A Non-Existent Future

The first email I read today told me of the death of an old friend. He was 95 and had had heart failure for some time. His last letter told me he was ready for death and hoped it would not be too far off. He was a doughty unbeliever, and a frequent joke between us was that one day I’d say to him, ‘I told you so!’ I fully expect to be able to do that one day. The future does not depend on our believing in it, any more than the existence of God depends on our belief in him.

Consider, next, this tweet from Dr Kate Granger, who has an advanced sarcoma: ‘Hardly surprising I can’t sleep. . . Massive decision to make tomorrow with such uncertainty – one that will determine my non-existent future.’ It is very easy when faced with an aggressive disease that, humanly speaking, can have only one outcome to feel that words like ‘the future’ have no meaning. No matter how brave or positive one is (and Dr Granger is both), there are moments when everything seems bleak and meaningless. One goes on because one must, because the end is not yet, not because one believes one has any future to speak of.

People often think that having faith is a great comfort at such times. I wonder. Faith tends to come and go. It cannot be summoned up at will, however hard one tries. Of course, one can lie — even to oneself; but a lie will not sustain one through a really difficult patch. We have to face up to the reality of our situation and embrace it. That is why, here in the monastery, we pray every day for the gift of faith to be given to us, not merely renewed in us. That is also why we pray for the faith of our fellow Christians to be strengthened, whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves. Those persecuted by IS or by their neighbours in India or Pakistan need our prayers because, ultimately, only grace can assure them any future on this earth. As to the future that we look forward to in hope, well, please pray for my friend and Dr Granger, too.

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17 thoughts on “A Non-Existent Future”

  1. During the darker periods of my life, I would call this, “Putting one foot in front of the other, because I didn’t know what else to do and/or didn’t now how to stop.”

    May not sound like much, but has the effect of getting the body out of bed in the morning and keeping the life force flowing.

    Will pray for him and for you, Sister.

    • I quite agree. I firmly believe (most of the time!) that God is working his purposes out, etc, but we must never presume upon grace; and for my dead friend, who was never able to believe, and for Dr Granger, who is clearly going through a very testing time, soothing Christian assurances, no matter how true, are very far from being of any comfort or help.

  2. Thank you for this wise reflection.

    I think it’s one of the biggest misunderstandings of faith that it makes things easier. But it does give a different perspective to things if we can cling onto it.

  3. Yes. I was shocked by a profound experience of emptiness shortly after I became a Christian, when I first started exploring the call to ministry. I realise with hindsight there are words to describe such an experience but at the time I could only explain it as a deep sense of abandonment by God. I said at the time I was clinging on by my fingertips, but I realised later it was he who had been clinging onto me.

  4. One of the Brothers of the Taize community said something along the lines of ‘the existence of God does not depend one’s belief in Him’. This has, weirdly, been a great comfort when I periodically lose my faith and holds me together until I find it again.

  5. Thank you so much for this post, for your prayers and for being so real. Your insights and honesty help me so much – thank God for Twitter which brings you close to so many! May God continue to bless you and your work.

  6. Pam expresses something that I felt. I felt huge excitement when I came back to Christianity and for months and even years, God just seemed to be everywhere and in everything.
    Which was real evidence of his existence and of his work in my own, but more importantly in the lives of others. I would describe this period of experience as being ‘full up’with God.

    Than one day, I woke up with just a huge feeling of emptiness. An ache, like a hunger – something was missing. Suddenly, the world which was full of God, was an empty space. It was dark, and rapidly got darker. I didn’t understand what was going on. It lasted for days and weeks. I spoke to my Spiritual Director about it – and he explained carefully, that my expectations of being filled with God were valid, but I also needed to be aware that at times that feeling will desert me – and things will change after that for ever. I had continued to pray, plead and beg the absent God to come back, without avail it seems, but despite the emptiness, I knew that realness of the time that Jesus had spoken into my life, intimately, suddenly, out of the blue, when I was at the end of my tether – at breaking point. He rescued me from disaster that day, so I knew that this was something to endure, not to abandon.

    And my SD was quite correct. I did feel him again, not in the old, exciting, exhilaration of before, but in that small, quiet voice that was there all of the time, but that I had lost somehow in all the excitement and joy of his presence.

    That change in some way, marked a new period of growth and self awareness, one where hope was confirmed and enshrined as the promise that has been made to us. Since than, there have been periodic ups and downs, but not the empty feeling of absence and abandonment.

    I suspect that If I were in the situations of Dame Catherine or Dr Grainger, things might well be different, but that is something I will have to face, if it ever comes. How I will cope when faith and hope seem hard to come by, I don’t know? What I do know is that prayer, even if only a cursory, Hello Jesus, I’m here still, will continue.

    Prayers for Dame Catherine are said every day, but now I will add Dr Grainger to my list. [*]

  7. In reality, when faced with a terrible situation, extreme pain or the real prospect of your death happening very soon, most certainties evaporate. It is fine to believe in God’s plan and everything working out in some distant afterlife but, in my own experience, I began to feel like things were not really happening to me. Surely I was not that ill. I did not want to face death that day – not simply through fear but because I did not want to. It hurt and all the kind words and brave intentions did not stop it (morphine helped!). I hope and pray for eternal life in heaven but the process of leaving this life and entering the next seems decidedly unpleasant, messy and scary.

    Was this lack of faith on my part?
    I took great comfort at a later – less sick – phase in that Jesus did not look forward to his violent, painful and degrading death even though he must have had more faith in the resurrection than I could ever muster. If even He seemed to struggle in the garden then maybe I am being a bit too hard on myself and others by hoping they will simply shrug and say it is all God’s plan.
    I pray today for all those who face extreme suffering and/or are close to the end of their life. I hope that they do not experience despair and that they will be comforted in whatever way He feels is best for them.

    • I think we also need to accept that we cannot predict how we will cope with any particular situation. I have sometimes thought of St Thérèse of Lisieux and the darkness she experienced at the end of her life. That is another reason why we must pray for the sick, the prayer the sick themselves cannot pray at such times.

  8. Dame Catherine, Just to say “thank you” for your reflections. I have found them so helpful and thought provoking and many of them have given me greater insight into God, myself and people.

  9. It is a sobering thought to realise (and I suppose it was naive of me not to have realised already) that even those whose lives are devoted entirely to God may experience doubt and emptiness at times. If this is the case for you at present, Dame Catherine, then I am very sorry, and I pray that you will feel His immanence again soon.

    I think of the time around and after my conversion as a honeymoon period, when the Earth was filled with the glory of God and I felt that this light and joy would never end. Since then, I have experienced the bump after the high, and now the gradual process of learning to live with doubt, with occasional ennui, but with ongoing trust, effort and affection. In fact, it’s all very similar to married life! 🙂 I never lose hope of experiencing the occasional moments of light, of numinous awe, of the realisation of the loving presence within and around me. Perhaps these moments are all the more precious for being seldom granted.

    In times of dreariness or doubt, or when praying for friends who are non-believers, I find this old saw very comforting: ‘You may not believe in Him, but He believes in you.’

    • Thank you, Kate. Like everyone else, I have moments of inner bleaknesss and moments that are more joyful. My post was general rather than particular. I think we all struggle with our difficulties and doubts in much the same way: there is the joy and wrench of the initial surrender to God and then comes the plodding on, sometimes failing, sometimes buoyed up by a hope and trust that does not come from oneself. Another reason to pray for all our fellow Christians!

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