Back when my husband and I taught a two-year confirmation prep program at our parish, many of the students in our class were attending because they had to be there. They did the work, asked good questions, trudging through the weekly evening sessions, but faith formation was just one more requirement on their very long to-do lists. One student, however, was unhappy to the point of being outwardly angry and belligerent.
Although this student had attended almost all of our classes over that two-year period, as confirmation weekend approached, we received an email stating that she had decided she did not want to be confirmed. I imagined how challenging that decision was for her parents, and I emailed a hopeful reply.
I assured them that their student’s decision not to be confirmed proved to me that she was taking this sacrament more seriously than many of her classmates. Most were going through the motions to please their parents, but this student was thinking deeply.
She would not agree to something in which she did not fully believe. I saw her doubt as the mark of a true seeker, someone who wants more than simply checking off a box on the faith journey. I was not surprised to learn that a year or two later she was confirmed on her own terms.
Doubt is part of any faith life, or at least it should be. A faith life with no questions at all feels rather small, as though we’re too afraid to look in the dark corners for fear of what we might find. But it’s precisely in the difficult questions and nagging doubts that we often discover an unexpected opening to even deeper faith.
“We do not need to be afraid of questions and doubts because they are the beginning of a path of knowledge and going deeper; one who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith,” Pope Francis said at a general audience in 2016.
A few years prior, in a 2013 interview published in America magazine, Pope Francis had said something even more dramatic on this topic:
“In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions — that is the proof that God is not with him.”
What does that mean for those of us who are walking the path of faith and trying to lead others to do the same? Should we throw our hands in the air and give up?
No, just the opposite. Our challenge is to remain present, nonjudgmental and open in the face of hard questions — our own and those of others. And to continue to do so even in the face of doubt or outright disbelief.
It’s not likely that anything we say — especially if it’s tinged with anger, fear or self-righteousness — is going to turn someone from doubt to certainty. The key is compassion, understanding and simply listening without trying to tie everything up with a nice, neat spiritual bow.
Yes, we can share what helps us through our own faith struggles and carries us forward, but trying to turn someone from doubt to certainty isn’t the goal. The goal is helping someone find abiding trust in God’s mercy, tenderness and unconditional love.
Mother Teresa, the beloved saint whose life work served as a model of faith, suffered deep darkness and doubt throughout her life. Does that mean she loved God less than we imagined? No, it means she suffered more. But she remained steadfast, trusting that all would be well in the end.
As far back as 1957, she confided to her spiritual director:
“Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
We may read those words and wonder what hope there is for us if someone as holy and devoted as Mother Teresa could feel so lost and alone. But there is always hope; there was for Mother Teresa, for the student in my faith formation class and for every one of us. Doubt can be sustained in a life of faith; it is only when we lose hope that things become more troubling.
So, what do we do? We go to God with our doubts. Talk to God. Yell at God, if that’s what it takes. Tell God exactly what we’re feeling and thinking. Rather than shy away from doubts, we can dive in headfirst and let God open our heart and eyes to the answers we seek, which are often right in front of us.
(Mary DeTurris Poust is a writer and retreat leader living in upstate New York. Visit her website at www.NotStrictlySpiritual.com.)