There was a time in my life that I thought belief in God was easy, and that those who did not believe in God were just obstinate or wrong-headed. As years have gone on, I’ve come to think that belief in God is a very hard thing – perhaps the hardest thing of all.
Much of my change of mind has to do with my understanding of belief in God. The more belief has become a matter of the heart (of “willed knowing” to use a Hebrew concept) and not a matter of the intellect, the harder it has become. At the same time, it seems to me that everything has become much clearer. Ninety-five percent or so of America says it “believes in God.” Given the life of our nation, it must mean that the phrase is fairly empty.
In The Pilgrim Continues His Way, the attached sequel to The Way of a Pilgrim, the little anonymous gem of Russian spiritual writing, there is something of a model confession. It begins simply:
Turning my gaze at myself and attentively observing the course of my interior life I am convinced, through experience, that I love neither God nor my neighbor, that I have no faith, and that I am full of pride and sensuality. This realization is the result of careful examination of my feelings and actions.
The guide goes on to detail each of these observations.
I do not love God. For if I loved Him, then I would be constantly thinking of Him with heartfelt satisfaction; every thought of God would fill me with joy and delight. On the contrary, I think more and with greater eagerness about worldly things, while thoughts of God present difficulty and aridity.
This model confession continues in this manner for several pages – absolutely spot on.
It is because belief cannot be isolated to intellectual activity that makes it becomes so hard. To believe, as I noted, is a “willful knowing,” the opposite of “ignoring,” if you will. It is a knowing, a believing that always results in action, whether it is how I speak, how I think, how I act, or where my attention is directed, etc. Belief in God is an activity that should unite my being rather than fragment it.
In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a common expression is “pay attention to yourself.” Oddly, it carries the same meaning as “the constant remembrance of God.”
The year of my conversion to Orthodoxy, belief in God was the absolute question of every day. Orthodoxy did not provoke a crisis of faith – I had been convinced in every possible way of the truth of the Orthodox faith for a matter of years. The difference was that the nuts and bolts of my day were completely shattered by the consequences of my conversion. Job change, financial change, existential change – I was doing something, solely on the basis of what I believed while the world around me thought I was largely nuts (or something). The most troubling expression I heard from people at the time was the patronizing comfort, “Well, you have to do what’s true for you.”
I always thought at the time, “No! I’m doing this because I think it’s true for everyone!” To have put my family through the trauma of conversion in order to feel better about myself was woefully inadequate. I was being asked to believe in God in a manner that I thought was worth asking my children to suffer for.
In hindsight – though the first year or so was hard – I was right. My children, I believe, would curse me now if I had turned back then (considering the fact that the oldest two are now married to Orthodox priests speaks for itself).
But as the crisis of conversion moves further into the past, the crisis of faith remains. To be an Orthodox priest can be as complacent a position as any other. To believe in God remains an effort. The commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength.” Apparently anything less than all is simply not sufficient.