Jul 29, 2010

Who will ponder my questions?

Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith is divided into three main parts - Look Within the Heart, Look to God in the Book, Look to Others in Community. Chapter 1 of Look Within the Heart asks - "Who will answer my questions?" Nouwen uses the following parable:

Many years ago, there was a young man who searched for truth, happiness, joy, and the right way of living. After many years of traveling, many diverse experiences, and many hardships, he realized that he had not found any answers for his questions and that he needed a teacher. One day he heard about a famous Zen Master. Immediately he went to him, threw himself at his feet, and said: “Please, Master, be my teacher.”
The Master listened to him, accepted his request, and made him his personal secretary. Wherever the Master went, his new secretary went with him. But although the Master spoke to many people who came to him for advice and counsel, he never spoke to his secretary. After three years, the young man was so disappointed and frustrated that he no longer could restrain himself. One day he burst out in anger, saying to his Master: “I have sacrificed everything, given away all I had, and followed you. Why haven’t you taught me?” The Master looked at him with great compassion and said: “Don’t you understand that I have been teaching you during every moment you have been with me? When you bring me a cup of tea, don’t I drink it? When you bow to me, don’t I bow to you? When you clean my desk, don’t I say: ‘Thank you very much’?”
The young man could not grasp what his Master was saying and became very confused. Then suddenly the Master shouted at the top of his voice: “When you see, you see it direct.” At that moment the young man received enlightenment.

The parable is a bit strange; all parables are. I haven't received enlightenment; not by a long shot. The gist of the chapter is "Ask and live the questions" - so even the opening question - "Who will answer my questions?" - must be lived, not answered. I'm trying to do some of that. I made a list of who could simple be present with me as I ponder the questions of my life, without trying to answer my questions for me. My list includes some family, friends, and pastors, and excludes some family, friends, and pastors. My list includes some Catholics, some Protestants, and excludes some Catholics, some Protestants. Some Catholics would too quickly and easily say 'the Church' is the answer to my questions; while some Protestants would too quickly and easily say 'the Bible' is the answer to my questions. The problem with both of these answers is they are not personal. Both the Church and the Bible as personifications of theology and of Truth. The Bible and the Church are institutions of people who lived and live the questions.

Some of my questions right now are:

  • Is there a God?
  • What does God want from me?
  • What is the Church?
  • What is sin?
These are just some questions I ask in 5 minutes of contemplation. None of them have easy answers. Each of them is open to many lifetimes' worth of exploration. Nouwen says, "Sometimes, in living the questions, answers are found." I asked "What does God want from me?" on Sunday afternoon. My Monday morning pray-as-you-go reading was Micah 6:8: "You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God." And yet this "answer" opens more questions - How do I do right? How do I love goodness? How do I walk humbly with God? These too must be lived.

The other half of that Nouwen quote is, "More often, as our questions and issues are tested and mature in solitude, the questions simply dissolve." And so I go on personifying and living my questions - these questions and others. I am eager to ponder and live my questions with others, but not with those who might dictate my life with easy or simple answers.

Jul 20, 2010


I'm seeing a spiritual director now. Sister Barbara Austin is a Benedictine Nun from the St. Joseph Monastery here in Tulsa. I spent one hour with her last week. I'm sad I waited years to see a spiritual director. In that one hour I started seeking God better than all of the time I've spent studying theology.

I told her I was taking theology classes towards a bachelor's degree, and that I struggle with my studies and with theology - not just intellectually but emotionally and, yes - spiritually. Most of the time, I am like the RAF officer who approached Lewis at one of his theological lectures:
I've no use for all [this] stuff. But, mind you, I'm a religious man too. I know there's a God. I've felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who's met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal.
I've blogged about Lewis's theology map metaphor. I want to explore this metaphor more and more.

Sister Barbara gave me a copy of Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. I read it quickly in a day, and I'm now re-reading it slowly and doing the spiritual exercises. (Writing is part of it, so blog posts may pick up here for a while.) The first chapter is titled, "Who will answer my questions?" and it is even more quotable than Lewis!
  • ... we need to live the questions of our lives ...
  • Most of the time we respond to questions from below with answer from below. The result is often more confusion.
  • Once pain or confusion is framed or articulated by a question, it must be lived rather than answered. The first task of seeking guidance then is to touch your own struggles, doubts, and insecurities - in short, to affirm your life as a quest. Your life, my life, is given graciously by God. Our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus as our friend and finest guide.
  • Painful questions must be raised, faced, and then lived. This means that we must constantly avoid the temptation of offering or accepting simple answers, to be easy defenders of God, the Church, the tradition, or whatever we feel called to defend. Experience suggests that such glib apologetics animate hostility and anger, and finally a growing alienation from whom or what we are trying to defend.
  • Without a question, an answer is experienced as manipulation or control. Without a struggle, the help offered is considered interference. And without the desire to learn, direction is easily felt as oppression.
  • Living the questions runs counter to the mainstream of Christian ministry that wants to impart knowledge and understand, skills to control, and power to conquer. In spiritual listening, we encounter a God who cannot be fully understood, discover realities that cannot be controlled, and we realize that our hope is hidden no in the possession of power but in the confession of weakness.
  • When God enters into the center of our lives to unmask our illusion of possessing final solutions and to disarm us with always deeper questions, we will not necessarily have an easier or simpler life, but certainly a life that is honest, courageous, and marked with the ongoing search for truth. Sometimes, in living the questions, answers are found. More often, as our questions and issues are tested and mature in solitude, the questions simply dissolve.
One powerful aspect of religion-as-map is, "... if you want to get anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America." This may be the first time I try to augment Lewis, but this metaphor doesn't capture that the "anywhere" we're trying to reach is God - an infinite destination. In that sense, no theology - no matter how accurate - can really represent the reality of the destination. Theology can only represent the journeys - the quests - of others who have lived the questions.

So, when I study theology, I must not make it solve problems. Studying theology moves me closer to Truth not when I cling to answers, but when I uncover the map of deeper questions pointing to God. I'm hoping and praying that spiritual direction and discipline will provide me with the compass I need on my journey of living the questions.