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Passing Through Times of Confusion on the Path to God

They may pray from time to time, particularly in dire need, and they may go to services on key holidays. But for this group, finding God is a mystery, a worry or a problem.
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There are as many paths to God as there are individuals. This series looks at six of the most well-traveled paths for contemporary believers.

This final path to God crosses all the other ones at various points. People on the path of confusion run hot and cold with their childhood faith -- finding it relatively easy to believe in God at times, almost impossible at others. They haven't "fallen away" but they've not stayed connected. They cry out to God in prayer and then wonder why there doesn't seem to be an answer. They intuit God's presence during important moments, and perhaps even during religious services, but find themselves bothered by the problems of belonging to their church, synagogue or mosque. They may pray from time to time, particularly in dire need, and they may go to services on key holidays.

But for this group, finding God is a mystery, a worry or a problem.

The main benefit of this path is that it often helps people to fine-tune their approach to their childhood faith. Unlike those who consider themselves clearly religious or clearly non-religious, these people have not yet made up their minds, and so are constantly refining their ideas about a religious commitment.

But confusion can lapse into laziness. The feeling that makes a person avoid worship services because a particular critique easily mutates into a decision not to do so because it's too much work, or because it takes too much energy to belong to a group that demands charity and forgiveness.

Much of my adult life, before entering the Jesuits, the Catholic religious order to which I belong, was spent on this path. As a boy, I was raised in a loving family with a lukewarm Catholic background. My family went to church regularly but we didn't engage in those practices that mark very religious Catholics -- saying grace at meals, speaking regularly about God, praying before going to bed, and attending Catholic schools. But in college I grew increasingly confused about God.

After a friend's death and another friend's mysterious response to his death (see "The Path of Exploration") moved me to give God another chance, I returned to church, but in a desultory way. I wasn't sure exactly what, or who, I believed in. So for several years God the Problem Solver was replaced by a more amorphous spiritual concept: God the Life Force, God the Other, God the Far Away One. While these are valid images of God, I had no idea that God could be anything but those abstract ideas. And I figured that things would stay that way until I died.

Then, at age 26, I came home one night after work and turned on the television set. After graduation, I had taken a job with General Electric, but was beginning to grow dissatisfied with the work. After six years of working late at night and on the weekends, I had also started to develop stress-related stomach problems and was wondering how much more I could take.
On television that night was a documentary about Thomas Merton, a man who had turned his back on a dissolute life to enter a Trappist monastery in the early 1940s. Something about the expression on his face spoke to me: his countenance radiated a peace that to me seemed unknown, or at least forgotten. The show was so interesting that the next day I purchased and began reading Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.

Gradually, I discovered within myself a desire to do something similar to what Thomas Merton had done; maybe not join a monastery (since I'm too talkative) but somehow lead a more contemplative, more religious, life.

That experience helped me to step off the path of confusion and put me on a path of belief, which led to the Jesuits, which led to the priesthood, and which led, more importantly, to a relationship with the One whom I had been seeking.

This series has looked at the six paths on which many contemporary believers seem to travel to God. Each has its benefits and pitfalls. Each, if followed sincerely by the seeker of God, will lead to God. You may find yourself on one path at one point in your life then, suddenly, another. You may feel yourself on several paths at once.

But to the seeker who feels lost, remember: As much as you are seeking God, God is seeking you even more.

James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of 'The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life', from which this series has been adapted.