Is it okay to question God? The Israelites, wandering through the desert, questioned, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Hundreds of years later the Psalmist recorded that the Lord’s anger remained: “For forty years I loathed that generation.”
Yet Jesus asked essentially the same question from the cross. In one instance, there is a testing, a demand that God respond on our human timeline. In the other, the thirst is much deeper than mere water. Questions out of fear cloud our judgment. Yet we can ask in a spirit that frees us to see more clearly.
AMEN? Questions for a God I Hope Exists (2022) by Julia Rocchi is full of wisdom, vulnerability, and questions asked in an open and seeking spirit. Julia’s is a questioning faith where she invites the reader to join in her journey. Essays, quotations, poems, and prayers probe the mysteries that make up life. One reviewer sees in this honest and hopeful exploration, “a psalter for the post-modern, exhausted age.” Julia writes of a God who is imminently approachable and ready to answer our deepest questions.
I was delighted when Julia, a long-time friend, enthusiastically agreed to answer my questions about her new book.
DJB: Julia, would you tell us why community is important in your spiritual journey?
JR: Though I had a manuscript for AMEN? in place before COVID-19 struck, its reshaping all happened during pandemic, a long period where I was isolated at home with my husband and two small children, unable to participate in the activities that gave our lives texture and meaning, such as time with dear friends or regular church attendance. (I’m a practicing Roman Catholic.) As I constantly reread work I’d written in the “before times” when I never had to question the availability of tangible love, support, and connection, I realized just how deeply I missed, craved, and needed community.
Experiencing such bone-deep disconnection and loss ultimately gave me a greater affinity with my hoped-for audience — people who want to journey with others to encounter God but are struggling to find those fellow souls in an American society that is steadily moving away from traditional religious affiliation. And I found myself asking: If we can’t gather physically right now, how can I extend a spiritual invitation to an ongoing conversation where questions are not only welcome but encouraged?
Doubt and mystery play an important role in your search for meaning, beginning with the book’s title. How important is it to recognize and support questions and doubt in our spiritual quests?
From early on in my writing process, I developed a deep attachment to the question mark in my book’s title. For me, this simple punctuation captured the essence of what I was trying to communicate — that when we ask questions of God, the Universe, whatever it is that we believe to be bigger than ourselves, we do so not to arrive at answers, but to inspire still more questions. As a goal-oriented completist, I used to shiver at this approach, but as I grow more comfortable with mystery, I’ve come to see questions and doubts as cairns on a winding, unmappable journey — little signposts asked and shared by others so we can grapple with unknowing, together.
AMEN? contains essays, reflections, quotations, prayers, and poems written during various periods of your life. What did you discover as you shaped them into a book?
Often during the course of writing and editing this book, I cursed Past Julia — the younger, childless, swinging single Julia — for not using all her beautiful, unbound time to write AMEN? sooner! But the truth is, Past Julia — several different versions of her, in fact — did create this manuscript over the course of months, years, and moments. It was wild to run into my old selves on the page and align them with who I am and what I believe today. And what a tremendous opportunity it was for contemplation and grace, to give my life thus far a narrative arc and to bear witness to my own faith journey.
Another thing that struck me in my writing/editing process was how universal my feelings were across different ages and stages of life. As I reconnected with my old selves, so much of their lived experience still resonated, and they gave me insight into things I’m living today. It powerfully demonstrated how life may twist and turn, dip and rise, but our very cores — our souls, our Imago Dei, the way we are made in God’s image — are constant, protected, and sacred.
What is prayer to you?
I have an entire chapter of AMEN? devoted to prayer, and that’s because I haven’t fully answered your question for myself yet! I will say that my concept of prayer has expanded over time; it’s no longer simply “words I recite as I squirm on a kneeler,” but rather a never-ending dialogue with Mystery itself. This expansive view opens up many more opportunities for divine communion, be it through meditation or movement, nature or art, grief or laughter.
If that sounds too diffuse for you, consider author Anne Lamott’s more concrete definition captured in her book title, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Her distillation in this slim but potent book reveals how, whether you believe in God or not, cultivating vulnerability, gratitude, and awe in your life will enrich the precious time you spend earthside.
What books do you like to read?
Despite AMEN? being nonfiction, I am first a writer of fiction, and I most willingly disappear into well-crafted novels and short stories, preferably ones with strong voices and unique points of view. In the past few years I’ve made a conscious effort to vary my literary diet, fiction and non, with works by more diverse authors outside the traditional canon. In short, any story that reveals a different facet of the world and illuminates a new corner of the human experience for me wins the day.
Bonus points if it also makes me laugh, because lord above, I don’t think we laugh enough these days.
Many thanks, Julia!
I’m honored that you invited me, David. Keep asking questions!
More to come…
The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed.
My friend, writer, and former colleague Priya Chhaya wrote the following on my LinkedIn post:
“I am a card carrying member of the Julia Rocchi hype team and if anyone asks me why, all they have to do is read responses like this: “I’ve come to see questions and doubts as cairns on a winding, unmappable journey — little signposts asked and shared by others so we can grapple with unknowing, together.”
What a nice Q&A David J. Brown! So glad you liked the book too.”
FYI, Priya recommended the book to me when I asked friends for recommendations for 2023.
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