I think it’s fairly safe to say that how we get from hope to faith pretty much summarizes our spiritual journey. We hope there is a God and we hope He sent His Son to redeem us and we hope that following the example and teachings of that Son we’ll be united with God forever. We hope all these things. We hope they are true. But do we believe them?
There are many references in the gospels to Your high regard for faith, but not so much for hope. Hope was what the Jews nurtured for a Messiah who fit their own descriptions; but they could not put faith in one that didn’t. In some ways we’re no different.
Hope is important, but it’s easy. Our hope steers our faith; therefore that into which we place our hope determines what we believe. But it is still possible to have a lot of hope and not much faith. In wondering about myself I sometimesconsider whether I don’t regard faith as hope in disguise. I say I believe in Your love and Your mercy and that they will cover and forgive a multitude of my faults; but isn’t this possibly more hope than faith? It seems to me that there is no doubt in true faith, but in hope there is doubt. Hope is what we have when we petition for something in prayer. I hope that by praying for a sick friend he/she will get better. But do I believe that whether that person gets well or not my prayers are still of consequence?
Kierkegaard has said that “...infinite resignation is the last stage before faith.” This kind of resignation stems from a clear understanding of our relationship with God. To be able to willingly and completely assign all things into God’s hands embracing His love and concern for us is faith – not hope! Genuine faith does not come easily. It’s not just a matter of saying “I believe.”
We all want others to believe in us, especially those closest to us; and they may say to us, “I believe in you.” But the fact is that it’s more like hope. Faith in one another is easily undermined by one small action or word that gives doubt to that faith. Unfortunately we bring this human flaw to our faith in God; and so we hope because it’s easier than the total resignation Kierkegaard mentions even though that is what is truly necessary.
The desire to know creates a natural faith that can be further gifted by God with a supernatural faith. When You exclaimed, “...Oh you of little faith...” You probably meant, ‘you with little desire to seek to know.’ And when You said, “...your faith has saved you...” I think You meant ‘your desire to seek to know has saved you.’
Seeking the truth, seeking You, is seeking to know that which saves us. At the very least, such seeking shows that we want to believe. In order to believe one must start with wanting to believe. It seems to me that those who are of little faith are those who consider the effort of seeking too great. It is the effort put forth in seeking, persistently, by which faith saves us. That “faith can move mountains” is a metaphorical tribute to the effort put into seeking.
When You were confronted by individuals who wished to be cured of some malady, You were sought out by them. They came to You. In such instances You not only cured them but You said to them: “your faith has saved you.” It was their seeking You and coming to You that so moved You. It was this that indicated faith. Let us not also forget that You continuously invite us to come to You. We have but to make the effort and we grow in faith. Implicit in understanding that we are all in equal need of seeking and coming to You is the acceptance of, and the outreach toward, all others making the same journey.
In terms of a hierarchy of virtue, one is strongly tempted to rank love first. But, I submit that belief (faith) precedes love. “The work of God is to believe in Him whom He sent,” (John 6:29). There may be a very good reason that love follows belief in the traditional order of the three theological virtues. God asks us only for belief because He knows love follows upon recognition and belief. It is impossible to love that which one doesn’t believe.
Love between people is predicated first upon one’s belief in another. What and how we believe determines what and how we love. Just as it is possible to believe in different ways it is also possible to love in different ways. Therefore, suggestion rather than dispute exercises positive influence on how one believes and loves. Belief in the Father is what You seek. He put forth You, in flesh, as the embodiment of what He wants us to believe about Himself. “He who believes in Me believes in Him Who sent Me,” (John 12:44). But this is not to say, nor do I think it was intended to say, that those who do not believe in You do not believe in the Father, or that they are incapable of participating in and sharing His great love.
I’ve said it before, the chosen people of God are all people. That Jews and Moslems do not embrace You as God does not preclude their belief in God. There may enter here a question of “fullness” of belief but not of belief itself. You are in love with Your creation and You would gather them all to Yourself if they but believe in You.
His oversights of all the manifestations and results of faith notwithstanding, Luther’s emphasis on faith was hardly misplaced.
In terms of the failings of contemporary Christianity in general and the contemporary church in particular I have the perception of mankind’s inability to piece together and connect the lessons of history.
From the beginnings of our human relationship with a God above, that God has asked for only one thing: belief! Whatever realities are, in fact, behind the story of creation and the Garden of Eden, belief was all God asked for. Through the Old Testament, the flood, the exodus, the prophets, the wars, the establishment and annihilation of kingdoms, all God sought from His people was belief. Yet, throughout the scriptural records we see betrayal, abandonment, denial and, worst of all, failure to recognize that which was to be believed.
God keeps intervening out of His great love for us, giving us second, third and fourth chances to believe but we keep walking away.
Then He sent You to His people and You taught that the most important thing to do was to believe in God. A whole new “movement” sprang out of Your teachings. But then God’s people betrayed You, abandoned You, denied You and, worst of all, failed to recognize You even though You had been promised to them. The message never changed: believe!“The work of God is to believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:29). Thus a Stephen can say in Acts that this generation, the generation ostensibly to whom the Messiah had come, was no different than previous generations who had betrayed, abandoned, denied and failed to recognize the work of God. We still (consciously or unconsciously) attach a residue of accusation upon the Jewish people. But the point I’m considering here is that we Christians, in this day and age, right now, are no different.
If we accept Your coming in bodily form as the promised Messiah, the Son of God, how come we, in this age, identically betray, abandon, deny and fail to recognize You in ways increasingly more cunning but of the same nature as Your chosen people of old? People are Your chosen people because whatever other label is put on them they still act the same.
Yet, as historically recalcitrant as we are, as predictably consistent in our failures as we are, as ever-the-same hypocrites that we are, You never stop gathering Your chicks under Your wing or herding Your sheep into Your fold. And who are Your chicks, Your sheep? Those who believe! Not Jews or Christians or Moslems but simply those who believe. That’s all the Father ever sought. These are the chosen people. The instruments we use to strengthen and enhance our belief so that we will not betray, abandon, deny or fail to recognize You have many names but at their root each is about belief in that which unites us all.
Would we betray, abandon, deny and fail to recognize You if You came today? History is backed by a continuum of supporting precedents. In fact, You do cometo us daily and we still betray, abandon, deny and fail to recognize You. Perhaps the bright spot is that even when we do this we profess to believe in You, and that’s what God wants. If we truly believe, the betrayal, denial, abandonment and lack of recognition in our lives is easily forgiven by God – it always has been. But pseudo-belief, belief of convenience, hereditary belief, self-serving belief, self-righteous belief, advantageous belief – all these so often attached to what we call faith, religion or spirituality, all these betray, abandon, deny and fail to recognize God in some way; and that is not what He seeks.
For me the “hidden life” is a kind of ideal; but outside the cloister or hermitage it’s a nearly impossible ideal. One who would truly live the hidden life is one who seeks opportunities of negating self; one who is accomplished in humility; one who counts himself for nothing. These are the three strikes that leave me “out” of the hidden life. Nonetheless, to what extent I’m able, I strive for bits and pieces of it in my own life. This striving is pervaded by an overall notion that a life hidden is one that is not held out for admiration, recognition, or praise. It means diverting such things to other more proper sources and crediting ourselves with nothing. At times, when we’re in the public eye, it means embracing the good of what we may offer not as our own but as emanating from a better source; letting our light shine but stifling the desire of originating it with ourselves.
I am not good at this. I am quite prone to talk about various things I do connected with growing spiritually or about new insights I learn about my relationship with You. Yet learning to silence my tongue and let You be magnifiedin ways You’d choose is part of the hidden life. In the hidden life I and everything about me diminishes and is overshadowed. That which might define or describe my material existence on this earth is assigned more to illusion and what transpires interiorly is assigned more to reality. To hide like a shy child behind the folds of Your robe; to peak out occasionally from behind them – this is the hidden life. To live hidden each day in Your Eucharistic Heart should be the central intention of anyone who would lose "self" by hiding self.
Consciousness of being is inextricably meshed with self. If we are breathing and sentient there is self. It is, despite what the writer Bernadette Roberts says, quite impossible to totally eradicate self in a sustained manner. In the conception of “no self” there is self. But I do believe that there are instances when, for short periods, self can be unconsciously erased. But that is not precisely what I wanted to talk to You about today.
What’s really on my mind is the problem of being frustrated by knowing that because of consciousness (self) I end up so often seeking self when I think I’m seeking You. I mark off hundreds of insightful thoughts and ideas in what I read that I think provide me with the food my spirit needs to grow. Cafeteria-style, I pick and choose what strikes me. Then I meditate on it – sometimes for days. You see how I cannot extricate my self from my spirit! But what’s the alternative?
Actually, there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. If I stop altogether the implementation of ways to seek You and make You more present in my life because I fear they end up being ways I only seek myself, then fear rather than love becomes the rule of my life. Let’s face it, the only way You can reach me is through my self. If You have to deal with it why should not I? Rather than fearing that I miss You by seeking myself, why do I not see You in that self and that self in You? Why should I fear what is a bridge (maybe the only bridge) between You and me?
It might be good to reflect on how, when I seek You, an awareness of self may be a help rather than a hindrance. There must be self and other for a relationship. Abandoning the selfish interests of the self is one thing but abandoning the self altogether is another.
Feelings are manifestations of the self and the self is what we must deal with in our relationship with You.
We are loved by You but what we feel as love is filtered through the self. In other words, because of self we feel the effects of love in our own way. Feelings admit the parts of love the self is willing to accept. Often what we are willing to accept is not love at all but selfishness. We long to feel united to God but in feeling united there is still a reflection of self, so, to that extent, it is not full or pure union.
It doesn’t seem possible to be alive yet be so numb as to not have feelings. Were we truly without feelings I fear there would be no quest – no seeking You. Experience of what we refer to as the “true self” still cannot escape feeling. Where there is self, false or true, there is feeling. Thus, to talk about the experience of “no self” is, in effect, talking about an experience of no feeling. How often we say or hear that we feel Your presence or that we’ve felt the touch of God.
I’m now reading a book on the Bethlehem Hermitage in New Jersey which contains the accounts of many who made retreats there. In almost every account there is something about feeling closer to God. We all use the word “feeling” to express the insight and impact of our experiences – experiences that come uniquely through the self we bring to each occasion. We are chained to our feelings. It may seem, at times, that they get in the way, yet, in dealing with them we work out our own unique path to You.
At this stage in my life I continue to perfect an ongoing attitude of looking ahead, anticipating events, planning for what’s next, and trying to foresee even the smallest details before they happen. I am blatantly guilty of placing great trust in myself. There is little question about whom I rely on to get things done. Yet it occurs to me that an accurate indicator of my love for others and for You may be my ability to change my plans to accommodate the plans of others and toaccommodate Your plans. This involves turning over a trust that is difficult for me to posit.
I have come slowly to learn that there is an exercise that I can perform that helps put my planning, organizing, and self-trusting into a position from which new light is shed on the misconstrued importance of such things. The exercise is willingly to choose to do what I would not choose to do. I am inclined to believe that doing this, at least in a few small ways each day, will render a change in perspective of what has been long held as personally important. Even in little things this can, in a big way, involve changing my personal plans to accommodate the plans of another. What automatically happens then is a decreasing of self and an increasing of the other; a humiliation of ego and a magnification of love; an awareness of the dependant aura of a child or a servant. This feeds a philosophy of not my will but yours be done and, by extension, returns to its derivative – Your will. It is one measure of our love to be more sincerely concerned with the will of the other than with our own. Self, with all its false masks, veils this.
Each day brings with it opportunities to change my own plans to accommodate the plans of others. There is a sense of Your whisper in this, drawing me closer to You and to Your will.
I often, by way of self-examination, try to step back and see myself as I imagine others might see me. One problem I encounter when I do this is that the external self that others see when they encounter me may not be what I would consider indicative of the “inner-self” which I encounter. The inner spiritual evolution urged by Christianity in many cases leaves aspects of the external unchanged. Yet it is the “inner me” that I want people to see.
In picturing what I think others see words come to mind such as “quiet; average; always busy; self-absorbed; polite; considerate; compassionate; calculating; serious; protective; religious; organized; devious; worldly; cheap; meditative; healthy; hypocritical;” etc. I see all these things but they’re not all what I’d wish others to see. I would claim that most of these mask my true inner- self. And I would maintain that this situation is pretty much true for everybody. Thus I’d have every individual in the world feeling in some form as I do that what you see on the outside is not a good picture of who I am on the inside. Or is it?
It all seems like a convenient argument for rationalizing our apparent faults. Yet where do the faults and warts that show on the outside come from? Are they not possibly an indication that all is not right within? In my own case a number of the words used to describe what I think others see on my outside might equally apply to what I think I see on my inside and, hence, might be the source of what others see on the outside.
Still, when all is considered, there are always a few items in our outer and inner being that fall into the category of “the coincidence of opposites.” While there are many traits of my exterior which stem from the same or similar interior traits, there are also some undesirable exterior traits that occur simultaneously with some highly desirable interior traits which usually go unrecognized except by You. Basically we are all good and we are all stirred by the notion of a reality beyond us. After that, we take over.
Why do we struggle so mightily to find evidence of the reality of God’s action in our lives? Sometimes the best place to hide something is right out in the open. It’s the old story of the forest and the trees. The solution is the same to the question of why we struggle so mightily to find the true reality of ourselves. It’s right in front of us. But we lose the reality of the spiritual dimension when we become centered on ourselves. At this center we depart reality. The way back is martyrdom, but not being put to death for our beliefs but rather dying to ourselves from our beliefs.
If we review the pantheon of early Christian saints we discover an abundance of martyrs - people who allowed themselves to be killed for what they believed. Yet Thomas Merton has said that, “...to remove the pleasure of one’s dearest illusions about oneself is to die more effectively than one could ever do by allowing himself to be killed for a clearly conceived personal idea.”
We seem not to have many martyrs nowadays – except political ones. Allowing oneself to be physically terminated rather than deny what one believes strikes me as less difficult and complex than living day-to-day and killing the self within.Whatever reflection of divinity we contain, we ignore it by prioritizing attention to our selves. Such effort is a conscious or unconscious attempt to seek unreality. The message of the cross is that of giving up one’s self. For many, including You, that meant death. But we need not be killed to be martyrs for what we believe. Our lives declare our beliefs when they are lived for others and for You – when all selfishness and self-centeredness is killed for what we believe is the true reality of life. Every saint, regardless of how they die, is a martyr.