Someone is waiting for you
By Dean Gary Jones
I have not told many people this story, but it feels like the right time for me to do so. For much of my time as a parish priest, I have taught, preached, and counseled people with a sense of inner humility and uncertainty. “Humility” probably sounds too virtuous to describe what I often felt when talking with people about God and ultimate things. “Uncertainty” is a little clearer, tinged with at least a little fear. As God said to Job, “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And when counseling others, I sometimes thought, “If only I could follow my own advice.”
But for all my uncertainty, the simple words of Paul Tillich also stayed with me: “Doubt is an integral part of faith.” If we are absolutely certain about something, Tillich said, then that “something” cannot be God. Our finite, human capacities are incapable of embracing God with certainty. We can have a deep and unmistakable feeling of being grasped by God, Tillich said, but we can never entirely grasp, comprehend, or get our arms around God. The finite cannot encapsulate the Infinite. Therefore, doubt and uncertainty will always be necessary components of faith.
This is the part I haven’t spoken about much, except with Cherry and a couple of others. Like many of you, I have had experiences. There have been moments when I have felt unmistakably that the Infinite wishes to be known. And not just known intellectually, but intimately and tenderly. My uncertainty is not erased in such moments, but it feels right to say that it is somehow transfigured. My uncertainty in such moments is not about the veracity of the experience. Instead, there is an intuition that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
One of those experiences happened over ten years ago, after I was suddenly diagnosed with cancer but needed to know more before telling anyone. So, under the guise of having to attend a church conference, I secretly left town with a close friend to get a more thorough diagnosis and to learn about possible treatments. Besides Cherry, I told only my spiritual mentor, Eldridge, an Episcopal monk in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And after several days of biopsies and scans at the Mayo Clinic, the chief of oncology said they were checking me into the hospital immediately to begin 24-hour chemotherapy, in isolation, for a week, because they had determined that the cancer I had was exceptionally dangerous, difficult to treat, and had grown rapidly in the few days I had been at the Mayo Clinic.
With this unexpected turn of events, Cherry and I were now shaken about how we should talk with our children. My trip out of town was intended to give us some time and space to think about how to speak with them in person. Now, I was far away from all of them, with a tenuous grasp on life and a very uncertain future. I was hooked up to several IV’s and a heart monitor, and eventually the nurse said goodnight, turned off the light and closed the door to my room, assuring me that they would be constantly monitoring my heart from the nurses’ desk. The only sound then was the periodic beep of the IV machine next to my bed. And I began to cry.
Sleep was impossible, and the only thing I knew to do was to meditate, to release myself to God, as my monastic friends had taught me through the years. I was still distraught, but after a while, my tears stopped and my breathing slowed. And in the darkness, with my eyes closed, I sensed a small, loving light that centered me, drew me, and calmed me. And then I sensed, somehow beyond linear time, Cherry, Eldridge, and others praying for me, loving me, while an mistakable and abiding Presence welcomed me. Peace.
That’s when someone suddenly all but kicked open my hospital room door, turned on all the lights, and rushed to my bed shouting, “Mr. Jones! Mr. Jones! Are you all right?!” The heart monitor at the nurses’ desk showed that my heart had slowed inexplicably low, the nurse told me, and they just wanted to be sure. I had no idea what that was all about, and I told her I was fine. She left, and I gradually returned to my time of meditation. It took a while to sense only a glimmer of what I had unmistakably experienced before, and that’s when the nurse burst into the room again! Of course, I realized what was happening and told her I was sorry, that I had been praying and meditating. (A humorous illustration of the intersection of science and religion, if you ask me.)
But that experience, and others like it in my life, have stayed with me – an intuition, through all my doubts and uncertainties, that “someone is waiting for us,” something many of you know about, as well. A famous theologian named Jurgen Moltmann expresses what many of us now feel. It is not a dogmatic or arrogant certainty; it is more of a tender and abiding conviction of faith, something that feels deeply reliable, almost as if it’s just the tip of the iceberg:
“Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love.”
- Moltmann, The Source of Life
This is a primary insight and treasure of faith: that you are not alone, that Someone is waiting for you. It’s one of the main reasons I meditate, and it’s a reason I especially enjoy meditating with others – not because I have such beautiful and affirming experiences regularly. I don’t. Rather, I simply have a sense of returning home, a sense of returning to a hope that feels reliable to me, and a sweet sense when I am meditating with others that, as Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
“In the stillness of the quiet,
if we listen, we can hear
the whisper in the heart
giving strength to weakness,
courage to fear,
hope to despair.”
- Howard Thurman
See the original post and additional reflections at contemplativechapel.org