Jones: Doubt

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” —Alan Jones.

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I first heard this quote attributed to Alan Jones, former dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, at a Trinity Wall Street conference at Kanuga in 2001. It warmed my heart when I heard Jones affirm this, and I have shared it with so many others since. Anne Lamott is also a writer and speaker to whom many attribute the quote. Theological friends tell me it is actually from Paul Tillich’s work, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 116-117! I will stop here at tracking it down; but I am certain the sentence is scriptural in its wisdom as well. I share it with so many who come for spiritual direction in regard to their doubts.

Jones, in his book, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality, writes about doubt and the finding and nurturing of the soul according to the spirituality of the Desert Fathers. The spirituality of the desert involves encountering God; but subsequently feeling God’s absence; and then experiencing the divine joy of God’s presence again. Jones describes this threefold experience of soul making after an awakening with the first conversion that entails self-knowledge, often with tears; the second conversion, in which things seem to fall apart; and the third conversion, that occurs when we enter the life of contemplation.

These awakening periods have recurred for me at so many times along the way: at church camps; when I suddenly decided to go to medical school; during my discernment process for the diaconate; and at Cursillo.. The conversion of self-knowledge with tears came to me, as well as the falling apart, when I decided my only hope was to enter a 12-step program. It also came when people close to me: my grandfather, my mother, my father, and my brother died—and it applies now, as my mobility becomes more and more limited.

Often only at the death of a loved one do we recognize clearly the nature of true love. Jones describes the tears that come as like the breaking of waters of the womb before the birth of a child. The task of love as it is experienced in the “desert” is to free us of our well-built-up exoskeleton.

Soul making is paying attention to things invisible that do not lend themselves to manipulation and control. It requires receptivity to the life of the mystic rather than that of being the problem solver. Too often we instead spend most of our energy building up our frail ego by setting before it dozens and dozens of small situations—while the life of the soul is aborted. If the world is to change, then we must change first; and that happens when we live more deeply into our questions and doubts. Sharing our doubt can sometimes bring us together more effectively than sharing our faith, as our faith often then eventually becomes stronger. It is a paradox.


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Just in time for the holidays

A Spiritual Rx for Advent Christmas, and Epiphany

The Sequel to A Spiritual Rx for Lent and Easter

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All Money from sale of the books goes either to Camp Mitchel Camp and Conference Center in Arkansas or Hurricane Relief in the Diocese of Central Gulf Coast