My son and I have interesting conversations these days. Steven was born with a soft, compassionate heart and a desire to make the world a better place. He has also been a seeker, trying to find God in many ways and consistently asking thoughtful questions as our family actively participated in the rituals and practices of Catholicism. He was probably the most challenging member of his Confirmation cohort, though he did decide to be confirmed in the Catholic Church. Now in his late 20’s, he has become deeply attached to the Buddhist tradition, and actively volunteers and teaches at a Buddhist meditation center.
Steven and I talk about the similarities and differences between Buddhist meditation and Christian contemplative prayer (which is my preferred prayer style). We explore the common commands to care for creation and to honor the dignity and respect due to each person. He inspires me with his commitment to being a vegetarian in order to do no harm to other creatures of the earth. He asks earnest questions of me about my beliefs, and I of him. In the process, even though I have a Master’s degree in pastoral studies from a Jesuit institution, I admit that I am learning even more about my own faith, reflecting an adage that I learned as a youth – “If you want to truly understand something, try explaining it to someone else.” It is an enriching process, and I am constantly challenged to grow, clarify, and expand my thinking.
I have met many Catholics who lament such questioning of faith. However, I am encouraged about this process when I think of Nicodemus. He was a lifelong faithful Jew, a leader of his faith community, and a respected member of the Sanhedrin. He first came to Jesus at night, under cover of darkness. Perhaps he wasn’t sure enough of his budding faith to allow it into the light or admit it publicly. Perhaps given the vitriol of the debates in the Sanhedrin over Jesus, he may have felt that making his faith known risked his professional life and reputation. Or perhaps he didn’t want to risk affiliation with this young upstart in case his investigation yielded nothing. Regardless, he was willing to challenge his own beliefs and participate in discussions. His first tentative meeting intrigued him enough to keep coming back, trying to understand more deeply. He asked sincere questions, and listened even when Jesus’ answers seemed confusing (which they often were). Eventually he learned to genuinely embrace Jesus, and he became a disciple.
Nicodemus and Steven, as well as countless saints and prophets, remind me that questioning and searching are good, in and of themselves. They prompt us to go deeper rather than rely on surface assumptions or complacent belief in what we’ve “always been taught.” People of other faiths and our own young people demand this of us. In a country where almost 13% of those ages 18 – 25 are former Catholics (including my son, at least for now), I wonder whether we as a Church have failed in our ability to listen, to engage in sincere dialogue, to assume the other has something to teach us, and to be open to changing ourselves as God reveals truths in unlikely places beyond the safety of our church walls. I wonder if we rely too much on Pharisaical adherence to laws, exclusion of those who dare question or dissent, and rigid assertions of righteousness. Indeed, many of Steven’s friends have totally closed the door to anything having to do with Catholicism because of these attitudes, and it’s not likely they will ever come back.
I don’t know where Steven’s questioning will lead him. He may return to the Catholic faith of his youth at some point, or he may become a lifelong Buddhist. Wherever it leads, I know that I will love him, continue our discussions, and keep an open heart to ways his practice can inform and deepen my own. I also know that, as Jesus told Nicodemus, the Spirit blows where it will, even though we cannot see it, and that the Spirit often moves in hearts open to seeking God and truth. I know that God is at work not only in my son but also in me.
Along the way, I pray that just as the early disciples were witnesses to all those around them, both in their teachings and in the selfless ways in which they lived their lives, so I, too, may be a living witness in word and deed to the grace and faith that I’ve been given. I pray to be an instrument of God’s healing and love. I pray for wisdom to know what to say and when. Finally, I pray that I may allow the Spirit to blow freely, in Steven’s heart and in my own.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.