Counsel the Doubtful: Embrace the Freedom, Open Your Heart to Doubt

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By Sister Amanda Carrier 

In this year’s Lenten reflection series, seven sisters offer their personal stories and insights on each of the Spiritual Works of Mercy and how acts of mercy can have a profound impact on the lives of our sisters and brothers. Accompanying these reflections are line drawings by Sister Mary Clare Agnew, a contemporary of Catherine McAuley, which illustrate the Sisters of Mercy in ministry in 1830s Ireland. 

I wanted to be a NASA rocket scientist — literally. So when I went off to college, studying aerospace engineering made logical sense. However, one semester into the program I began having serious doubts about my path. I was good at physics, loved rocketry, and outer space was fascinating. Yet I wondered if I would truly be happy. I doubted if my would-be purpose could really fulfill me. I had to ask, “Is this all there is? Isn’t there something more?” 

I could not imagine what “more” looked like and I knew I didn’t have all the answers. I felt nervous about sharing this part of my journey with others, and I feared they wouldn’t understand my doubts. Eventually, I turned to my professor, guidance counselors and to prayer. I even asked a campus minister, who had once been an engineer, how he made such a drastic career change. It is fortunate that I doubted my path, because the questions I needed to ask about my future also helped me to know myself better and to discern my call to religious life. Yet many people talk about doubt like it’s a bad thing and, for many, it carries a negative connotation.  

Calling a person a “doubting Thomas” is at best a sarcastic quip, and at worst a derisive insult. It implies a shameful lack of faith, anxiety or bitter animosity. So it’s hard to value doubting, especially in a world that elevates brash certainty and too often divides people into ideological camps. Being ashamed of doubting leaves us locked in place, unable to grow. Without the inner freedom to embrace our doubts we lose a way past our limited vision. Take away the moral judgment commonly attached to doubt and we are left with simple uncertainty. Doubt, then, is the freedom to know that we do not know, and to lean into the unknown.  

Theologian Bernard Lonergan, SJ wrote about the importance of the unknown. He explained that questioning what we think we know, and even what we knew existed, moves us forward. Lonergan described the exploration of our doubts and limitations as seeking new horizons within ourselves thus expanding our field of vision. Doubting can open our hearts and our minds to new questions and ideas, to horizons we never noticed before. Therefore, engaging doubt can begin a process of transformation and conversion, but it all starts with admitting that we do not know.  

Answering God’s call to a new horizon requires us to prayerfully engage with doubt in a way that challenges what we even knew to be possible. Doubt creates the opportunity to reconsider what we thought was true, what we thought was certain. Doubting then can be a sacred moment, a moment that allows us to enter into the mystery of God, of our self and of a new calling. Jesus frequently asked people to step into that mystery and turn conventional wisdom on its head. He gave us several parables that ask us to doubt what seemed obvious. What shepherd in their right mind would leave ninety-nine perfectly good sheep in the wilderness to find one stubborn one? What woman would light all her costly candles to find one small coin? Who could have even imagined that death, especially death on a cross, could lead to new life? 

During this season of Lent, a season of renewal and recommitment, engage with your doubts. Ask yourself if there is a new truth God is offering you despite what you once thought was certain? I invite you to take these 40 days to imagine what new life God is offering you just beyond the next horizon.