This year has been hard.

In many ways, it has also been the best year of my life. I’ve felt myself coming closer to the happiness and purpose I’ve been striving after for years. But all this change has also unseated me from myself a little.

I thought that I could throw myself into a new sort of life—the life of academia and studying religion sociologically—without losing all of the purpose and meaning I had previously found. But because this Masters so completely took over my life, the more the year increased, the more I found that all of the powerful, nurturing, creative habits and feelings I had cultivated over the past few years slipped further and further out of my grasp.

The academic work, in and of itself, would have been challenging enough—but it would have been a challenge to relish without regret if it weren’t for this problem of a lack of balance in my life.

Finding Balance

So I’m stepping forward into this PhD with a lesson learned, I hope. Without a full studentship, I am going into it with a little reluctance, and the gleam of academic life somewhat diminished. But perhaps this disillusionment is exactly what I needed to wake me up and remind me—a full-time academic life was never was I was looking for.

I also want to make sure, this year, that I have more freedom to go my own direction with my research. My reading was strictly guided this year by the sheer volume of reading necessary for all my classes: I simply didn’t have the time to read wider, to read beyond an embellishment of those prescribed texts. But now that I have more freedom, I want to return to the reasons I came here in the first place, and start injecting some of my own spirituality, my own passion, into my work.

More than that, I want to reawaken the part of me that I stirred up five years ago when I returned to spirituality. I came to spiritual practice out of a desperate need for something more, something deeper—a deep and presiding unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the shape of my life. It has become too important and central to my purpose in life to let it slumber again.

Perhaps more than the pressure of the Masters—and the hectic schedule of constant deadlines—what really drew me away from my spiritual side is an uncomfortable truth I have learned about myself. I am at my most vibrant, my most energetic, and perhaps my most intellectually creative when I am being extroverted; when my day revolves around the company of others, my social circle, and my interactions. But the more I relinquish my introversion and step into this shinier, shriller version of myself, the more my instinct for the spiritual, the artistic, and self-expression gets dulled.

And so I seem to be left with a terrible choice, or at least a very difficult balance to achieve. To feel most free and comfortable in myself, and let my social nature flourish, it seems I need to prioritise the social, and make sure I’m surrounded by others on a daily basis. But in order to maintain a more long-term sense of purpose and direction, I need to feel more deeply connected to Cosmos, to the awe and reverence it inspires in me—in other words, I need to prioritise the internal, and solitude.

A Crisis of Faith

This realisation, and the aspiritual place this extroverted year has brought me to, has left me thinking a lot—at the culmination of the academic year—about faith, and my relationship with God/dess. I have come to understand much more closely the concept of faith, and the difficulties in maintaining it. When spiritual development was my core focus in life, I was always directing my attention to those things that inspired spiritual feelings. And I found that over time, while my practice was always in flux, and ritual sometimes did not flow, my faith grew stronger. By this time last year, I was having regular spiritual experiences—moments of deep communion with God/dess. It did not occur to me, then, that this feeling—and the faith it inspired in me—could ever slip away.

But it did. Faith, I have found, is not so much a matter of belief, but a matter of habit. Being in the habit of being spiritual had sparked something in me that felt much closer to what I have heard Christians describe as faith in God than anything I had ever experienced. My God/dess looks a whole lot different to theirs. But the more I opened myself up to spiritual feeling, the more I felt a deep and abiding conviction in something more. I allowed myself to have faith in a possible cosmic divinity above and beyond our universe, above and beyond anything we can ever comprehend.

The problem is, this kind of divine presence is not something we actually feel or experience in our daily lives. If we are connecting to it regularly, bringing ourselves back to it through spiritual practice, I have found that I will catch glimpses of it in my daily life—in nature, in my connection with other people, in moments of stillness and peace that descend on me unbidden. But there is nothing concrete about these experiences. They require a certain mindset, a certain way of looking and feeling about the things around us, the things we touch and see and consume.

And I find that not only do I lack these experiences now that my spiritual practice has waned—I also find that I believe in it less. It is as if there is some threshold of spirituality, of faith, that I unknowingly crossed at some point along my spiritual path, during those four years of evolution. Once across that threshold, I could slip into a spiritual feeling almost at will. And doing so seemed important, real, meaningful.

But now that I have, just as unconsciously, slipped back across that threshold, I can no longer fully identify with what it felt like to be on the other side. Yes, I can remember the experiences. I catch glimpses of that feeling on walks, as I gaze up into trees, or out on the ocean. But it is almost as though I never went on that spiritual journey at all. I feel—for the first time in years—real doubt.

I know, intellectually, that just stretching that spiritual muscle more—reading inspiring books, spending time at the altar—will most likely very quickly draw me back across that threshold. But, weirdly, I don’t even have the drive necessary to do so. There is no motivation. Because on this side of the door, the world seems like a hollow and mechanical place.

My Journey is Your Journey

I’m aware that this lapse is not unique to me—spiritual slumps are talked about frequently in the community. But I feel like maybe, as a community, we don’t talk enough about just how debilitating these crises can be, spiritually. We don’t talk about doubt, because we don’t really talk about faith, either. The paradigm of this community is that faith is something Christian, something alien to our contemporary spirituality. We associate faith with dogma and blind following of institutions. But that is not what faith has come to mean for me. And I think embracing the concept of faith might help us avoid not only the slumps, but the often constant and dissatisfied spiritual seeking we continually partake in.

I may not need faith in doctrine. But I need faith in spirituality. I need faith in its importance. I need faith in divinity. As a pantheist, I need a particular kind of faith to allow me to continue to see this world as divine. I don’t believe in an interventionist divinity that can be proven, in this world, to exist. I believe instead in an ineffable divinity—the divinity of everything we are made of, of everything around us. And I maintain a blind faith—a hope, almost—in something more beyond. My God/dess can be felt, can be experienced. But only in the most abstract way. My God/dess is a way of seeing, a way of living, a way of feeling.

And so if I lose my faith, I lose everything. I lose motivation. And so this faith is something I need to find more ways to tap into, in the following months. I will share as much as I can, in the hopes that this will help some of you. Because despite all this doubt, there is still a part of me that believes very strongly that my experience is your experience—we are all one. So I know you feel this doubt too.

Let’s explore this thing together.

8 thoughts on “Feeling Faith: Finding and Losing the Habit of Spirituality

  1. Willow Thomas says:

    Beautifully put, I really appreciate your honesty and openness. Yes I think it is normal to go through slumps and highs spiritually, no matter what your beliefs are. I think the slumps are like time in a cocoon ready for a rebirth of something new. Wishing you all the best on your path .
    Blessed Be ,

  2. Dear Aine
    Re: “Faith, I have found, is not so much a matter of belief, but a matter of habit.” … I think this is so. I would not use the word “faith” but I think that a spiritual strength requires a *practice* – a *religious practice*: that is, a regular space for deep relationship with our place of being, the Cosmos. Some kind of regular ceremonial space … even a simple one, where deep self can connect with deep truth. “Plants grow better with a depth of soil. So it is with humans: a perception of the organic depth of being, inclusive of Origins of the Universe, enables a being to flourish. ” (p.7 PaGaian Cosmology). And I have found that it is only regular ceremonial/meditation space that will enable that deep self to grow stronger. It should be as normal a part of life as brushing teeth – it is part of the nature of being.
    I am glad to hear you are going on to Ph.D. … you should be able to pursue your real interests there.
    all the best

  3. Ellen Kucmer says:

    I very much can relate to you story. My spiritual journey is a spiral one. I walk the same windings again and again but each time a bit differently. Losing Faith is one of those experiences which happens to me regularly. The first thing ,I do when I notice this is clearing my altar and only put one candle on it as a symbol of Hope and then their is nothing but waiting and knowing in the back of my mind that God/dess waiting too.
    This year was an extraordinary learning experience for you and one day you’ll discover all this has brought you closer to your God/dess because you now can bring a more mature and complete woman into this relationship
    Hugs and know you’re never lost on your journey

  4. Let’s face it, it’s tough to be a Pagan. The average mainstream religious person goes to their place of worship once a week, or perhaps even less, maybe when it’s just socially necessary, spends about an hours or less there, then goes on their merry way. As Pagans, we have to maintain altars, we are constantly finding new rituals/spells/practices to perform. There is preparation for the ritual, actually finding time to do the ritual, and time to contemplate what we just did. That’s one reason why I find myself leaning toward cottage witchery, as I can incorporate ritual and magick into my everyday activities.

    But we have to be self starters as far as our spirituality goes. And many times we just don’t have the energy to go though all the steps, so we push it aside. And once you push it aside, it gets easier to do it again. After this goes on for awhile, doubt settles in, perhaps as a defensive mechanism.

    In the 12+ years I’ve practiced, I’ve gone through these Dark Nights of the Soul probably a half dozen times. The thing is, I always come back, usually with more enthusiasm than I had before my times of doubt. Sometimes I wonder if these breaks aren’t actually beneficial, eventually reminding us why we chose these paths in the first place.

    I think it’s important for Pagans who do like to share their lives through social media to talk about their times of doubt. As you stated, most of us go through it at one time or another, and it’s comforting to know we are not alone.

  5. Howard Phillips says:

    Are you basically saying that you no longer believe that the world is divine? That you are no longer, in fact, a pantheist?

    You don’t come right out and say this, but it sounds like this is what is going on. If you did believe that the world was divine in the old pantheistic way, you would presumably feel plenty of motivation to start stretching that spiritual muscle again. After all, in so doing you would be tapping into a very wonderful aspect of reality. But if you no longer believe that the world is divine, but merely ‘hollow and mechanical’, then there will, of course, be no compelling reason to stretch your spiritual muscle, since the experiences of divinity that might result would be illusory.

    If something like this is indeed what you are experiencing, then allow me to offer a friendly amendment (as one says in certain corners of academia) to something you say above. You do need faith in doctrine, since the proposition that the universe is divine is itself a piece of doctrine. You just don’t necessarily need faith in anything with lots of clauses, like the Nicene Creed.

    You write that divinity, for you, is ‘a way of seeing, a way of living, a way of feeling’. There might be the germ of a way out here. (Perhaps ‘a way forward’ would be a more positive way of putting it.) You can still enjoy ‘a way of seeing, a way of living, a way of feeling’ inspired by pantheism or other pagan views without actually believing that the world is divine (and without being a hard polytheist, and so on). You can enjoy the feeling of awe that arises in you when experiencing certain aspects of nature; you can relate it to things written by the Greeks, the Romantic poets, the Irish myth-makers, and so on. You can explore and appreciate the ethical codes lived by these people and their overall worldview and adopt some of it for yourself. All this is possible without any belief in actual deities, even ones identical to the universe. It is, in case you haven’t guessed, how I proceed myself. It is probably less comforting than pantheism or polytheism or theism, but its intellectual foundations are less shaky.

  6. Mary L says:

    Thank you, as always, for sharing your journey and your thought process. I’m much newer to Pagan spirituality, but I’ve been in a similar place lately. After an initial near-obsessive period of reading and experimenting and studying, I’m finding myself a bit disenchanted and in need of a sustainable approach that can grow instead of getting stagnant. I hope you start finding your balance point soon!

  7. Kira says:

    This is profound, honest, and beautifully written. I’ve read it multiple times and really look forward to hearing more as you sort things out. Thank you!!

  8. […] of Cosmos, of existence. I want to start drawing that faith more into my everyday life again. Since I wrote about faith a little while ago, things have improved somewhat. I have started reading blog posts and books again that reaffirm […]

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