Indulge me for a moment in a strange memory. I was standing in the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., in the dinosaur exhibit, in front of one of those huge reconstructed dinosaur skeletons (a brontosaurus, I think). I looked at it for awhile, not really thinking much about it one way or another. Then I looked down and saw a replica of a baby dinosaur, curled up at the big dinosaur’s feet. It was very small and sleeping, and it was very close to where I was standing. Something about the replica held my gaze and for several long moments – I was totally transfixed, totally focused on the baby brontosaurus.
Suddenly I had a strange and profound realization: Dinosaurs actually existed!
But I knew that already!
I don’t know what amazed me more – my newfound belief in dinosaurs or the discovery that I had apparently not really believed in dinosaurs for my whole life! Like everyone else, I had learned about dinosaurs since childhood. I never got especially excited about them, but I certainly had no reason to doubt their existence. And yet in that moment at the museum, I realized that I had never really allowed myself to believe – to imagine, to grasp, to fall into – a reality where these fantastic creatures actually lived and breathed and mated and ate each other, long before human beings existed – in my world – in Texas for goodness’ sakes! Looking at that baby dino, I suddenly “got it” – the truth broke in, and I imagined and believed in a world of dinosaurs, a time before humans, something incredible but true.
This experience in the museum happened to me as an adult. And when I realized that I hadn’t actually believed in dinosaurs even though I thought I did, I wondered about all the other things I think I believe. I wondered about God and Jesus, forgiveness and Eucharist. I wondered about heaven and hell, death and forever. I wondered about the little doubts that nag at me sometimes and the big things I take for granted. I realized there are things I never really let myself imagine and things I want to imagine but can’t.
It seems that part of being human is not fully knowing our own minds. I thought I believed in dinosaurs, but in reality, I was only coming to believe in them. And so it is with the truths of our faith. Do we believe in them? Yes we do. And we don’t. And we might. And we will.
For now, we can add to our daily prayer the honest words of the father of a convulsing boy, who pleaded with Jesus: “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24)