If I can pinpoint a time when I started to have deep questions around faith, I think it would be when I worked in student ministry in Italy seventeen years or so ago. Coming from a deeply evangelical tradition and being part of an evangelical protestant mission organisation, I become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of converting Catholics to Protestantism by the end of my time there. I couldn’t define it at that time, but it just didn’t sit well with me. I look back now, and I can see it was the beginning of questioning the “us versus them”, defensive basis of sharing what was supposed to be good news. I had begun to want to listen to others of different backgrounds from me, to listen, to learn, rather than have all the right answers to theological arguments. I wanted to see their point of view and I was starting to feel uncomfortable with the assumption that I thought (and I had been taught) that I knew the only way to God and that I had all the answers.
Fast forward ten years or so, years of different evangelical, charismatic denominations seeking always to do the right thing, regularly going to church, always wanting some experience of God in order to know how to live my life. I sought and tried different ways of prayer, of reading the bible, I wanted to “hear” from God directly for guidance in making decisions and, most of all, answers to prayer as to why I was single and lonely. That perhaps sounds more negative than it was, I did experience what I would say was a sense of being loved by God during this time and I truly wanted to dedicate all aspects of my life to God.
At this time, I had a dream of running a retreat centre as I deeply appreciated the retreat spaces I had experienced and wanted to cultivate some kind of space for people to get away and rest. I started training as a spiritual director and suddenly a year into the course God seemed…silent. Very silent. A blank, brick wall of silence. That’s what it felt like. I couldn’t even hope in particular dark moments, certainly not hope that there were answers and where was God in this. Did God care? Was God even listening?
There was no major drama, just a gradual disappearance of the God I thought I had dedicated my life to. He just didn’t seem to be there anymore.
Alongside this I was finding church hard, partly because I wasn’t seemingly hearing from God but also, I no longer felt I fitted in a particular church. I felt more at home in the ecumenical group at the spiritual direction course. This group was a small eclectic group of multi-ethnic Catholics, charismatics, Anglicans, Quakers, non-denominational, gay and straight, all gathered to be taught how to listen well to people and develop and carry this skill into different spheres. Here was a group where I didn’t have to define myself by a denomination or a statement of faith, I could simply be a friend to these fellow travellers on the journey of faith. I could listen and could be listened to and that became a special place.
I think it’s the desire to continue to be part of a community where all are welcome that drew me to a community such as Nomad and appreciate the podcast so much. I’m not writing this to disparage church community in any way, but my personal experience is that I have found it the loneliest place when you have questions that there are no easy answers to.
I am longing to see more communities of hope and unity where all are accepted and listened to well. The existence of groups such as I found and podcasts such as Nomad is where I find hope right now. We are not in an easy year or an easy time, but I want more and more to be one who listens to understand rather than to respond, to quote Stephen R Covey*. That type of listening is hard and is a practice. A daily, hourly, minute-by-minute practice in my experience, and I’ve only recently begun.
Being present in listening to my own questions and the questions of others gives me hope. It also somehow gives me the sense of a loving presence in all of this, which I would like to call God.
To end I want to quote the writings of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which I keep coming back to:
I want to beg you..
to be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms
and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers,
that 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.
Rainer Maria Rilke
– Delyth Johnson
*Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change