Working it out alone
There's this Australian guy who lost faith in his atheism. “I was lecturing in literature and philosophy. And I was atheist, actually. I was teaching atheism. I was teaching against God.” It was to God he turned when his atheism failed him. The occasion was the painful and lingering death of his mother, whose ordeal was supposedly a cleansing rite of passage. At least, that's what her formerly nonbelieving son now believes.
“Through the death of my mother I learned that suffering was purifying,” said the former atheist, who ended up living as a hermit in a cave in the Egyptian wilderness.
The hermit was speaking to Megan McCormick of Globe Trekker. She was touring north Africa for an episode on Egypt. She had hiked into the desert from the monastery of St. Antony to interview the man now known as “Father Lazarus.” Megan was permitted to peek into the hermit's cave, but of course she was not allowed to enter. (She's a woman, after all, and therefore a source of sin, though Father Lazarus was nice enough not to make a point of it.)
The hermit observed that most people mutter “Jesus” as an oath, taking the Lord's name in vain. Lazarus, however, says the name with love, as a prayer, which he was good enough to demonstrate. He invokes the name of the Lord constantly, adding his petitions to those of the late St. Antony. “I have called him many times, to this place, and St. Antony called him many times. This mountain is saturated with prayer.” (I wonder how one distinguishes a prayer-soaked mountain from the other peaks in its vicinity.)
As the Globe Trekker camera person focused on the great wilderness vista outside the hermit's cave, Lazarus said that he knew he would never leave the place. Instead of a life full of literature, philosophy, and nonbelief, his existence is now replete with muttered prayers and the panorama of a serene mountain desert. At least the scenery is inspiring.
What are we to make of this?
I confess that I did not follow the man's line of reasoning as he explained to Megan why he had opted for life as a contemplative hermit. When she asked him the motivation for his choice, Father Lazarus told her about his mother:
“She died a very painful death from cancer. I spoke to the nurse who took care of her. And she told me that twice she went into the room; my mother was looking at the ceiling. She said, ‘The Lord came and he said to me, “You have to bear the pain now to purify you. When it's too much, I will come and take it, and carry it for you.”’ Through the death of my mother I learned that suffering was purifying. When I came here, it came to me that I would not leave this place.”
His mother died horribly and that led him to a deep and compulsive faith in Christianity. He dropped out of society and holed up (quite literally) in the Egyptian desert, adopting a new name and a religious vocation. What was his reasoning process? Or was it something other than reason?
I think it was something other than reason. Some people lose faith in God because they discern the arbitrary and capricious nature of life. How would the world look in the absence of God? A lot like what we see today. God is the unnecessary hypothesis. Other people see the arbitrary and capricious nature of life and go in the other direction, seeking a hidden rationale for the dreadful things they see. The Australian was given by his mother a conventionally devout excuse for her dying pangs. It appealed to him sufficiently strongly that he embraced it unreservedly and made it the new (and exceedingly narrow) organizing principle of his life.
It's both fascinating and creepy. I hope Father Lazarus has the peace and contentment that he claimed in his interview with Megan McCormick to have found in the desert. Perhaps it suits him well. I have no reason to doubt him when he implies that his life is fulfilled. I do, however, harbor some doubts about his claim of having been an atheist and a teacher of atheism. He probably wasn't a very good atheist if his rationalistic world-view was overthrown by so shopworn and flimsy a rationale for bad things happening to good people.
He should have read a lot more good literature and philosophy.