for me.” It is a very selfish way to look at faith, spirituality and religion. This is where I find it is best for me to bring the importance of mystery into my faith system. My system of faith and belief is, I hope, one that will be continually challenged both from inside myself and from those outside. It is something that will grow, change and evolve into something that holds elements of what it once was, while also being something entirely new. For me, the only way to achieve this is imbuing my faith with mystery. If I am able to allow myself to appreciate the mystery that naturally springs from ignorance, then perhaps, over time, I will be able to fill my ignorance with insight.

This leads me, however, to the question as to the worthiness of both ignorance and insight, and whether one necessarily needs to replace the other. As I touched on earlier, there is simply no way for me to comprehend the depth and richness of spirituality that permeates American culture, let alone the world over. If this is accepted as true, then this means that my faith will always be colored by some level and form of ignorance. Is there utility within this ignorance? Again, it comes back to mystery. If I allow myself to become comfortable on the bed that ignorance can so easily make, then it’s utility turns into a hindrance. However, if I am able to remind myself that this ignorance is part of the mystery, and something that should continually be explored and challenged, then I hope and believe that ignorance can be something that can lead to a deeper faith life.

Within all of this, one of the most challenging aspects that I find myself faced with is where does Religion (with a capital R) fit into the mystery of faith? How can the ritualized, scrutinized and intricately studied world of the Catholic faith fall into the mystery of faith? For me, Catholicism has always been something approaching the antithesis of mystery. It is something that has literal thousands of theological treatises written on it, hierarchies established over millennia, educational institutions built on the foundations of this belief system and dozens of different orders, teaching the laws and statutes in their own, unique wording. Where does the mystery of faith fit into this institutional, oftentimes rigid system? I know that there are hundreds of answers to this question, yet it often seems as if this is something that I will need to stumble through myself before finding an “acceptable” answer.

Through all of these questions and meandering thoughts, I try to remind myself that these are things that have been asked by countless individuals and societies over thousands and thousands of years. It is certainly too prideful of me to expect that I can find the answer to this question that so many have gone searching for, but it is something that I will search for nonetheless. Even if I am unable to express the things that I learn in words, perhaps I can find an answer that leads to a flourishing of inner peace.