The Spirituality of Confusion   7 comments

I was raised on clarity like Iowans are raised on corn—it was the staple that nourished our grip on reality, giving us security and power, confidence and perseverance.  Dad gave me all the answers before I had even stumbled onto the questions, saving me the trouble of sorting it out myself, and he shared his take on life with a degree of certainty that silenced doubt before it even had a voice.  My parents, being deeply religious, anchored all this clarity to God himself so that doubt was not only foolish but dangerous, a personal affront to the Almighty.

As a child I was handed the blueprint for life, the map and compass, and I followed it faithfully each step, landing in Calcutta as a missionary at 30 years of age, having somehow escaped the indignity of adolescent questioning.

Unfortunately, life is not so neat and tidy, but constantly pokes through our carefully boxed up constructs, threatening the whole structure. “You can do anything if you try hard enough.” Really? “Thankfulness leads to contentment.” But if it doesn’t?  Reality seems to stubbornly resist fitting into our prefab structures, challenging our paradigms. So we fight back—pretend there’s been no breach, or try to block up the gaps in our worldview by tweaking the architecture, or construct awkward explanations for the exposed holes, the received truth that doesn’t play out as we’d expected.  But for me to make substantive changes, to move around the support beams, would force a complete rethinking of reality as I knew it, a stroll into insanity, so I clung to my views, blaming myself for failing to make it work. It took four years of unrelenting depression to shake my grip on my framework of truth.

And so, at the age of 40, I stumbled into the adolescence I soldiered past in my teens. Discovering my basket was full of unworkable answers, I set about looking for the right ones. I still wanted certainty, just not a defective set. But honesty is a bitch, fertile though she is. Once you let her in, she barks at every discrepancy and won’t be shushed. Each fresh answer I uncovered brought more questions. I was in a fog of confusion that I could not escape, stuck, unable to follow a path I could not see. I kept walking, but I seemed to be going in circles. I kept praying for clarity, but she had abandoned me and obscurity had firmly grasped my hand.

Facing confusion with calm is a plus, and parts of Christianity outside my heritage even find obscurity beneficial, oddly enough. Books like the fourteenth century “Cloud of Unknowing” and “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross warned against leaning too heavily on reason and intellect, which could obstruct as well as open the path to insight. Just this morning I read two psychologists discussing a client in that conundrum:

“You know, that’s the thing about intelligence. It can really get in the way of wisdom, the mind being such a good place to hide from all the messiness that comes with our feelings. Maybe what your patient needs to do is get out of his head and get into his heart. Stop thinking so much and let his feelings get the better of him, let loose with a good cry or a fit of anger, whatever it is that’s stirring down there at that mysterious place he’s afraid to go to.” (Eric Kolbell in “What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life”)

The thing is, I don’t mind feeling my feelings, but doesn’t my progress depend on then understanding them in order to resolve them? For me the key was still clarity. But what if it wasn’t. What if clarity at this point was the problem instead of the answer. It was just this discovery John Kavanaugh made in my adopted city.

When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at “the house of the dying” in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life.  On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa.  She asked, “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 voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: “Pray that I have clarity.” She 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 commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust God.” (Brennan Manning in “Ruthless Trust”)

Fear or desire may drive us to demand answers, but Pandora learned that trying to pry open life’s box of secrets leads only to trouble. God has his own time frame for sharing his insights with us, and patience is the truest mark of trust. I have not yet found my way through the fog, but often the way has found me, working into my soul silently, healing and growing me on the sly, startling me with its results: humility, patience with myself and others, empathy, sensitivity, endurance, faith. Obscurity comes with a sleigh full of good, though it doesn’t feel like Christmas. As a friend once opined, “It’s too bad life’s lessons don’t come in a box of chocolates.” The best work is often the hardest work and longest to complete, but it is the most rewarding.

I’m not completely in the dark. I find some general directions to take, the fog sometimes lifts, but lack of lucidity can be freeing, opening up options I would otherwise avoid because I was locked into an inflexible clarity—rationality that blocked thinking, faith that hindered trust. The grace of God is so much bigger than I ever imagined.


Posted May 20, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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7 responses to “The Spirituality of Confusion

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  1. Beautiful.

    My finite mind wants to define the Infinite One but every time I put Him in a box with my proud bow on it, He blows it up and shreds to pieces my bow. And these days I find that oddly comforting.

    Thank you for this lovely post.

    • Thank you, Carol. Yes, we all do tend to forget how infinite truth is! I think my faith is still too small to find comfort in obscurity. I’ve moved from being paralyzed by it, to frightened acceptance, to troubled acquiescence. My biggest growth has been to stop blaming and shaming myself for not figuring it all out.

  2. Your Thought/Heart Writing is beautifully expressed…It is a deliciously rich dessert for the senses, the mind, and the heart. It seems often nowadays Americans tend to want clarity on everything not just spirituality/Christian living/Biblical doctrine…such as clarity on politics, poverty, race, sexuality, war, abortion, church music, ministry, etc… and most often the clarity is used for delineating “US” and “them” (from any perspective on the spectrum – right/left, liberal/conservative, progressive/fundamentalist, etc AND vice versa) not just for comfort. We rarely live in the obscurity of our friends’ hearts and lives…offering patience and trust in the midst of seemingly or real opposite revelations/differing perspectives/troubling opinions/wounding decisions. What we might be willing to do for those “non-Christians”, giving space and grace for their journey and God’s timing, we find difficult or impossible to do with each other in the family of God, the body of Jesus. It is curious that we take the small amount of information based on their thoughts, their words, their actions and make a yea/nay labeling decision rather than actually knowing the breadth and depth of a person and their journey/context. I also appreciate the sequence you mentioned in the above comment “I’ve moved from being paralyzed by it, to frightened acceptance, to troubled acquiescence.” I love the reality of that journey with God and wish we all could also live that with each other. And what a release to stop (or in my case to lessen) blaming and shaming for not having it all figured out with clarity. Thank you again! I find myself reading your words again and again. Our journeys have many similarities…

    • I’m glad you find my words encouraging, Elisabeth. I think the mainstreaming of online social media has been a major factor in the increasing polarization of society and impacts our interactions in a dozen significant ways (not the least being that “everyone” is involved in every discussion), often leading to stereotyping in which more information leads to less understanding and empathy. Whether we admit it or not, I think we all respond from some level of fear when faced with differences in others that are in conflict with our own worldview. We feel threatened by these differences and react defensively. I think one significant and difficult reality is that to the degree two worldviews diverge, it takes that much more investment (in energy, time, etc.) to reach real understanding, and being limited, we can only invest deeply in a few relationships. On the good side, when we work hard at understanding and empathizing with one person who disagrees significantly with us, I believe it opens our hearts wider to all other disagreements. Of course, when we bring in personal issues, past conflicts and wounds, and emotional hooks, it makes that process so much more difficult. May we all learn to step courageously into that process of painful love.

  3. I have read the cloud of the unknowing in my personal struggle to seek answers. I think they are there, but like you I have more questions than answers. It does come to trust (faith). Here is my blog on the subject (a little longer than yours)

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