Saturday, January 12, 2013
Faith in the Trenches of Love
Faith is the evidence of unseen things. This is what the New Testament tells us. It's the opposite of "seeing is believing." It's not-seeing is believing. We so much want to see, but to see is to no longer have faith.
We suffer in faith because we are assailed by doubt. In fact, it is only those who believe that experience doubt. Those with no faith have nothing to doubt. But those who believe also suffer doubt. They suffer because they must live in the tension of what they believe together with what they see (or don't see). There is a cultural myth that true faith is blind, blind to the obvious reality, blind to what is seen. However this is not so. Those with faith--real faith, not delusion--see as clearly as everyone else the realities of life, the practical circumstances, the hard facts of the matter. And yet there is something else, something more, something that evidences what is unseen: and that something is faith.
After the passing of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, quite a big deal was made in the media about her personal journal and letters in which she expressed the doubts she wrestled with. It seemed to me to be a kind of media feeding frenzy. There was sort of a rejoicing that if Mother Theresa struggled with doubt, then her faith wasn't strong and thus faith had little to do with her life of compassion. However, faith is not measured by the absence of doubt. Faith is measured by faithfulness, by obedience, by what we do in spite of all that resists us.
Faith can grow. The church teaches us that faith grows, it can be cultivated. Certainly there are better and worse soils for faith, people seem to have different natural FQs (faith quotients). Nonetheless, just as other abilities can be trained and cultivated, faith also can be trained and cultivated. St. Isaac the Syrian suggest this rule: "To refrain from glancing here and there with your eyes, but always to look steadily on what lies before you." Faith will grow as we learn to attend to what is before us, as we attend to our own struggles, and not to the struggles of those around us. And while on the one hand this is a good rule to avoid busybodiness, on the other hand this is a kind of revelation of a spiritual economy: the best conditions for the growth of personal faith require a kind of pulling away from others. There is a kind of tension between love and faith.
Those who love, those who are in the trenches of love, those whose lives are intertwined with others in the world--others with little or no faith, others suffering in darkness--for these it is difficult not to glance here and there, it is difficult to merely look steadily on what lies before them. And thus it is difficult to develop a faith that overcomes every doubt. No wonder Mother Theresa struggled so much: she loved so much.
Despite this tension, love and faith do meet. In saints like St. Seraphim of Sarov we see this. The pattern in Orthodox monasticism seems to be first a lifetime spent in single-minded devotion and prayer, a life spent steadily looking on what lies before you. And then at the end, for a few, there is a season of public giving away. I say "public" because there are others whose giving away is unseen. In this giving away, in this losing of oneself in the other, faith and love kiss. It is possible. It does happen.
However, those of us in the world are left with the encouragement of the saints, experiencing ourselves a Christian struggle that seems far, far away from this. We are encouraged by St. Seraphim's praying for a thousand nights on a rock, though we ourselves struggle to pray twenty minutes in our slippers. We are encouraged by St. Seraphim's clairvoyance, though we struggle even to know ourselves. And we are amazed by St. Seraphim's great love for all, the love of Christ flowing from a heart purified by a lifetime of prayer; while we struggle to love the few God has placed in our lives, also with the love of Christ, but flowing from a heart that has barely begun to be purified. And yet, it is still the same love. It is Christ's love.
And so this is the life of faith, the life of faith lived in love, lived in the midst of a broken, hurting, crying world. It is full of doubts and occasional brief moments of crystalline faith (the kind of moment when you wonder how you could have ever doubted). It is a life full of Christ's love, flowing from our confused and not-yet-purified hearts (a love of mixed motives, and awkward and sometimes misguided expression, but love nonetheless). It is the faith of Abraham, who went out not knowing where. It is the faith Ananias, who with fear obeyed the vision and laid hands on Saul that he might receive his sight. It is the faith of a father and mother who struggle to bring up their children in the Church even though it seems like years since they have really prayed, since they have felt a strong assurance of faith in their heart. This is faith in the trenches of love.