A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of languishing in the rugged and remote beauty of the west coast of South Africa. After two incredibly busy months I needed some rest, and was delighted to make my annual birthday trip to Britannia Bay.
As a result of several circumstances – mostly detailed here – I was in something of a hopeless place. On a long walk on the beach I was able to explore my restless machinations and frustrations, finally settling on a peace of sand just meters from the shoreline. I began to find myself writing in the sand, and it’s hard to fully describe what happened next.
I landed up writing a little sentence, which has been the most encouraging and life-giving one to me over the past two months. Sitting in the sand I was fully aware that the previous spiritual hubris that had characterised my faith and life was gone and I was left in a confusingly vacuous space. I’m convinced that the simple words I wrote were from God as powerful reminder of His heart and wisdom in the matter. It simply said:
“I’m not looking for certainty, but faith.”
To some this may seem obvious, simplistic or even naive – but to me it was and is life-giving. Where before I had taken pleasure in my intellectual or theological structuring, when these seemed to collapse around me, I was able to be held in a space where I was OK. This is perhaps most beautifully captured by Tennyson in his poem ‘In Memoriam’ (my emphasis):
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.
Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.
Our systems have their day, then they cease to be. Of course we should strive for doctrinal clarity, and theological thought, but they must never be the ultimate aspect of our reaching for God. That must always be faith. The author of Hebrews knows this well when he reminds us: “And it’s impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6). I can’t always do knowing, but I can do faith and seeking.
This short story perfectly captivates the essence of this paradox:
In 1975, the Jesuit philosopher John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer to some spiritual struggles. On his very first morning there he met Mother Teresa. She asked him: “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. He answered with the request that was the very reason he travelled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly: “No. I will not do that.”
When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said: “You always seem to have clarity,” Mother Teresa laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
Perhaps this is a more life-giving journey that I would have initially thought. The journey from being a proud ideologue, to a reticent skeptic, to finally being allowed to abide in a more authentic faith. Sometimes we need the reminder that what is required is faith and not certainty.
As part of the ongoing conversation around doubt and faith, threads are appearing at The Pursuit: a four-day, 24-7 worship, prayer, community and justice gathering in Buckinghamshire on the 29 April – 2 May. You can find out more and book your tickets on The Pursuit website, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.