A Tiny Step Away From Deepest Faith: A Teenager's Search For Meaning
Paraclete Press (MA) (October 2005)
How God Came to Me
"It is not for man to seek, or even to believe in God.
He has only to refuse to believe in everything that is not God ...
A man has only to persist in his refusal,
and one day or another God will come to him."
Simone Weil, "On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God"
Autumn in New Jersey is mind-boggling. It's as if the golden-cherry leaves fall into the sunset and everything is haloed by silence and smoke and some distant humming. It's hard even to walk to class during the day you don't want to go inside and if it weren't for the biting cold I probably would just stay out. It's so beautiful it makes me ache, and that's all I can think about as my friend and I walk from the student center beyond the grass and the trees and the rich blue sky to go see our math tests. We are talking about faith, though the word doesn't come up.
I don't remember what sparked the conversation that day, but we were talking about our lives, about our unhappiness, about our despairs and failures. And we started talking about faith. We talked about the fact that humans are not rational creatures. We're expected to be rational, and maybe all the philosophies pushed on us indoctrinate us into thinking we are, but even as teenagers we have discovered that reason can only go so far. I talked of my paranoia that my friends didn't care for me, for example rationally, I know that they do, but I can't apply that to my life, it is not real for me. I talked about my friends with eating disorders, who rationally know that they are not fat, that what they are doing hurts them and doesn't make their problems go away and yet they don't know it, inside; it's not real but only dry, stale facts that exist on some other level. I started talking about my ideas on philosophy and history, and to my surprise my friend didn't look bored she nodded vigorously yes, yes it's not about what we know with our reason, she agreed.
I am a person of faith, I realize, and this makes me somewhat uncomfortable, because that label has come to mean so many things. When I was younger I would have equated it with a person who was not in touch with reality, a person who relied on feelings instead of the truth. And yet for me faith is the undercurrent of everything in my life. Every breath confirms my trust sometimes strong, sometimes wavering in a Truth that endures, in something beyond myself. Every step I take, from the student center to the math building, is aided by the help of my belief in God. It started happening too long ago for me to really appreciate its novelty, but I find that everything I do is permeated with the words of the Nicene Creed: "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ ..."
It's this sudden realization of the fullness of faith in my life that shocks me, because I remember too well the emptiness, the pointless grabbing in everyday life for something, for someone, always for some dream or person or idea that I had latched onto without knowing why. I realize that all my sadnesses now are just bittersweet, because underneath their skin is a firm conviction I never before would have considered. I talked to my friend on the phone a few days later: We, you and I, I said, are passionate creatures, we throw ourselves into things, and that comes with being lost, with emptiness, because we won't settle for anything but perfection...She knows what I mean, and I wonder how many people I know would say the same thing. I expected her to not know what I was talking about I tend to do that with people. I like to think I am unique, but when I express my feelings or beliefs I find that everyone understands what I am saying and reacts to the same things as true or meaningful. If there is any common thread, it is emptiness, it is a sense of meaninglessness, but also a deep-seated need for something more, a stretch for the beyond from millions of broken people.
To some extent I know that this is nothing new. I think of Nikolai Stavrogin in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons, and his meeting with the retired Bishop Tikhon in a chapter that never made the final cut for the book. The tortured anti-hero interrogates the old man, seeking out condemnation or solace. He asks Tikhon about Christ's words to the Laodiceans in the Revelation of John: "And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, 'These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked."' "Nikolai protests; why should God favor the cold over the lukewarm? Bishop Tikhon explains the one in the most darkness stands much closer to light than the one who doesn't care either way ...
The issue of faith and unbelief, of indifference and suffering and hope and despair goes back much farther than my own generation. However, I believe my generation epitomizes it. It is easy to condemn us for our lack of faith in anything, in our depression and suicide rate and self-destruction and out-of-control behavior, but it is all of this that in fact gives me the most hope for us. We have ceased to believe in anything else the utopian dreams of our parents hold no water for us, and bland ideology and trust in rationality do not keep us interested. We are iconoclasts, throwing down everything that those before us set up to guide us.
We don't believe in simple answers. We don't believe that if we can prove a fact in a Petri dish it makes any real difference. We want something more, anything more, something that doesn't have to be anatomized, something that can be experienced. We believe in personal encounters. We believe in the human touch. We don't believe in cheap happiness, in settling for second best, in mediocre joys. It's all or nothing and if we are now stuck with nothing, it's just because we're waiting for the All.
I don't know many lukewarm people. Most of my friends who have any religious convictions at all, like me, spent years violently searching out faith. I chased it from eighth grade to eleventh before getting hold of it, and most I know took longer than that. If we truly were a "godless" nation we wouldn't be devouring whatever we could see or read in order to find God. I cannot count the amount of times people I previously assumed to be non-religious or even anti-religious have come up and talked to me about their beliefs, or about what they wanted to believe. I never initiate the conversations, but I talk about God regularly at school, and I am taken seriously. There is a tangible thirst for faith that over a hundred years of secular humanistic bias and education has failed to erase in the hearts of youth.
I have often heard adults accuse us of being cynical, sarcastic, bitter far too much for children, anyway. But I would be more disturbed if we weren't. It is good that we should reject the intellectual and cultural wasteland around us; it is good that we should question it and consider it unfulfilling. It is good that we should seek higher things, for our dwelling is in the heavens.
Nikolai Stavrogin hanged himself, though he was perfectly sane. My friend and I sit in the math building, and that memory comes into my mind without my understanding why. The more I talk to her, the more I realize the hypocrisy of my babbling on for ten minutes about how words and ideas and reason will never be enough to express the search for the deeper truth, which can only be expressed in love. I wish I could just go up to her and hug her human touch is the greatest thing in the world but my social inhibitions stop me; my fears about people and friends leave me leaning against a desk, quoting my favorite philosophers.
St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesian Church that faith was not something we can muster up ourselves, but the purely gracious gift of God. I feel frustrated, because I know that none can come to Christ until the Father draws him, and I can't convince anyone to be happy; I can't convince anyone that their joy "shall be made full." I can't do anything with words or ideas, even with my beliefs. I try to remember that Jesus always spoke about love not in its wishy-washy ideal but in its head-on, dangerous, painful, and personal reality. I try to remember that He spoke of that and not of convincing others to believe in anything.
I believe and I now love those words that we are ready for perfect joy. I believe that perfection exists, and Truth, in which there is no shadow of darkness, but only the blinding Light of the Transfiguration. For a long time I didn't see that, didn't experience it, but still I kept searching for it, kept reaching out for it, in so many gods and finite people. And yet I knew that they weren't enough and that rejection brought me to God. It is only necessary to refuse to put your trust in anything but the Truth, and one day or another everything will be made perfect. I believe that, truly ... but even as I think that I have to silence myself. It is not about ideas but about pure, unshakable faith ...
My friend and I walk back in the autumn rosiness, looking at the sky. And I believe that she, and I, and all of us, are meant for something better. And I stop talking, and simply believe.
From the back cover: "Marjorie Corbman lives with her parents in Randolph, New Jersey, where she is a senior at Morristown-Beard High School. She was baptized into the Orthodox Church this past Easter." (Book published in 2005.)