About Doubt – Conversation with Sr. Rita Woehlcke
As you know, my dear friend Sr. Rita is undergoing chemo for cancer, a disease she calls her “Wisdom Companion.” She has written, and continues to write, about the wisdom she is receiving as she is on this journey. You can read her essays on this blog. Just look in the search engine.
The other thing she has offered us all is that she will answer our spiritual questions. If you have a question, please read this post.
And now, let’s move to our next question, this one from Jane W.: How would Sister Rita counsel a person (me) who constantly struggles with great and debilitating doubt that there is really any God or meaning to the universe at all?
Sr. Rita responds:
Doubt is a threshold, a gateway to deeper journey, if we enter it sincerely. By this I mean holding the intention to allow unanswered questions to reveal the treasure they hold.
I have found great comfort in Rilke:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Doubt is natural in the face of so much turmoil. It is an honest response when the churches trot out old tropes about God that do not hold up under reality’s scrutiny. This is where I discover a God who is “never less than I imagined and always more than I bargained for.” The old “Superman god” of my childhood who would make everything right by doing my will, making me happy, punishing those I deem horrible, and restoring my sense of right order on my timeline has been noticeably absent from my personal history and from the world’s. I have had to come to terms with allowing God to be who God is (a deep desire to be respected and allowed space in which to be that all of us have.)
In the spiritual journey, there is a big difference between seeking answers because we want certainty and embarking on the deeply human journey with the sacred or Holy Mystery – (often pigeonholed as spiritual in the dualistic thinking model that has permeated the European Western world). I have learned to embrace and be liberated by ‘both/and’ thinking and have lost nothing in surrendering my ‘either/or,’ all-or-nothing default — so malignantly prevalent in most of our media.
I do not believe we are meant to be tormented by doubt. Some doubt is fueled by the diabolos – the energy or spirit that would keep us inwardly divided, keep our heads spinning, and keep the focus on ourselves. This is fed by the unanswerable and fruitless question, “Why?”
I do believe doubt invites me to ask myself: what are my deepest desires? What are the things I long for, for myself, those I love, the world, and the planet? It is a time when I can choose to align my intentions with those desires that are most life-giving for me, and for all. The life-giving question is, for me: “Where are You in this?”
In the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, the seeker is invited to return to a time of consolation—an experience (not an idea) of peace, joy, clarity, well-being. One severely abused person identified swimming as a child as her starting point. At that point, her spiritual director invited the seeker to begin there, in the water, savoring communion with it. Starting from an experience of wholeness allows doubts to stand in contrast to previous experiences. This opens one to curiosity, to honestly naming the gap in between that moment and the present one. It is an inner tuning for the “sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh,” as Ophelia said in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The traditions of the Abrahamic religions are rooted in the experience of God, an encounter with ‘Another,’ which is marked by invitation and covenant commitment, meaning the promise of the Holy Other to stay with, to accompany us. There is no guarantee of the absence of hardship and trials, only the assurance of companionship until a final resolution comes, a resolution marked by radical transformation — lions and lambs, children and adders — all the opposites reconciled.
It is fitting to address doubt on Good Friday. That day — like the days of the Holocaust, the Christian churches’ decimation of native peoples, the abuse of children, the burning of women as witches, the Inquisition, Abu Ghraib, September 11th, today’s epidemic of gun violence, and the devastation of our environment — challenges any notion of a loving God, especially a god who needs blood sacrifice to be appeased.
In Luke 24:13-49, we hear of two disciples running away from the chaos of Jerusalem. They are left with experiences of Jesus they cannot deny, experiences of goodness, power, and authentic teaching. Before the Good Friday moment, they interpreted these to mean the coming of a messianic time, marked by defeated enemies, spoils, grandeur, and restored greatness as measured by the conventional (largely male-dominated) wisdom of worldly success. They lament to the stranger who joins them on the journey “We had hoped . . .” They had to confront and name their shattered hopes. They reveal their disillusionment to this “stranger” whose conversation so engages them that they ask him to stay for dinner with at Emmaus. They do not recognize him as Christ until he breaks bread with them. The familiar and trustworthy experience opens them to a whole new way of being with the unthinkable.
For those who have no affinity for the Christian story, I have found it helpful to contemplate the big picture offered by evolutionary science. It roots me in the unfolding mystery in which my little life is both a blip and an essential element in the world’s unfolding. The pattern of the universe is a series of seeming dead ends that lead to new life. It is not the quick literal seven days, and then, bingo! Life! It is at least 13.7 billion years in the making. The film Journey of the Universe by Biran Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker always moves me to wonder and awe and to a God larger than the one I believed in when I was seven. You can view this film for free at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulXfIv3wHvg
I have found an ever-unfolding path to the sacred in the heart of the Christian tradition. I try not to impose that on anyone but will willingly share with anyone who is interested in what continues to make it life-giving for me.
Two other pieces I find helpful:
I also have faced doubt, and appreciate this post. Thank you Sister Rita, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Kindly, Dorothy
I think we all face doubt, Dorothy. What thinking person wouldn’t? I’m glad you found the post useful.
I am floored by the beauty, hope and compassion in this response. So much to think about! So many new doors slowly opening, and so much I already recognize as my own confused experience. Thank you, Sister Rita, from the bottom of my heart.
That will mean a lot to Sr. Rita. Thanks, Jane.
Thank you, Rita, for reminding me that opening doors is not to just check that my beliefs, conclusions, and assumptions about God, life, and me are still safely packed, stored, and safely locked away. Like the Marys who visited Christ’s tomb, we should be amazed with the unimaginable. Our assurance of what we think we know needs to be jarred occasionally in seeking faith. Again, thank you and God Bless!
Thanks for your comment, Phillip. I know Sr. Rita will be grateful.