February 27, 2009

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

When it comes to faith, maybe we are part of the problem

Cynthia DewesLosing one’s faith must be the worst condition possible.

Imagine having to conclude that the world is chaotic because there is no reason behind its existence, and no hope for it to change. Lent seems a good time to consider what faith really means to us, personally and as part of a community.

Life in a chaotic world without hope also means existing in a moral vacuum. The only arbiter for our behavior becomes personal desire and the physical strength to serve it. All decisions are random, all relationships tenuous, and all emotions bound to run rampant in a life without purpose or consequences. Gosh.

The reason behind these gloomy thoughts is a couple of books I have read recently in which real people describe such losses of faith. One is Infidel by Ayaan Hursi Ali, about a Somali Muslim woman, and the other is Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris. The latter describes Norris’s husband’s loss of his childhood Catholic faith.

In Ali’s case, she was raised in a Somali version of Islam influenced by her grandmother’s country superstitions and, later, rigid fundamentalist groups, such as the Brotherhood of Muslims. She and her sister knew from early on that they were less valuable than their brother because girls were expected to be submissive in every way throughout life.

Poverty, superstition, cruelty and ignorance ruled. At age 4 or 5, Ali and her sister underwent excision, the genital circumcision performed on pre-school girls to preserve their purity until marriage. This horrible practice is not common in every Muslim country, but it is in Somalia and some other African nations.

But no matter what terrible things occurred, the girls believed that hardship was inevitable. They had been taught that everything that happens is the will of Allah (God). Still, Ali knew something was not right, and when she finally went to Holland to live as an adult, she wound up not only losing her faith but also condemning Mohammed and Islam itself.

Norris’s husband rejected the Catholic Church entirely because of skewed childhood memories of Church practices and attitudes. He became an atheist, although he admired his wife’s growing faith. She is a Protestant, and also a Benedictine oblate who admires early monastic writings, including those explaining the “acedia” of her book.

Acedia was one of the eight “bad thoughts” which later morphed into the seven deadly sins.

Kathleen Norris received spiritual direction from several Benedictine communities, and today she is a noted spiritual writer.

Recent sightings of other “fallen away” Catholics have saddened me even more. When we watched a television tribute to the late comedian George Carlin, we saw him demolish not only the Ten Commandments, but also the very idea of God, in one of his routines.

Bill Maher, another comedian who contributed to the program, delivered a vicious, sneering attack on religion, and the Catholic faith in particular.

My question is, what terrible things happened to these people to make them so angry at the Church? After all, we can’t blame everything on parochial school nuns!

Most folks’ experience of Church comes through contact with those who speak for it and claim to practice what it preaches, including lay people as well as religious and clergy. So, as part of the body of Christ, we all have a responsibility to be Christ to others.

It’s up to us. Perhaps disaffected Catholics didn’t have parents, teachers, pastors or anyone else around them who remembered that.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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