I learned about St. Cyril of Jerusalem's dragon quote yesterday while reading a book, and have been pondering it.
If you are unfamiliar with it, here's what St. Cyril said:
But a dragon lies in ambush for the traveler; take care he does not bite you and inject you his poison of unbelief. Seeing this numerous company winning salvation, he selects and stalks his prey. In your journey to the Father of souls, your way lies past that dragon. How shall you pass him? You must have 'your feet stoutly with the gospel of peace," so that, even if he does bite you, he may not hurt you.
More commonly, people cite St. Cyril through Flannery O'Connor's quote here:
“St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.”
As bad as that dragon sounds, I think it is honestly more ongoing than just one dragon on a road. There are many dragons. Or else that dragon is ever-present. Or is a tall dragon that we pass by on a road that circles up a hill.
Or maybe it's not a dragon--the other imagery we often hear is "valley." Valley of darkness. Fog. Of feeling alone. And there can be many valleys along a path.
I've experienced this myself, and heard it from so many others, that faith is cyclical. And I can tell you this, it's not necessarily attached to emotional health, which is something I've kind of wondered, but over time, have observed my own faith journey.
Some days we feel more "faithful" and fervent than others, weeks where we feel a sense of hope, peace, and contentment. Times when we feel God's presence. Other days, it's not necessarily feeling God's absence, but more like I don't feel anything. And still other days I do feel that absence and feel angry. Alone. Abandoned.
When I was a teen, I went through a time where I thought church and religion was bogus, and was afraid I was atheist. I was actually in this phase at the time of my confirmation in 8th grade. An unbeliever pretending to believe even though I remember reading an example confirmation story where the kid wasn't ready to confirm yet, but then confirmed in a year when he was finally ready. There was no way would I tell my parents this. Dad would yell at me and perceive it as a failure on his part.
Then there were times when I felt the more mystical side of faith. I found that if I stared at the Resurrection Jesus behind the altar, it would look like he was moving, and I then could imagine him hopping down off of that wire hanger and coming to comfort me and rescue me from dad's wrath. There were times when I felt such a sinner, such a need to emulate Christ that I wanted to rush forward toward the lenten decorative crown of thorns and jam it on my head and watch the blood trickle down and my suffering have a purpose. (I'll touch on this theme in another upcoming post.) Sometimes, when I cried silently in bed after one of dad's rages, wondering what I did wrong that set him off, I would imagine Jesus coming, and sitting at the foot of the bed and I would be able to curl up in his lap and have Him hold me and comfort me. Sometimes I would imagine Mary doing so.
When I was initially disowned, I both sought comfort in the Holy Family (but always felt a little uncomfortable around Joseph because he was a father figure, and I had a hard time being around father figures) and raged at God. I felt abandoned, I didn't care about church, and I associated faith with the fundamentalist Catholicism that my dad believed in and wanted nothing to do with it. Yet I appreciated the kindness and prayers of my priest, my husband's pastor, and friends.
Other times, I felt comfort in church. Just sitting and being in the dark, quiet space, I could be, and feel God. Singing and companionship with pew-mates, united in our own varied forms of belief and stages of unbelief. God is in these people. I am with God. I felt this way in the months preceding and during the process of joining the Episcopal Church. Now, I have been in yet another months-long drought with brief periods of rain, and some periods of feeling absolutely inadequate and alone. I feel Him, sometimes, but I'm apathetic. Why church? It takes too much time. I feel like I'm going through the motions. I'm an impostor. For a while there, I felt completely a stranger to faith, and left my Becoming Episcopalian Facebook page alone. What could I say? I had a hard time writing any BE posts for weeks because of that, even though I could still update my general Running with a Book Cart one.
It's like mental health--short term crises and mood changes happen, but it's the long-term trends that I'm talking about. Depression is diagnosed only after a persistent "down" mood for at least two weeks. Spiritual dryness is similar, I've found.
And now, I'm kind of in the stage where I do feel that God is there, but I'm still uncomfortable with expressions of faith, that I still need to work past the apparent dichotomy between fundamentalists conservatives and liberal atheists.
Through it all, though, I still go to church weekly. That is one virtue of growing up Catholic. You know, not going to Mass on Sunday being a sin and all, that's like blackmail to make people go. But it has helped. Just having stability, week after week, even as I've journeyed between parishes and now denominations, to go and experience faith and receive God in communion, even when it feels like just a cracker. (Heck, the wafer is always a dry cracker-like object, but sometimes it's filled with more meaning to me than others.)
Currently, I'm on kind of an upswing, but it's a weird, uncomfortable one where I feel God's presence but uncomfortable with any public expression of it. Except sort of through writing.
It's a lot of dragons and valleys on the way to the Storyteller.
Filed under: Becoming Episcopalian