Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Trouble With Certainty

Help Me Listen

O Holy One,
I hear and say so many words,
yet yours is the word I need.
Speak now,
and help me listen;
and if what I hear is silence,
let it quiet me,
let it disturb me,
let it touch my need,
let if break my pride,
let it shrink my certainties,
let it enlarge my wonder.
-- From Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle


Since I, along with most of us, "hear and say so many words," in later postings I want to write more about words, about what they can do, and what they can't. But let me start by explaining why I wrote, and pray, for God's silence to "shrink my certainties."

In short, it's because certainties so easily interfere with listening and hearing words, especially if they convey something different than we're certain about - new ideas, another view, a difficult perhaps unanswerable question, a challenge to a cherished if partial truth. Words have a tough, often impossible time shrinking our certainties. Silence does that better if we can listen deeply to it.

The other reason for my petition is that there are many fewer certainties in life that I think or certainly wish there were. As a kid growing up, grown ups would often repeat that old adage, "The only certainties in life are death and taxes." Well, apparently for lots of people who find ways around them, taxes are not so certain. And while dying is certain, are we really sure that death is? Permanently?

I confess I like and want certainty as much as anyone. But when we kick back and quietly ponder it, are our opinions, convictions, creeds, allegiances as totally certain as we insist they are? Well, honestly mine aren't! Does that disqualify me as a person of faith? Please, God, it doesn't.

In fact, I believe being totally certain of much would be more likely to raise questions about my faith. To me, faith is not a state of certainty but a process of trusting and daring to walk when and where we can't see, going toward and with an Other who's ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts. Faith is about listening beyond certainty for something different, new, liberating, some ongoing creating/creative spirit, some quiet summons to live compassionately, humbly, generously, boldly, gratefully and with a strange, even joyful openness to the mystery of God's grace.

Before you read one of Wendell Berry's most profound and moving poems about that mystery, I'd like to quote and emphasize its closing lines. "That we do not know you/ is your perfection/ and our hope. The darkness/ keeps us near you."

So, I trust, does the silence and listening to it.

To the unseeable animal

My daughter: “I hope there’s an animal somewhere than nobody has ever seen. And I hope nobody ever sees it.”

“Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they're dark and the foxes
have crept up to their edges.
I have come across pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods’ shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have waked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope. The darkness
keeps us near you.”
Wendell Berry
--From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint Press)

Think about it, Ted


  1. I've never posted a comment before. How deep does one go? Who reads the omments? It feels like it matters now, this time. But I want to write. Just now, that your words save me from brittleness. How can you have known to write "faith is not a state of certainty but a process of daring to trust to walk where and when we cannot see, going toward and with an Other whose ways are not our ways...liberating...". Your words unlock me from the brittle power of my anger at God, puny as it is. You invite, you don't bully, you invite me out of my dead end. But I forget. I go back behind it and root myself there again. But you call with this different message, me from my hiding place where it is lonely and sad and angry. Thanks. Thanks. The thing you're talking about is too staggering to get, but you make it real for me, time and time and again. If I were brave enough to reach out, you'd be lending me courage. I almost think I can.

  2. I so love your poetry that I discovered not long ago when a friend gave me your book, Guerrillas of Grace, as a gift. I am loving it! I was wanting to share your poem, I claim your power to create, on my website as a beginning encouragement for non professionals to share their artwork. I would, of course, site your book and would love to lead others to your blog as well. Would that be okay? My site is www.spiritual-direction.com if you would like to check it out before giving your permission. Thank-you for your response.

  3. Hi again. I am still wanting to place your poetic prayer, I Claim your Power to Create, on my website but I really want your permission to do so. I am going to use it to begin a "book" on the site www.spiritual-direction.com, of artistic endeavours. Could you let me know as soon as you are able whether you would be okay with this? You could respond here or lynda@spiritual-direction.com - Thank-you so much!