Saints: I Have No Idea Where I Am Going
This is the second of a two-part reflection on Gene Luen Yang's companion graphic novels, Boxers and Saints. Each story, both of which I highly recommend, follows a young person leading up to and during the Boxer Rebellion, which shook China at the turn of the 20th Century.
"This is not what I signed up for."
Have you ever thought that? Life has this knack for throwing us curveballs constantly. You think we would get used to it, but we don't. You go down a road expecting a certain outcome and the destination you reach is not what you anticipated. Faith is like that all the time. This is horribly un-pastoral to say, but it can be a crapshoot sometimes. Where I am today at 33 is not what I expected when I started this journey as a child.
On one hand that can be unnerving. In Western society we put a premium on knowing. We have to know where we are going. We want to do a and be confident that b will be the result. That idea has seeped into churches, some more so than others. Follow Jesus and this will happen. You'll get your best life now. Or you'll be confident in your faith. Or this or that. But that's not always the case.
But this uncertainty, this fact that at times we have no idea where we are going, can be beautiful as well. It is true that two and a half decades ago, I had no idea where faith would take me (or even what I was doing sometimes). The fact that my faith still has a strong pulse, the reality that I have gotten to work in ministry is testimony to God carrying me through the shifts in faith, bad decisions, and life circumstances. Looking back on that road it's pretty remarkable how God can use that stumbling around.
Saints follows the story of Four-Girl. She is named such because she is the fourth girl born to her family, which disappoints her grandfather so much that he doesn't even bother to name her. She feels out of place. As a child, her mischievous behavior gets her labeled as a devil-child and, after a talk with a raccoon (because why not?), she decides to embrace that label. She contorts her face into a hideous mask. When she is first introduced to the foreigners' Catholicism, she is told it is a devil's religion. She pursues it to further become a devil.
Four-Girl, later given the name Vibiana, when she converts stumbles around. She pursues the faith to become a devil, then follows it because she has nowhere else to go. She wrestles with her calling. She does not want to become a nun. She wants to pursue justice but the church won't let her become a priest. Spurred by visions of Joan of Arc, Vibiana comes to believe that her destiny lies in defending the Christians in her village from being attacked by the Boxers. She proves herself to be adept with a sword and a better fighter than the young seminary student with whom she has a complicated relationship.
Yet even when she is certain this is where she is going, life pulls out the rug from under her. I won't say how, but her story is tragic and profoundly moving. Her faith, which was initially pursued so that she might be a devil, becomes something real. Still complicated. Still a bit of a moving target. But something real. Something beautiful and brave. She had no clue what she was doing and look where it got her.
It brought to mind a quote from the 20th Century Trappist monk Thomas Merton that has given me solace as I have faced times where I had no clue what I was doing:
"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you."
Vibiana did not sign up for where she ended up. It wasn't the pursuit of God that brought her in the door. Yet somehow, as she traveled down the road, she embraced a faith that loved God and loved her enemy. I am under the persuasion that saints are not the people who know where they are going, but keep going even as they do not know.