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  • Sean O'Leary

A Journey of Doubt

When I was 20, I knew many things. One of the things I knew for certain was that the Church was not really for me. Now almost thirty years later, I know far less things with such youthful certainty, but I really do know that my deepest thoughts lean towards God.


I have always carried doubt in my mind. Doubts about myself, doubts about my family, my choices, my work, my life, doubts about society and yes, doubts about the Church and doubts about God. Doubt is part of me. It now exists together with my faith.


I was raised Catholic, baptised as an infant in the early seventies and attended Catholic schools. Growing up on a small farm was like being on an extended nature walk. Our lives were inseparable from the cycles of nature. I was fascinated by science and the possibilities that it offered for exploring the natural world.


Back then, it was my experience of nature that helped me to bridge the gap between scientific and religious ways of thinking. I remember debating with school friends over the meaning of Genesis. My friends supported the biblical account over any scientific findings of human origins whereas I felt that both narratives could be true. Strangely, just forty years later, it now seems that many people exclusively favour the scientific accounts of human origins.


I studied science in university and went on to earn a PhD in Biology. It was during my time in University that I began to have serious doubts about the Church. At that time, my largely passive experience of the Church was mainly limited to attending weekly mass. One morning as I sat in the pews waiting for mass to begin, I boldly stood up and walked out. As I walked down the aisle, I was keenly aware that I was not deliberately turning my back on something. In my heart, I was looking out into the world to see what was there.


I took refuge in the science laboratory where I was working on a project to improve the efficacy of insect-parasitic nematodes as biological control agents of insect pests. Such pests cause massive damage to crop plants. The project aimed to reduce the need for dangerous pesticides and help both human populations and local environments. The work felt ‘missionary’ to me.


Doubt blossomed in my heart. I questioned the existence of God, the role of the Church and the need for faith. Why bother with faith when there are so many concrete certainties that one could embrace?


At one point, I felt strongly that to be overly interested in God led inevitably to the side-lining of earthly concerns. Why pray when one could spend time helping to fix problems in a more practical way?


After completing my PhD, I became a teacher and then later a teacher educator. In religious terms, I saw myself as existing on the very periphery of the Church. From time to time, I dipped my toe into the deep well of religious practice while awkwardly refraining from total immersion.


Yet, gradually my faith grew. I can’t explain this except to say that my youthful loyalty to certainty and to practical solutions didn’t address the fullness of life as completely as I’d once thought. Reality is so much greater than we can individually imagine. It is only with humility and a deep love of truth that we can really begin to appreciate reality. Believe it or not, this requires faith.


I often described myself as a ‘non-traditional’ Catholic, whatever that means! It wasn’t that I rejected Church teaching, it was because I seemed to question everything and rely on science, sacred scripture and the broader wisdom traditions of the world (and of the Church) for discovering truth.


Gradually, I accepted that this is the way God made me.


I now understand that my doubts were a gift from the Spirit of God and not simply the result of my flawed human nature. I questioned everything, tested assumptions and engaged my mind in a much deeper way that did not require me to ignore the longings of my heart. This journey led to a far deeper experience of faith and a more profound relationship with God.


Made in the image of God, it is not unlikely that our curiosity and need to question everything reflects something of God’s wisdom.

I rediscovered my roots and came to realise how incredibly deep and broad they are. I corresponded with a religious sister in a spirit of absolute honesty and shared discovery. I learned to suspend judgement and enrolled on a Pastoral Theology course. Over time, I began to come alive to a powerful feeling of belonging to God.


I returned to the practice of confession. This was not easy. I have never liked the idea of confession even though I tend towards self-reflection. As Socrates once famously uttered, the unexamined life is not worth living.


My first confession after many years occurred on the altar of my local church with the parish priest sitting directly across from me. Quite literally, there was nowhere to hide. I told the truth that was in my heart and spoke openly about my doubts. It was an enlightening and enriching experience.


Sometimes, we are slow to appreciate old truths. I have come to a better understanding of the old proverb that confession is good for the soul. On a strictly material level, we can’t understand the nature of the self which we each express as the ‘I’ of existence. This is the individual person that thinks and feels and lives life. Indeed, modern science is now dimly beginning to recognise the nature of existence and the possibilities of the soul. This begs the question: What is an ‘I’ without a ‘Thou’? For me, such questions ultimately point to God.


Over time, I became friends with some local priests who not only helped me on my journey but who also shared their own stories as fellow pilgrims. I now realise that I once expected priests to be perfect beings, capable of always representing divinity on earth all the time. Who could live up to such an expectation?


I now see priests as mystics, soul healers, spiritual guides, pastoral shepherds, servants of the mysteries of God and fellow pilgrims. We are all on a meaningful journey.


My doubt has also been transformed. It now resembles something akin to wonderment, humility and heartfelt curiosity. I have grown more comfortable with belief, not just my own religious beliefs as a Catholic but with the shared insights of the world’s great religions.


All through my journey, I have always been wary of an overconfident and intolerant atheism. In my experience, the power of God’s love brings a level of healing and truth that is just not possible in worldly atheism.


A doubt-infused Christianity speaks to the deepest parts of my being. I have no difficulty believing in the authority of the ten commandments, the beauty of the beatitudes and the value of the virtues. In my view, it is naive to disregard the miraculous, ignore eternal life, discredit the active providence of God or deny the divinity of Jesus.


It is strangely wholesome to explore how the findings of science harmonises with sacred scripture and the teachings of the Church. The terrain is not easy but the answers to our deepest questions never come easily. It is simpler to keep things in separate compartments, but life is not about separate spaces. Because, life is a great web of entangled reality. One thread pulls on another. Everything is connected.


When I was twenty, I knew that the Church was not for me. Now, I know that the Church is for me and for anyone who seeks God’s love. Yet, I still can’t really describe what the Church is. Trying to understand the Church is like trying to describe your family tree on paper when one is suffering from amnesia. There are just so many parts that we can’t know or directly experience. Yet, the tree continues to grow.


The Church is a living, breathing entity that strives to elevate the faithful into the astounding truth of God’s eternal love. It unites the best of human wisdom with the revelation of divine wisdom. It is a rich repository of spiritual, intellectual and pastoral treasures. It is a helping hand and a kind word. It is all these things and more.


My doubts began long before the awful history of clerical abuse became widely known. The revelations of abuse within the Church are horrifying and beyond my comprehension. But, it seems clear to me that an excessive preoccupation with hierarchy, authoritarianism and orthodoxy can prevent us from actively living out our Christian faith. This is not to say that hierarchy, authority and orthodoxy do not play a role in our lives. There is no such thing as a flat or shapeless way of living.


In the world today, it would be easy to hide oneself away from the multitude of voices that seek to diminish the value of the Church. However, like many others, I seek a different solution. Because I know that this grave darkness is not the only reality.


In the face of darkness, it is better to build up the Church to be better than it was so that we can all see more of its light. We carry our shame, our fears and our doubts with us as we attempt to build a better future. We don’t achieve this by denigrating the past. We do so by seeking God’s grace to open our eyes and our hearts even wider to the fullness of truth.


Life is messy and complex. This has always been true. While not pessimistic about human nature, I’m not blind to our darker instincts including those that lie within my own heart.

We do not neglect the past nor do we revere it as something to be preserved at any cost. Our work involves preserving the essential goodness of our spiritual, intellectual and pastoral tradition, accepting our present realities while progressing away from the dark shadows of our past.


Often, it feels like we’re limping along. We may even fall from time to time. But, we openly progress towards the light of divine truth that illuminates ultimate reality. This is our beacon and it is forever lit. The Church provides us with a compass and a map but we must each navigate the landscape for ourselves. We help each other along the way. This is what it means to be Christian.


When I think of St. Thomas, I take comfort in knowing that doubt is not an enemy of Christ. Instead, a properly considered doubt provides the motivation for delving deeper into the truth of God’s love in our ordinary but often messy human lives. There can be no faith without doubt. What we do with our doubt is what really matters.