St Philip: Mess, Emptiness, Discomfort

Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works….” (John 14:8-11)

The disciple Philip’s words to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” are so human and relatable. My own words could easily be: “God, just show me Yourself and I will then know how to act in my life with some certainty.”

There are thinkers and writers, like Anne Lamott, who write: ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.’ Anne Lamott goes on: ‘Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.” (Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)

Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. It is as simple, as possible, and as difficult and impossible as that. Mess. Emptiness. Discomfort.

When I notice mess, instinctively I want to tidy it up. Mess can happen when things are left scattered everywhere. It also can mean I feel a lack of control on my part - I can’t control this mess. As we grow up our minds develop patterns of order so we can make sense of the world. We learn the rules. Mess threatens a systematised life.

However, when encouraged to hold steady our gaze over this mess, without panic, without giving in immediately to the urge to neaten things up, we can begin to acknowledge that mess plays a very real part in what it means to be human.

Noticing and letting it be is everything. Mess can be the ordinary everyday general untidiness of life or it can happen through human loss, violation or wreckage by another. Taking time to look steadily at this mess, is to loosen a little control that the disorder has over us. Show us even, eventually, that we may be also be heading a little more towards a place of creative emergence.

Noticing, letting be, in the emptiness. Like mess, emptiness has a sense that time itself is somehow fixed in stasis. There’s a feeling that the self is disconnected from the world around us, and that life is frozen and not moving. We are not going anywhere. The world is seen to be an eternally bleak, lonely futureless existence.

Again using Lamott’s word ‘notice,’ and once more not flee in panic or denial or fill up with more palatable gratifications, can mean we begin to experience this emptiness differently. That capacity to hold our gaze, gives us the strength to stay in the emptiness.

Emptiness, as our Eastern Buddhist friends know, is also a space of enormous freedom of thought. Here there are no dualisms, no fundamentals or certainties. Only the detection of many different choices; here creativity can be energised, and there is the invitation of new unexpected paths. Emptiness is also a space of spirit breathing.

Faith, for Lamott, also includes noticing the discomfort. Anything that causes us pain or discomfort we are often automatically conditioned to think of as wrong.

What if there is a dis-comfort that is neither right nor wrong, just is. Dis is a Latin prefix meaning 'apart from' or not connected into. The disciple Philip seems to feel this type of discomfort when he reveals to Jesus that he has not seen God in the way the way he would like to. He still doesn't feel linked into a greater reality. Jesus’ response to Philip is as of a friend and teacher. Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?

Jesus doesn’t objectify nor dismiss Philip, but speaks to him out of a relationship they already share. And this is where I draw on Ann Lamott’s words: Faith also means reaching deeply within, for that sense which one was born with. It’s deep within his relationship with Jesus, that God has been born and dwells for Philip. And it’s to this place that Jesus is appealing and directing Philip to go.

Technology is full of wonders, science gives us great gifts, church practices can hold us steady in our actions. But it’s drawing on that felt sense of being in a loving relationship deep within ourselves, or that taste of the light, that help’s us nourish faith. Helps us, even when we think we’ve lost faith itself and abide in a place of great uncertainty.

Faith is not about believing in an objective truth, but about hanging in there in a relationship. By keeping our gaze steady over the mess, the emptiness and the discomfort, we are staying faithful to the relationship. And in this relationship something is always given: even if it’s just the inspiration to simply take a long walk.