The Hardest Thing I Ever Had to Do

“You believed in God your whole life, but that wasn’t enough when you and Martha got slammed by Alzheimer’s, was it?”

That’s me at 40 asking an impertinent question of me at 70. A question I did not want to answer. A question I was afraid to answer. Yet it’s the one question that demanded an answer. 

So in response I, at 70, decided to write another letter to me at 40.  

My dear Carlen at 40, 

This letter doesn’t permit time or space to describe the ways an answer to your question unfolded over the course of our 17-year journey, often surprisingly. That’s why I decided to write a book. I’ll try, however, to describe some highlights.

For starters, this conversation would be impossible had the tough lessons we discussed in recent weeks not been learned: First, to forgive yourself and others as quickly as you can and second, to be quiet and still.

After all we’ve been through you may be wondering, Carlen at 40, why I still believe in God. 

And my answer is: I don’t.  

At least not in the way that I did for most of my life. 

You see, the belief I carried into adulthood was a rather fabricated one. It had been built from what I’d heard others say they believed: my parents, grandparents, preachers, acquaintances, peers, friends, religious authors, writers of the Bible. 

For much of my life I’d heard that God loves me. So much so that he gave his son for me and the world. That may be true, but long before Martha’s diagnosis I didn’t feel that love.

And I certainly didn’t feel any love when Martha and I got the news regarding Alzheimer’s. If I felt anything other than numb I felt we’d been abandoned. 

My faith quickly began to unravel.

In the beginning, I went searching for a solution. I wanted to find out if there was any way to get Martha out of this thing called Alzheimer’s, the doctor’s prognosis notwithstanding. Yet somehow—don’t ask me how—that search morphed into a spiritual search for God’s love, for Martha’s healing, for a wholeness that my fractured life hadn’t experienced.

Not long after I began the practice of meditation, I felt a gulf open deep and wide between God and me. I peered into this abyss with my mind’s eye, longing for something to hold on to, anything. Yet I felt nothing but desolation. The despair was palpable. 

Then as I looked more closely…poof! This gulf dissolved as quickly as it had appeared. 

As it did, my mind went quiet. My heart stilled. A drop of something fresh flowed through me. “It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted,” I thought, as a peace flooded my mind and body. I’d read enough of the more sublime writings in the Bible, as well as those of some saints and mystics, to have a passing insight into their depictions of divine Love. “That’s what this tastes like, like the Love described in those accounts.”

Then, that sweetness also vanished.  

“I want more!” I remember crying out loud. “How do I taste more of whatever this is—this Love? What do I need to do? How can I get across this chasm?”

I met with an older friend who impressed me as being experienced in the ways of things spiritual. “How can I get across this chasm?” I asked him. “How can I find this Love that I tasted, this wholeness?”   

He told me, “This kind of search can be frustrating and challenging, even overwhelming.” Yet he quickly added, “It also could be the richest thing you ever do.” 

He cautioned me, though, should I decide to strike out in this direction: “If you remember nothing else from our conversation, Carlen, remember this: Be gentle on yourself.

Those words of caution frequently saved me as I ran down a number of rabbit trails searching for a way out of the obscure maze that had engulfed Martha and me. The harder I searched the more my heart and mind froze. The faster I ran, the more walls I hit.

When times are good it’s easy to let the words trip off my lips: God loves me, and I love God. Yet it seemed impossible when I felt lost in a wilderness, chased by fear and uncertainty.   

Finally, through the practice of meditationand after learning to forgive Martha, her parents, my parents, those we had hurt and who had hurt us, and equally important, to forgive myself—I began to relax. 

I was learning to be “gentle on myself.”

Since then, there have been too many encounters with this presence I know as God, too many whispers within my heart for me to deny this Love’s existence, to deny her embrace. 

There were the weekends at St. Leo Abbey. There was that week in Thomas Merton’s cabin. There was the last night of my visit in Sydney with Canon Jim Glennon. And there was the message Rev. Lacy Harwell conveyed to me between sandwich bites at Demen’s Landing in St. Pete.

I remember well one moment at St. Leo when I was praying that Alzheimer’s be lifted from Martha and our family. As I did, I heard a whisper deep within. “What are you saying?” I asked. I couldn’t understand the words, yet their meaning was clear: “Carlen, you don’t have to settle for this fractured existence being dished out by Alzheimer’s.”

That whispered impression startled me. “Exactly how do you find anything but a fractured existence in this tragedy,” I complained silently. “How can I feel anything but the pain… the pain of seeing Martha slip away?”

Then out of this cloud of confusion a faint question curled upward. This question had a certain familiarity, as though it had shadowed me for a lifetime. It often arose in the early morning when Martha was asleep by my side: “Do I believe? No…do I know? Do I know deep within, down there where the rawest of memories and fears hide out? Do I know that the Lord my God loves me with all his heart? Do I know that my God loves me with all his soul? With all his strength? And with all his mind?”    

After that moment and many like it, I now have an inkling of what Jesus meant when he told me to do as he does: “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30).

That “inkling” arose from a growing certainty that regardless of any circumstance, good or bad, I am loved and intimately embraced by the Creator of this vast, complex, ever-changing world.   

The arc of God’s love, I now see, leads not to theologically correct beliefs. It leads to a wholeness I've experienced nowhere else.

So returning to your original question, Carlen at 40… 

It’s true, I no longer believe in God. 

Now, I believe God. 

Or, at least I seek to—and that’s a big difference.      

I love you dearly, 
Carlen at 70

P.S. If you’ve never written to your younger self, try it. These three recent conversations were eye-openers for me, and apparently for many who connected with them, based on the response I’ve received. If you do write, take your time to let your feelings bubble to the surface. Don’t try to FedEx a letter to yourself.  

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