Note: This is the second in a series of eight reflections over the season of Easter on making a pilgrimage of resurrection.
"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nail marks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." ~ John 20:24-25
"Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. We joyfully announce it. [And yet] I realize that my faith and unbelief are never far from each other. Maybe it is exactly at the place where they touch each other that the growing edge of my life is." ~ Henri Nouwen
When we set out on pilgrimage, we often feel full of hope and possibility. When we begin our creative practice, we may feel fully committed to daily art-making. Then life intervenes. We have a difficult day, our car breaks down, the bills start piling up, or we get sick with a cold that is difficult to shake. Or more challenging, someone close to us is seriously ill. A family member starts demanding more attention.
A pilgrimage of resurrection does not mean we deny the reality of life's challenges and suffering. It calls us to enter whole-heartedly into whatever life brings us, paying attention to the invitation of each moment. Sometimes resurrection feels very far away and we cry out for some sort of proof that life is fundamentally good and that beauty sustains all things. This is why I love the story of Thomas.
Over eleven years ago my mother died quite suddenly. I was with her through those last five days of her life in the ICU, in that dreadful and holy threshold space where death beckoned. In the year that followed I was filled with grief at the hollowness that loss had created in me. The second year I had hoped would begin to ease but in some ways was even more challenging than the first. I still had the ache of sorrow but also a deep doubt had emerged in my prayer and reflection. They were the doubts of someone who loved deeply and wanted to understand why death is woven into the fabric of the universe, the doubts of someone angry with God.
The theological framework that had sustained me for many years began to unravel. I had wrestled with this question of suffering and death before, but this doubt felt different. I sometimes felt like I was hovering on the edge of a dark canyon. Sometimes, too, life felt unbearably sweet and beautiful. Both were present in my days. I am grateful that I had the support of my husband and friends, and especially my spiritual director who encouraged me to stay with those places of doubt and darkness. He wisely counseled that moving toward my doubt and staying present was the only way to understand it, to eventually walk through to the other side. I was given permission in our time together to not try and figure out what I believed but to experience what was true for me.
I found being in nature profoundly healing and creative expression essential. The wild spaces of creation — both inner and outer — offered me a place to be with my unknowing, to rest into mystery without having to try and figure things out. Wildness is hard to pin down, that is its gift. It offers us the unexpected when we set aside our expectations about how the world works. I also found art-making to be a profound place of being able to work with my doubts in color and shape, rather than deny them.
The gifts for me of embracing doubt as a spiritual practice have been many. I have grown in my capacity to rest into the tensions of life. I question long-held assumptions. I am more embracing of mystery. Being with doubt takes courage, especially when the world around us wants us to have certainty again.
If we're really honest with ourselves, in a world where terrible things happen, there must be room made for doubt, for wrestling honestly and fiercely with the essential questions of our lives. And if we're still being honest with ourselves, in a world where beautiful and transcendent things happen, there must also be room for something bigger than what we traditionally call faith or belief; it is a deeper kind of knowing, one that emerges from blood and bone — moments when we finally feel at home in the world and can breathe deeply.
One of the many reasons I love monastic spirituality and am a Benedictine Oblate is that I find in this path a call to practice hospitality, humility, contemplative ways of being, a movement toward radical simplicity, and service shaped by love. I don't have to "believe" something in particular, but practice is the heart of things. I can doubt and still practice. Practice is embodied, much the way that Thomas wanted to touch the wounds. Practice helps me to be in touch with the incarnational realities of my life.
Is my practice of the enlivening and transforming power of creativity embodied in how I actually perform the daily tasks of my day? Do I enflesh the things I say I value most?
These are some of the questions that pilgrimage asks us to consider. Art-making is one way to live into an answer.
At Abbey of the Arts, we are inviting the community to make a commitment to practice creativity daily in celebration of my new book being released in May 2015 The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within (Ave Maria Press). Please join us (details available at this post).