“We are all actors in a terrific drama which Heaven has given us to play upon this earth.”
“…and in all things, visible and invisible”
-from the Nicene Creed
I was baptized as a Christian (though I was raised a Muslim) in 2007 and confirmed in the Catholic Church in 2012. I am a professed member of lay religious order, have been active in a few church ministries, have had the privilege of writing articles (such as this one!) about faith, have regularly attended mass on Sundays, have read the Bible in its entirety five times, havefasted from time to time, and, in recent months, I have begun forming the habit of praying the Rosary every day. This much activity may mislead some, especially some who would prefer to keep religion at arm’s length, into believing that I harbor few, if any, doubts about my faith. But I routinely grapple with doubts.
Active or not, I am very much prone to being the type of person who would focus on the circumstances and details of my life that I wish were a bit different. From there, I often proceed to see the glass as half-empty. It is easy for me, in the hardness of my own heart, to forget about the countless ways that God has provided for me, including a few instances in which a need was met for me in a manner that would be difficult to explain apart from Providence. And from there, I often go on to ask myself nagging questions such as: Am I going to be stuck in my current situation forever? Am I ultimately fated to live a lonely life? Has becoming a Christian actually made any difference in my life? Would I have been better off if I had just remained a Muslim instead? Do my prayers, or anyone else’s prayers, really make any difference at all? Does God actually care about any of us?
Regardless of whether I am right or wrong for doing so, or whether it is even my place to grapple with such questions (“Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”), I do. And I do find some consolation in knowing that I am in good company, that plenty of saints have likewise grappled with doubts during their earthly pilgrimages.
I am quite well aware of how, historically speaking, the presence of the Gospel message has positively shaped our world. For those of us who live within the borders of Christendom, this can be very easy to take for granted. The presence of Christianity has subtly formed, over the course of two thousand years, the very best of our notions about beauty, the arts, the family, liberty, justice, the psyche, reason, and so much more. I am likewise aware of miraculous events, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, that have been strenuously investigated by the Church, and have gone on to be confirmed as miracles indeed.
But even being aware of this, I also share a world with so many friends who doubt. I live in a world in which a chorus of a thousand voices, whether such voices come from academia, from the media, from entertainment, or anywhere else, the chant that God is dead. Religious men and women are not completely immune from our age of doubt. Such influences often insist that we are all alone in the universe, that nothing exists apart from what our senses can observe, that we may as well just indulge in our private vices, that we are “sophisticated” only when we live in a boring world that is devoid of miracles.
Sometimes I even envy the atheist or the agnostic who rests content in his or her doubt and seems to make do. Such men and women often exhibit a faith in randomness that could make a saint out of any Christian. I have most certainly had my share of moments in which the devil’s lies seem truer than any of God’s promises, moments that I have pondered whether I would be better off abandoning the Christian faith altogether. This may well be the lot of a Christian living in New York. Or it may be one of the crosses that someone who is so old-fashioned that he still believes in only two genders must bear. But: “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
There have been times in which I have expressed my struggles with doubts to Christian friends. The wisest among such friends were kind enough to listen, to speak only when it was absolutely necessary. A few friends have given into the instinct of offering well-meaning words of encouragement, something along the lines of: “Well, you know that God has a plan for you, right?” I really hate hearing that one. The parroting of cliches can mean nothing to the person who has already heard them a hundred times. And, as a convert from Islam to Christianity, there have been times in which I have given in to the suspicion that, deep down, some of my Christian friends really see me as something exotic, just someone whose conversion story conveniently validates the beliefs which they were raised with, but still someone who is an outsider. It may be very wrong for me to do so, but I sometimes doubt that Christian charity is anything more than just some abstract ideal that we offer words to.
My navigation through these rivers of doubt have at times provided me with a most unwelcome companion: the mistress depression. I have an ego, and I have weaknesses, just like anyone else. I am a sinner, just like anyone else.
It is certain that faith is challenging for many, or even most, of us. It can be easy for any of us to delude ourselves into thinking that we are all alone…
There are already plenty of us Catholics, and Christians among all denominations for that matter, who grapple with plenty of doubt in our day. The findings of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report have been enough to persuade some to go ahead and leave the Church, and I refuse to judge anyone for having done so. Although most of us can remember when the Boston Globe reported on pedophile priests in 2002, many of us have been flabbergasted by the extent of sexual abuse among clergy that was reported in August. This disappointment, added to doubts already present, was just too much for some people.
It is tempting and easy, to give in to the emotions aroused by the Pennsylvania report, to forget the facts that may help balance our aroused emotions. The number of priests who have engaged in the sort of behavior that ruins lives was still very much a minority. This report has touched upon an issue that is mostly historical at this point, as the frequency of reported abuse dramatically decreased after the 1980s, and has become rare today. Tangible steps were already taken some years ago to prevent future abuse by the clergy, such as the enforcement of the zero-tolerance policy. Documents such as Instructions Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations and The Gift of Priestly Vocation were already written some years back to help clarify who is and who is not called to join the priesthood, and they were very much outlined with the intention of preventing sexual abuse. High-profile cases such as Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Sir Edward Heath, and Bill Cosby, or the hardly-reported bust of Playpen in 2017, or the lesser well-known reports of abuse in other religious communities, are all reminders that sexual abuse is a problem everywhere, in both religious or secular circles.
Historically speaking, the Catholic Church, guided by the clergy and the Magisterium, has done a remarkable, even a miraculous, job of preserving (which is one of the uses of salt) the message of the Gospel and the integrity of the Sacraments. The Church has long remained firm against the heresies of history and of today, against the fads of every era, and against the ambitions of so many forceful men. She has done this despite Her share of moments in which, historically speaking, there were some in the clergy and Magisterium whose behavior was far from commendable. And this track record, over the course of two thousand years, offers us much reason to hope that She will emerge from this scandal stronger than ever. The Church, the Body of Christ made up of all of us, has always been much larger than just Her clergy.
And there is also the ugly fact that all of us must face: that there were priests and bishops who engaged in this reprehensible behavior. What I have been most disappointed by was how slow the Holy See, the very same Holy See that has done so well to protect the Sacraments, was to respond to the abuse. There were priests and bishops, whose selfish acts have caused incalculable damage to their victims, that managed to evade all earthly justice and live out the rest of their lives as priests and bishops. Theodore McCarrick has shown us that there have most likely been priests and bishops who slipped through even after the Magisterium finally began taking tangible steps to prevent abuse. There were seminarians who were warning one another about Theodore McCarrick’s sexual advances fifteen years before he was ordained a cardinal!
A disturbed person can apply for any job. A disturbed person can potentially land any job, so long as he hides his sickness well enough. But why did the Magisterium drag its feet for so long after learning about the sickness of certain priests? Perhaps it was the case that for too many years there were too few among the clergy who properly understood the nature of this sickness. Perhaps, to avoid public scandal, it was viewed as expedient to reassign perpetrators, or to encourage disturbed priests to seek “treatment,” that when the scandal finally did erupt and catch the public’s attention, it had grown to monstrous proportions that none would have imagined. Inexcusable behavior was excused for far too long. Even if this problem is now largely historical, there is no going around that this was an institutional failure within our Mother Church. It will most likely take years for Her public integrity to be fully restored.
And in this challenging time for our Church, I have again returned to a nagging question: Why am I still Catholic?
I have very much been blessed with the company of good friends, and also some good books, all of which have made remaining in the Catholic Church much easier for me. But in my more troubling existential moments, what I often return to is a memory…
It was during the spring of 2012, only a few weeks after the Easter Vigil in which I was confirmed in the Catholic Church. My enthusiasm for being Catholic was still going very strong, that I was going to a church almost every day, to sit at the pews and pray.
There was one particular church in Midtown Manhattan, a short walk from where I worked, that I knew had a lower church. On this particular afternoon, I elected to pray there.
I was staring at the ornamental altar in front of the pew I was seated at, flanked on both sides by the statues of holy men and women. The tiny flames of devotional candles were twisting and dancing before them. All I could hear was sacred silence, which I relished for such moments of prayer. But this silence was soon interrupted. I was hearing noises, whether from the upper church or the hall or from some adjoining room, I did not know. The noises sounded much like voices, people speaking in low tones, and in prayer. These voices were being interrupted by another, that of a woman, coughing up and spitting. This was being repeated, and it sounded almost as if the woman was attempting to cough or spit some object out.
I had been (perhaps a bit morbidly) fascinated by the topic of exorcism for several years. The Exorcist, was, and still is, one of my favorite films. My favorite takeaway from the story was that only in the Church could the proper diagnosis of Regan’s condition be found, even if that explanation was overlooked and dismissed as superstitious by most, and even though the protagonist, a priest, was himself reluctant to believe it. I had also read several works by (the since late) Father Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist in the Vatican a strong advocate of every diocese having at least one exorcist. During my days as a Presbyterian Christian, a friend of mine (who was a graduate student at Columbia University, not someone I could so easily dismiss as “some dummy”) and I had exchanged the stories of our coming to Christ during the very long walk from a worship service to our respective homes in Upper Manhattan. His story included his being demonically possessed for a brief time, and having prayers of exorcism prayed over him. So I began to wonder to myself: is there an exorcism going on up there or something?
Then all of a sudden I heard a growl, guttural and far beyond what is possible for the human vocal range. It was the kind of growl that I would never even expect to hear outside of a film about exorcism. The sound of it remains seared into my memory.
Two women, both of whom were dressed in scrubs, were standing at the bottom of the staircase. They looked at one another, their faces expressing that they were just as stunned as I, and everyone in the lower church for that matter, was. Both of them began to run up the stairs, presumably toward the scene. I admired both of them for doing so.
It was rather difficult to find the exact right words to express all that was racing through my mind in that very moment, and in the moments immediately after, so the words I settled on were “holy shit!” I do not know whether I sat at that church pew only for a few seconds longer, or for a few minutes longer, but I left that church unable to think about anything else.
A truth had just bludgeoned me, like a baseball bat to the side of the head: we live in a world that is far wilder than most of us would dare to imagine. I had, for several years, maintained a strong belief in good and evil; the result of working in a marketing company for a man who was a pathological liar (and he was also a sexual predator), who lied so routinely that I became uncertain whether he could any longer distinguish between truth and falsehood. This man, by arousing my own disgust, probably did more than any living person to help guide my decision to be baptized. But that horrible growl proclaimed to those of us in that church that evil also exists in dimensions that we cannot see nor measure, that there really exists an invisible prince of lies! Although I had at least one good friend who told me that he was possessed at one time, and a few friends with enough courage to admit that they believed in such phenomenon, I never would have imagined that I would be within proximity of this kind of thing.
This was incredibly inconvenient! How would I ever be able to present myself as “reasonable” or “sophisticated” before my friends if I admitted that I actually believed in things like this? This has, in fact, been a rather difficult article for me to write, because I know that at some point, a friend or family member of mine will come across it, and assume that I must be insane. But saving face is never a good enough reason to refrain from speaking on such topics as important as the real existence of Heaven and hell. And I do hope that my own willingness to admit this could be enough to encourage someone else to come forward, who would otherwise be uncomfortable sharing that he or she really does believe in the angels and demons. If enough of us could just encourage one another, perhaps we would soon find ourselves in a place where believing in the Truth is not as “weird” as so many of us would have previously guessed.
We live in a world far wilder than most of us would dare to imagine. This is true even when we entertain private doubts. This is true even when certain priests and bishops have engaged in scandalous behavior. We live in a wild world filled with mysteries, that our observational sciences and reasonings, by which I mostly mean “reasonings away,” will never be able to take all things into account.
We are all, religious or not, participants in the terrific drama that Heaven has given us to play upon this earth. It is so easy for to obsess over certain favorite theological topics, or on cultural disputes, or on proper manners, or any other details, plenty of which have importance. But an obsession with details can also avert our eyes, that we can ultimately forget about the bigger picture. I have since wondered why it is that I have heard so many sermons and homilies that have delved into Jesus as the Healer, Jesus the Gentle, Jesus the Friend, or even the occasional Jesus-who-got-really-angry-and-made-a-big-mess-in-the-temple-market, but none on Jesus the Exorcist.
We really do live in a world where demons, fallen angels, seek to destroy us, by encouraging us to destroy ourselves. We live in a world that is in the midst of a war between Heaven and hell, in which the battle lines of the angels and demons run through each person’s heart. This is true, and remains true, whether any of us personally professes belief in such matters or not. It has been said, many times, that the devil’s greatest trick was convincing us that he does not exist. But even if we do not believe in angels and demons, the angels and demons most certainly believe in us. And in this, any one of us can take heart: that if we really do live in a world in which fallen angels seek to destroy us, then, perhaps, we also really do live in a world where the angels exist and aid us.
Maybe it is by grace that I have been given a memory, to remind myself that even if I perceive myself to be small and helpless, even if some who were tasked with guarding the Truth have engaged in disgraceful behavior, that we are all participants in a bigger picture, that when we take the Sacraments, we are aiding the angels in a struggle that must be won. And so, I remain a Catholic.