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  • David Carlson

901: Doubt is not an enemy. The desire for certainty is.

Day 901: Saturday, September 3, 2022

Doubt is not an enemy. The desire for certainty is. If we know who we are, everything else will fall into place.

(Beth greeting a friend at Joan Chittister's Play in Santa Rosa)

I find this reflection by Brother Toby to be especially appropriate in light of the passing of Beth Jordan. Beth had a tremendous sense of courage, curiosity and doubt - especially about the institutional, dogmatic Church. Her Church was human -- a place by and for people. The trappings of big churches and church wealth didn't mean much, if anything to Beth. She served and celebrated and understood our grace, our weaknesses and our desire to be immersed in the Spirit and be fed. Simple, deep things. She loved community and built it wherever she was. Beth never met a stranger. How remarkable it was to be with her and meet people who recognized her in so many different places!

Beth understood that doubt was an important part of her faith, her heart, her imagination. She also understood that many of the churchmen she met desired certainty as they tried to impose their will under the guise of "Father knows best." That would bring on a roll of her eyes, a slight smirk and a knowing sigh. Men could be so delusional in their certainty! Brother Toby thinks of Mother Teresa as the saint of fearless doubt. I think of Beth Jordan as ours: Great doubt: great awakening. No doubt: no awakening

(El Paso immigrant helpers in 2019 led by Sister Mary Waskowiak)

Holy Doubt

Many Buddhist teachers advise their students that to travel the sacred path three virtues are required: great courage, great faith, and great doubt.

In Western religion, we generally considered doubt as a weakness or even sinfulness. This attitude has caused unnecessary pain through the centuries.

Years ago, with the help of Sister Marti (1939-2006), I began collecting notes and writing essays for a book called HOLY DOUBT: A Spiritual Odyssey Toward Personhood.

Ultimately, I decided not to write that book. However, these notes eventually became a chapter titled “Holy Doubt” in my book Three Gifts for Spiritual Wayfarers (2018). Time and time again, I have come to appreciate that doubt plays a vital role in any spiritual path.

(Picnic at Beth's place 2022)

Most of us want certainty when it comes to spiritual matters, and doubt is a hindrance. In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Jesus was found again wandering the streets and doing good. The Cardinal Inquisitor had Jesus arrested and said, “You have no right to add anything to what you have said of old … Why then have you come back to hinder us?”

Which of us has not held, at some time, a view similar to the Cardinal’s about some spiritual matter that we wanted to be certain and resolved? And yet, we had some doubt.

(Wise women Rosemary and Beth)

Many years ago, a friend of mine was filming a documentary about a fundamentalist Christian group in the Appalachian Mountains. Part of the ritual was to pass around a poisonous snake. It was frightening when the time came to pass the snake to children. Yet, generally, nothing bad happened. I wonder if this isn't what all of us do concerning creeds and dogmas, belief or disbelief. Is there a better way than passing along a poisonous snake?

Some people, believers and nonbelievers alike, have been attracted to Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), not so much by the things she did in caring for the dying and serving the poor in many ways — but by her doubt. A strong sense of the presence of God led her into the life she led. But, as we discovered after her death, for the last 51 years of her life she was unable to feel the presence of God and was frequently confused and even frightened.

Once Mother Teresa wrote, “Such terrible darkness within me, everything is icy cold…Sometimes the pain is so great I feel that everything will break.”

But she did not break, did she? She went on with her work and her life, and along the way she collected a Nobel Prize and after her death was named a saint. I did not always agree with the way she did things or the causes she had advocated, but if someone calls her the patron saint of doubters, I don't disagree!

(More wise women Alice and Beth)

Once during the AIDS pandemic, Mother Teresa visited a little chapel that members of her order had helped people living with AIDS put together, in their house in Oakland, California. Among the usual Catholic symbols, there was a Buddha. When Mother Teresa came to this Buddha, she turned around, shrugged, and smiled. I took that shrug to mean, “Well, who knows?” And I think of her every time I see the little Buddha that is in our chapel here at Starcross.

I was sitting at a meeting next to the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987) when someone asked him about “doubt”. Rogers simply quoted the Danish existential theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), “Just be that self which you truly are.”

The unknown 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing put it more colorfully, “Swink and sweat in all that thou canst and get thou a true knowing and a feeling of thyself as thou art; and soon after that thou shall have a true knowing and a feeling of God as he is.”

I suspect that Mother Teresa did something like that. Doubt is not an enemy. The desire for certainty is. If we know who we are, everything else will fall into place.

To quote a Zen teacher once again, “Great doubt: great awakening. No doubt: no awakening.”

(Picnic at Beth's place with Victoria, Mary and Pat (all wise women)

Announcement and Reminder from Annette Lomont

Living Into the Council with Francis at St. Ignatius Parish in San Francisco -- and live online:

Get all the information through this link:

When Pope Francis called for a Synod on Synodality, late in 2021, he was continuing a process begun in the Second Vatican Council—that revolutionary meeting of bishops from around the world, which turned the altar towards the people and the Church towards the world.

This fall, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the convening of Vatican II, St. Ignatius Parish will host a six-part series inviting all of us to encounter this Council and its continuing effects for the Catholic community.

To Francis, who has proclaimed “the Council is the Magisterium of the Church,” the call of Vatican II is a mandate to the whole People of God to engage the world and the Church with a new heart: a heart filled with hope and promise, a heart that can embrace the world with the mercy of God.

In this series, scholars from across the country will come to St. Ignatius Church, inviting us to encounter the principal documents of the Council (i.e., the four major “Constitutions” below) in a new way, and calling us to see how these documents point us towards the Church that we, as God’s People, can create.

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