Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cloud Of Unknowing

When I was a child, I thought priests knew everything.

In grade school, when we stumped Sister with a question, she would often say, "You can ask father that question next time he comes."

What a shock it was when I became a priest and discovered priests don't know everything. What a consolation, as I grow older, to realize nobody has all the answers, that in fact, our relationship with God naturally leads us to stand under a cloud of unknowing.

I suspect the Baltimore Catechism, with its question and answer format, led me to assume that the Church had it all down pat. Such naiveté has since given way to the realization that we always have more to learn.

Jesus' use of parables and paradox is a clue that we are invited to explore, to think things through, to contrast the wisdom and values of the world against the values and wisdom of the kingdom.

Jesus tells puzzling stories: "The kingdom of heaven is like mustard like a treasure buried in a like yeast." And the values he proposes are outlandish: "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you...if your right eyes causes you to sin, tear it out...offer no resistance to one who is evil."

Jesus' simple invitation, "Come, follow me," tells us something about the way he works. He didn't say where he was going, how he would get there, and what would happen after he arrived. In a very real sense he kept his disciples in the dark. His ominous "If you would be my disciple you must pick up your cross and come after me" was totally honest, but not very revealing.

As a student of theology, I thought Thomas Aquinas was a giant. It was somewhat disconcerting to learn that after compiling his Summa Theologiae, he concluded that all he had written was just straw.

And I read that at the end of his life Michelangelo said something similar about his work: "It's just dust!"

These conclusions are not depressing but freeing. They stem from one of those "aha" moments which mark the beginning of wisdom. We think we're so smart, so talented, so in control, and finally it dawns on us that it all belongs to God.

Admitting that I don't know very much about God or his plan for creation opens me to seeing life as an adventure. God's insistence on faith rather than knowledge prompts us to take risks, to be open to discovery, to grow.

It's pretty clear that God is never content to leave us where we are. The divine plan calls us to be pilgrim people. We are always in process.

The Bible describes Abraham as a wandering Aramean. Moses spent much of his life as a displaced person or the leader of a people on sojourn. Jesus called the twelve disciples "apostles," a title which means "those who are sent."

Movement, discovery, pursuit of wisdom are all characteristics of God's people. I should not then be surprised that not only do I not know everything, but in fact I don't even know what God has in store for me.

This "standing in the mystery" is sometimes tough, but when I can finally "let go," God has some marvelous surprises waiting under that "cloud of unknowing."

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