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Faith: The Foundation of the Christian Life
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
In the Church today there is a crisis of faith. By crisis, we mean a time of decision when all in the Church - members of the hierarchy, priests, religious, and laity - are called upon to decide what we believe and why, and how we should act on the faith we profess.
Three aspects of this comprehensive subject give a basis for understanding faith in practice. First, we will ask and briefly answer the question, "What is faith?" Then, more pertinently, "Why is it important?" And finally, "How can we, who have the faith, grow and develop in this virtue which is the substratum of everything else?"
It is not coincidental or merely euphonic that we speak of the three theological virtues as faith, hope and charity. Without faith, there is nothing to hope for; without faith, there is no reason for loving.
What then is faith? Before we address ourselves to our own Christian faith, it might be well for a few moments to reflect on the fact that all people believe. There really are no people who are unbelievers; in order to stop believing, one would almost have to stop living. The only question is, "In what does a person believe?"
What is almost the first thing that we recognize about a young child? Isn't it the trustful confidence in mother, father, and those who surround him? As children, instinctively we believed in people and as we grew into later childhood and later adulthood, isn't it true that we continued believing and trusting people? We would not read a book unless we believed in the author, nor engage in business nor buy a product, unless we trusted the person who sells us what we buy. Who would ever get married (what a sublime act of faith!) unless she believed in him and he believed in her? All social relations among human beings would cease, society would no longer exist, unless it were built on a cosmic act of faith.
Being a believer is not something exotic or strange; it is the most human thing in the world. Aristotle defined man as a rational animal but having dealt with many people over the years, I am not sure that most of them behave even rationally most of the time. I would rather like to call man "the believing animal".
It is for this reason, and here we make the transition, that John the Evangelist in one incredulous statement asks, "How is it that we who are so ready to believe in men are so slow to believe in God?" Talk about the simple faith of millions of our fellow Americans who bury themselves for hours a day in a newspaper or watching television up to an average between 25 and 30 hours a week per American among our 200 million people. So we address John's question to ourselves and our answer is, "It is strange that people should be so willing to believe in their fellowman, and so slow to believe in God."
What is this Christian faith of ours? It is not different structurally nor psychologically from our faith in human beings. What do we do when we believe? We accept on someone else's word what he presumably knows more about than we do. We assent, therefore, in mind to what we do not ourselves understand, because we trust the one in whom we believe.
Believing in God means accepting on His word (that is, on His revelation) not because we understand what He reveals, but because we trust that God, being all-wise, knows and being absolutely honest would not deceive. At this point a panorama of mysteries stands before our eyes: the Trinity, the Incarnation, the religious life; our own mysterious exercise of liberty, that we have the power to say "yes" and also to say "no" to God; that we shall be finally judged, and that there is a life after this one that will never end. All of this we believe.
Why is faith so important? It is indispensable because without faith, ultimately there is no religion of any kind, certainly not the Christian religion, and least of all Catholic Christianity. Everything in Christianity which is Christian is a matter of faith. It has all been revealed to us, and we accept it just because God said it is true.
As we begin to articulate the importance of this faith of ours, we can isolate four features of its importance.
It gives us vision and as a consequence of vision, we acquire convictions. Because we have convictions, we have courage; and having all these, we find a meaning not only in life, but in everything that we casually say "happens" to us in life. We see it all has a purpose. Without faith, nothing has meaning; with faith, nothing is meaningless.
Vision. Faith, then, gives us vision. We should not be embarrassed by the word 'vision' in spite of the pejorative use in so much modern literature about "the visionary mentality". Because we have the faith, we can see - that is what vision means. We can see with the mind what those who may be more intelligent than we, cannot see. And I think you will agree that many people who do not share our faith have a greater intellectual capacity than we have. No matter. With faith, we can see what they cannot see.
Have you ever had the occasion of stopping in a church when no one is there except a few workmen repairing or painting? Perhaps you watched them with their caps on, talking, joking, and walking in front of the tabernacle as though it was just another box. No fault of theirs; they just don't see. We see with the eyes of faith; behind what looks like bread, we see our Creator in human form.
Is it any wonder that so many priests tragically are turning their backs on their priestly ministry? There is a very simple, though pathetic explanation. They have to a greater or lesser extent ceased to believe in their priesthood. Likewise, there are men and women who after maybe years under vows leave everything as casually as though they were walking out of a supermarket. There are scores of explanations, but primarily it is due to a darkening of the reason, a weakening of the faith.
Convictions. Because we believe, we know that lisping words, sometimes strangely articulated and stating things we only vaguely comprehend, are pleasing to God. Why? Because we believe that when we pray we are united with Him. We who believe, see, and in the degree to which our faith is strong and clear, this vision gives us convictions.
I would describe conviction as "being sure you have the truth". You know, it is one thing to possess the truth, as it is, to possess any great gift, and another thing to be aware of the fact that you have the faith. It is the being sure that you are sure, that I describe as conviction. It is another word for certainty. It is being secure in mind that what I know I will never have to unknow because the God who revealed it will never change.
How terribly the world around us needs men and women of conviction! This is a skeptical world, wandering and confused; it is a dubious world that is questioning everything including its purpose of existence. What a mandate we have from God, we who have been given the faith and are given the opportunity of deepening our faith, to be witnesses of certitude in an uncertain world! Is life worth living? We are sure it is. Millions are not so sure. Is there a God? Of course there is, but millions don't know it. Does He love me? He most assuredly does, but of this love millions are not aware.
Courage. Faith gives us vision and what flows from vision - conviction. Both essentially belong to the mind. Faith also has a deep influence on our affective faculties, notably our will and emotions. It gives us unbounded courage, the fortitude which the world so much needs because in spite of all its bravado and its brave front, which is mostly a facade, this is a fearful terrified world! It is a cowardly world haunted by the dreams of its own imagination. It needs us, and our courage depends on our faith.
Everyone has a past; but God is merciful. The future is only uncertain because we don't see it. But trusting in God, we have courage to face this future. Faith is walking hand in hand with God through the darkness of life until we reach the eternal dawn.
Nothing is meaningless. This faith of ours gives meaning to everything in our lives to such a degree that we, as believers, can say, "Nothing just happens". Everything is part of the providence of God. Something is not good because we like it, or bad because we don't like it. No. God has a purpose for everything and His purpose is good. He knows; He is God.
We still have one more dimension of our subject. In the light of what we have seen, with the eyes of faith, we ask ourselves not only how to keep this faith, but how we may grow in it becoming daily stronger and clearer in the vision, the conviction, the courage, and in seeing the meaning of life. How important this is for us, and please God, how important it should be through us, to tens of thousands whom we can influence because we strongly believe.
Let us remind ourselves that this faith of ours, which was infused into us at baptism, is a power. It is an ability of the mind to comprehend, never completely because we are dealing with mystery; never comprehensively but always increasingly. When we speak of believing in mysteries, we should not suppose that a mystery is something that we do not know anything about. A mystery is something we don't know everything about. But part of our growth in faith is a growth in a deeper understanding of our faith, in a clearer vision, in a deeper conviction, in a hardier courage, and in an ever more perspicacious ability to see meaning even in what we used to call the trifles of life.
How do we grow in this faith? First of all by reflecting on our faith. In one word - it is God who synthesizes everything we believe. How do we come to know anything or anyone better? Isn't it by, if it is something, reading and studying and reflecting, which means reviewing again that which we perhaps have seen a hundred times? But every time we come back to it, with the intention of finding new meaning, we always do. How do we come to know someone better? By being more and more often intimately in that person's company: We shall grow in our faith if we study our faith and the Latin verb for study is "studere" or "zealous preoccupation".
Secondly, if we wish to grow in our faith, we have got to pray on the faith and for the faith. We ask the Lord in prayer to help us to better understand what He has revealed: "Lord, what does this mean?" Or, as students nowadays tell the teacher: "It doesn't make sense:" So we ask our Lord in prayer to help us to a better understanding. Just because we already believe it, let us never think we believe it as clearly or as deeply as we can.
We also must pray for the faith. Among the petitions in the Gospel that often should be on our lips is this one: "Lord, I do believe, but help my unbelief", because frankly, the worst critic of our faith, the worst rationalist we have to cope with, is not some unbeliever on a college campus or in an office where we may work. The worst unbeliever is that part of our own mind which questions and keeps questioning, because in the nature of things, this mind of ours is made to see. It is a natural instinct. So let us ask God, "Lord, that I may see!"
Vision is not blindness. It is a trustful seeing what others, who do not believe, cannot see, whereas we see with the eyes of God, because we trust Him who will not deceive us.
Finally and most importantly, if we want to grow in the faith we already have (and we should be stronger in our faith every day), we shall become stronger and deeper if we act on the faith that we have. Inasmuch as our faith is a power, it is a faculty. It must be put to use, otherwise, it runs the risk of being atrophied. This, as we know, is a law of life.
Have you ever been bedridden, immobilized? If your muscles are not used for a long time, a kind of functional paralysis can set in. The same thing is true in the realm of faith. Consequently, we should look for opportunities to act on what we believe. This is a good thing to do in meditation, to ask, "Lord God, will you help me to figure out ways of exercising my faith?"
A few examples. We believe in God's Providence, which means that God foresees everything and has a purpose in everything. I want to put my belief in Providence into practice. So, I sit down or kneel down and ask the Lord, "Help me!"
In any given day how many things "happen" to us that we don't like? People say or do things that offend us. They keep us waiting, or they embarrass us by waiting, and then we seem to be the ones who are tardy!
The essence of patience is faith in Providence, because who would ever be impatient with God? We might say, "But she said it; I heard her with my own ears." No she didn't God did. God is behind every human muscle, behind every human syllable, behind the least and the most unexpected, even what seems to be an accidental, human gesture. But what faith it takes to see the lips of God behind the lips that offend me and to hear the voice of God behind the statement that insults me: And if we want to grow in this faith we have to consciously practice what we believe, and practice it consistently.
It is a life-time of effort to keep brushing away the clouds of humanity that stand between what we think happens to us and what God puts into our lives. Doing that, I assure you, we shall grow in faith.
Do we not believe what we so often recite in the Lord's Prayer, " forgive us our trespasses as ." Trespasses is the old Anglo-Saxon word for "offenses". So we might say, forgive us our offenses as we forgive those who have offended us." We believe it. We must. We say it, don't we? But, to put that into practice every time someone offends us, and to realize that this is God's way of giving us a chance to expiate our own sins and invoke His mercy - this is to begin to grow in that faith which we develop by living it out.
There is salvation only through faith; only those who believe will be saved. There is happiness only in faith. Insofar as those who do believe act on their faith, they are happy. Achievement is only by faith. It means daring the impossible; and the ones who risk all are the persons who, once convinced that God wants it, can achieve great things because, guided by faith, they were sure that nothing is impossible with God.
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