Brick walls

Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House

In the past two days one person came to me and said, ‘I feel that there is a brick wall between me and God.’ Another phoned and said, ‘God seems so far away – I’ve even stopped receiving Holy Communion.’ These are both mature Christian people (in every sense of the word); and their experience is a very common one. In fact it is most unusual for a Christian to plough through all the changes and chances of life without experiencing doubts, fears and sometimes a blind panic that there is ‘nothing there’.

This is a profoundly individual experience and it is impossible to make any generalizations, but it might help some readers if I outline a couple of ‘case studies’.

In one instance a member of the clergy experienced what he described as an ‘inability to think any more about God’. Out of the blue the language he used in preaching and teaching sounded nonsensical, to such an extent that he questioned why he had ever believed it!

I have known several ‘Christian professionals’ who have experienced a similar ‘theological breakdown.’ In this particular case the prayer and worship part of life continued. It was as if at one level God was real and present until it came to thinking about that experience or trying to communicate it.

In this case I suggested that this inability to connect the cerebral with the spiritual was a gift of God’s grace to help him experience ‘the universe without creedal statements outside the life and culture of the Church’. In this way he could see the difficulties that most people face in accepting the Christian faith in any formal or ‘religious’ way. As we talked about these issues it emerged that this was indeed the case. This ‘gift’ was challenging him to ‘rethink’ his whole ministry, and had deepened his sensitivity to those who were ‘seekers’ and ‘enquirers’.

His was a kind of ‘dark night of the mind’ in which the Lord was at work to his own ends.

Another instance is the recent ‘brick wall’ conversation. This was a lady in her seventies who suddenly found that ‘nothing made sense anymore.’ It came to light in talking that she had found herself estranged from the parish church of her own community, one she had belonged to all her married life. It had reached a point where she found Sunday worship distressing and was in agonies deciding whether she should or could go, when she could not in conscience accept the ministry of a new vicar.

This had paralysed her in a spiritual sense. She came to realize that her inner ‘doubts’ were her personal experience of ‘impaired communion’ and the result a period of starvation of any spiritual food. The remedy was to find a way of being ‘grafted’ back into the living vine of the Body of Christ.

In some way the work of the Holy Spirit, which is a spirit of communion and community, will always be bound up with our relationship to the Church or the lack of it. This is a warning note to any who might think they can ‘go it alone.’