When I was a spiritual newborn, I thought I could study my way into heaven. If I just accrued the right information, gathered the necessary data, I could guarantee a seat in the celestial court, even if only in the nosebleed section. I remember combing the aisles of Barnes & Noble looking for books on Christian spirituality, the Saints, Catholic doctrine and anything else that I perceived could give me the tools to find and know God—and to be happy. I obsessed over gaining more knowledge, rapaciously consuming everything I could because I believed the more knowledge I had of the faith and God, the happier I would be. I was looking for a shortcut, one that detoured from the narrow way and dropped me off right at the front gates, you know, the pearly ones.
Of course, seeking knowledge about the faith and God is a very good thing. Yet, I took it to an extreme, not leaving enough room for grace, time and God to mold me. I would gain new insight from some book, which would inspire and motivate me on my spiritual journey, but soon the newfound zeal would fade. So, it would begin again. I would tell myself I just needed to find the right book, website, spiritual director or blog and that would be it! I would unlock the secret to living a good, happy and easy life. But I slowly came to realize the spiritual life doesn’t work that way. There is no magic, self-help book out there with all of the answers that can make our lives simpler and easier. In fact, as we proceed on the spiritual journey, I find that it’s just the opposite—the journey becomes rockier. There is no shortcut; the path to God is just hard.
The root of my problem was that I couldn’t accept that I don’t have all of the answers—that, despite my ego’s best efforts, I’m not in control. Whenever I had a big decision to make, I would sit in prayer, doing everything I could to hear God. I would pray, “God, if you just tell me what to do, if you let me know which option is the ‘better’ one, I’ll do it. Really, God, I’ll do it as long as you make it clear to me.” But as I knelt there, begging God to give me a clear answer, a flame of frustration would flicker to life. The response: silence. Why wasn’t God answering me? I was willing to do His will, so why wouldn’t He make it clear? Doesn’t He want me to make choices that will make Him happy?
I remember having a moment of insight a couple of years ago reading the story of Jesus and the rich man.
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’” He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
I suddenly saw myself as the rich man. I saw myself questioning the Good Teacher, asking Him, “How can I inherit internal life?” And Christ’s answer to the rich man is the same one He gives me through His Church. I have the commandments—the Church has given us guidelines on how to live well and gain eternal life. Yet, like the rich man, I want to know more. I want to know exactly how to not only inherit eternal life, but also live a good and joyful life here and now. Like the answer given to the rich man, Jesus simply says, “come, follow me.”
Christ gives us the basics to live a good life (the commandments, sacraments, scripture, community, etc.), but when we ask for more He simply looks at us, loves us, and asks us to follow Him. But where are we going, Lord? When will we get there? These are the questions I want answered. But the Lord doesn’t always give us answers. It takes only a casual review of the Gospels to see that Christ’s preferred method of answering questions is with more questions.
This isn’t to say the Lord doesn’t guide us. At times He makes it clear to us what He wants us to do. And from my own personal experience, He’s given me clear guidance countless times in my life. But sometimes the Lord asks us to trust. Sometimes He asks us to trust that we—in union with the Holy Spirit—will make a good decision. We don’t always have the certainty we want, and sometimes we can only ask for the grace to keep walking in the dark, following a distant divine lantern not consumed by the darkness. And in that, we truly please God—that’s the test of our love for Him. He’s given us the natural ability, coupled with grace, to make good decisions for ourselves. We grow in not just doing what we’re told to, but choosing to trust the Lord when we don’t know what to do, when we are confronted with only doubt.
Some of the decisions I’ve made were done so only in trust. Sometimes I’m tempted to wonder if I made the right choice. Should I have taken the job I did? Am I really supposed to be living here? Was ending that relationship a mistake? At those moments I have to choose to trust God. Of course, I don’t always succeed. Yet, I have to believe that, even if I did make the wrong choice, God can and will make it right. It’s by the confidence and courage that the Holy Spirit gives us that we can continue on the journey, accepting that we know very little about where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s the one thing that we’re all promised. God loves us and is always with us—no matter what.
It’s the only certainty we have. It’s the only one we need.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
-Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude