I sat on a large rock, knees pulled up, arms stretched behind me for support. The dry desert breeze whispered past as I gazed at the stars hovering overhead. Majestic and distant, they magnified the smallness I felt confronting larger-than-life questions I could no longer ignore.
I was supposed to be leading this young adult retreat, a volunteer ministry I took on in addition to my full-time position teaching religion at a nearby Catholic high school. I didn’t feel like a leader; rather, very much alone and insecure, wondering whether I belonged there at all.
It was summer, and the stillness of the desert offered welcome repose from the bustle of the school year that just ended. It was the close of my first year in graduate theology studies, a year in “faith seeking understanding.”
Ask the Questions
As an undergraduate, I loved the thrill I got from pursuing important questions. Early on, I switched to a major in theology, a way of intellectually exploring my conversion to Catholicism.
Growing up, I practiced the Lutheran faith, but struggled with doctrinal questions that I felt a sola scriptura approach just couldn’t satisfy. My studies added fuel to the fire of my conversion. I was at once consumed and sustained by the wealth of the intellectual tradition of the Church I now called “home.”
At the close of this first year of graduate studies, though, I found myself feeling more lost than found. I had just finished a paper on the self-knowledge of Jesus, exploring His awareness of His divinity and mission. Much as I had tried to ignore it, a feeling of unease had been bubbling to surface as I began to question even the most basic presuppositions of our Faith. How could Jesus be truly human and divine? Could there really be three Persons in an undivided substance? God is supposed to be omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient. How could Jesus be “like us in all things but sin” and still possess these divine attributes?
In my paper, I concluded, wholly unoriginally, that the Trinity was an unfathomable mystery. Internally, though, I was troubled. The more I fed my desire for knowledge, the less easily I could tolerate mystery.
God Can Handle Them
I wanted to leave these questions unexplored; acknowledging them meant questioning the foundation I’d built my career, my soon-to-be marriage, and my entire life around. In the silence of the desert, I stopped trying to deny my crisis of faith. Instead, I turned to face it, allowing waves of questions to crash over me with unrelenting force. My conversion had been built on a search for the Truth. I couldn’t stop now, no matter the fear or uncertainty.
A quiet voice broke the heaviness, whispering hope into my darkness.
“What if your questions are not really about finding the answers? What if they are actually an invitation?”
The Long Journey
The voice was an echo of my co-leader, Fr. Tri Dinh. In forming us for leadership, he had directed us away from entertaining these kinds of questions in small group discussion. Head questions, he instructed, were often a way of expressing something deep within the heart, something for which few of us have the language. Traveling the long distance from the head to the heart, he advised, was the long journey of the spiritual life.
In that moment, the dawn broke on the dark night of my conflicted soul. Yes, I had spent my whole life pursuing God, but how much time had I spent actually sitting with Jesus?
Connecting with Jesus
During that retreat, I found a way into imaginative prayer for the first time. My analytical self had always been too preoccupied with picturing the exact details of Gospel stories to let grace break through.
In my desire to connect with Jesus, I saw Him sitting at the dinner table with my husband, the two of them laughing together. It was an incredible moment for me, the beginning of a new romance, a journey to know intimately the Person of Jesus. I didn’t see His Face that day. That would come later—much later.
In retrospect, I recognize that my questions were a way to assert control, to tame a God who is beyond my control.
All those years of study, and still I had missed the point of Christianity.
Ours is a Faith of surrender. Surrendering my questions to Jesus that day meant exchanging a false sense of intellectual security for the only real power there is: relationship with Him.
Letting Him Show Me
I still thrive on intellectual exploration; surrendering that day didn’t change the fundamentals of who I am.
What it did do was grant me access to a door I hadn’t realized was there, a door that leads to the deepest levels of reality.
Beyond questions of doctrine and orthodoxy and metaphysics is a more important question. A question that is not mine, but His. In this place, in the quiet of my soul, Jesus asks:
Who do you say that I am?
And this is one that we explore together, as I take His outstretched hand and let Him show me.
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Samantha Stephenson spends her days loving her husband, chasing after her children, and trying to find God in everything from diapers to dishes. A voracious consumer of books, blogs, and coffee, she holds degrees in theology and bioethics. You can find out more about her here.