A young man appeared at my office door. Already a sign that something was up, as today’s students prefer to approach life electronically. Why talk when you can text? Even more ominously, he had lowered his headphones.
Though I don’t know him well, he wanted to ask about his grandfather, who is dying. He’d been giving that a lot of thought. What does his grandfather’s death mean, if there is no afterlife? Life after death is one of the ideas he jettisoned a couple of years ago, when he parted company with the Catholic Church. Though, as he put it, Catholicism is still part of his identity, still something he someday wants to share with his children. He simply no longer believes most of what the Church teaches. Until now … maybe.
As he put it, “Can I begin to believe in an afterlife because my grandfather is dying? What does that say about my own judgment, that my beliefs are based upon fear and need?”
“Plenty of people have said as much about religion.”
“But I thought I had religion settled. Now it’s come open again, and I don’t know what to do.”
“I think that’s what happens in college. Life opens and closes.”
“But how can I believe and not believe at the same time? How can I pray to a God whom I’m not sure that I believe in?”
“We all pray to a God we don’t fully believe in. No one can claim to possess a mystery, and, whatever else God is, God is surely that. That’s why we pray like the fellow in St. Mark’s Gospel, who told the Lord, “I do believe. Help my unbelief!” (9:24).
“So, what should I do now?”
“Have you thought about Mass next Sunday?”
“Too far, too fast.”
“Okay. Well, you’re already doing one thing that’s essential to a life of faith.”
“Yes. You’re asking questions of life. That’s how we experience God in this life. Whatever mystery God is, we encounter God by pondering the meaning of our lives. Think about it. We’re the only creatures on earth who keep asking what life means. That’s what you’re doing in college, what you’re doing now, in this office. Life hits each of us full in the face, but only a person of faith asks what it means. You are a person of faith, because you’re questioning the meaning of life, of your life.”
“You know, I think that’s a problem with my generation. We never unplug enough really to think.”
“You’re right, but every generation finds ways to ignore life’s questions. Some people do that with ease, and some people, like yourself, can’t help but to ponder what it all means.”
“But will my questions ever have an answer?”
“Yes and no. They’ll never stop. By the time this question has settled into your soul, you’ll be on to new ones. Pondering life doesn’t end. Each answered question leads to another one, but we change, we ripen, as we ask those questions. Put it this way, we don’t find final answers; but, if we seek long enough, the answer finds us.
The mystics report that one crucial element of a mystical experience is the sense that every detail of their life, in that mystical moment, makes sense. Everything suddenly, and ever so briefly, appears purposeful. For the rest of us, there’s Judgment Day, which isn’t so much about what we’ve done as it is God finally revealing what it all meant. I’ve always thought that what we’ve done, or failed to do, will be quite obvious in the light of that explanation.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. So what do I do now?”
“What you’re already doing. Asking questions. Trying to pray. Though I always tell people like you that it’s important to offer God a grand gesture. It doesn’t change God’s openness to you. It opens you to God.”
“Like paying a visit to church. Or sitting awhile with a Bible. Lighting a candle. Taking time to stare at nature. Listening to a song that moves you. You need to show God that you’re open, that you’ve heard a voice—even one you don’t believe in.”
“I gotta go to class right now.”
“So do I. But the questions will continue to call. Try to find time to answer.”
Off to class for both of us.
“At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people” (Dan 12:1). As the Church’s year draws to a close, we turn our attention to where it all began: history. Only human beings truly live in history; only humans create history; and, most importantly, only humans question history. For the religions of the West, God is revealed in our stories. As Christians, we believe that history itself has been touched by God in the person of Jesus the Christ, that all of history leads into, and out from, his person.
That’s virtually all we know of history. That it matters. That it’s meaningful. That it’s Christic. That’s why to be a person of faith is ever to question history, our history, the days of our lives. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13: 31-32). God is not an answer we possess. God is question we can’t stop posing as we ponder life.
Daniel 12: 1-3 Hebrews 10: 11-14, 18 Mark 13: 24-32
(Rev.) Terrance W. Klein