Coping with Tragedy: From Faith to Doubt to … Hope?

Below is the latest version of the Introduction to my new book.  The working title is now: Coping With Tragedy: From Faith to Doubt to …Hope? But I’m still mulling that one over.

I wanted to write about Malcolm and coping with his death, but I felt that I had to write about the other major tragedies in my life too, because they all intertwine. The result may be over-reaching but it makes sense to me.  I just have to keep working on the Hope section.

Tragedy – it’s not just a genre of literature, it’s a part of life. Everyone’s life, eventually. Disaster, disease, death … unavoidable, unforgiving, and somehow always unexpected, however much we prepare. Living on theGulfCoast, I was aware that hurricanes definitely do happen…even if they don’t in the English countryside of Eliza Doolittle and of my birth. But that doesn’t mean I was prepared. And death? I didn’t expect death, not of someone so young.

The experience of tragedy – regardless of our preparedness or its inevitability – involves the experience of loss, many different kinds of loss, and immerses us in grief. Grief and Loss and their constant companions, denial, anger, blaming and depression, are often portrayed as a process leading to eventual acceptance, renewal of hope, and a new beginning. But what the psychology texts don’t tell you is that there are a whole lot of casualties in this process: some people just can’t make it through to the end. And then there are those who just get stuck in a cycle of depression and anger, adopting self-destructive ways of coping that often involve substance abuse, struggling with rage, and the wreaking of havoc in all their relationships.

In the face of tragedy, understanding the common stages of grief and loss can offer some sense of order in an otherwise chaotic emotional landscape. But what if, while reeling under the impact of this chaos, you also face the loss of your religious faith, and along with it the very structures of meaning that have held you together for so long? What if you find yourself doubting the goodness of your church, the existence of God, the purposeful nature of creation, the meaning of life, the very possibility of hope? This was where I found myself just a few years ago.

Three separate tragedies – Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic abuse scandal, the loss of a son to suicide – connected through the common ground of grief and loss, and carrying in their wake a profound challenge to religious faith. This may seem too wide a topic for a single book, but it can’t be, because this book is not philosophical specualtion: this is my life. The questions I raise here surface from the depths of my own grief and sorrow and from my desperate need to reclaim hope, the hope I once relied on, the hope I tried to offer my students when I taught high school  theology, the hope that my son wrote of … even as he prepared to die.

If you are looking for a story of spiritual transformation, a wrenching tragedy followed by a poignant renewal of faith, then this book is not for you. If you need to find immediate comfort, and the reassurance that God has a Plan and everything happens for a Reason, this book will not serve you well. I’m telling you this because I don’t want to cause any more pain: grief and loss are too damn difficult already. But if you are grasping for a raft in the midst of overwhelming tragedy, emotional chaos, or spiritual drought, if you are disillusioned with organized religion, and not even sure about God, let alone God’s plan, then we are on a similar journey and maybe we can share the road for a while.

Typically, spiritual odyssey stories generate speaking engagements, t-shirts, and affirmation cards. They take the reader from the pain and chaos of suffering, sin, and loss to the comfort of forgiveness and the renewal of faith. This story travels in the other direction: from a career teaching theology and leading liturgical music and the feeling that I was in God’s hands, to the desolation of suddenly feeling that God has let go.

I used to readily call myself Catholic; now I don’t know what label fits. If “Catholic” can be a cultural descriptor, the way “Jewish” is for many Jews, then I am certainly Catholic. I was born and raised in the Church, received all the relevant sacraments, earned two degrees from Catholic universities, taught theology for nearly three decades in Catholic schools, and raised two sons in the Church. I would not hesitate to check “Catholic” on a census or on a hospital admissions chart. Nonetheless, I am currently ambivalent about God and find it too distressing to attend Church with any regularity.

So to be clear, my story will not nurture a soul hungry for immediate spiritual enrichment, but to those who are struggling to make sense of suffering and God it offers the consolation that you are not alone. It may even help you let go of the guilt of doubting God. And for those who are searching for some sense of meaning and purpose when life seems devoid of any, it may even offer you the possibility of hope. That is certainly my hope. 

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