“Life is not a problem to be solved; it is an uncontrollable mystery into which we. . . enter in faith, hope, and love.” (Frederick Bauerschmidt)
The older I get, the more I resonate with the notion that life is “an uncontrollable mystery.” I cannot be certain that I fully understand the nature of reality. I perceive that I am conscious as I write this, but maybe I’m dreaming. If I am conscious, as I believe that I am, I cannot know for certain whether what I perceive is completey accurate, due to all sorts of perceptual and cognitive errors that I tend to make as a human. Although I must make assumptions about important spiritual beliefs (everyone does), I cannot say for certain whether there is a god or what happens after I die. I cannot know what the future holds.
My desire is not to skip past these apparent truths to find short-term and illusory comfort, but rather to look deep within my tradition to understand them and to learn how to best respond. I deeply appreciate Bauerschmidt’s point that we need not think of these and other aspects of human experience as “problem[s] to be solved.” If we do, we miss the important fact that some things in life cannot be resolved that simply. Indeed, it seems essential to acknowledge and accept the uncertainties and sufferings inherent in human life. Faith and hope are very honest spiritual and psychological attitudes that are helpful in doing so.
As Bauerschmidt writes in his outstanding book, “Why the Mystics Matter Now,” there is great precedent in Christianity for this kind of honest wrestling. For instance, St. Therese of Lisieux struggled with the apparent absence of God for years. In the face of uncertainty, she committed to love. Bauerschmidt explains:
“Perhaps the genius of Therese’s spirituality is that she locates the encounter with God in the midst of what, in the modern-day world, seems most bereft of God: everyday life. She described herself as following a ‘little way’ – a spiritual path made up not of great sacrifices or extraordinary experiences, but of trying to bring the love of the crucified Jesus to the most mundane, seemingly Godless situations. . . Therese saw everyday life as constantly presenting us with opportunities to respond with love rather than anger, irritation, or disgust. . . Faithfulness to the God she could no longer see took the form of love and generosity toward [others], whom she could see. Heaven may have been closed to her, prayer may have become painful, but by her taking up the task of bringing Jesus’ love into each moment of her day, Therese sought to re-enchant those moments, even if this re-enchantment was a reality that remained hidden from her.”
My interpretation of Therese’s approach is that she wisely accepted the uncertainties she experienced and instead focused on what she could control: Her actions. She reflected on what she wanted to most characterize her everyday behavior with those she spent most time with, and she chose to commit to the sacrificial kind of love that is at the heart of Christian spirituality. As St. Paul wrote, “faith, hope, and love remain, and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)