I have to begin by confessing that “living the questions” is not where I feel at home spiritually. The fact is that I don’t particularly “love the questions.” I tend to like definite answers, and to distrust the modernist infatuation with ambiguity. Yet in spite of that, I have to confess also that there are times when living and loving the questions is the authentic response to life’s mysteries, which cannot all be resolved or disposed of rationally. I do admit—reluctantly, grudgingly, as with most of my spiritual growth—that there is positive value in “living the questions.”
Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice has been cited so often that it is beginning to sound a little trite to me, which is part of my problem with it. But something else catches my attention when I think about “living the questions” these days.
Rilke’s advice runs in full:
You’re so young, so far from any beginning; I should like to ask you, dear sir, as well as I can, to show patience towards everything in your heart that has not been resolved and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like sealed rooms and books written in a language that is very foreign. Do not hunt for the answers just now—they cannot be given to you because you cannot live them. What matters is that you live everything. And you must now live the questions. One day perhaps you will gradually and imperceptibly live your way into the answer.1
As I read it, Rilke’s point about loving the questions does not seem to be that we should enjoy them or feel comfortable with them. Rather, he seems to be saying that we should treat them as objects of curiosity that would naturally intrigue an active mind—closed rooms or books in an unknown tongue—and treasure them in that way. We are to regard the perplexities of our own lives with an inquisitive attention, rather like cats encountering a box they cannot manage to crawl into. We have no choice but to live out whatever there is in our lives, unless we avoid life altogether. If our lives have insoluble problems or questions, therefore, we must live them also. It will be by living—for what else is it that we do?—that we will enter into the answers, perhaps, some distant day. All well and good, and yet....
Reading the familiar quotation in its larger context, I am struck by its opening words, which are probably less familiar: “You’re so young.” Rilke’s counsel is taken from a collection of letters to a young poet, and his point about loving and living the questions seems intended specifically for the young, who could not yet live the answers even if they were given them, and who can look with patient curiosity toward that future day when answers may come.
But where does that leave me, at the age of sixty-five? What might this advice mean for those who are not so young? What about us who (however young at heart and vigorous and full of ideas we may still feel) are beginning to know in our bodies that time for living the questions has a limit, that there is no boundless future for us to live into the answer?
As I write this, it is six weeks since the death of John Mogabgab, the founding editor of Weavings and a pivotal figure in my discovery of a vocation in spiritual writing. His passing was quite a shock to many who loved and admired him. John was exactly two years older than I, and still in the midst of important work when he fell ill. My grief over his loss is mixed (I realize) with a rather stark feeling of something standing outside my door looking at its watch.
At the Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship we often sing a hymn called “Here in this place.” Its second verse begins:
We are the young—our lives are a mystery,
we are the old—who yearn for your face.2
Whenever we sing this, I find myself thinking, “You know, the lives of ‘the old’ can be mysterious too. Don’t hog the mystery, kids! Yearning for God’s face does not necessarily mean that all of your questions are cleared up.”
What does it mean, then, to “live the questions” when one is on the cusp of old age? Is there still time to live the questions? Does unresolved mystery continue indefinitely in this life? Must it do so? When do I get to say, “See here, I’m almost at my stop, can’t someone on this train help me find my hat?”
When I was forty-eight, I took part in a spiritual exercise in which, rather than writing letters to God, we were each asked to write a letter from God to ourselves. It was practice in listening inwardly to hear where God might be guiding us at that moment. The end of my letter read, “The matters of your heart are dark to you now. Walk in the darkness. Love it as the light, for it is the light I give you. Do not ask how long. Believe. Love. Obey. Be joyful.”
This invitation to love the darkness in my life as being my light was surely a call to “love the questions.” In Rilke’s terms, it might mean recognizing the questions themselves as my answers. Some of the matters that were dark to me seventeen years ago are still dark today, which is a little disheartening. I find myself, however, beginning to accept them as permanent areas of mystery in my life; perhaps in this way I have begun to live into some of their answers without quite noticing it. Other questions may always remain unanswered. In any case, as Rilke seems to say, there is nothing to do but to live them out, dark though they may be. Maybe I can eventually learn to love having them in my life, like living in a house with a locked attic to which I have no key, and being left to envisage the treasures or oddities that may lie within. I remain somewhat skeptical. I am encouraged, though, by what seems like a connection between these mysteries and those of contemplative spirituality.
It can be a temptation, as we age and everything becomes more difficult than it once was, to withdraw into more and more narrowly defined boundaries of space, time, activity, and relationship—including relationship with God. We don’t travel as far, we get out less, we do fewer things and spend less time doing them. We lose old friends without making new ones. We know what works for us and is safe, and we can get stuck there. We close in on ourselves.
There are times when living and loving the questions is the authentic response to life’s mysteries.
By contrast, the lesson of the contemplative life is to remain open, and indeed to grow in openness. This growth in openness also applies to our knowledge of God—meaning not just what we know about God, intellectually, but our acquaintance with God. This is knowledge that must grow and never stop growing, since we can never fully bring it to completion in this life. Contemplative practice that draws us further into the depths of God can help us to remain open, rather than narrowing down, in other areas as well. Remaining open to encounter with God, growing in openness to God’s reality, to who God is, we also remain open to who God may yet desire us to be.
Pondering this possibility of remaining open, even to the dark questions that persist in my life, brings to mind a prayer of Thomas Merton that I love.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end.... [But] I know that... you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.3
Given the mysteries that remain in my life, I also often do not know where I am going. I know Christ as “the light of the world” (John 8:12), but I have to keep learning the hard lesson of trusting that light, even when it seems like darkness and the rest of the journey remains undisclosed. On an unseen road with a destination that is still unknown (though I am drawing nearer to it), I can either sit down and refuse to budge, or I can trust the light that I have, and above all trust the Giver of light. The foundation of this trustful openness is surrender. The contemplative life is a process of surrendering to God’s work within us, to God’s wisdom for our lives, and to God’s presence in unexpected places.
Merton also wrote that those who, despite dryness and helplessness, let God “lead [them] peacefully through the wilderness,” desiring no support or guidance but “pure faith and trust in God alone,” will reach the Promised Land of peaceful and joyous union with God, having “a habitual, comforting, obscure and mysterious awareness of . . . God, present and acting in all the events of life.”4 To me, this sounds like a contemplative version of “living the questions.” At peace even in the wilderness, surrendered and relying confidently on God alone, we find, even among the questions in all their obscurity and mystery, an awareness of divine presence that makes us glad. Maybe I will learn to love the questions when I realize that I can encounter God in them, that they are my “wilderness,” where I receive divine sustenance and directives. In the wilderness of my questions, like Moses in a very small way, I can put up my “tent of meeting,” and inquire of God, and encounter God face to face (Ex. 33:7–11). The inquiry and the encounter happen in the midst of the questions, and in this way the questions might become, beyond all expectation, a beloved sanctuary.
I do not live that way just yet. Loving the questions does not come easily or naturally to me. I’m starting to think, however, that I may need to learn to live the questions, or else become one of those cranky old men who is always mad at somebody about something.
If I can’t absolutely love them, then, I hope that I can at least make peace with the questions. At this point, I must accept that there are probably some questions into whose answers I will never live: there won’t be time. But instead of rage, disillusion, or bitterness, there is the possibility of surrender. The unanswered, perhaps never-to-be-answered, questions are a potential resource in contemplative life and practice. They become further mysteries along the way of mystery. They become particular patches of the darkness that is my light from God. They form peculiarly difficult occasions of surrender for me, and so they acquire real spiritual value, like a steep hill that a runner knows is coming, and grunts in anticipation, but also welcomes for the gain in strength that it can bring.
At any rate, that’s how it’s starting to look to me now. Ask me again when I’m 70.
The author describes a spiritual exercise that involved writing a letter from God to ourselves. Why not try writing a letter from God to you?
From “Making Peace with the Questions” by David Rensberger. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June/July 2015, Vol. 30, No. 3. Copyright © 2015 The Upper Room.
Photography by Jurien Huggins / Unsplash
1 Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, tr. Mark Harman (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011), 45–46.
2 Marty Haugen, “Here in this place,” in Rebecca Slough, ed., Hymnal: A Worship Book (Elgin, Illinois; Newton, Kansas; Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Brethren Press; Faith and Life Press; Mennonite Publishing House, 1992), no. 6.
3 Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958), 83.
4 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), 239.