Thinking Anew – Faith is a journey of discovery
Mother Teresa: questioning and doubting were part of the faith journey of a spiritual great who inspired millions
‘My face shall not be seen.” It sounds like the latest Covid-19 masking instruction from the chief medical officer but is in fact a line from tomorrow’s Old Testament reading of Exodus 33. Moses addresses God: “Show me your glory, I pray.” In response he is told that although God will be gracious and merciful, he cannot see God’s face: “You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
There are times in life when we desperately need reassurance that God is for real but that line seems to suggest that sometimes God’s presence can only be seen retrospectively.
The idea is captured in the poem Footprints in the Sands, which describes a person who sees two pairs of footprints side by side in the sand, one of which belongs to God and the other to himself or herself. At one point the two become one and God, unseen, carries that person.
But clever words do not help when as a prayer puts it the world seems empty of God’s presence, something Mother Teresa experienced: “When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my soul. I am told God loves me and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
That will shock some people – her of all people – but anyone familiar with the lives of the spiritual greats will know that questioning and doubting are part of any faith journey.
And Jesus was aware of the difficulty, as we see in this post-resurrection exchange with Thomas who insisted on seeing: “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The notion that as young people we receive a spiritual vaccination called confirmation that protects us from doubt for life is unrealistic and can lead to disillusionment.
St Augustine knew that restlessness was a continuing part of the process: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
Abraham has been described as the father of faith but note what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews said about him: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.”
Faith is not about hoping for the best. It is a journey of discovery based on promise and sometimes not knowing where we are going.
At one level it enables us to explore the meaning and purpose of life as we contemplate the wonders of creation and our part in it.
But for the Christian, it rests even more on the specific promise of an inheritance, a future, revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This assures us that every one of us matters irrespective of who we are or what we have done, that truth and justice will prevail, and that nothing that comes our way in life, no matter how terrible, can in the words of St Paul, “separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is not easy to hold on to but then faith is not about certainty; it is about informed and reasonable hope.
The deaf-blind author Helen Keller, who faced enormous challenges all her life, said this about her own faith: “It need not discourage us if we are full of doubts. Healthy questions keep faith dynamic. Unless we start with doubts, we cannot have a deep-rooted faith. One who believes lightly and unthinkingly has not much of a belief. He who has a faith which is not to be shaken has won it through blood and tears – has worked his way from doubt to truth as one who reaches a clearing through a thicket of brambles and thorns.”