The Writing is in the Sand

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of languishing in the rugged and remote beauty of the West Coast. After two incredibly busy months I needed some rest, and was delighted to make my annual birthday trip to Britannia bay.

As a result of several circumstances (mostly detailed here), I was in something of a hopeless place. On a long walk on the beach I was able to explore my restless machinations and frustrations, finally settling on a peace of sand just meters from the shoreline. I began to find myself writing in the sand, and it’s hard to fully describe what happened next.

I landed up writing a little sentence, which has been the most encouraging and life giving one to me over the past two months. Sitting in the sand I was fully aware that the previous spiritual hubris that had characterized my faith and life was gone and I was left in a confusingly vacuous space.The simple words that although I wrote, I believe were from God as powerful reminder of his heart and wisdom in the matter. It simply said:

I’m not looking for certainty, but faith.

To some this may seem obvious, simplistic or even naive – but to me it was and is life giving. Where before I had taken pleasure in my intellectual or theological structuring, when these seemed to collapse around me, I was able to be held in a space where I was OK. This is perhaps most beautifully been captured by Tennyson in his poem In Memoriam (my emphasis):

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

Our systems have their day then they cease to be. Of course we should strive for doctrinal clarity, and theological thought, but they must never be the ultimate aspect of our reaching for God. That must always be faith. The author of Hebrews knows this well when he reminds us: “And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.” (Heb 11:6). I can’t always do knowing, but I can do faith and seeking.

This short story perfectly captivates the essence of this paradox:

In 1975, the Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh, went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer to some spiritual stuggles. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. He answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.”

When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” Mother Teresa laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

Perhaps this is a more life giving journey that I would have initially thought. The journey from being a proud ideologue, to a reticent skeptic, to finally being allowed to abide in a more authentic faith.  Sometimes we need the reminder that  what is required is faith and not certainty.


* Photo Courtesy Ken Kirsten, my edit.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    You so speak my language. I’ve been meditating on Ps 84:5-7. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength till each appears before God in Zion. We see the blessed ones are those who’ve set their hearts (made it their goal or focus) on pilgrimage. Something that is so counter-cultural. We want to plan and be in control of every step of our journey. A pilgrim has little idea of what lies ahead. No certainty, but going on a journey with God, following the Shepherd. I believe this is what we’re called to, to trust and follow. I’ve found that eventually the need to know fades and the journey becomes an adventure with a deep sense that God is trustworthy. We see in the above verses that these people go from strength to strength until the day we stand face to face with our Maker.


  2. Lara Johnson says:

    You have such a captivating style of writing. This particular piece catapulted towards my heart and soul – pulling at, and enhancing strings where my faith was perhaps stronger than others… And unraveling areas that felt rather ‘knotted’ or self-controlled. What a freeing experience, and what better place is there to be? As we let go of our need for certainty or answers, and instead have pure faith, we tend to rely more on – and draw closer to – the One in whom we put our faith in, allowing us to ultimately relax in trustworthiness and be excited in anticipation of the outcome.


  3. torturedwonders says:

    Thanks for both responses. Appreciated and wisdom there!


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