The first semester of divinity school was more challenging than I had anticipated. I have performed well academically, but nearly each day, I have felt as though I have been swimming against the current, unwillingly gulping saltwater along the way. Every pull of my arm feels twice as difficult as I thought it would feel. Academics, as always, have grounded and strengthened me. Reading, writing, arguing, and listening are how I have learned to excel. The challenges in this season of my life, however, have been spiritual. Doubt, of self and purpose, has risen to the surface of my consciousness and bubbled there with questions around how to lead a good and meaningful life.
Within the last six months, I’ve contemplated everything from becoming a priest to owning a flower shop, everything from taking a leave of absence to pursuing a Ph.D.. At this point, I have resolved to stay where I am and wait patiently (hopefully) that a flash of clarity around my true purpose will soon arrive. I am now, for better or worse, in a sea of not knowing.
In my first class of this semester, the professor asked us to introduce ourselves and include a note about where this education is leading us. Many students had clear answers. “I will be going to law school next year,” “I’ve applied to doctoral programs in Theology,” or “I will be moving home to Georgia in May.”
Naturally, given what I wrote above, the minute this professor asked us to describe the plans we had, I became nervous. God, I have no idea. When it was my turn to speak, I said something general about being interested in writing or teaching. One of the final students to speak responded differently than the rest of us who had pieced together a sketch of future careers. He said theatrically, “I don’t know what I’m going to do in the next six hours, let alone next year!”
I do not subscribe a footloose and fancy-free worldview. I value safety, security, certainty, and structure. I love schedules, lists, and baskets in which to organize things. I find even the suggestion that nothing can be truly known deeply unsettling, yet my classmate, though he did not give the most carefully considered answer, captured a partial truth. Us human beings are constantly immersed in uncertainty, but that shouldn’t be reason for us to succumb to crippling anxiety.
I have come to see that in the face of uncertainty, the unknown, the seeming nothingness that surrounds us, we can rely on what we have faith in, or as my priest would say, that which we hold sacred. There is wisdom in the not knowing and there is comfort in faith.
Yesterday, another professor began class by asking, “What is faith to you?” I was tempted to write that faith is belief in the presence of God or that love will triumph over evil, but since beginning divinity school, “belief” feels hollow and easily deconstructed. In every discussion, “belief” has been questioned and tested. Ethical frameworks have become something I can no longer naively take for granted. Faith, I’ve learned with great internal resistance, is not obvious. It is not obvious that life is good. We have to work to see the good and to find refuge.
Faith is more elusive to me than it ever was before. My faith, my trust in God’s love, is shrouded in mystery. It is as present as it is evasive. Like the memory of a dream I cannot quite remember, my faith is imprinted on me, but I cannot find its edges.
Our culture is in the midst of an existential crisis, which bleeds into our personal visions of faith. We are hardwired to be compassionate, but our environment makes compassion, both for ourselves and others, often seem impossible. Contemporary technology encourages separation and alienation. Virtual reality and social media discourage intentional communication and human interaction; they shape our public spaces and our politics against our wills.
We crave purpose, connection, and love: it is what makes our humanity. When we are awash with anxiety and fear, we also crave stability. In this fast-paced, youth-obsessed, combative culture, in which things, stories, and relationships have shorter life cycles, we can often find ourselves geographically and emotionally isolated. We should not blame ourselves for our tested faith, for the days in which doubt is more prominent than gratitude, when we, too, feel existentially alone, and we do not know how to answer the question about what we want to do with the lives we’ve been gifted.
How do we find faith/trust/wisdom/purpose/connection? These are virtues tied together as though woven like a spider web. My home is my loved ones—my family and Jack—they are my reminders of what truly matters. I do not know what I will do with my life, but I know what I want my life to contain.
At the end of every day, when it is quietest and darkest outside, and I am climbing into bed, I am left with surprising fullness. My chest feels full of love and the pain of loving in the face of layered uncertainty, in this middle of a harsh, brutal, breathtaking, and incomprehensible world, in which I am (as you are) a pilgrim. Faith to me is trusting that God is wrapped up in elusive contradiction. Faith is trusting that the interwoven fragility and strength, fear and love, doubt and comfort, are holy combinations.
For now, the fullness of love, while I strive to (but may never) find the lines of my faith, is enough for me. It is enough to show me the way.