Not a Crisis of Faith

In the year since our road trip through Norway with my husband and two small children, a moment, so brief I almost wonder if it really happened, comes floating back to me often.  It was early morning and we were driving on the high planes beyond the fjords.  The lighting was hazy and pink, as if the sun knew it hadn't had a proper rest, and I felt much the same way.  I looked up and out the window at one point just in time to see two moose with heads bent to the ground, the morning fog tucked softly around them. Their largeness, otherworldliness and serenity shocked me.   The image passed too quickly to even form words to tell my husband, but still, I cannot shake it.  I've wondered why the memory, even at the time, felt so significant, except that I knew my accompanying emotion at the time was panic.  Internal panic at what I perceived to be the pinnacle of a spiritual crisis--A crisis of faith.

Earlier that day, staring into the thick, wise turquoise water of the fjords, I had felt so small, so rough and lazy in my knowledge and so presumptuous in truly believing that I knew much of anything.  I felt anxiety over feeling trapped in the gospel I had once felt entirely comfortable in. I pulled over and asked my husband to drive.  The expansiveness and beauty of the world I was experiencing could not equate to me saying that I knew anything for sure, let alone the truths and solved mysteries I believed the doctrines of the church were asking me to claim.  When I think back to that week in the back country of Norway, my heart jumps across the chasm of two different camps--one of complete awe and joy at the world around me and one, a culminating and complete crisis of faith.  In the time since though, I've also asked myself this: What if it weren't a crisis?  What if I had merely chosen different language to sculpt my experience?  Would the chasm have lessened? Would I realize that both camps were actually not so different?  What if when we entered the inevitable time when we must take our faith out of the pack on our back to really examine it were just that, an examination, a curiosity, a responsibility, a hope to better understand?

Selje, Norway
In poetry, at least good poetry, each word that stands guard like a soldier to wiser thought is carefully recruited.  A superfluous, or worse yet, an ill-chosen word can be the hinge that sends the reader right out of the poem.  The poet is responsible for etymologies, context, sounds, cadences and ancestries of each word used.  Words carry weight and baggage and the poet cannot ask the reader to simply brush those aside.  In a similar way, we are the poets of our own spirituality and we must take accountability for phrases like "crisis of faith".  It seems that often we wave the phrase 'crisis of faith' like a flag of bravery or martyrdom.  We use it as a demarcation between those who are thinking and those who are following blindly.  We tout it under our belt as if it were an event that came and went, and we either stayed in the church, or we left.  I want to propose that our language can dictate a more positive experience for us, whether we choose to stay in the church or not.  What if we simply put some phrases given to us to rest? What if we took greater responsibility for our language and cast aside some phrases that have simply been passed onto us?  What if we refused to denote some of our most real and mature spiritual thinking as a crisis and instead gave it a phrase that moved us from victimhood to powerful players in our own spiritual journeys? Take a moment, just as a test, to re-name your ‘crisis of faith’. 

I've done some experimenting with alternative phrases to 'crisis of faith', just to see how it does change our experience.  In an art show, I asked people to come up with their own alternative phrase and write them on the wall next to a big banner that said, 'crisis of faith'.  I also provided a list of words from the New Testament that they could use as prompts, because, as it turns out, Christ, even in scenarios that legitimately could be classified as crises, never used the term.  Here are some of the phrases people came up with: Wonderful wilderness; questioning to gain knowledge; hidden growth; look for better feelings; seeking more light; rest heart be full; finding new shores; journey for truth; standing in motion; looking higher; learning who we really are; opportunity to build a more genuine relationship with God; teaching out of love.  These are valuable phrases to me because they set me up to be a seeker, a searcher, a climber. They are phrases that dictate to me change without fear, searching without guilt and genuine love between myself and deity.

 There is something about a crisis that puts one in a rather helpless place.  A crisis might be an earthquake or disaster, in which the one experiencing the crisis is also, by default, the victim of circumstances beyond their control.  A crisis puts one into fight or flight mode because survival is the main objective.  In a crisis there is little time, or even reason to stop and meditate, be thoughtful or even pray.  For me, when I think of my questions in the gospel as a 'crisis of faith', I am set at odds with God, almost as if He is the one who created the disaster that I am fighting to get free from. There were times when I became the victim of my spirituality, rather than the explorer. When I feel at most in the midst of a spiritual crisis, when I am tired of wrestling my thoughts, I become quiet.   When I allow myself the liberty to think beyond the phrase crisis, I realize that I am not at odds with God, but rather, my searching can be cause for beautiful communion.  When I am in crisis mode, I am stuck in a valley scrambling for understanding, but what I would rather be is an explorer setting out for greater heights and views and I’ve realized that often I am the only one that can choose which place I will be in. 
Selje, Norway

About ten years ago, about after my mission, there was a metaphorical set of doors that I opened slowly in my spiritual life, and inside those doors, everything felt turned upside down.  My spiritual life was swept up in the whirlwind of the thousands of words I read on the internet, the long nights of discussion with friends and a lot of internal strife. Inside this space, my spiritual life did feel like a crisis because I couldn't gain traction. There was little to grasp onto by way of definite truth or certain understanding.  For a few years I stayed inside these walls, with colored wires running every which way, some of them sparking at the ends, and me, feeling a little panicked at how to organize these wires into something functional.
Throughout those ten years I’ve hardly missed a Sunday and have continued to find much peace and joy in the gospel, but the thing I never considered was that my two experiences, my crisis and my faith could be intertwined to the extent that they were both pushing me on to the same higher spiritual plains.  There was also something exhilarating about the space of chaos for a time, something exciting about saying that I am the one who is different, who is brighter for my questions. At a certain point though, being inside those walls was not sustainable.  I had children, a husband, work to do, and I needed energy.  Feeling like I was in a crisis was no longer an option.  
I saw another set of doors, not the same set I had come through originally, but a set that led me out of this place of chaos.  A set built upon the idea that what I was experiencing did not have to be a crisis and did not actually put me at odds with God. I had to make a choice, I made it several times. I decided for a time to leave the crisis behind, not that I was without question, and nothing got “put on the shelf”, but I had to make a choice to re-define my spiritual journey. It couldn’t be a crisis anymore.  These new doors took some humbling to push open and walk out into the other side, but what I found when they were open was a beautiful meadow singing with possibility. Expansive space that suggested to me that my spirituality was not confined to a set of rules or expectations, but rather, my spirituality and even my attempted spirituality is sacred, holy and cherished by God.  The meadow offered me exploration and possibility. In this place I shed myself of the phrase 'a crisis of faith' because my questions no longer seemed like a crisis, my confusion at church doctrine or church history seemed pale in comparison with what lay in front of me.  I am learning to turn chaos into my own kind of order, which seems the most God-like quality I can attempt for now.  I am using words like 'learning', experimenting, exploration, faith, compassion, journey, trust and love as vanguards in my spiritual wanderings.            I am still an active Mormon, and while there are times that that phrase begins to creep to cynicism, frustration, and confusion, but there are more times when I am so grateful for a context to help me seek Heavenly parents and spiritual enlightenment. There are often times when I would not find what I am hoping to be elsewhere.  The word crisis is no longer allowed as part of my spiritual vocabulary because while it may have served me for a time, I cannot climb to higher peaks with it atop my shoulders.  

Fjords in Norway
As I’ve thought back to the peaceful set of moose standing silent and sacred up in the wilderness of Norway, I think I’ve come to better understand the reason they’ve come back to me so often.  At the time I saw in them something I so wanted for myself, an unaffected confidence at their place in the world.  I envied their simplicity.  I wanted to stand with grace and assurance in my place.  The spiritual turmoil I felt at the time would not allow me that kind of peace or confidence.  For a time I thought it meant I must leave the church, but I think over the past year, those serene and peaceful moose have become a symbol of what I might become within the church.  A beloved creature, not at odds with God, but cared for deeply.  A creature not in crisis, but one standing peacefully, eager for what the rising day might bring.


Jae said...

Thanks for the insight. I think another problem with the crisis terminology is that it makes it seem like action must be taken immediately. I need an answer and I need it now. I have to decide now, once and for all, if I can stay in the church. But the process of learning and feeling truths is so often gradual and comes when we're ready to receive and understand.

Liz Lambson said...

This all feels very familiar to me, only I am not yet through the doors to the warm open field. I'm so glad your weight has been lifted. This is a wonderful post. xoxo

Beth said...

This was so beautiful - I loved the insight of the power of words has on our perspective. Thank you for sharing your journey and growth!

Rosalyn said...

This is lovely. I've had those moments (weeks, months) of crisis (esp. in a very liberal graduate school program), but I love the idea of reformating crisis to something positive. I'd never considered that, but I think I'll adopt it for my next one. ;)

Clean Cut said...

Awesome. Beautiful insights here. Thanks!

Clean Cut said...

I also think about how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, a "faith transformation" feels appropriate. It can be dark for awhile but the beauty eventually comes and we learn to fly.

joojierose said...

For me, I think the 'crisis' narrative is problematic because it is a teleological narrative - as if there's a start and an end, and the end is a progression on the beginning. I remember overhearing this BYU student say 'I've had my crisis of faith,' as if at the age of 19, he had figured everything out. Oh man! Life is so long! We'll have peaks and valleys for our entire life. We will learn more, and forget even more, as life goes on. Faith is a process equal with doubt - the two work together. Once I became comfortable with that, I became comfortable with going to church every sunday, because I too feel that what else could I do? Rejecting it all completely is just as categorical as 'blind belief.' The world is too mysterious for absolutes. Thanks for your thoughts, Ashmae. Love, Julianne.

Mario Ernesto said...

The words we use show what we are made out of from inside. I could called my whole life "crises", "the crises I have been put in". But I have decided to say: "this beautiful chance that I have to learn, experience, explore and to be enlightened". The so called "faith crises" is just another of the thousand chances for enlightenment. Thanks for your words Ashley.

Lia said...

I'm so glad to have read this! your words are so beautiful, ash mae, and carry such strength and weight. I hadn't truly considered the affect of this negative labeling on how I experienced and, in hindsight, now perceive phases of spiritual questioning in my life, but certainly those times I called "crises" were made all the more turbulent by their categorization as such. I think that ofttimes it did feel like a crisis to even posit questions that could totally derail the paradigm by which I understood life. as you know, I am no longer an active or even believing member of the mormon church, but interestingly, the questions that I asked when I made my decision to leave were part of a time that I don't look back on as being any sort of crisis at all, but as a time when I looked for truth without fear of what I would find and accepted what I was learning without resistance. as you said, the world is certainly chaotic, and we are all explorers in search of some kind of order, and may be in that pursuit forever and always. how we define and label that pursuit can change so much about how we understand and engage with our lives.

Elisa said...

Thank you for this.

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