My grandmother lived in a street of terraced houses not far from Liverpool city centre. It was the place where my brother and I were born. Living at the bottom of the street in the 1930s and ’40s was a neighbour named Mrs Jackson who had several children, all of them by different fathers. This was a so-called respectable area and Mrs Jackson was frowned upon by most of her ‘good living’ neighbours.
In 1943 my nana’s eldest child, May, died of TB. She was 23 and my grandparents and my mum and uncle were devastated. For a couple of days no one knocked on their door. I guess no one knew what to say, but eventually the knocker went and my mum went to the door. There stood Mrs Jackson and just for a moment Mum didn’t know what to do until Mrs Jackson put down the bag she was carrying and threw her arms around my mum who dissolved into tears. Mrs Jackson then picked her bag up and marched into the house and for the next week took over the kitchen and the cleaning.
Mum often said that from that day onward my nana would always use the old phrase ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. Mum said that she learned then the lesson never to pre-judge but to do what Richard Rohr calls ‘holding the mystery’. I was reading somewhere that in the 14th-century mystical work The Cloud of Unknowing, it says that first you have to enter into ‘the cloud of forgetting’. Forget all your certitudes, all your labels, all your explanations and simply reflect and pray about what you see around you.
It is so easy to become over-familiar with God and to presume, therefore, that you know how God works, how God acts and where God can be found. My mum discovered God at work in a woman who was far from a paid-up member of the Church.
The truth is that God is more, and the life of faith can never be reduced to what we think we know. It is a way of uncertainty and calls for an open heart and mind. The challenge it gives us is to open our hearts and to allow God to break through our pathetic attempts to be respectable and comfortable and reveal Godself.
Faith is never about the certainty of dogmatic truth but about journeying through life, trusting that God has chosen us and will be there for us and will bring good about even in the most difficult and awkward circumstances. Our God is a God of surprises who works in extraordinary ways and through extraordinary people.
Never presume you know but live in the uncertainty of faithfulness.