Doorways to God
BILL TONER SJ :: I had an appointment with an eye specialist recently. I was supposed to do a test first, but when I reached the address on Eccles Street that I had written in my diary, I was told that the test took place in a building further down the street. It is important to go through the right doorway to find what we are looking for. If you are supposed to see an eye specialist and end up seeing an oncologist, you never know where that is going to go, or how much more expensive the tests might be.
One of the problems of finding God today is that it is very easy for us to go to the wrong doorway. The first doorway to God that we went through was pointed out to us by our parents. They taught us our first prayers. They may have told us that some things we did made God angry and that he would punish us. School was another doorway, and we learned more things about God, maybe that he made the world and was almighty and that he was everywhere.
If we go through the wrong doorway to find God, there is a danger that as we grow older, the idea of God that we built up in our mind does not stand up to scrutiny. For instance, if we are told that God is both all-powerful and all-loving, we can lose faith in that God when we are confronted with great suffering, either our own or that of people we love. Or if the doorway we enter is the Bible, and we learn there that God made the earth the centre of the universe, and then we find that he did not, we can get very confused.
All those doorways may have some truth behind them, but the fact is that God is unknowable, and we cannot easily reach him through any of them. Of course, God’s grace is always at work, and God can correct us gently as we go through life and point out better ways to reach out to him. With God all things are possible.
I suggest that the only true doorway that we can enter to find God is mystery. Because the truest thing we can say about God is that God is mysterious. The great theologians and mystics have consistently held that God is unknowable. Ineffable is another word they often use, meaning, “too great to be described in words”.
Today our world is looked at through the lens of science. Science is uncomfortable with the concept of mystery. There is an assumption in science that everything that looks like a mystery can be explained. And indeed, a lot of phenomena in the past that seemed mysterious to people were eventually explained, such as the conjunction of thunder and lightning, or the way diseases and plagues spread. So today we have got used to seeing the puzzles and enigmas of the world in terms of problems waiting to be solved, rather than mysteries that cannot be explained.
At the same time there is a dimension of human consciousness that is still able to encounter mystery, and to find questions that are unanswerable. For instance, why do we find so many things in the world beautiful, – things that confer no obvious advantage in the evolution of species. We look at wonderful vistas of lake and woodland, but also cliffs and rocky headlands, and we find them beautiful. But why? We find beauty in all kinds of things, poetry, art, music. But beauty itself remains a mysterious and elusive concept.
If we look, we find dozens of these unanswerable questions. There are mysteries everywhere. For instance, why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we search for intelligibility in the universe? Is the universe completely intelligible? Scientists seem to think it is, but why?
These questions are at the very horizon of knowledge. And we cannot see over a horizon. Questions like, Why be responsible? Why keep promises? Why should we be faithful, to a friend or to a spouse? How can we have free will if everything is caused by something else? If our brain is just a collection of atoms and molecules, how can we be self-conscious? Why do we see some things as tragic, rather than just as events?
Our minds demand some kind of answer to these kinds of questions. It is in going through this doorway of mystery that we may get a sense of the ultimate mystery, to which we give the name God. But we have to let these ultimate questions take hold of us. The temptation is to say, I haven’t time to think about that now, and turn on the telly. Unfortunately, that is what a lot of people do. Then the doorway to mystery is never entered, and the mystery that we call God is never encountered.
The American therapist and writer Rachel Remen confesses to being agnostic, but she writes: ‘ The important thing is that Mystery does happen and offers us the opportunity to wonder together and reclaim a sense of awe and aliveness”. It does not take a great effort. In Mary Oliver’s lovely poem ‘Praying’ she exhorts the reader to “just pay attention”, not only to beautiful things like the “blue iris” but even to humbler apparitions, such as “weeds in a vacant lot” or “a few small stones”. Even these can be “a doorway into thanks”. They can bring us to “a silence in which another voice may speak”.
 In My Grandfather’s Blessings, Riverhead Books, p.342.