Dear Donagh,
     I have only just discovered the website and am getting great enjoyment out of it.  I am drawn to it and anything religious/spiritual that I can find.  I believe I'm on "my search" but seem to go two steps backwards for every one I take forwards.  I always thought there was 'believers' and ' non-believers' however, I am a 'non-believer' desperately trying to believe. Like the 2 on the road to Emmaus - my heart burns when I hear Christians speak of their experiences - but I'm afraid that what I'm really feeling is envy/self-pity because I cannot feel I will ever belong.
     My problem is that whenever I feel - or imagine I feel - the presence of God (usually when I try praying/meditating )  the question that keeps nagging at me is - Am I trying to believe in God because I need to ? and not because I know he exists? My greatest fear is that I will never move beyond this doubt.
     I am consoled by the title to one of your retreats recently ( which I was regrettably unable to attend ) - The obstacles are the path. -hopefully there is a way around this obstacle for me ?
     Many thanks for your inspiration to date.

     Dear Patricia, Thanks for your letter and your interest. When you say you are “a ‘non-believer’ desperately trying to believe,” I'm reminded of the man in the gospel who said, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). In both cases belief and unbelief are mixed together, though differently. Still, from your letter it seems clear enough that you are already a believer, struggling to deepen your faith. That is a noble struggle, and not something to be ashamed of. Don’t be anxious: no one, if they are honest, can be 100% sure of their motives. I have the deepest distrust of people who scream conviction at us; I always have the feeling that it is fuelled by its exact opposite. Such people are shouting to convince themselves, because they are afraid to look at their own uncertainties. The world is filling up with such fundamentalists. Faith is not a conviction that we dredge up from our own resources, but a gift from God. To the extend that it really is a gift, it is received with humility and gratitude, and spoken of with respect and wonder. That may sound like a number of platitudes, but it is what lifts faith above the commotion of our own moods and feelings, and gives it a serene unconditional quality. Even in the absence of any special experiences or feelings I may have very strong faith - much stronger, it may be, than the faith of someone who relies on experiences or feelings. I would suggest, Patricia, that you pay no heed at all at present to other people’s accounts of their experiences. Even if these experiences are authentic, they are personal to those people and have nothing to do with you. Read the gospels yourself and let your heart be touched by the great heart of Christ. Continue to pray and meditate in your own way, and be faithful to what arises there for you.
     You say you take two steps forwards and one step backwards. That means that at least you are moving, you are not clinging like a fundamentalist. Faith means trust. A fundamentalist doesn’t trust at all; he clings, and he hates everything that moves. The great irony is that people who cling are inclined to think that they have really firm faith. But you are moving, trusting, trying to trust. Can we be sure which way is backwards and which is forwards? Success and failure have their ordinary definitions reversed by the Cross of Christ. What I call success may well be a failure, and vice versa.
     You said, “I cannot feel I will ever belong.” The need to belong, though it is very basic in human nature, frequently leads people astray. It is quite ambiguous in itself. Many of the greatest Christians have experienced profound rejection, even by their own. But before their minds, no doubt, stood the image of Christ on the Cross, rejected and betrayed, yet mysteriously raised up by the Father. His death and resurrection were the origin of the New Community, the Church. That Community was born out of extreme isolation; it was not the fruit of group psychology, but of the Spirit. Real belonging is never simple. Gradually you will recognise the community of faith, but don’t make a feeling of belonging a precondition.
     Likewise, don’t worry about feeling the presence of God. Feelings, like the need to belong, are quite ambiguous. Without them, it’s true, we would be like robotsl but they have no compass of their own: they can lead us in any and every direction. Just be faithful to what is given you in prayer and meditation, and it will grow.
     “Am I trying to believe in God because I need to, and not because I know he exists?” Yes, that is a constant question for believers: what are my motives - as far as I can discern them - for believing in God? If I were to think that my belief in God was just a thing organised by my own mind, then I would have every reason to be doubtful about it. But it is much more than that. Compare if, if you like, to the instinct a salmon has to return to the place of its origin. That ‘knowledge’ of its origins is not something that the salmon worked out for itself; it is more like the opposite: it is knowledge that is working (almost by itself) in the salmon. The salmon certainly “needs” to get back to its origin, but this need doesn’t make it a false effort. In my search for God I may indeed be driven forward by my neediness, my emptiness…. But that doesn’t make it a false search. Without that spur I may not bother to seek God at all. In the case of another person, it may be a sense of exuberance that brings them to God. It hardly matters. Keep to your own path, and “go with God.”
I wish you every blessing for the journey, Patricia.
Donagh O'Shea

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