“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.”
– Thomas Merton
We were a group of malcontent teenagers. Think the churchy version of those hooded youths loitering outside of Sainsbury’s late on a Saturday night. Dissatisfied with the status quo, we ran our own early morning prayer meetings, emailed around our Bible study notes and spent after school evenings running Youth Alpha courses for our friends. For fun, we memorized Scripture and cleared gardens for disadvantaged families. We revelled in the intensity of Christian summer camps but secretly suspected most of the adult members of our small-town New Frontiers church congregation weren’t ‘real’ Christians. Where was their zeal?
Underpinning our earnest efforts was a potent combination of excitement about faith, a relentless pursuit for an unidentified more, and a need to be history makers in this world. Christianity was absolutely central to my life. It was a pretty positive teenage obsession as they go.
Yet here I was, now in my twenties, roaming the damp Welsh hills around a small Christian retreat centre. I was looking for answers. My faith had undergone some seismic shifts since then. I found more inspiration reading Wendell Berry novels than the Bible. My church was a natural ‘cathedral’ of Beech trees where I sat alone on a Sunday morning. Most of my friends wouldn’t identify me as a Christian. I’m not sure I would have, either. But prayer was a habit I kept up instinctively, firmly rooted in a decade of diligent practice. I certainly didn’t want to return to the frenzied faith of my teenage years, but I still found myself looking back longingly on those times.
It was a grimy Welsh day but I trudged uphill across boggy heathland towards the high point marked on my map. As I climbed, a thick fog settled around me, so dense that I could barely see 10m ahead of me. Walking through the heather with no path and no sightlines made me nervous. How could I know if I was going straight? I felt utterly cut off from the world, alone in a foggy soup, half expecting to see a mythical beast emerge through the mist. My eyes scanned constantly for where the next weathered signpost would appear, beckoning me on in the right direction.
As I climbed, it occurred to me that this was exactly what my life felt like at that moment. Hard, uncertain and lonely. I had no idea where I was going, every blessed signpost a reassurance that I hadn’t altogether left the path of faith. A clear direction and destination, companions along the way, assurance that I was actually going somewhere. These were the luxuries I missed from my teenage faith.
My faith journey up to that point had taken me across some varied terrain. The flat tarmacked paths of evangelicalism had given my fledgling faith as a teenager an easy, speedy start. It had given me much reverence for the Scriptures, for good character, for morals. There I learnt to be proactive about faith and to always ask whether my beliefs meant good news for others, too. But it left me with a suspicion of the unknown, with an unhealthy need to know the right answers and a desperate need to be ‘in’. In my blinkered self-righteousness, I was embarrassingly disparaging of other faiths and denominations. Fear underpinned my fragile faith in many ways.
I dipped my toes into charismatic streams as a University student and found some affinity there. Wading through those waters was thrilling and terrifying; it felt like taking my faith to the next level. I was intimidated and inspired by the people I met here, people who fizzed with a holy joy and seemed to have constant communication with God. I learnt from them to value and engage imagination as part of my spirituality. Sharing prophetic words, praying for healing, speaking in tongues…I jumped in with both feet. But whatever I experienced, it was never enough, and deep down I had an inkling that I wasn’t always being honest with myself about my spiritual experiences. The language and practices of charismatic Christianity often felt uncomfortable and forced; I was the actress playing her part.
A rocky year of full-time church work sent me off on my own wilderness paths for a while. My wandering found me in the pews of the local Anglican church, surprised by the refreshment I experienced there. Here I found quiet meadows of freedom, permission to be myself without expectations or requirements. The liturgical rhythm carried me through having no words of my own. Mystery was welcomed and suffering acknowledged. But I lacked companions for the journey and a sense of belonging. It was a resting place but I wasn’t home.
Where next? At 25 years old, I had reached a dead end in every area of my life: faith, work, relationships. So, I did what I have always done when I need some direction in life. I took myself off to the remotest part of the country I could access and headed for the hills. The foggy, boggy Welsh hills as it turned out. Maybe God would speak to me here. Or maybe I was just getting more lost.
Signpost by signpost I ascended the hill. It seemed to be taking too long. I wondered if I should turn back while I still could. But then suddenly it appeared a few meters in front of me, dark against the misty white backdrop: the mounded stones of a small cairn. As I stood there, at the top, wind spraying rain against my cheeks, my uncertainty gave way to exhilaration. Wild and wonderful, mysterious and magical, the beautiful gift that I alone was here to experience this moment. I was alive. I was glad to be on this part of my journey, even if I didn’t know where I was or where it would end. I didn’t need to. My only task was to keep walking.
Five years have passed since then. My path has taken some unexpected twists and turns, landing me back in the small town I grew up in and married to a friend from my youth. Now raising our own small children in the church of our teenage years, we have become the lacking-in-zeal adults we once criticized. Faith for me now is less fraught than it was then, even though I have fewer answers and more questions than ever. Certainty is not equal to security.
For the first time in my life, I am content, not striving for more or anxious for the next step. There are a lot of things I have left behind, at least for now. I still love the Scriptures, still love to sing together on a Sunday morning, to whisper a bedtime prayer with my children, to share communion with my family. Although it isn’t easy, I have finally found a home where I can belong to a community of people, despite differences, and begin the difficult work of learning to love one another. For that I am thankful.
I still don’t know where I am going on this journey. But the mist has lifted and the view has opened up spectacularly. I am able to look back with thankfulness about where I have come from and look ahead with hopefulness about where I am headed. The terrain will change again, no doubt, but I am not afraid of the uncertainty. I only need to keep walking.