By Meg Stapleton Smith
A couple of months ago, I was sitting in my office working on a lesson plan when Veronica, a freshman student at my high school, abrasively stormed through the doorway. “So, Ms. Stapleton Smith,” she began rather brashly, “I have a few questions that the guidance counselor told me I should come to see you about.” My eyes widened with nervous anticipation. She took a long deep breath in and said:
“Is Jesus Christ really the Son of God? How can he be the Father and the Son at the same time? Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Is Satan really the fallen angel? How did he get to be like that? Are we born as good people or as evil people? Would I be here if it wasn’t for Jesus? Would God forgive the Devil if the Devil asked for forgiveness? Is Jesus going to come back to earth? When? Why do we need churches if Jesus wasn’t a priest? Also, this whole Adam and Eve thing – explain that.”
I sat there utterly perplexed. She had asked me nearly 15 questions without pausing to take a breath. “Oh, also,” she said, “Maybe I should have asked this first, but who is God?” I was stunned. Her questions had left me speechless. My years of studying theology had in no way prepared me to answer all of those questions, let alone to answer them in a concise and concrete way for a high school freshman.
I had no idea what possibly could have precipitated her inquiry. Although my students are generally inquisitive, I never expected one of them to challenge me like this. Her query was genuine, and I could see by the look on her face that she wanted a sincere response to each individual question. I was flustered at how to give an adequate response, and so I told her to write down all the questions she had and then to come back to my office the next day.
Sure enough, when the 8th period bell rang the next day, Veronica appeared in the glass window to my office with a big smile on her face. “I’ve got my questions, Miss!” she exclaimed enthusiastically. I motioned her to come into my office and took the long list of questions she had in her hand. After reading the expansive new list, I looked up at her and said,“ Veronica, God is a mystery. We will never understand everything about God.” There is such beautiful irony, and divine simplicity in those words. Although I felt confident in my initial response, my words shot Veronica back into her seat, confused and frustrated.
As our conversations continued in the ensuing weeks, Veronica began to tell me of the hardships she has faced throughout her life. Hearing some of the things she has gone through allowed me to understand why she had stepped through my doorway so full of curiosity and wonder. For many high school students, and adults for that matter, God is the factotum that comes in handy in times of illness, shock, final exams, breakups, and situations of insecurity. They cry out to a “magical God”, and when that God does not respond, their impulse is to assume that God does not exist (1). Veronica, on the other hand, seemed to take a different approach. She cried out to God, but when there was no immediate reply, she came into my office.
Henri Nouwen is someone who has constantly guided me through the trials and tribulations of my own journey to God. Although I have only made a very small dent in his collection of nearly forty books, his wealth of insights and understanding on the nature of God has vivified my spirituality and ministered to my own struggles with faith. As I held the piece of paper with Veronica’s list of questions in my hand, I could not help but be reminded by Henri Nouwen’s words – that my first task as a teacher is to affirm the student’s life as a quest (2). Nouwen states, “The main questions of religion – Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? – are not questions with answers but are questions that open us up to newer questions which then lead us deeper into the unspeakable mystery of existence” (3). I believe that nearly all of the questions that Veronica posed that day started with those three main questions; perhaps nearly all of our questions on faith do.
Nouwen writes that in religious education, we encounter a God who is beyond the reach of our human understanding, and as a result, we face questions that are complex and demanding. The human quest for meaning is extremely painful and at times even excruciating, precisely because it does not lead to the ready made answers that we desire. Because of Veronica’s past, she longed for a “magical God” – one who was easy to understand, and one who would provide concrete answers to her most difficult questions. Her original image of God (somewhat of a cross between Zeus and Santa Claus), was in no way capable of responding to her growing insatiable thirst for meaning. Perhaps without even realizing it, she was grappling with this genuine human yearning to find our ultimate meaning in the light of God. My work as her teacher and as her campus minister became a spiritual act of validating her questions, as well as helping her to encounter for herself the face of a loving God. Suddenly, her daily experiences of loneliness, fear, anxiety, insecurity, and doubt were recognized as an essential part of the quest for meaning.
In my own spiritual journey, I have also attempted to fully know who God is. In fact, there were times in my life where I felt I knew “who” God was and “what” people had to do to find that God. Today, when people ask me what I have learned from my academic studies in theology, I sometimes respond with, “Nothing really.” Through studying theology, I started to question myself, as well as to doubt and to wonder how I could have been so sure about so many things. I have read many commentaries on the Bible. I have studied Barth, Bultmann, Rahner, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard – and all of it amounted to the final recognition that I really didn’t know who God was. The growing knowledge of how little I truly know has made me gentle and understanding; it has emptied me out and made me receptive to the quest for meaning in many other people’s lives. When I recognized that ever-familiar desire within Veronica, I was challenged to help her encounter for herself that God is not just father or mother, love or justice, almighty or caring, but that God becomes known to us by our constant confession of the limits of our human symbols, and the inadequacy of our languages.
Veronica still comes to my office once and a while and continues to challenge me with her innocent and genuine curiosity. Now, I don’t hesitate the way I did the first time she entered my office. I am not afraid to guide her into the Mystery, for I know it is within this sacred place that we will experience the Love that anchors our beings.
Meg Stapleton Smith is Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She graduated from Boston College in 2013 with a B.A. in Theology.
1 Henri Nouwen, Seeds of Hope (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), 95
2 Nouwen, 99
3 Nouwen, 99