Letting Jesus Into My Existential Crises - A Letter from Christina O'Brien
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“I cannot love a lie. I am in Love and out of Him I cannot go.” It jumped off the page while reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. It was the conclusion I wanted to draw in the face of my uncertainties about God, but ever since my adolescence, I’ve faced compulsive contemplation of completely pessimistic atheism while simultaneously trying to embrace Christ. I’ve read books, listened to talks, and worked through arguments from Aquinas, Aristotle, and Augustine. I’ve articulated my aversion to the ideas of Nietzsche and Camus and I’ve performed award-winning self-talk convincing myself of the infinite value of my life, all in an effort dismantle the radical atheist arguments that live in the recesses of my mind.
I once saw a book called “How Not to Kill Yourself: A Survival Guide for the Imaginative Pessimist.” Standing alone in the Berkeley used book store, I picked it up and mumbled “this is for me.” When I consider that God — defined as the conscious source of all life and goodness — does not exist, I try to maintain some reason for the goodness of humanity and the dignity of human life. But given my personality, this doesn’t last long in my mind and instead I find myself reaching some of the most miserable philosophies described by man: utter pessimism, resignation to meaninglessness, apathy, and nothingness. Instead of “does God love me?” I ask, “does love exist?”
"Instead of 'does God love me?' I ask, 'does love exist?'"
I take seriously the possibility that there is no omnipresent being or conscious creator, that we’re an accident which was statistically inevitable given an infinite amount of time. Self-sacrificing, enemy-embracing gift of self, or Love as defined by Christianity, is not real. It’s only mutual hedonism, a parasitic relationship in which we suck as much pleasure from the other as possible. Human dignity and value are fabricated social ideas with absolutely no basis in reality. Even thinking that hurts. Of course, it’s not a philosophy with which I want to align myself...But if it’s true, then I will.
It’s scary because the stakes are so high. So usually, I let these remain surface level what-ifs. When I follow them through I eventually come to a crossroads: do I accept that the value of my life is an illusion and enter into the peril of total pessimism where I might not find any inherent reason to sustain my existence? Or do I make an act of faith exclaiming that my desire to be loved is written into my heart? A line by the band mewithoutYou comes to mind: “If there was no way into God, I would not have laid in this grave of a body for so long.” I don’t know if I could stick around if it was all meaningless... So I make the act of faith and experience the delight of a life in which I get to accept the reality of my own infinite value. There are plenty of reasons to believe that this is the most logical choice, but for some reason, I constantly wonder if it’s really true.
"I eventually come to a crossroads: do I accept that the value of my life is an illusion and enter into the peril of total pessimism where I might not find any inherent reason to sustain my existence? Or do I make an act of faith exclaiming that my desire to be loved is written into my heart?"
Recently, after a long period of consolation and minimal questioning had ended, I sat before the Eucharist in total frustration, wondering if my cycles of existential crises would ever end without actually tasting that mentality of nothingness and letting it flood my consciousness. I felt myself push past the intellectual dam I had spent years building against the oppressive waters of pessimism, and in full knowledge, I looked at the Blessed Sacrament before me and spoke those words into my heart. “That is not God, Jesus is a lie, and love is a wish-fulfillment fabrication. You, Christina, have no inherent value, there is no love, you are nothing.”
It took no time at all for the poison to seep into my heart. It was like my soul was turning gray...All the vibrance that colored my existence was sucked away in an instant. But then something happened that's hard for me to describe given my logical tendencies. It seemed that something came to my rescue. Without asking for it, comfort flooded my soul again and soothed the blows I had delivered. It was the same cathartic, bittersweet consolation that you feel when an intimate loved one embraces you in your misery, except it didn’t have a human source. If I were to articulate the inner movements in that moment, it seemed that with far more truth and evidence than the lies I shared with myself, I was being spoken to. “I would never let you go that easily. Love is real - this is it.” Accepting these statements as true quite literally offered greater rest than lying in the most deeply trusted lover’s arms. Lewis’ words came to mind again and this time they rang true. “I am in Love and out of Him I will not go.”
"I was being spoken to. 'I would never let you go that easily. Love is real - this is it.” Accepting these statements as true quite literally offered greater rest than lying in the most deeply trusted lover’s arms. Lewis’ words came to mind again and this time they rang true. “I am in Love and out of Him I will not go.'"
This sentiment crept into my being and I found myself using that elusive phrase that used to simultaneously alienate me and entice me. “I am in love with Christ.” I contemplated what I meant by that. It was that in any moment of insecurity, humiliation, fear, or frustration, I had decided that my source of refuge would be in this Consciousness that I chose to believe, or perhaps knew, was not my own. Even now, this Consciousness provides a perpetually available source of comfort, affirmation, acceptance, and delight when I cling to it. It provides what a lover provides, and it does it best. That Consciousness is a person who tells us all specifically, through the language he gifted us, “you are beautiful my love, there is no flaw in you.” Then he shows us explicitly, through his torturous death and triumphant return to life, the magnificent essence of perfect love. If we just consent to his outpourings of delight, then our hearts can open to the adventure of falling in love with Love.
"That Consciousness is a person who tells us all specifically, through the language he gifted us, 'you are beautiful my love, there is no flaw in you.' Then he shows us explicitly, through his torturous death and triumphant return to life, the magnificent essence of perfect love. If we just consent to his outpourings of delight, then our hearts can open to the adventure of falling in love with Love."
In true human form, shortly after experiencing this outpouring of love, I again asked myself how I knew it wasn’t just a dramatic psychological event in a deeply imaginative mind. It was clear I wasn’t done with my atheistic contemplations. But at the same time, I was convicted that I had fallen in love more deeply with Christ than I ever had with any man.
I didn’t understand how these could coexist. But as is common in the Catholic Church, a saint described a similar experience. No, not St. Augustine or St. Ignatius, well-known converts to the faith. St. Therese of Lisieux, the famous Little Flower, described an experience of a “profound temptation to atheism.” I was shocked when I heard this on my favorite podcast. How was it that this picture of childlike faith whose legacy is simple and pure love of Christ, could seriously consider whether or not our primary lover even exists. But in her writings about these thoughts she described how Jesus allowed her to “sit at the table with unbelievers,” and as that contrasted with her utter delight in being alive as the beloved of Christ, she experienced the misery of such pessimism. Jesus used this to hold her even closer to his heart.
While I could never claim holiness on par with St. Therese, that is something with which I can relate. St. Therese did not shy away from the genuine movements of her soul even as they directed her to question the existence of her heart’s delight. She, whose identity was already her belovedness in Christ, was brought even deeper into relationship with him through her darkness. When in the light of God's own words of love, I intimately shared my temptations to atheism, God responded by showing me what it was to be in love with him.
"When in the light of God's own words of love, I intimately shared my temptations to atheism, God responded by showing me what it was to be in love with him."
When I put it this way, it seems like I should lay my questioning to rest. But for whatever reason, which I think only God himself can untangle, the question persists. Could I be in love with something that doesn’t exist? I think our human experience would tell us no, but the question comes back. Let it come. The power of Love defends me. And in defiance of those existential negations of infinite love, I fearlessly assert, I am in Love and out of Him I will not go. No. I cannot love a lie.
Walk into the darkness with your fearless lover. Your heart has already been won.
Peace my friends,
"The power of Love defends me. And in defiance of those existential negations of infinite love, I fearlessly assert, I am in Love and out of Him I will not go. No. I cannot love a lie."
About Christina O'Brien
My name is Christina O’Brien. I’m a 23-year-old California transplant and I’m starting my second year as a middle school teacher at a small Catholic school in Los Angeles! I’m also currently working on my Master's Degree in Secondary Education through a program in which I live in community with other Catholic teachers. I grew up with many interests, and I spent my time in dance classes and play rehearsals, meanwhile marvelling at the universe as an avid science nerd. I got to pursue my interests in both art and science as a dance scholarship student at the University of Maryland (UMD) where I earned degrees in Dance and Biology. Throughout my time at UMD (not Duluth!), I was involved with campus ministry and pro-life work, which was always fed by the weekly Thomistic philosophy discussions hosted by the Catholic Student Center and taught by Dominican brothers from the nearby house of studies. As I tried to discern a career path, I tried all kinds of work from teaching group fitness classes, to acting in Shakespeare plays, to characterizing reptile auditory circuits in a lab. But near the end of my college career, it became very clear to me that no matter what I did, I needed to learn the craft of teaching and train as an educator. I can’t tell you where God is calling me long term, but he has led me thus far into a wildly fulfilling adventure and I know the next move won’t disappoint!
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