Knowing Without Doubt: A Reflection by Sue Belanger

Photo by Sue Belanger

Boothbay Harbor is the quintessential coastal Maine town. Locals and tourists alike visit the town on day trips or for extended visits. There’s great food, unique shops, a beautiful botanical garden, and many breathtaking hiking trails. It’s also the starting point for a bike trip that begins at the harbor, takes the rider through town into the countryside and loops through an area known as East Boothbay where you might see this building. 

The ride from the harbor to East Boothbay is about 7 miles. This trip is great training for bike races and long rides, since there are lots of hills, a lot of hills. I’m not a fan of the hills, but my friend Nicole insisted we needed to train on hills for an upcoming ride we registered for late one summer. The year was 2001. As we started down a hill toward an amazing view of the bay, we rounded the curve on Shore Road and the little stone structure caught my eye. I yelled to Nicole to stop, since she was ahead of me. Confused, she turned and wondered if something had happened to me. Something did happen. My eye caught a view of this small chapel, nestled between two summer homes, and I had to stop to take a look. Imagine Nicole’s surprise when I proclaimed to her that I would be married in this chapel. She looked at me as though I’d lost my mind. No, I had never seen the chapel before, and she reminded me there was a problem – I had no groom. Without a second thought, I told her I’d fill that detail in, later. True story! 

Fast forward to August 2014, my husband John and I were married in the Wilson Memorial Chapel.

How did I know I’d be married there? I don’t know how I knew, but there was no question in my mind. It’s the kind of understanding you can’t explain, but you know it to be true deep inside, or in St. Ignatius speak, knowing “without being able to doubt”. This week our readings focus on our own personal knowing without doubt, of the presence of Christ in the most Holy Eucharist. This weekend is the Feast of Corpus Christi, a time when we celebrate the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. His presence in the bread and wine we share at Mass is a belief we hold as true. It is a fundamental belief in our faith experience, yet what proof do we have? Where does our belief come from? Do we believe because our parents/teachers/catechists told us this was true? Or do we have a personal knowing? 

As a mission leader in a health system, it’s not uncommon for a colleague to share a spiritual experience. What’s been most interesting are the specific stories I’m being told, which are about returning to Mass and receiving Communion. Receiving Holy Eucharist has been the most moving and meaningful for each storyteller and each narrative is told with reverence, with a sense of being reacquainted with something or someone in a very personal way – a “knowing beyond doubt” there is something special in the Sacrament. Where does this “knowing” come from?  

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells the disciples to follow the man with the water and when he enters the house, to ask the master about a room so they might share a Passover meal – and they find it just as Jesus told them. Did Jesus communicate ahead of time with the master of the house? Did Jesus know the man with the jar would be at the right place, at the right time? Did the disciples expect to find the situation exactly as Jesus told them? 

In his book, A call to discernment in troubled times, Jesuit Dean Brackley discusses Ignatius’ teaching on how we come to know the will of God. He describes three ways to discover God’s will, which he notes, presumes the Spirit’s active guidance. The one most relevant to this reflection is the first way, which involves movement of our will, called the experience of the “first time”. “First time is when God… so moves and attracts the will that, without doubting or being able to doubt, the devout person follows what is proposed”. We see an example of this in the gospel of Matthew 9:9, which says, “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me’, and he got up and followed him”. Matthew follows Jesus, no deliberation, no questions asked – a knowing beyond doubt. Matthew experienced a movement of the will, and his intellect followed. 

Think about the words we use in our everyday lives that relate to this… I didn’t think twice about it…, or I knew in an instant…, or there was no doubt in my mind. 

This first-time experience requires “sufficient internal freedom” and is for those who have the “boldness to let themselves be led”. So, our belief in the true nature of the Body and Blood of Christ, requires a belief beyond doubt and presupposes our willingness to be led. In other words, in our discernment, we choose to believe. We are moved by the Spirit, and we accept without question, the true nature of the Body and Blood of Christ. 

These teachings also relate to doing God’s will, in our everyday lives. Ignatius refers to this as being moved to God’s purpose for an abundant life. Think about this for a moment – doing God’s will for an abundant life. Ignatius would say, and we would agree, God is not capricious. God is about “overcoming harm and maximizing good in the universe”. Finding God’s purpose for us, is about being led by the Spirit and collaborating with God for an abundant life. 

Every day, we use our free will to discern what’s best for us. However, not every decision is a first-time discernment. Sometimes our decisions involve changing our minds since a situation doesn’t feel right. Other times, we are guided by reason, and we weigh our options. While Ignatius would consider those appropriate, only first-time decisions leave us with what he would consider the quasi-miraculous, or exceptionally rare first-time experience. 

So, when have you been led to your purpose in a way that was a knowing-beyond-doubt? Perhaps you knew without a doubt you were meant to go to a certain college. Maybe you knew the first time you met your spouse that he or she was the one you would marry. Have you ever heard a call to a particular vocation and known immediately it was exactly what you were meant to do? If so, you’ve had a first-time experience. 

As was noted to me by a friend a few weeks ago, it’s often when we are quiet and listen that we can feel a path forward, a time when we are open to the Spirit’s guidance with a recognition that we are collaborating with God. These are the times we need to trust and believe!

Sometimes our wills are moved by something we see; at other times it might be something we hear external to us- it can also be through the counsel of a trusted friend, or a voice heard only in the stillness of our hearts. God speaks to us in so many ways. 

For those willing to be led, we come to know God’s will through a knowing without doubt that we are meant to live a life of purpose and abundance. We need to recognize the movement of the Spirit in our lives, and we need to believe. 

So, I ask… When have you been moved to a knowing without doubt? 

P.S. On the day of my wedding as I walked into the chapel, I spotted my friend Nicole and we both laughed. She was wearing her bicycle helmet. 

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