I haven’t written up any reflections for some time – I’m going to try and schedule time each week to do so. Let’s see how it goes.
The idea of faith gets a bad rap. Most movies/tv shows love the tired, hackneyed portrayal that faith is blind obedience. While there is an element of ‘blind’ belief, it should be more like our belief in scientific truths. For example, we might not have personally done all the actual experiments to discover the Ideal Gas Law and the material science behind tire rubber, but we rely on its principles every day when filling our tires with air. Since you haven’t done all the experimentation yourself, you must say you have put your faith that the experiments to prove the principles are sound and tested enough to trust your life on friction-heated, whirring, air-filled rubber balloons propelling you down the road.
This is true of religious faith too. Besides the promises of Christ himself, there is evidence that following his teachings will lead to a better life and society as a whole. We have the examples of many people over the ages. But without having tried it completely, especially at the early parts of our faith life, there is almost certainly an element of blind belief that these teachings are trustworthy and can be relied on. There is also the great ‘stumbling block’ of Christ that the ‘better’ life he promises is one that confounds our normal ideas of what makes a good life. So the reality is that our whole faith lives, each step along the way, involves taking steps in faith. As each step proves itself out we take another and another. This is why the gift of faith is so important. Without it, we cannot move forward.
Just like our tires, faith in the teachings of Christ/religion means you’re willing to put your trust in and actions behind them. If you believe and have faith that your tires are able to withstand 35psi, you fill your tires to this level without hesitation and shoot off down the road. So too must we with the teachings of Christ if we claim to believe them. I have heard many say they believe in God – but you would never know that based on how they live their lives or that they do so in some vague abstract concept of a ‘God’. Instead, to really believe means we put these teachings into action in our lives and live them. This is what the Gospel of James (James 2:14-26) eludes to when he says faith without works is dead. Faith and belief have an essential element of action. Just like your tires, you ‘bet’ your life on them by putting your trust in them into action. If you truly believe the teachings of Christ are the words of God, then you must put them into action in the same way. Christ teaches us that these matters determine the ultimate eternal fate of our soul, so to not follow them demonstrates you do not believe that to be true.
So what about ‘blind’ faith? Most of us remember the first scary attempts at driving. Faith does not mean we might not have questions or hesitations. It doesn’t mean that we might not have doubts or wish things were otherwise. Christ himself felt these same things as he faced his own death on the cross – yet he went in faith and became the gateway of salvation for all. How do we work through those fears, doubts, and concerns? A big aid to us is becoming educated academically about the teachings of Christ – just as we might learn the mechanics of how cars work to assuage questions and fears. Learning the history and context of his world (such as how Jewish laws worked, social contexts of feasts, roles of Scribes and Pharisees in society, etc) helps us understand his words and relate them to ourselves today. The writings of the saints and the church help clarify and understand nuances too. The more you learn, the fewer obvious and easily overcome stumbling blocks there are. You move more quickly.
But the journey of faith is more than just a list of shoulds/should-nots. Christ makes it clear that when we get to heaven, there is an element of whether he ‘knows’ us (Luke 13:22-30 and Matthew 7:21-23). He tells us to strive to enter by the narrow door. For many will try and not be able to, and when they ask the door be opened, Christ will tell them he ‘does not know where we come from’. Even to some of those that did great deeds in his name. This implies a relationship. Christ recognizes his own. He speaks many times of his followers being members of his flock. He knows them and they know him. They know his voice. So how do we ‘know’ Christ and have him ‘know’ us?
I would say there are 2 kinds of ways we follow Christ. There are those moments of following Christ and believe in his words without having had an explosive, eye-openeing moment of ‘personal’ encounter. This is common in children just starting out but for many adults too. We believe what we read and do our best without the need of big, explosive moments of conversion. God’s grace slowly and quietly guides us along the way. The second are those that have had very powerful and personal conversion/encounters with God. They feel his presence very powerfully in their lives – often changing their internal life dramatically in a single event. Most often, each believer experiences BOTH kinds of encounter as time goes on. Either way, as they learn about the words Christ spoke and the way he asks us to live, we learn about Christ himself. You cannot read a book about, or written by, someone without starting to grasp something about the person. So in following the teachings of Christ, which are often very contradictory to what the world teaches (the greatest must become the least servant of all), we learn about God and the kingdom each time we listen and follow. We also have a profound encounter at mass when Christ is made physically present in the Eucharist. We bring all the work and struggles of holiness we had along with all the works of the community of faith together and offer them with the sacrifice of Christ to the Father. It’s a profound moment of connection with each other, the Holy Spirit, Christ, and the Father. After which, grace and blessing flow outward and we are fed by Christ himself and filled with his gifts to take out into the world anew.
This all speaks not to a list of rules, but to a relationship. We learn and take steps in that relationship. We encounter God in each step – sometimes powerfully – sometimes quietly. In reality, what we are really doing is building a relationship. But in our frail condition, it’s a relationship of steps. Some forwards, some backward, and many that seem sideways. Yet in each one, the relationship of Christ is there so that each step happens with him – if we are open to it and pray to be united with it. Many religious and priests start with a prayer of uniting their efforts with Christ and ask to be a channel of his love before each person they meet.
So today, faith is having the courage to believe and follow what the gospels tell us and what the Church teaches us. That just like truths we believe were proven with science, we believe the truths taught by Christ come from a trustworthy source. Ah – but believe in the teachings of the Church as well? We believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church (which are never contradictory with scripture) because Christ himself said that the apostles and their successors were given the ‘keys to the kingdom’ and the authority to hold bound and make loosed (Matthew 16:13-20). In our current climate, especially in the west, we have the notion of a ‘cafeteria Christians’ who pick and choose what they want to believe in. This is not what Christ intended since he prayed that we all might be one (John 12:21) as he and the Father are one. To pick and choose as is ‘popular’ makes God a liar because you are literally saying that the other parts are lies, wrong, or false. Things we may have to stand before the throne for and explain.
But for the Catholic Church, Christ make the Church his bride, and will honor his promise of holding bound and loose of its rulings. It takes courage. It takes an element of belief. It takes faith to trust in those challenging parts – especially in teachings about marriage, sexuality, money, and so forth. As someone that has traveled on the road of faith for many years, I can say that I have struggled with many of the teachings, but never have I regretted each time I’ve followed a teaching in faith. Even when it was challenging and I personally did not agree, it has always taught me some powerful truth. Sometimes they mean a lot more work for me, but it often showed me an aspect of living justly and fairly with everyone that I didn’t see before.
One of the big lessons I have learned is that the reward of living a holy life – life in accordance with the teachings of Christ and the Church – is peace. Often it is an internal peace – since peace with others/the world is almost never possible. This is a big stumbling block – because peace is often very unsexy. It sometimes means we take the less attractive road/career path/relationship. We want the big, nice things in life. We want the perfect family/spouse/house/image. Sometimes doing what is right makes us lose friends, turn down career paths that might have paid big money at the cost of our souls, or choosing to live more frugally so that others might simply live. It usually means to stop following our own agendas. It ultimately means this life isn’t about me – but how following the teachings of Christ in self-sacrificial love for others is how to find true happiness. This is not something that is easy or done overnight.
There is a joke about a woman that prays for patience. After she does so, she goes out to find her car won’t start and must spend tons of time getting to a shop, calling friends for a ride, and re-arranging her day. After she gets to work, she finds that a critical delivery has failed and they must spend all day working on a new strategy. Arriving home exhausted, she finds her son in need of assistance with his homework. This prevents her from getting a few other chores around the house done. When her head finally hits the pillow – she then realizes that she spent the whole day learning about patience. Just in all the ways she never expected. The answers to our prayers are often found, and delivered, in their opposites.
So, if I could encourage you to an act of faith today, I would say this: Look at the teachings of Christ or the Catholic Church and pick one you do not agree with. Try living as if it were true. Take a step of faith – and pray for the gift to do so. If you are in a relationship having sex outside of marriage – stop having sex and see how it changes the relationship. If you do not tithe, try giving away 10% of your income. If you are in a marriage and using contraception – stop and use an approved method. If you believe in abortion – how would you act differently if it is as wrong as we teach it? See what it teaches you. Do not be so arrogant as to assume you know better than the countless centuries of wisdom and writings of very holy people or the words of Christ himself. I bet, as I have, you will be richly rewarded by trying this. Pray for the gift of faith to try.