Updated: Dec 29, 2020
“It is by learning the questions slowly and attentively that we are drawn into the depth of things, and, frankly, the sadness of things, and into compassion. We won't find very meaningful answers if we haven't asked the right questions; it also helps if we have lived without the answers for a while.” — Richard Rohr
When a man holds the right questions in his heart, they act like chisels in the hands of God, which God uses, along with the hammer of circumstance, to shape his soul into the man he was meant to be. We humans pound our fists on the doors of heaven seeking answers, seeking resolution, because we think that's what we need. But much more often than not, it is the questions themselves that we need. We need to sit with them in the darkness of our unknowing. We need to mull them over, we need to be curious about them, and to wrestle with them—not in a desperate way, but in a way that from the outside might look more like play.
The Bible calls this kind of exploration pondering. It's what Mary did with the question of why Jesus chose to be born in her, and her pondering fundamentally shaped her into the venerated woman she would become. Pondering is a skill sorely lacking in our notions of Western spirituality, even though it's a prominent teaching in every wisdom tradition in the world, including Christianity.
We seek answers because answers are largely about power and control. To answer a question is to master it. Knowing the answer gives me power. It puts me in control. Of course there's nothing wrong at all with knowing the answers—except when those answers only serve to feed the ego. It's no wonder that the pharisaical types focus so compulsively on having the “right” doctrine and knowing all the answers, because having the right answers to everything feeds right into the ego's desperate need for power and control.
But “living the questions,” as Rilke put it, is not about power or control. It's about becoming. Lots of external forces shape a person, but I would say we are shaped by the questions we ask more than by any other single force. The ones who understand this and surrender their egos to it will become in time truly whole souls—wise and noble and strong in all the best ways. But those who reject this truth will spend their lives chasing after answers they think will make them powerful, but it won't work. They will find only emptiness along that path, no matter how many answers they carry in their heads.
This is exactly what the Book of Ecclesiastes is about. “Meaningless, Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Solomon declares. Why? Because he chased after knowledge, after the answers, in an attempt to master life. But wisdom and wholeness don't come from pretending to know the answers to everything; they come from surrendering yourself to the questions.
So, as you head into a new year, what are the questions you ought to be pondering? Well, that question is a great place to begin. But really, it's whatever question takes you into your own powerlessness, and invites you into wonder.
What is that question for you?
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke