Show Me Your Doubt And I’ll Show You Mine

When I was in seminary, I became friends with a young Coptic priest from Ethiopia.  His name was Marcus, and we both worked as chaplaincy trainees in a large urban hospital.  One day, as we relaxed in the chaplain’s office, he described his personal cave.  On graduation from priesthood training in Egypt, Marcus was given a cave in the Sahara Desert, where he went and lived for six months.  Supplies of food and water were surreptitiously left for retrieval, and he spent the time entirely alone, communing with himself and God.  The cave was his, to revisit as he wished, and would pass to a new priest when he died.

A part of me was secretly jealous; having your own desert cave sounded very cool.  When I became a Methodist minister, I got a drafty parsonage in the Adirondacks, and had to give it back.  Another part of me, however, wasn’t sure I could handle six months alone by myself.  I was impressed he survived.  You know how it is.  Time alone sounds good, for a certain duration, and then you start looking for stimulation, because you tired of listening to yourself.

It’s amazing what you find when you start paying attention to your thoughts for prolonged periods, which is what happens on expeditions alone, especially if you’re going nowhere but sitting in a cave.  Like good bourbon, our mind is a swirl of flavors, with hints of paranoia, accompanied by undertones of self-pity, wafts of rage, and a lingering bouquet of lust.  We can be very bad company for ourselves.  I’m sure it’s one of the reasons we like other people; we need the distraction.

The Desert Fathers, who spent much of their lives in cave-bound isolation, attest to the difficulties of being left to their own devices.  According to their reports, the sexual imagination died the hardest, as outcroppings in rocks took on vaginal and mammary meanings, in a Rorschach kind of way.  It’s one of the reasons that Christianity connects sex to sin.  According to Christianity, sex results from an act of rebellion, and monks in the middle of the Sahara couldn’t escape the revolt.

Described in their writings are episodes of being overwhelmed by sexual desire, or despair, or fear, or guilt, or misgivings about the entire venture, living alone in the middle of nowhere, to commune with a God that wasn’t apparent, adrift and alone with their own futility.  These were intense bouts of unworthiness and doubt that the Fathers called Dark Nights of The Soul.

Dark Nights were considered an essential part of the desert experience.  Faith is only meaningful to the extent it is based upon uncertainty; faith only grows in response to facing the unknown.  Spiritual journeys are difficult because they require a level of honesty that generally comes in fits and starts, due to the pain involved in seeing yourself shorn of pretension.  A few people, like Marcus, go to caves and do the hardcore version.

Part of the wisdom the Fathers passed along was the importance of doubts.  Unlike the common disparagement of doubt as a lack of faith, the reality is the opposite.  Faith can only emerge if we explore and own up to our doubts.  Avoiding them is a lack of faith.

Think of how different the world would be if everyone simply admitted their doubts, and worries, and fears.  Unfortunately, we’re no longer that simple.  We label that kind of honesty as “innocence,” and learn to lose it as we grow up.  The spirit road requires people to find it again.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

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