Unbelievers at Christmas

Catherine Doherty

The following was written at a time when the death of God was being proclaimed. The ways of expressing and living atheism have changed, but the numbers of those who do not believe have only increased.

The snow lies thick and white on my island. Its whiteness is broken only by the tracks of little animals that still forage in the winter and by the starlike prints of birds. The river is imprisoned in the powerful arms of a thick icy sheet that covers it completely.

The air is cold, clear, and crisp. The only color is in the fir trees, whose deep green at times appears almost black against the whiteness of the landscape.

Nature seems to have entered into its time of prayer, solitude, and some sort of special union with God. But what of people? What of all humanity? What of our hearts, souls, and minds?

Soon we Christians will celebrate the birth of Christ—Christ the Man, who was also the Son of God! What meaning, what true meaning, will this birth have for Christians of this world?

This Christian world filled with confusion, turmoil, struggle, and pain. This Christian world in which every day another voice is added proclaiming that God is dead.

Will the forthcoming Christmas, the day of the birth of that God they think is dead, stir in their hearts a wonderment, a question? Or will it pass over them unnoticed, unheralded, unimportant?

As I sit by my window and watch the contemplative silence of nature, I feel a strange deep pain. For it seems to me, how I cannot explain, that suddenly I have lost my being, that I live in the hearts of those who believe that God is dead—and even in the hearts of those who, though baptized, do not believe that he was even born.

Suddenly this strange pain becomes unbearable, because I know it is not mine but theirs—the pain of these multitudes.

For suddenly I know that these souls of theirs, into which I have been allowed to enter in my meditations, are filled with hunger—a hunger that burns and consumes them in a way—a hunger that torments them and overshadows their lives, coming to the fore in the shape of restlessness, in the shape of anger, and at times in the shape of despair.

They say there is no God, but they cannot, they will not, forget about him.

And now I know, or so I think, that they can’t forget about him, because they desperately want him to be alive, want to believe in him. For they hunger for an encounter with him.

Those who profess not to believe that he was born have that hunger too. Only they suppress and deny it even to themselves.

Yet they cannot help talking about him. True, they do it by trying to convince others that he does not exist. A strange paradox. Why should anybody discuss, or wish to discuss, or even mention, a non-existing subject?

People normally do not discuss something, or someone, that does not exist. But these people do, as though something within them relentlessly, compellingly drives them. They say they are atheists, unbelievers; and they spend their time proving the non-existence of God.

In their souls there is the same hunger for him. They try to satiate it, fill it, by using his Name, by repeating the word God, and then launching into proofs of his non-existence.

My pain grows. I am crushed, almost annihilated, by the weight of that hunger and that denial that is not a denial, by that search and that despair. Then I am back again in my log cabin, before the white snow, the frozen river, and the green-black fir trees.

My fear vanishes. Darkness falls on the white snow, the frozen river, and the dark fir trees. Night has come. With it my tears have come. I weep bitter salty tears before the icon of the Mother of God, whom my people in Russia used to call the Merciful One.

I am glad I can weep, because in our Eastern spirituality, our holy and wise men have taught us to weep over our sins and the sins of others, as well as to weep tears of love. They say such tears cleanse us and those for whom we weep.

I am glad I believe this and I thank God for the gift of tears.

Perhaps, just perhaps, my weeping in the month of Christ’s birthday, may resurrect him in the hearts of the cold ones, the hungry ones, the despairing ones, the searching ones, the lonely ones.

All around me, my island is still; and I sense nature, in its fashion, seconding my hope.

Adapted from Restoration, December 1966