Not to long ago, one of my children filled our home with questions about homosexuality and the church. She is 13, and I guess one might say that it is the very state of childhood and adolescence to question. Recently, with the rise of violence in our home town, she is joined by her 11 year old sister filling our house with a cacophony of questions. “Why’s” and “what if’s”. These questions are closely followed always by doubt and distrust not only in the right and wrongs, both/ands, but in the very fabric of life.
I am witnessing the strong fabric that makes up our lives including our faith, our family, and our own understanding of ourselves strain as my children, my husband and myself struggle to discover the great among goods or the answer that most fits us among varying paths of good. Doubt enters its ugly head (its two heads to be exact); a plague not only of children.
Holding space for middle-schooler’s doubt:
I remember my first classroom in 1997 being filled with eighty 5th and 6th graders who were filled with doubt. I remember spending hours upon hours the summer before planning my lessons. It took only a couple of months to realize that much of my time would be spent not just on instruction, but on counseling the doubtful. Some of their doubt spurned from distrust in their own existence, some in their distrust in the consistency/inconsistencies of their own family, and others were hearing the complexities of life with new ears.
I remember one instance being in the middle of a discussion about the commandment “Do Not Kill” and being bombarded by well thought out questions about Just War. We discussed the teachings thoroughly the entire hour of instruction time, and I remember going to bed that night feeling as though I had done my job well.
On the next day the same faces that had worked through their thoughts with assurance walked into my classroom full of doubt. How could the church teach this to be right? But my parents think that this other way is the right way! My friends think it is stupid to even care.
I remember seeing the faces submerged in a haze of doubt as they sought to ground themselves in what should have been solved simple instructions of right and wrong. The questions and the many answers that they were given were literally sending them away from their faith, their family and their own self-worth.
I realized in that moment that instruction was going to be the easy part of being an adult; while the messiness of counseling and doubt would be much more difficult for me.
Instructing is the Easy Part:
I find that we, as a people and a church, find comfort in instruction. “This should be an easy problem to solve; tell the child what is right and what is wrong—instruct them.” Instruction is good and necessary in a world full of conflict, but in this process residual doubt is left. I hear my children saying to me, “but still why, how do you choose and, if so, what does that mean for me? What is you are wrong?” When things become more complex and more confused, doubt becomes more and more evident not only in our children, but for all people.
The world is filled with people deciding who they will be. When I was a young teacher I thought this state of deciding only filled the heart of the questioning child through early adult. I now know that it is embedded in our very nature of “becoming,” and we are always becoming what God wants us to be. We are always deciding between what we will be and what we will not be. So, the doubtful path is one we share as humans.
Of Two Minds:
We are filled with doubt, a word derived from the Latin which means to be of two minds, dubious. As a result we all naturally seek counsel. The act of “counseling” weaves in and out of all of our lives as we help our family, friends and associates decide about an array of life’s decisions.
Counseling the Doubtful fills our lives today as much as it filled the letters and writings of St. Paul, who consistently advised communities. He offered a moment for the holy pause, a moment for the Holy to enter into the space between doubt and decision. In my 20 years of ministry I know this to be true, counseling the doubtful must be slow and ever-open to the Holy Spirit. A
nd, here is the really tough part for us in the 21st century: pausing of any sort is not respected. The need for counsel is seen as weak. With such platforms as Twitter and Facebook, we are given a dual reality (a reality that exist directly besides our lived one) that promotes quick and short thinking all the while validated every single thought.
How do we validate the need for counsel of the holy pause in such a world?
Starting with myself, I must train myself to listen, to pause, to seek counsel and then allow people to walk with me through life. In other words, I must live in community seeped in prayer and pause guided by scripture and the church. In living that model, I prepare myself to be a person capable of providing counsel. It cannot occur in the reverse. I cannot be good counsel if I am not preparing myself by listening not only to the doubt at hand (but by dismissing what my weaknesses thinks has occurred), creating moments where I pause and allow the holy to seep into the situation, seeking out wise counsel in the wise people around me as well as scripture and the teachings of the church, and allowing that wisdom to walk with me. Then, and only then, do I become a person of good counsel.
Putting Mercy into Action:
- Listen. Spend time practicing your listening skills. Focus on listening to understand by reflecting the speakers own words back to her. When you reflect someone’s own words back to them, they hear their own thoughts aloud which facilitates their understanding.
- Pause. Take time to pause when you have any feeling that overwhelms you. When you feel fear, anger, confusion, desperation, anxiety or any other feeling that feels “big,” take a moment and pause. Facilitate pause for other people. When someone comes to you overwhelmed with any of these feelings, invite them to stop and pause for as long as needed to allow the emotion to fall away.
- Read scripture, papal documents and good literature that pushes and forms your character. Seek advice from wise people in your life when making decisions. When you are in moments of consolation (when things are going well,) take time to read and stretch your mind and character.
- Stand with those who are going through a rough time of decision making and formation. Do not give advice and walk away. Set a calendar and check back in with those that have sought counsel from you. Too, allow good counselors to walk with you.
- Resource: And always, when needed, have telephone numbers of local Catholic Charities counselors to send people to when issues are bigger than our counsel.