For most of my life, I’ve leaned toward the idea that there probably is a God – some kind of Ultimate Reality or Intelligence. Yet, despite all the evidence I wrote about in my last couple of blog entries, those pesky doubts have creeped in from time to time.
When I acknowledged to my spiritual director that I’ve sometimes questioned God’s existence, she gave me a writing exercise: How would my life be different if I knew for sure there was a God? How would my life be different if I knew for sure there wasn’t?
During my morning meditation, I pulled out a fresh legal pad and wrote down the question, “What would I be doing if there were no God and this could be proven to me?”
The first thought that popped into my head was, I might try getting away with more mischief like fibbing to the IRS or making snarky remarks about people who irritate me. (I’m only half joking.) But in reality, I realized I would feel depressed because the lack of a God would mean for sure I would never again see loved ones who have died. And what about my own life? Without a God, would it be true that life is absurd, as Albert Camus argued?
As I continued with the exercise, I also realized it wasn’t the existence of a God, per se, that I questioned from time to time, so much as some ideas about God portrayed by Christianity. The question in my mind was not so much, “Does God exist?” It was, “Who, or what, is this Entity I choose to call God? What does it mean to order my life as if God exists? What, if anything, does this Being want from me?”
In other words, my decision to be a de facto theist and order my life as if God exists has only raised more questions for me.
Catholic theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen, author of Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith, believes this is normal. “The quest for meaning can be extremely frustrating and at times even excruciating, precisely because it does not lead to ready answers but to new questions,” he writes. He continues:
The main questions for spiritual direction – Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? What is prayer? Who is God for me? Where do I belong? How can I be of service? – are not questions with simple answers, but questions that lead us deeper into the unspeakable mystery of existence. What needs affirmation is the validity of the questions. What needs to be said is: “Yes, yes indeed, these are the questions. Don’t hesitate to raise them.”
Doing this exercise brought back memories of our recent trip to the Holy Land. In 2012, my husband and I went to Israel and Palestine with a church group. The trip had been on my bucket list for decades. At the time I was in one of my “questioning the existence of God” phases and I secretly hoped something about the trip might clarify the issue for me.
We visited places with names that felt intimately familiar from my reading them in the Bible and hearing them in church – Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Jericho, Cana. We toured the Church of the Nativity built on the site thought to be the birthplace of Jesus, the Church of the Multiplication commemorating Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and even the house where St. Peter’s mother-in-law is thought to have lived.
While the overall trip was amazing, I must confess the “holy sites” themselves were somewhat of a letdown. While others in our tour group talked of being “on sacred ground,” many of the sites seemed to me more like tourist traps than shrines – vendors, vendors, vendors, everywhere. The image of Jesus chasing the money changers from the Temple often came to mind.
But then we participated in a communion service in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, in a replica of a boat Jesus and his disciples are thought to have used. During the service, I decided maybe I should just do what Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson did when he was first trying to achieve sobriety and simply demand that the Diety show Itself.
Since the service was in progress, I couldn’t shout – at least not without being terribly rude. Instead, I called out silently, “God, if you exist, show me a sign!”
Right before my eyes, a rainbow appeared. It was a beautiful clear day. No rain, A cloudless sky. Nothing that would normally cause a rainbow to form. To make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, I quietly nudged my husband and pointed to the rainbow.
“Cool!” he whispered.
In Genesis 9:12, a rainbow was seen as a message from God: “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.’”
Was this rainbow a response from God to my rather imperious demand that this Entity show Itself? Maybe even a sign God wanted some kind of covenant with me? Or was it a coincidence, as my skeptical mind was already suggesting?
A couple of days after my experience in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, our tour group visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray. Visitors of other religions are allowed to pray there as well if they wish to.
Visitors often participate in a long-time tradition of writing prayers on slips of paper and inserting them into the crevices of the Wall. According to Wikipedia, more than a million of these notes are placed in the Wall each year. It has even become customary for visiting dignitaries to participate in this ritual.
I wrote my own prayer on a slip of paper:
Please answer these questions:
Who are you?
What do you want from me?
I inserted the note into a crevice in the Wall and, a couple of days later, returned to my home in central Illinois. Shortly thereafter, I began journaling about my spiritual questions. So … was the rainbow a coincidence? Did God want some sort of covenant with me? If so, what?
Alas, my daily life with its million and one distractions intervened and my journaling about God ended up on hold. Some of the distractions were legitimate – my father’s final illness, followed closely by the death of my best friend Patti, then hospitalizations for my mother, my husband and myself. However, most of the distractions were of the mundane variety I’ve been blogging about for the past year – the endless clutter of all kinds, from the material to the spiritual.
It’s been almost a year now since I engaged a spiritual director to hold my feet to the fire and help me explore the questions on the note I placed in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
I’m actually pretty convinced there is a God, I told her. What I really want is to figure out who or what this entity is, because believing in the existence of God still doesn’t answer questions like what, if anything, God wants from me, or what God considers to be right and wrong.
1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” The problem, I told my spiritual director, is that I want answers now, in this lifetime.
What I really want is that “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I want to be like those people who see the blinding light or the burning bush, just know what they know about God, and have their mission in life spelled out for them.
My spiritual director, thankfully, has been patient and nonjudgmental as I continue to grapple with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. And she gave me another assignment: Some morning, while I’m sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace watching the birds and squirrels, be still and listen for God to speak.
Perhaps I’m finally ready.