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8 Tips for Catholics With Doubts

Jennifer Fulwiler

ďI feel like Iím losing my faith,Ē an acquaintance told me the other day. This person explained that she used to have an intimate relationship with God, but now feels empty inside, and has even begun to question whether God exists at all. She wanted to know how I recommend that she proceeds.

Even though Iím neither a saint nor an expert on the spiritual life, I get asked questions like this fairly frequently. Perhaps itís because Iím an atheist-to-Catholic convert, or because readers of my personal blog know that Iím a spiritual spaz and therefore am likely to have been through a variety of rough patches in my relationship with God. Whatever the reason, over the course of the past six years Iíve had dozens of conversations with people who are struggling with doubts. Through these conversations, as well as meetings with confessors and spiritual directors about problems Iíve faced in my own spiritual life, Iíve learned a lot about traveling the rocky road of doubt. So for my acquaintance whoís questioning her faith, as well as anyone else who might be struggling with beliefs that used to come naturally to them, here are the top tips I think you might find helpful:

1. Make sure that the problem is doubt

First, make sure that your main issue is doubt. Problems like clinical depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. can lead to a lack of closeness with God that might initially seem like doubts, but have a deeper root that would be best addressed with a qualified Catholic therapist. Similarly, in my own life there was a time when I said I was experiencing doubts, but when I took a closer look I realized that it was simply a lack of consolation (i.e. a spiritual dry spell) rather than serious questions about the validity of the teachings of the Faith. ďDoubtĒ is often used as a catch-all term that covers a variety of spiritual problems, so itís important to take a second look to make sure that youíve diagnosed the situation correctly.

2. Confess your sins

Whenever I complained of problems in my prayer life, my spiritual director would always ask me if Iíd made a good confession recently. Having doubts isnít necessarily caused by being in a state of sin, but certainly our sins can fuel any existing feelings of distance from God. Visiting the confessional is a good first step to clear your spiritual slate before moving forward.

3. Listen to the Churchís side of the story

This one seems obvious, but is surprisingly easy to overlook. When I talk to folks who have begun to embrace viewpoints that are contrary to Catholic teaching (such as those of the New Atheists), I often find that they have not spent much time listening to the Churchís counter-arguments. I see this most often among people who were raised Catholic: Thereís a feeling of, ďIf there were a good response to this I surely would have heard it in Catholic school or in a homily at some point, and since I havenít, there must not be a good answer.Ē The Church has a two-thousand-year-old body of wisdom that covers pretty much every aspect of human existence, so itís perfectly possible that even someone raised in a faithful Catholic environment could have misunderstandings about exactly what the Church believes in certain areas. If you havenít done so already, find faithful Catholic authors and see what they have to say about the areas in which youíre experiencing doubts. (The EWTN Catalog and Lighthouse Catholic Media both have great resources to get you started.)

4. Research your questions, but wait to do so until youíre in a place of peace

My spiritual director always used to say that we shouldnít make big decisions when weíre feeling agitated, and never is this more true than in matters of faith. If youíre feeling stressed out, frazzled, angry, exhausted, resentful, or otherwise unsettled, try to regain a sense of calm before you begin seeking answers to your questions. As much as we like to believe that we can turn ourselves into truth-evaluating robots, the reality is that our abilities to assimilate and evaluate data are always impacted by our mental statesóespecially when it comes to those truths that cannot be deduced mathematically or through the scientific method alone.

5. Practice forgiveness

Per the above, there are a lot of things that could cause a person to be in an unsettled state. However, the one that I see most often in people with doubts is resentment. When I am able to have long conversations with people who are having serious questions about their faith, more often than not the subject will turn to some unresolved hurt in their lives. It makes sense: Since God is love itself, to seek the truth about God is to seek the truth about love; and, naturally, our view of love becomes clouded when weíve been hurt by those who were supposed to love us. Forgiving those who have wounded us is much easier said than done, and may even take months or years of work with confessors, therapists and/or spiritual directors, but Iíve found it to be a necessary step for evaluating doubts with clarity.

6. Watch out for hidden payoffs

Another point that seems obvious, but is easy to overlook, is that the search for truth can be influenced by the payoffs that await different conclusions. For example, one person recently told me that she now believes that the main reason she lost her faith in college is because she secretly wanted to be ďfreeĒ to live the immoral lifestyle that was popular on campus at the time.

7. Find a spiritual director

Going through a time of doubt can be an alienating experience. Especially if it seems that everyone around you has a rock-solid faith life, you might be hesitant to talk to your family or friends about what youíre thinking. This is where a spiritual director can be extremely helpful: He or she can help you analyze your questions in a relaxed environment, and you donít have to worry about it leading to arguments or tension the way it might with people in your personal life.

8. Keep praying (and ask others to pray for you)

Itís a natural reaction to stop talking to God if youíre not even sure that heís there to hear you, but keep doing it anyway. Tell him you have doubts. Ask for help. Ask him to guide you to the right people and resourcesóand donít forget to remain open to any answers you might receive. Ask others to pray for you too; if you donít want to tell them you have doubts, just say itís for a special intention. This may be the most difficult step of all, especially if youíve been questioning your faith for a long time, but it is also the most important step.

The good news is that many people Iíve talked to over the years have come through their times of doubt to have a faith more vibrant than ever before; in fact, it seems like the worst periods of spiritual confusion often precede the most amazing spiritual transformations. So to anyone whoís experiencing difficulties in your faith life: Keep searching, keep praying, donít lose heart, and know that Iíll be praying for you as well.

Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer from Austin, Texas who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She's a columnist for Envoy magazine, a regular guest on the Relevant Radio and EWTN Radio networks, and a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved