The main obstacle to faith in the world is the problem of suffering and evil. In our own lives, we encounter sin in such a way that it leaves deep patterns of disorder and confusion, and these form into layers of lies and illusion. In the world at large, evil seems to give testimony against the idea that all of this has been created and ordained by a loving God who wants our happiness. Thus, sin and suffering are the fundamental confrontation of the Christian life, the existential moment in which the individual must either accept and turns toward God or decide an alternative route to take.
To answer the problem of evil and suffering is not so much a matter of abstract theorizing or intellectual curiosity. Although academic speculation is important, the answer that humans long for is something more. The answer must be nothing short of God himself, that encounter with the Divine in which the heart comes to a place of stillness in the midst of the turmoil and pain that evil causes. Along these lines, our hearts only discover the answer to sin and suffering when they walk the path of conversion and discover God’s will in the midst of the pain.
In this way, we must discover how all the suffering and sorrow that sin has caused us is not the result of circumstances that are beyond the control of God, but rather that all the events of our lives have been allowed precisely for the sake of our salvation. If we are going to be saints, it will not be in spite of all the sin and suffering in our life, but in the way that we discover God in the midst of the storm. In the mystery of our lives, we must learn to accept and believe that all things work for the good of those who believe. In this is not so much a hypothesis that can be demonstrated by the scientific method, but a profound mystery that must be embraced.
Thus, discovering God in all things involves the discovery of the path of unknowing. Instead of relying our own limited powers of understanding, we must learn to surrender everything with complete abandonment. Instead of asserting our delusional belief that we have a right to know and understand, we must constantly bury our egos under a cloud of unknowing. We must allow ourselves to come to that place in which we recognize our limitations, our weakness, and our ignorance of the profound depths of reality. In this way, we must learn to say, “Not me, but you. Not my ways, but your ways.” Much of the confusion that distorts our vision is precisely the rebellion of the ego against this path of self-forgetting.
This path of unknowing is not something that we can persuade others to embrace or that can be imposed upon us by an external authority. It must be freely embraced and sought by a heart that has been wounded by the things of this world in such a way that nothing short of eternity can satisfy its longing. Holy desire must fan the flames of our devotion so that we can have the courage to constantly seek the Lord in all things.
The path of unknowing is always linked to the cross. Our renunciation of self takes place precisely in our communion with the crucified Lord and our willingness to participate in his abandonment on the cross. Only when we have the fortitude to walk the path of the cross will we discover the new life of the resurrection. Our life will always resemble cycles of dying and rising in which the layers of egocentricity are crucified with Christ so that we can rise to new life with him. Unknowing means that we allow for these rhythms to take hold instead of fighting them.
Father VAn Heusen: Thanks for this very illuminating discussion on the path of unknowing. A former Catholic and current Buddhist, I found it very helpful, and there is much in common between what you say, and the teachings of Buddhism.