To say I had a religious upbringing is an understatement. Between the age of six and seventeen my family migrated through American Christianity, beginning as Episcopalians, passing through Pentecostalist and evangelical phases, and finally ending up as Roman Catholics. It was in every way a more intense and immersive experience, not just a matter of more hours in the pew, than the vast majority of people in my social class or professional peer group.
Every way but one, that is: I didn’t have mystical experiences myself. Instead I watched other people have them, remaining more or less impervious to whatever currents were washing through the adults around me. I observed my parents, their friends, and random strangers being overcome with raptures with a cool sort of distance, believing that they were experiencing something real, something that merely psychological theories were inadequate to capture, and envying them that experience without feeling even a hint of anything battering at my defenses, any dove descending on my soul. I found the arguments for belief reasonable, the narrative of the Gospels compelling, the doctrines of Christianity attractive, but when I was asked, in the testimony-obsessed Pentecostalist churches we attended for a while, to testify to how the Lord Jesus has come into your heart, I had precious little to say for myself. Indeed, I found our ultimate destination, the Catholic Church, comforting in its absence of such questions, its emphasis on the reliability of the sacraments whatever your inward response, on the corporate rather than purely individual nature of salvation.
So the faith I carried into adulthood was also a pretty abstract and intellectualized thing – exactly the sort of faith that you might expect to bend or even break under the pressure of real suffering, the contrast between the brute reality of pain and my somewhat attenuated idea of God.
And that kind of suffering arrived, to my complete shock and surprise, in my thirty-sixth year, just as we were making a move to what we imagined as our “forever house” – a rural spread in Connecticut, a colonial-era farmhouse with a barn and pastureland and a pool. First, while we were still living in Washington, DC, came a sudden and mysterious descent, a feeling of constant pain and disintegration, with phantom heart attacks, insomnia, liquefied bowels, a burning in my joints. Then, once we had somehow dragged ourselves to our new home, came a diagnosis of Lyme disease, probably acquired from a tick bite during our house inspection, whose symptoms stabilized with antibiotic treatment but didn’t go away, leaving me cycling through treatments and wave after wave of pain.
Under these conditions – the perpetual press of symptoms, the desperate fixation on finding something to make me feel better – my always half-hearted approach to prayer collapsed completely. The idea of recollecting yourself, of quieting your mind, of seeking a stillness and a silence in which the divine peace might enter in – it all seemed impossible and absurd. The only kind of prayer I could manage was a desperate begging, a hopeless pleading in cool churches and the summer heat, a demand for help repeated endlessly without an answer.
And yet faith itself survived.
One of the curiosities of the modern era is the way that the debate about whether a good God would allow human suffering, the eternal question of theodicy, has become a persuasive argument for atheism (or at least against Christianity) at the same time that actual physical suffering has in many ways declined. The world of mass infant mortality, rampaging disease, and endless toothaches had more confidence in God’s ultimate beneficence than the world of increasing life expectancy and effective pain-management techniques.
Before sickness took me, I tended to assume this was because in a world with less everyday pain, the experience of suffering felt more outrageous, more unjust, than it did in a world where pain was too ubiquitous to be concealed or filtered out of everyday experience. And I still think there’s something to this idea, since entering a permanent-seeming sickness did seem like an impossible outrage to my modern self at first – like some sort of ridiculous bureaucratic mistake.
But what I learned from my illness is that chronic suffering can make belief in a providential God, if you have such a thing going in, feel essential to your survival, no matter how much you may doubt God’s goodness when the pain is at its worst. To believe that your suffering is for something, that you are being asked to bear up under it, that you are being in some sense supervised and tested and possibly chastised in a way that’s ultimately for your good, if you can only make it through the schooling – all this is tremendously helpful to maintaining simple sanity and basic hope. If God brought you to it, He can bring you through it, read an aphorism in one of the doctors’ offices I frequented: a neat distillation of what I wanted – and, more important, needed – to believe, in order to get up every morning and just try to hold my world together for another shattered-seeming day.
The only kind of prayer I could manage was a desperate begging, a hopeless pleading in cool churches and summer heat.
“A crutch for weak-minded people” – that’s how the noted philosopher Jesse “the Body” Ventura once described religion. My pre-illness self would have disputed that description, but my sickened self would merely give it a tweak. Absolutely religion is a crutch, and it’s not only useful for the weak of mind but for anyone dealing with severe weakness. You had better believe that I leaned on my belief in a silent, invisible God more in those miserable months, that miserable summer, than on any hope or notion or idea in any prior portion of my life.
Which is not to say the hope that my suffering had a purpose was entirely comforting when it came to the central thing I wanted – to get better, to be myself again, to shake free of the spell. Because if suffering is interpreted as a refining fire, then there’s no guarantee, short of sainthood, that it will swiftly be withdrawn. (And if you examine the lives of the saints, not even or especially then.) In this sense, the real Christian answer to the “problem” of suffering is that we have the problem all wrong, that it’s actually more mysterious when good things happen to good people than when bad things do, because if God gave his son to the cross, then a version of the same test is what every Christian should expect.
And if you conspicuously aren’t virtuous – if you’re mediocre at best and maybe even a little smug – and you get a dose of suffering, and you tell yourself that maybe this will help me grow in virtue – well, maybe it will, but then your reward for that possible growth might not be recovery and health. It might just be another spoonful of the same bitter medicine, or an even stiffer dose.
Such, at least, was my interpretation of the theology of suffering in those days. I feared what it implied, as I feared the God who had allowed this, and what he might consider allowing next.
This meant, in turn, that I also often despised the kindlier forms of providentialism, the talk of God’s loving plan and whatnot, to which my savage mind replied, Great, and what if his plan is for me to lose everything – not just health but money, not just money but my marriage and family? I wouldn’t put it past him at this point.
But I was also looking for a happier narrative arc. I didn’t want someone else explaining my suffering to me, any more than I would imagine someone enduring the sharpest grief – the death of a child, the sight of a loved one’s body on a slab – would want me weaving their suffering into some pat and sunny story. At the same time, I wasn’t at all content with the invocation of mystery that late-modern Christians are taught to offer when the problem of suffering comes up – the idea that it’s all just a big unfathomability and all we can do is join our griefs together and lament. For myself I definitely wanted narrative, a sense of the arc of my life in the light of this disaster, the purposes of its Author in imposing this particular plot twist.
When I tried to educate my kids into religious belief, I sometimes told them to think of themselves as living inside a story, with God as the novelist and themselves as characters, inventions of a storyteller who had somehow entered into his own pages and given his creations freedom. (“In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe,” muses a character in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, “and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”) This Christian idea has secular variations: even people who officially believe that the universe is purposeless and human existence is just one damn thing after another will find themselves enfolding their own experiences of suffering into a larger vision of the pattern of their life, looking for ways that great good came from great evil, discerning a warp and woof even if they find the idea of a weaver impossible to credit.
In my own case, I sometimes felt like the weave was almost visible. There was a pileup of coincidence and strange repetition – the sickness arrived exactly with our third child’s conception, there were echoes of family afflictions on both sides of our family, and of course it felt like my own hubris in plowing all our money into a rural fantasy had met a tiny crawling nemesis. But what kind of story was it? Were we trying to break out of some intergenerational repetition – having a third child after our parents in both cases stopped at two, having a son when my wife’s family was all daughters going back two generations? Were we being chastised for our nostalgia, our attempt to chase a different version of our childhoods? Was this just a temporary fire we needed to pass through? Or was it a sign that we needed to entirely change our lives?
Trying to discern the answer was like staring through mottled glass at almost recognizable shapes. There was something there, I was almost certain of it, but I needed some different set of eyes to see what it meant, what was really happening in our story, and what the God who had sentenced us to purgatory expected from us now.
No clarifying vision was delivered, and at the end of my second summer of illness I loaded myself up with oral antibiotics, and drove in a stupor with my wife and the kids to Maine, to the mid-coast region where my mother had grown up and my relatives still lived. It was beautiful and awful: Those small towns and coves and islands were the landscape of so much remembered childhood happiness, and to be there again in this state was somehow more intolerable than anything. I walked the beaches of my youth in a daze, as thin again as I had been at seventeen. I watched the sunrise through eye sockets that burned; I heard the seagulls through ears that were always under pressure, as though I were fathoms deep beneath the sea. My children played on the sandbar, my infant son splashed in the saltwater puddles, and my beloved wife watched me watching them. A veil of pain was drawn between me and everything I loved.
I feared the God who had allowed this, and what he might consider allowing next.
On the last morning, I was up early as always and I carried my son, now six months old and heavy, down the long, low-tide strip of sand. The pain was mostly in one shoulder, though I knew it would be somewhere else soon enough. There was a spot where the sand gave way to barnacled rocks bewigged with seaweed, where the tide met the stones; sometimes in her youth, my mother had found sand dollars there. I had never found one in decades of looking, and over time it had become a game I played – If I find one today, it means that God exists. If I find one today, it means that the girl I have a crush on has a crush on me. If I find one today, it means I’ll get into the college I want. If I find one today, it means …
Inevitably, I had been playing the game all that vacation week, casually glancing in the shallows as I waded with my kids.
If I find one it means I will get better.
If I find one it means I will get better.
If I find one it means I will get better.
On that last day, though, I was in too much pain to play. I held my son in my right arm, watching the seagulls sweep above, feeling the fire spread down my left arm and side. At a certain point, the combination of beauty and agony broke me, and I began to sob there, on the empty sandbar beside the flat, blue bay, while my son cooed curiously, and from somewhere in the depths I came out with a desperate, rasping croak.
“Help me, God. Why won’t you help me?”
My eyes dropped to the water. There between my feet, as tiny as a nickel and as pale as a wedding dress, was the only sand dollar I have ever found.
From The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery by Ross Douthat. Copyright © 2021 by Ross Douthat. Published with permission by Convergent Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.