For the past two years, I have been struggling with my faith, not due to a lack of love for the Church, but due to a struggle with religion in general. As a cradle Catholic who has been devoted to her faith throughout college, this has deeply bothered me. My doubt is not about the details of what the Church teaches, but about the existence of God, about Jesus, and about the Resurrection in general.
This is not something I welcome; in fact, I do not want to feel this way at all. It is hard for me to attend Mass every Sunday and not be able to take full joy in it as I used to when my faith was whole. However, it is this nagging doubt that lies underneath everything that prevents me from feeling completely whole in my faith as I once did. I feel as if I have one foot in the Church's door and one foot out.
I have turned to priests, friends, and books looking for an answer to resolve this perpetuating problem, but have been left empty handed. I read that you went through something similar in college, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Since we haven’t met personally, you must forgive me for speaking in generalities, but I think it would be good to consider some the most frequent reasons for the kind of distress you are suffering about faith. By my count, there are about seven big ones.
First is the normal undulation of feelings. I mention this one before the others because you haven’t described any intellectual problems concerning faith; the problem seems to lie in your confidence. Faith itself is not a feeling of confidence, although many people think it is. Faith is simply adhering to God by freely assenting to the truth He has revealed. To put it another way, faith is something that the mind and will are doing, not something that the emotions are doing. Since our emotions are unstable, it is entirely normal for our feelings of confidence to waver up and down, even if our actual adherence to God is consistent and strong. If we don’t understand the difference between faith and feelings, the normal undulation of confidence might cause us to panic and think we are losing our faith. This can make a trough last much longer than it otherwise would.
You ask for advice, so here is what you can do about the normal undulation of feelings: Bear in mind that in itself, being in a trough of confidence isn’t a bad thing; God uses it to train us to place our trust in Him, rather than in our feelings about Him. Live in reliance on Him, just as though your feelings weren’t wavering. Eventually your confidence will return.
Second is depression. Depression isn’t just feeling bad; the mind gets into the act too, because we get into the habit of allowing our minds to drone on repeating things that we have no reason for believing but that keep us feeling bad. The worse we feel, the more we tell these things to ourselves, and more we tell them to ourselves, the worse we feel. The interior monologue varies according to the person. One person’s litany runs, “I’m a failure.” Another’s, “I’ll never have any friends.” Another’s, “Everything I touch turns to ashes.” Another’s, “Nothing has any meaning.” As to faith, yet another litany can be, “Those things about God and Christ just couldn’t be true.”
Here is what you can do about depression: Find out if you are depressed. If you are, seek help from the Church. It’s surprisingly easy to be mildly depressed and not know it. Check for that vicious circle I mentioned – the loop between what you tell yourself and how you feel. Cut it in two.
Third is sin. One would think that first people would stop believing in God, then start living in ways that He forbids. Much more common, though, is to do something He warns against, fail to repent, and then start looking for reasons to disbelieve in God. This is very common in the atmosphere of continuous temptation and habitual indulgence which characterizes most college campuses.
What to do about unrepented sin is very straightforward: Turn away from it, sacramentally confess, and accept Christ’s forgiveness and penance.
Fourth is spiritual carelessness. Although this is a sin too – the traditional name for it is acedia or sloth – its nature is different from the others. Some sins are selfish. We seek what is good for ourselves in unjust preference to others. But the essence of sloth lies in failing to seek what is good for us enough -- in particular, not ardently pursuing our ultimate good, who is God. So we neglect worship, or spiritual reading, or works of charity, or the sacraments, or some of the sacraments (you mention that you attend Mass regularly) -- and predictably, the rivers of grace silt up.
Here is what you can do about sloth: Desire Christ to stir up your longing for Him. He is doing that already, or you would not have written. Ask Him to; ask persistently; ask your earthly and heavenly intercessors to help you ask. Be patient, but be ready, because at the right time He will certainly respond. God wants to pour His grace into us, but we have to cooperate.
Fifth is lack of spiritual friendships. According to an ancient saying of the Church, solus Christianus, nulus Christianus – “One Christian is no Christian at all.” God made us social beings; that is why there is a Church. It is all well and good to resist bad peer pressure, but it is much more important to find the right peers, to spend time with them, to encourage them and be encouraged by them. We cannot thrive in faith if our closest compadres are strangers to it, and your nonbelieving friends cannot help you with your problem, no matter how sympathetic they are.
If that is the problem, the solution should be clear: Form spiritually healthy friendships, and avoid spiritually unhealthy ones! You mention friends, but you don’t mention whether they are faith companions. Seek for your friends among the most faithful Catholics you know, people you can pray with and worship with.
Sixth is cultural bombardment, which comes in two forms. The first form is the unending hail of pagan propaganda which reaches us from a society which insists on living as though there is no God. The second form is sheer noise. Even on those rare occasions when we pull out our earbuds, disconnect from social media, and walk into the sanctuary, all those chattering, jingling, crooning, thumping incantations ring on in our minds. God commands recourse to the abyss of silence so that we might hear Him in it: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Here is what you can do about the bombardment: Turn off the hail of propaganda in words, sounds, and images. Continually remind yourself that it is propaganda. Sift your music and your pastimes. Unplug and stay unplugged. Get some holy silence in your life. God will speak into that silence; listen.
The seventh common reason for distress about faith is probably the most misunderstood. Sometimes Christians think that there must be something wrong with them if they find themselves spiritually unfulfilled. Actually there would be something wrong with them if they thought they had attained fulfillment in this world. St. Paul spoke searchingly of how we “groan” in the longing that what is mortal in us may be “swallowed up by life.” Yet the same Paul counsels us to rejoice, because one day we will no longer see Christ dimly, as in a dark mirror, but face to face.
Here is what you can do about unfulfilled spiritual longing: Rejoice the way St. Paul did. That poignant longing is a blessed reminder that we are made for heaven, and cannot be completely at home in this world. This is why we sing as we do in this season of Advent --
Zion hears the sound of singing;
Our hearts are thrilled with sudden longing;
She stirs, and wakes, and stands prepared.
Christ, her friend, and lord, and lover,
Her star and sun and strong redeemer --
At last his mighty voice is heard.
Has any of this struck any sparks of light onto what you may be suffering? I hope so.
One more thing: You can’t work yourself up into faith. That’s impossible, because it is a gift, so don’t try.
But you can ask for it. May the peace of Christ be with you.