Exploring Doubt: Landscapes of loss and longing
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
OSTENSIBLY, this slim book is about doubt, but it also includes a valuable examination of personal loss. Alex Wright uses as a vehicle the chaos and ruin resulting from his failed marriage and the consequent loss of home in his beloved North Norfolk. This way we glimpse the depth of his unexpected agony. It nearly derailed him. In essence, this book describes his subsequent journey through that trauma to his new identity: to a place he reached by making use of new opportunities that stemmed from the loss of wife and place.
The chapter headings show us the route that the book takes through this unwelcome terrain. “Arrival”, the introduction, is where the author explains his intention of drawing on various cultural texts to illustrate his unsought experience of endings and abandonment as well as his belief that for many much of life’s deeper meaning remains hidden. He admits that his writings have become increasingly personal as the years pass, and we benefit from his eclectic use of quotations and literary references that are clearly of great personal significance. They range from the Psalms and other scriptural sources to appropriate poetry and the eloquent writings of the mystics.
“Certainty” is the focus of chapter two, in which Wright touches on spirituality and the dangers of too much certainty in its expression. Many readers will be alert to the danger of stating fiercely held opinions among differing faith groups. Firmly held opposing views, when expressed with conviction, can stir up overt hostility; we have seen too much of it recently throughout the world, whether among fundamentalist Christians or among extremist versions of Islam. New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, by determinedly expressing their views, often provoke others to attack. Wright maintains that “in all the fierce business of indignant protest and affirmation there should surely be room for ambiguity.” Too much certainty is unhealthy, maybe dangerous.
The author’s illustrative approach similarly enriches the arguments in subsequent chapters: Doubt, Endurance, Revival, and Return. In describing his own journey, touching on mystical reflection and the possibility of personal contemplation, it is ultimately W. H. Vanstone’s work that Wright espouses, especially his concept of waiting: “Waiting can be the most intense and poignant of all human experiences . . . which . . . strips us of affectation and self-deception and reveals to us the reality of our needs, our values and ourselves.”
For Wright, doubt or uncertainty is a valid element of our journeys. Most of us learn about comprehensive loss some time, and our resulting journey is a process that has to be our own, in time and direction. The accomplishment of waiting is essential if we are to pass successfully through times of affliction and establish our new identity.
I read this during Advent, a season of preparation and waiting. It is a gift by the author to us all as we live in an increasingly fast and superficial world with little time for our spiritual selves.
The Revd Jenny Francis is a retired psychotherapist and a priest in the diocese of Exeter.