Trust and Clarity

Image by Evan Dvorkin.

Image by Evan Dvorkin.

My friend Brian Moss was driving me home from a rehearsal once and told me this story. It’s from Brennan Manning’s book Ruthless Trust, and tells of a time in 1975 when Mother Teresa was running her free hospice for the poor in Calcutta, India.

When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at the House of the Dying in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa. She asked, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.

“What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: “Pray that I have clarity.”

She said firmly, “No, I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”

When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

When I share this story with people, the first thing they say is, “Hey, clarity is not a bad thing.” This is true. It’s the basis for how we function most of the time: making decisions with the best of our abilities, about the things we know to be certain, and then moving ahead. We’re rewarded a hundred times a day for making sound, clear decisions. Is Mother Teresa saying to not think? Isn’t that dangerous advice coming from anyone, especially a religious leader?

It’s an odd little story. I think it’s helpful to remember that she was talking to someone who was struggling with a decision that did not seem to have a right answer. An uncomfortable truth is that clarity can sometimes be elusive. If you haven’t experienced a season like this in your life yet, you probably will. And you will walk through these seasons with your friends. It’s a time when the questions hang and we simply cannot go any further in our usual ways of understanding. 

It is not comfortable.

It is natural to want to move out of it.

Sometimes we can’t.

People really struggle when there is no clarity, for no apparent reason or fault of their own. It can be painful. Often our truest character shows when we come to the end of what we know.

We press harder—There must be something here.
We make up a new story—What’s really going on is this.
We deflect the uncertainty—That’s crazy.
We blame someone else—This is their fault.
We strain under the pressure—There is no hope.

Our age demands answers and action, and it’s a rare ability to face the unknown with humility and surrender. But another uncomfortable truth is that the heart and the imagination are often most alive when they are not in control of things. In this story, Mother Teresa is admonishing Kavanaugh not that clarity is bad, but that when it fails, when we come to the end of what we know, it can mean there is something more of value beyond ourselves. 

More on Kavanaugh’s time in India.