When we look back on the past, it is sometimes tempting to think of historical events as having a certain inevitability: because they happened in the way they did, it was necessary that they happen in such a way. With the aid of hindsight, we can discern how certain cultural movements or personalities influenced particular events or individuals and draw out connections and causalities that may even have been latent at the time. In itself, this can be a useful and fruitful exercise, especially when we consider the providential hand of God who is able to draw good even out of the evil actions of men.
In undertaking this exercise, however, it is always necessary to recall that the human beings involved in historical events acted freely, making contingent decisions whose consequences they had the opportunity to either consider or ignore. Just as we ourselves are free at the present moment to decide whether to continue to spend our time contemplating the mists of history as we peruse this blog or to give way to some more fruitful activity, so too the individuals whose lives and works we consider had the freedom to choose how they would respond to the situations in which they found themselves.
When we look back on an event that has happened, it is helpful to consider not only that it happened, but also to consider what motivations and circumstances contributed to an individual’s decision to act well or ill. What they have written they have written, but it is fruitful to consider not only the words that have been preserved but the anguish and joy that went into them.
One phenomenon that is fruitful to consider, both in past events and our current circumstances, is that of doubt. Often times, we think of doubt as something unhelpful or distracting, something that takes away from the self-confidence and drive that is indispensable for achieving greatness. In the 2010 On Heaven and Earth, a book-length dialogue between then Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka of Buenos Aires, our present Holy Father articulated a different view of this matter:
The great leaders of the people of God were men that left room for doubt. Going back to Moses, he is the most humble character that there was on Earth. Before God, no one else remained more humble, and he that wants to be a leader of the people of God has to give God His space; therefore to shrink, to recede into oneself with doubt, with the interior experiences of darkness, of not knowing what to do, all of that ultimately is very purifying.
In his recent biography of St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., devotes ample attention to the doubts and crises that plagued St. Francis throughout his life. Far from detracting from Francis’s sanctity, Thompson suggests that an accurate understanding of the difficulties that Francis went through in deciding how to act are of tremendous importance for appreciating his life and witness:
It is, I think, misleading to assimilate him to some stereotyped image of “holiness,” especially one that suggests that a “saint” never has crises of faith, is never angry or depressed, never passes judgments, and never becomes frustrated with himself or others. Francis’s very humanity makes him, I think, more impressive and challenging than a saint who embodied that (impossible) kind of holiness.
Doubt can be a source not only of indecision but more profoundly of purification, for it forces us to consider more deeply the motivations and circumstances of the exercise of our freedom. Doubt is not something to be sought for its own sake, but when it comes we can make the most of the experience by entrusting ourselves to the Lord who is able to make all things work together for the good for those who love him.
Image: Henry Walton, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)