A lot of hard things have happened over the past two weeks, and while it would be untrue to say nothing good has occurred in my life (that would be the height of ingratitude to the friend who spent two Saturdays helping me pack books!) nothing unexpectedly good has happened.
It started with my birthday. I prayed for a good surprise — not just the absence of a bad day, but something really good that involved getting to spend time with people. Like so many of my prayers, maybe it was answered? Kinda sorta? Depending on how I interpret things? But I had prayed specifically for something so amazing, so out of the ordinary that I would know God’s fingerprints were on it. And that didn’t happen. I’m not sure, in fact, that that has ever happened in my life. People keep telling me the problem is my attitude, that I’m looking in the wrong places, that I don’t see God where God shows up. But if my faith is reliant on me finding the silver lining, on my attitude, my interpretation, then it becomes all about me and there’s no room for God. And I really, really need a confirmation that God exists, that God loves me, that God’s presence in my life makes a difference beyond what I do or don’t perceive.
What happened on my birthday was that various friends called and texted and wrote messages on Facebook, which is the only social media platform I use (yes, me and everyone’s grandparents). There were no cards or packages in the mailbox or unexpected gifts at my front door, and maybe it’s selfish, but I had kinda hoped for that. I chatted outside for a few minutes with one friend, who commiserated about how pandemic birthdays suck and reminded me we’d been living with this for a year now so we’ll all have a pandemic birthday story. She told me she was treating me to dinner via Door Dash since we couldn’t go out in person, but as soon as we can, can we please have a huge friend dinner at a favorite restaurant? And of course I said yes, absolutely! But we don’t know when that will be possible.
So I didn’t feel forgotten, and for that one day I didn’t even feel lonely. But I didn’t get to spend much time with people, as I had hoped and prayed I’d somehow have a chance to do. There wasn’t a gorgeously wrapped surprise that came with an “I love you! Love, God” gift tag. And I’d prayed specifically for something good, not just the absence of bad things. My birthday was fine. But I’d really hoped for — needed, craved — more than fine.
The next few days were dismal, weather-wise and emotionally. I felt let down. I felt like love had failed to materialize in my life. I again experienced the constant, bone-deep loneliness that had lifted too briefly. I appreciated the dinner from my friend — and I also know her to be a kind and thoughtful person, so there wasn’t anything in her actions that I could trace back to God and not just to her own generosity.
And I needed God. I needed confirmation of divine love, guidance, purpose.
The week wore on and wore me down. I felt increasingly lonely, increasingly like my life is meaningless and nothing I do matters. The weekend was worse. My annual review for work was due, which entailed reflecting on the past year — and that was really hard. Being a professor is the only one of my life dreams that’s come true. I’ve never even gotten within spitting distance of the others. But I had no idea what a lonely profession teaching would turn out to be or how the never-ending grind wears you down. Evaluating my work in 2020 meant stepping back into the collective trauma of COVID-19, confronting the personal and professional costs this year has exacted, revisiting places that are still too fresh and raw.
But I wrote the evaluation. I figured I was just going to have to get through a shitty few days because sometimes that’s how life works. Monday something happened that I can’t talk about but that sapped all of the emotional energy and resilience I had left. Then Rufus got sick.
And I broke.
On the way back from Colorado, my dad had initiated a conversation about letting Rufus go when it was time, not keeping him here if he was in pain. I said, and believed, I was ready. I have seen Rufus grow in ways I never imagined: watching over my dad after surgery, walking confidently on a leash, snuggling with my nephews, touching noses with their dog, trotting up a mountainside with total joy and freedom. I know I have given Rufus the best life he could have had. I have surrounded him with love and introduced him to gentle people and protected him from anyone who would hurt him. And when it’s his time to slip away from me, even though another dog could never replace him, Copper will be there to fill the empty spaces with his happy, squinty-eyed, butt-wiggling, dancing self. I told my dad that I would hurt but I would heal, and I had peace about it.
But then Rufus had a bad night, a night where I awoke to him circling my room and whimpering, teeth chattering compulsively, foam frothing around his lips. As I petted him, I felt the lump I had noticed in December. I’d thought it was a fatty tumor, but now I realized it had grown larger and firmer. I was sure he had cancer, sure it was pressing on his nerves, sure we had reached the end of our time together.
I dropped him off at the vet Tuesday morning — COVID restrictions meant I wasn’t allowed to go inside with him — and sat in my car crying a little, but mostly so numb and exhausted that I couldn’t even turn the key in the ignition and drive home. I spent the day weeping into the phone, howling at God, trying to work but staring into a cold, dark, desert abyss, where the same God who had forced me to endure months of soul-crushing isolation was now threatening to take my beloved dog.
I could discern nothing of goodness or kindness or love in that God.
After an interminably long span of hours, the vet called. Rufus had an infection in his mouth and will need dental surgery. The lump wasn’t a tumor but a swollen lymph node.
My mom rejoiced at this news. As though an expensive surgery is a good thing. It’s not the worst news, I told her. But why can’t I have good things in my life? Why is it always that things could be worse than they are, but how they are is still pretty awful? Emotionally I was wrung out. I had no hope, no faith, no trust. If God would allow me to come this close to losing Rufus, then what wouldn’t God do?
I spiraled down and crashed hard against a bottom lower than any I’d ever discovered. I did not want to die, but I could not stand one more day of the loneliness so bitter and deep that every breath felt like knives. My mother asked me to promise not to hurt myself, but I couldn’t say the words. I told her to let me go. My dad had just talked about how keeping Rufus here would be cruel if he were sick and in pain, but now my mom wasn’t granting me the same consideration. She said she loves me. But she was half a continent away. No one was here. No one has been here when I wake up alone at 3 a.m. in a cold panic. No one was here in the middle of the night when Rufus was in pain and I could do nothing for him. No one was here when I came home from a fraught conversation Monday and needed a hug, a safe place. If something happened to Rufus — when something happened to Rufus — I’d go home to an empty apartment and be alone. I wake up alone. I go to class alone. I come home alone. I exercise alone. I walk the dogs alone. I eat dinner alone. I spend my evenings alone. No one is here. And I cannot walk a step further into this life if I have to walk it alone.
My mom threatened to call the police if I didn’t promise not to hurt myself. I told her she was being cruel, forcing me to endure pain that felt intolerable and unremitting and eternal. We sat on the phone, both weeping, with no more words. I didn’t want to hang up because I didn’t want her to call the police and I didn’t want to be hospitalized. The hospital would solve nothing. I’d just have a huge stigma and a bill I couldn’t pay, and also, it’s really tough to find a pet-sitter for pythons — and when I got back home I’d still be alone. (And yes, my mom pointed out the illogic in worrying about a pet-sitter but not about what would happen to my animals if I took my own life. I was in such a dark place that rationality didn’t matter to me.)
So we were at an impasse. Which Copper decided to break by jumping onto the bed and putting his head on my knee, which is one of my favorite dog moves but one that doesn’t happen often. He stared at me out of soulful brown eyes, and I knew he knew exactly what was going on. I knew he was telling me that if I couldn’t promise my mom, then I’d damn well better promise him. He looked at me so intently and with such comprehension that I actually choked out a broken chuckle.
So I lived. But my soul felt barren. I felt so deeply lonely in the marrow of my being that I didn’t think I’d ever feel loved again. I spent days in what might be the deepest despair I’ve ever experienced, and that’s saying a lot. I did not see a reason to stay alive. I do not have a single concrete thing to look forward to. Every time I’ve left a job, I’ve landed somewhere no better and often worse, so the prospect of a different career doesn’t hold much promise. And leaving here means moving alone, starting somewhere new alone, braving strange churches alone, figuring out my life alone. I am bone weary of being alone.
And God is silent.
My mom told me she had people praying for me. I told her the circumstances of my life need to change — I need something definite and specific, something I know comes from God. I need a miracle to help me this time. Not a feeling of peace that might be from God or my own endorphins; not a pretty sunset that blesses everyone who sees it. Something special. Something that says clearly that God, the creator and sustainer and redeemer of the universe, sees me, Monique, in my pain and loves me enough to do something about it.
I wrote in my journal, This is intolerable, and I am powerless to change it, and yet you refuse to act. You are willing to sacrifice my sanity and my faith and my very life on the altar of your divine indifference. All of this tells me I have been wrong about you, when I wanted to believe that you love me and would somehow redeem my suffering. The pain is stronger than this absent “love.” The loneliness is stronger than my ability to trust. Your cosmic apathy is stronger than I am.
One of the tabs that has been open in my browser for the past three weeks is an application to a seminary. I have no idea whether I’ll get in or how I’ll pay for it if I do. I’m not even sure why I would go, except that more than a year ago, at the end of a brutally tough day in which I was still able to extend understanding to someone else in need of a little compassion, the words dropped into my head like pebbles into a pond: Everything you’ve experienced is to help the people you will serve as a pastor. And the words carried deep peace and a sense of rightness.
In the best moments, I have felt loved by God. I have felt cherished. I have felt embraced. And I wanted to share that love with others, especially those who had been wounded, as I have, by people who claimed to represent God.
But how can I apply to seminary, how can I seek this path for my life, if I’m not even sure the love is real? If it absents itself when I most need it? If I can’t tell people it exists without feeling like I’m lying or at least indulging in wishful thinking? If answers to prayer are vague and unreliable and contingent on whether or not I choose to see them as answers?
Somewhere in all of this — screaming into my pillow, scribbling into my journal, pounding the mattress — I realized that as much as I want a relationship, as much as I want kids and a satisfying career, none of it matters if the love isn’t real. If the God I thought I had experienced is an illusion, then none of the rest of it matters and I truly have no reason to go on living. I cried out for God to answer me, to save me, to love me.
God remained silent.
One of the unexpected blessings of COVID season is that I have been able to get involved with a church I’d visited a couple of times, years ago, in the city where my parents live. Since last spring I have worshiped with them online and even taken Communion with them, physically apart but spiritually united. In November, two women in the church decided to start a Zoom support group for anyone impacted by COVID-19 in any way. I went to the first session, expecting to be in a large group of people who all knew each other, figuring I’d hide in my corner and gauge whether I felt comfortable venturing out to speak.
But hiding turned out not to be an option. I was the only person who showed up to that meeting apart from the two moderators. And they are incredibly kind, sweet, welcoming women who want to know what’s really going on in my life and support me however they can. They told me about a lay ministry program that could partner me with someone trained to help me through this rough time. And that’s how I ended up connecting with a young woman who has quickly become one of my favorite people in the world (to which she would likely respond, “Do you have more favorite people outside of it?”). We had a few in-person, socially distanced and masked meetings in Colorado, and now we talk on the phone weekly.
We spoke two days after Rufus’ vet visit. When I told her the details of my week, she said I’d had one of the worst non-major-catastrophe-but-otherwise-shitty stretches she had ever heard of anyone having. And then she made the observation that everything I had experienced seemed exquisitely pointed at my areas of pain and vulnerability and weakness.
In the back of my head, I thought of that seminary application open on my laptop and how the previous week I’d talked with my parents about it and realized we all felt a lot of peace and positivity about this step. I thought of the devil I’m not sure I believe in, and how if he exists, then sending me into a life-threatening crisis of faith just when I’m on the cusp of exploring a ministry option is exactly the sort of thing he would do.
But it felt like an academic explanation. I couldn’t see past the pain, the loneliness, the absence. I couldn’t bear to pray, only to be met with more silence. I’d plumbed the ugliest, rawest, most hateful depths of my soul and bared them to God more nakedly than I’d ever done, and God had just shrugged and turned away.
On Sunday I decided to pick up a book I’d run across in a thrift store in December: Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Path to Joy by Larry Crabb. I haven’t read any of his other books, but a relative of his attended the same church as my family did when I was a teenager, and because of that I knew just enough of his story to know he had experienced deep pain. I’d read the first few chapters shortly after I returned from Colorado and found them helpful. On Sunday I couldn’t focus on anything else (not even horror), and it was a gray and dismal and dripping day pretty much custom-designed for reading in your pajamas, and I figured I had nothing to lose in returning to his book, since my faith felt dead and my purpose for living obliterated.
And Crabb bulldozed me. Like Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark last year, it was exactly the right book for this moment in my life, and he spoke with shocking precision about everything I was experiencing: the loss of all my dreams, the absence of hope, an agony that obliterated all compassion and concern for others. The lure of death as an end to pain. The realization in this dark place that all you really crave is God. And having that epiphany met with God’s silence and absence.
He made sense of all of it. He framed it as blessing, while acknowledging that it feels like the opposite. He contextualized it as a necessary part of spiritual growth, a series of experiences that are essential to truly knowing God. And he said, over and over, that this isn’t the end of the story. That God is acting behind the scenes in ways we can’t see, and that when the time is right, God will astound us with exactly the kind of magnificent gesture of love I’d been craving and literally dying for.
He gave me enough to inspire me to hold on, to feel a little peace mitigating the pain. I still want someone to share my life, to walk next to, to hug when he has a bad day and receive hugs from when I falter. But I’d always idealized the ending to The Master and Margarita while probably missing the point: As I recall it, the couple can’t get to heaven, so God assigns them their own place that’s neither heaven nor hell, and they get to spend eternity with each other. I loved that. I secretly thought that would be preferable to heaven. God felt like this abstract figure who wanted slaves and adoration. I crave a relationship, intimacy, love. I can’t quite understand how you can have intimacy and love with a God who loves a lot of people. I never felt important enough for divine notice, so I would have been quite happy with affection from the right human — and I’ve been miserable without it. But for the first time, I’ve realized that without God, without the love I have come to associate with God, my life is a blank and barren waste. No human affection can survive in that desert. No man can replicate that love. Maybe the right man can share and experience it with me, can twine our roots together as we dig ever deeper into it.
Today I talked to my new friend in Colorado. And told her what I had not last week: about that open tab on my computer, that sense of a calling, the doubts about God’s existence that had stalled my seminary aspirations. She gently encouraged me to hold the doubts without letting them influence my actions. By the end of the conversation I realized that I need to move ahead with the application even though right now I don’t feel loved, I don’t sense God. Faith means I take this step, trusting that the love will meet me somewhere down the road, choosing to follow this path rather than surrender to a loveless void, acting as though the love is real even though I don’t perceive it yet.
And it occurs to me that having nothing to look forward to gives God a lot of room to surprise me.
And while hope still feels too elusive to grasp, I’ve started to wonder if the gallons of tears I’ve shed over the past fourteen days can become a kind of baptism into something better and truer and deeper and more loving than anything I’ve yet experienced.