By John Rieping | Published 12 Oct. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
As any squirrel would tell you by its actions, winter is coming as the year cycles through its seasons. Though months away according to the calendar, its presence asserts itself early. (Photograph by John Rieping)
Though technically months away, my favorite season of the year approaches. In other parts of the United States, it would be called springtime or even summer, but here in Central California we call it winter.
Apart from some temporarily barren trees, the natural world thrives and -- in better years -- normally empty riverbeds flow with life-giving water. The seasons of Advent and Christmas heat hearts even as temperatures chill. I love the flexible aesthetics and comfort found in layers of clothing, and the ability to feel the sharp slap of cold air while warm at one's core.
It is a time of life and the romance of raindrops on shelter or skin, the art of delicate frozen frosting on grass blades and windows, and the mystery and -- admittedly-- peril of unpredictable mists.
Our winter begins with fog, frosts, and rain, yet ends with blooms. By the time North American spring officially arrives, most of the local flowering has finished and the slow dehydration of the landscape has begun. The climax of the dry and golden-hued days of summer reminds us we live in irrigated deserts and drained wetlands.
This is not the cycle for many elsewhere in our nation. Locals would be stunned by the Easter snowfalls and seemingly-apocalyptic late spring and summer lightning storms common to parts of the Midwest -- not to mention the sight of sunbathers on a snowbank. Here even an amateur has a good chance at predicting the day's conditions. In Iowa, we college students would joke: if you don't like the weather, wait a few hours.
Just as each region of the world has its own natural rhythms and patterns so it is with peoples and persons. "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot..." (Koheleth/Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).
We all have our favorite seasons of the soul and others we do not favor. Yet I believe all of them can be a gift if we trust in the source of all blessings.
As the Oxford academic and cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) once said: God "can bless the most unpromising circumstances; He even can lead us forward by means of our mistakes; He can turn our mistakes into a revelation; He can convert us, if He will, through the very obstinacy, or self-will, or superstition, which mixes itself up with our better feelings, and defiles, yet is sanctified by our sincerity."
Newman, a convert, is perhaps best remembered today for his poem, "The Pillar of Cloud." He wrote it while his sailing ship, en route to France, remained windless and motionless for a week in the Straits of Bonifacio. Before this trip, he had become ill in Italy and then was unable to find a ship heading to his home of England for nearly three weeks. He finally found an orange boat bound for Marseilles.
Throughout he had struggled with impatience and homesickness. Of this he wrote: "Before starting from my inn (in Italy), I sat down on my bed and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who had acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer, 'I have work to do in England.' I was aching to get home."
Yet God breathes over still waters and amidst the imprisoning calm of the sea Newman penned these words: "Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom, / Lead Thou me on! / The night is dark, and I am far from home, / Lead Thou me on! / Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see / The distant scene; one step enough for me.
"I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou / Shouldst lead me on; / I loved to choose and see my path; but now / Lead Thou me on! / I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, / Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
"So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still / Will lead me on. / O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till / The night is gone, / And with the morn those angel faces smile, / Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
"Meantime, along the narrow rugged path, / Thyself hast trod, / Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith, / Home to my God. / To rest forever after earthly strife / In the calm light of everlasting life."
By John Rieping | Published 5 Oct. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
DEAR JOHN: I guess I would most accurately be described as agnostic. I want to believe, though, which makes me skeptical right off the bat, because I have to be even more discriminating…
I've had times where I really thought I believed, like powerful epiphanies I just *knew* were the real thing. Now, I don't even know.
It's like, when I believe enough to let it influence my actions, I can't get rid of the nagging feeling I'm wrong and giving into something that isn't the truth so that I can stop feeling so lonely. But then, when I decide it's all bull and feel like there's nothing out there, and we just *want* to believe it to assuage our existential angst, I have the nagging feeling I'm risking something really serious (Pascal's wager comes to mind).
I wonder if existential angst isn't an inevitable result of our brains having evolved to make us fit for a world that, for humans at least, seems so different from the one we now occupy. Because civilization changed things drastically and rapidly, and survival in the traditional sense is less of a concern, affording us way more time to, well, think. And religion has flourished due to our discomfort at the prospect of being alone in the unknown.
Or maybe the idea of a deity/religion really does come close to the truth, and so is the cause of and solution to that angst. -- P.C.H.
DEAR P.C.H.: If spirituality depended upon civilization to flourish, I think history would be much different. But beliefs in the supernatural have existed long before humans even had the ability to write of them. They continue today. According to the CIA World Factbook, only about 2.01 percent of the world's population was atheist as of 2010.
It seems safe to say that humanity tends to be religious, whether our spiritual beliefs are communal or independent. However you aren't asking about such beliefs in general. You're questioning whether they are true or just embraced for consolation.
The latter concern is easily refuted. There have been countless persons of faith who have held fast to spiritual beliefs despite persecution, sacrifices, and their own doubts -- even to the point of dying for them as martyrs.
Consider the missionary Catholic nun Mother Teresa (1910-1997), a 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner known for her religious congregation's "wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor." For nearly 50 years before her death, she reportedly felt no satisfaction in her beliefs. In 1959-60, she wrote to her spiritual director, "In my soul, I feel just the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing." Yet, despite persistent feelings of "interior darkness," she continued to believe in God, and died peacefully.
Why? Because her convictions weren't based upon her feelings or any relief that came from them. She was convinced they were true despite how she sometimes felt.
How do people develop such confidence? Trust.
We often trust the testimony of the natural world, persons in it now and in the past, our own experience and more. Though sometimes unreliable, these can also help us glimpse beyond what is material to a deeper meaning and a spiritual dimension. We can realize there is a divine creator.
Can we grasp divinity fully? No. But we don't have to have complete understanding to recognize and pursue truth any more than I have to know nuclear physics to believe atomic bombs exist.
Rev. Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, once commented, "'A mystery of faith': in some this expression arouses love and gratitude, but it discourages others; and for still others it becomes a stumbling block. These last declare: 'I believe only what my reason is capable of grasping.' To begin with, we might call attention to the obvious absurdity involved in such an affirmation; for if we ourselves experience something, we no longer need to rely on others to believe it. Furthermore, do these gentlemen really hold as true only what they themselves have investigated?"
As the U.K. author and journalist G.K. Chesterton noted, "Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." ("Orthodoxy")
So fear not. Healthy religious faith is not a crutch. It is a ladder.
God, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” (Bishop Augustine of Hippo, Africa)