One day some disciples came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the scriptures and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each one gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one of them the old man said, “You have not understood it.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” And Abba Joseph replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.’ “
–Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers
When we are asked a question, it is very tempting to give a definitive response. In fact, most of the time we tend to assume that within every question is embedded the expectation of a definitive response! And sometimes such responses are helpful, like when we are asked for directions, or we are approached by someone who needs any concrete information. Simple, truthful answers to such inquiries simplify activities of daily living and streamline our contacts with one another.
It is in matters of interpretation that our convictions can get in the way. Because, as the old saying goes, what we don’t know is a lot. It can feel counterintuitive to confess that truth, but when we do so we create room for something new. Letting go of our certainty opens up space for different perspectives. Saying “I don’t know” is not a sign of defeat; rather it is an invitation for the Spirit to surprise us.
As we continue through this season of Epiphany, we remember people in the Christian story who put aside inherited assumptions and made room for God: the sages who traveled far from home, following the sign of a star wherever it led. Peter, whose moments of vulnerability led to breakthroughs in spiritual growth. And Paul, so full of conviction he persecuted the early church—until a radical conversion experience pulled him into a place of humility and new life.
Of course, it’s fun to spar with ideas and opinions. It can be edifying, too! But every once in a while, remembering to say “I don’t know” when we really don’t can re-set our perspective. Maybe, like Abba Joseph in the story above, doing so can be a first step in the Way.