an oasis of palm trees
-outside my retreat house-
The other day I had an online conversation with a young woman who, as a teenager attended church quite regularly, but has now left the church and is unsure of her belief in God. "I just couldn't take the guilt," she said. "There were so many expectations that I always thought somehow I was letting God down." Interestingly enough, she now continues to feels guilty because she has left the church.
In many ways I can totally identify with someone overwhelmed with what God supposedly expects - feeling guilty when those expectations aren't met. I grew up Catholic, and while Catholics certainly have no corner on the "guilt market," they own a pretty fair chunk of it.
As a boy I was told that I made God cry whenever I committed a sin. The problem was that I was always making God cry because it was almost impossible not to sin.
Throughout my formative years I had before me a whole long laundry list of ways I could sin. The list gave a pretty detailed explanation of the many "ways to commit sins." In thought, word and deed, I could let God down by my actions- by what I said, what I did, and even by what I was thinking. I remember trying very hard not to let God down, but usually failing and feeling guilty.
I remember sometimes feeling guilty for having too much fun (a very Protestant-Puritanical idea by the way). And I even felt guilt when I didn't do anything at all, because after all I was born into a world of "original sin" - the sin committed by Adam and Eve. I was taught that every human being is born into a condition in which, regardless of what we do or don't do, we are letting God down.
So I get it when someone tells me that her experience of religion was so ridden with feelings of guilt that she just couldn't take it any more.
Of all the human emotions, guilt is one that is "totally useless." I say guilt is useless because it leads no where - it's just a bad feeling you have about yourself, a way to beat up on yourself. We talk about "wallowing in guilt" -stuck in the cesspool of personal failure and debilitating self-doubt.
In my later years I have very much come to appreciate the Buddhist "take" on guilt. I just read a Buddhist commentary yesterday in which "guilt" was insightfully described as "a disturbing attitude - a subtle act of the ego." As I think about it, guilt is very egocentric. The ego wallows in guilt. The ego gets ever more bloated as it marinates and stews in a sense of personal failure - look at "me" woe is "me".
I learned that in Tibetan Buddhism, they don't even have a word for "guilt." The closest approximation to a description of "guilt" comes from a Tibetan Sutra and is translated as "intelligent regret that decides to do things differently."
This makes a great deal of sense to me. Sure there are times that I regret what I have done (this happens almost every day); but instead of wallowing in guilt over my failures, I can "intelligently decide" to learn from my mistakes and do things differently in the future. I'll take "intelligent regret" over "guilt" any day.
I don't at all think that we let God down by our failures, faults and sins. In fact, I don't think it's possible to offend God.
I don't even come close to imagining God as a super parent in the sky who gets hurt (and cries) every time people act against His will. God is an abiding Holy Presence, with us in the ebb and flow of life, especially with us when we fail or doubt or run into rough patches in our life.
God is the oasis in the desert heat desiring only the best for us, wanting nothing more than our abundant life.
There is a tender little saying that comes out of the literature of the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers. They moved into the fierce wild dessert terrain so that they could devote their lives to following the way of Jesus without the distractions of church and society. They had only one law, and the law was the law of love:
When Abba Poeman was asked how he dealt with any brother who fell asleep during public prayer,
I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest.