The Language of Faith

“He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.”

Last week I posted William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence.  There are so many good lines in this poem, but the two above have had special meaning for me recently.

I was speaking to someone about the Year of Faith.  We talked about how, for starters, it would be good to pray for faith this year.  He asked me what faith is, what he should be praying for when he prays for faith.  Instead of coming up with a reasonable answer to the question, I had the strong inclination not to say anything at all, but to just look at him and let him hold the question. It wasn’t because I had no words or ready-made concepts to explain what faith is.  Rather, it was because I knew that an explanation of faith was not the appropriate thing at the moment.  That, not only was it impossible to explain faith, but it would have also been wrong to try.  Somehow, to try to explain faith in that moment would have only been a symptom of a lack of faith.  Sometimes, when we lack faith we know it precisely because our mouths open and we pour out all kinds of words and explanations.  It’s almost as if explanations (in certain circumstances) can only come from someone who does not himself believe.  I think of Jesus and his parables and his enigmatic way of teaching; his apparent disinterest in explaining things when it would have seemed to do a lot of good!  And his silence before Pilate who asked “What is truth?”  “He who replies to words of doubt Doth put the light of knowledge out.”  I can think of no better example of this truth than Jesus before Pilate.

Faith has its own way of speaking.  Ultimately, faith is not something that can really be spoken or explained in the normal way.  It reminds me of De Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence.  One of his main themes is that faith is precisely NOT our thoughts, our senses, what we feel, think, or experience.  All of these things are like veils that cover God’s presence who comes to us through them, not by them.  It’s the same with our communications.  We can say things about faith, but we will not communicate faith anymore than we can communicate the identity of a friend.  We can say things that peripherally describe him/her, but we can’t make him/her known.

This is a challenge to us because we tend to be attached to our normal ways of knowing through senses and thoughts.  We examine questions from all angles, we look, we poke, we think it over.  But in the end, we’re still blind.  We just can’t seem to add things up, to weigh it all correctly.  Perhaps this is why silence is the best way to “speak” about faith; it bypasses our usual ways of approaching the question: by looking and thinking.  If you take these away, your silent power for knowing is given a chance to work.  This is also why the “simple” among us are more likely to have faith than the clever.

Just this morning, I read the passage in Matthew about the Canaanite woman with the possessed daughter (Mt 15:21-28).  “And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.'”  Jesus’ response to her caught my eye: “But he did not answer her a word.”  He was silent before the heartfelt cry of this desperate woman.  Here we see in Jesus “that strange mixture of unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness,” as Sheldon Vanauken put it.  Is he not moved by this woman’s cries?  How can be be so cold-hearted?  The answer: his severity is the severity of faith.  He replies with silence and contradiction and bypasses the woman’s senses and reason to speak directly to her believing heart.  His words were an authentic response to that woman’s already deep faith.  If she had had less faith, he would have perhaps been less severe with her.  But she was up to the challenge, and she triumphs in the end.  Her dark exchange of faith ends with a burst of light when Jesus exclaims, “O woman, great is your faith!”  “And her daughter was healed instantly.”

A resolution for this Year of Faith: to practice silence as a way of detaching ourselves from senses and thoughts so that faith may grow more deeply in us.

A Poem of Faith and Seeing

William Blake (1756-1827) – Auguries of Innocence

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.

A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipt and arm'd for fight
Does the rising sun affright.

Every wolf's and lion's howl
Raises from hell a human soul.

The wild deer, wand'ring here and there,
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misus'd breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher's knife.

The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won't believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever's fright.

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov'd by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by woman lov'd.

The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.

The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother's grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the last judgement draweth nigh.

He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar's dog and widow's cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.

The gnat that sings his summer's song
Poison gets from slander's tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of envy's foot.

The poison of the honey bee
Is the artist's jealousy.

The prince's robes and beggar's rags
Are toadstools on the miser's bags.
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

The babe is more than swaddling bands;
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;

This is caught by females bright,
And return'd to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,
Are waves that beat on heaven's shore.

The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar's rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.

The soldier, arm'd with sword and gun,
Palsied strikes the summer's sun.
The poor man's farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric's shore.

One mite wrung from the lab'rer's hands
Shall buy and sell the miser's lands;
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole nation sell and buy.

He who mocks the infant's faith
Shall be mock'd in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne'er get out.

He who respects the infant's faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour's iron brace.

When gold and gems adorn the plow,
To peaceful arts shall envy bow.
A riddle, or the cricket's cry,
Is to doubt a fit reply.

The emmet's inch and eagle's mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne'er believe, do what you please.

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.

The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation's fate.
The harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave old England's winding-sheet.

The winner's shout, the loser's curse,
Dance before dead England's hearse.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

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To Be or Not To Be

I just read this piece by Anthony Esolen about the Australian Girl Guides’ new misguided oath.  I started to write a comment, but it got long enough to be a blog post.  So here it is:

The Girl Guides of Australia may be deplorably misguided, but there is something not quite right about this piece as well.  It seems to set up a rigid opposition between God and the self such that we are left with one choice: God or self…which shall it be?  It does this by supposedly revealing the true meaning of Shakespeare’s oft-quoted line from Hamlet: “Above all…to thine own self be true.”  According to Esolen, Shakespeare did not himself give much credence to these words since he put them in the mouth of a fool (Polonius).  The conclusion is that Shakespeare really meant that those who consider it important to be true to themselves are fools.  And we are left to choose between those who strive to be loyal to God and those who strive to be loyal to themselves.

The problem is that there is a hidden assumption in the paradigm of God vs. self.  The assumption is that the “self” is always something bad, something that can only exist in opposition to God, something that really has no positive meaning.  If we understand Polonius’ line with this purely negative meaning, then we must agree that he was a fool to utter it.  But the fact is that no one in his heart of hearts has such a simplistic notion of the self.  We all know that in the self there is both good and bad, that we are neither dung-hills nor angels.  The reason Polonius’ line has gained wisdom status is not because the masses are so selfish and hell-bent that they consider it wise to choose self in opposition to God.  Nor is it because they are hopelessly ignorant of Shakespeare’s real meaning.  These words strike a chord because–with or without Shakespeare–they contain wisdom.  The wisdom is about integrity, the ability to be who one is without falseness or admixture.  The person with integrity knows who he is (and who he is not) and remains true to it.  Ultimately, he can view his own self as a gift from God that he must accept and live.  In fact, the acceptance or rejection of this gift is the most important choice he has to make.  We find an echo of this also in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”  Indeed, it is. The choice of whether or not to accept ourselves as God has given us to be or to flee from that gift in favor of our own self-ideal is at the root of all history.

What Has Power Over You?

American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that “nothing is more unbelievable than the answer to a question that is not asked.”  That is, if we do not care enough to ask the questions (who is God, what is the meaning of my life, etc.), then the answers will mean nothing to us.  We will not believe, simply because we do not care.

Anyway, this idea of the importance of the question is worth exploring further, but for now I would just like to use it to preface some very important questions from Romano Guardini in his book The Lord.  Here he is:

[W]hat is it that actually has power over us? What rules me? People, mainly. Those who speak to me, whose words I read; those with whom I associate or would like to associate; the people who give or withhold, who help or hinder me; people I love or influence or to whom I am bound by duty—these rule in me. God counts only when people permit him to, when they and their demands leave me time for him. God rules only in spite of people; when under their influence I am not too strongly tempted to feel that he does not exist at all. He reigns only inasmuch as consciousness of his presence is able to force itself upon me, to coexist with the people in my life….Things also rule in me: things I desire, by the power of that desire; things that bother me, by their bothersomeness; things I encounter wherever I go, by the attraction they have for me or by the attention which they demand. Things in general, by their very existence, fill the spiritual ‘space’ both within and around me, not God. God is present in me only when the crowding, all-absorbing things of my world leave room for him—either in or through them, or somewhere on the periphery of their existence. No, God certainly does not dominate my life. Any tree in my path seems to have more power than he, if only because it forces me to walk around it! What would life be like if God did rule in me? (emphasis added)

He’s right…a tree is more real to me than God!  Isn’t that absurd?!?  How can a tree be more real to me than the ever-living God?  This is the question; and even if we don’t find a satisfactory answer, we can’t let the question go or explain it away with easy answers (e.g. God wants us to seek him out, etc.).  Better to simply say “I don’t know!”  To me, this is a better path to wisdom: to stay with the question, to stay with the “contradiction,” and not reduce the problem (reality) for the “safe” ground of certainty.  It is only from here that we can launch out into the deep waters of faith with a little push, which also comes in the form of a question:  What would life be like if God did rule in me?  Imagine the possibilities!

St. Therese: Radical Innovator

I just read something wonderful from Jacques Philippe about the audacity of St. Therese. He writes about how she realized early on that there was no way for her to be a great saint in the style of those towering figures of the past. So she decided to find her own way–a new way.  St. Therese wrote,

“But I want to find how to get to Heaven by a little way that is quite straight, quite short: a completely new little way.”

Philippe observes the following,

“A little way that is ‘completely new.’ That is her most surprising expression. She has her nerve, this twenty year-old who wants to find a new way to holiness after nearly two thousand years of Christianity! A new path to Heaven…that really is bold! Had the theologians who pronounced in favor of Therese being made a Doctor of the Church actually read this passage?”

Love it!  It reminds me of a passage from de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence: “Today God speaks to us as he used to speak to our ancestors at a time when there were neither spiritual directors nor any systems of spirituality. To be faithful to the designs of God then comprised the whole of one’s spiritual life. [...] Those spiritually inclined needed nothing more.”

If we are faithful to God’s designs, who KNOWS what “new” things will appear in the Church, even after 2000 years! It’s a matter of faith.

Evangelization before catechesis – The Arlington Catholic Herald

Evangelization before catechesis – The Arlington Catholic Herald.

Why do you suppose Blessed John Paul II talked about the “new evangelization” and not the “new catechesis”?

Until recently, I was the director of evangelization and catechesis at a large parish here in Denver. And in that time, it became clear to me that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning between those two terms and that (2) most parishes don’t fully understand that difference, and that hurts our ability to reach the people in the pews.

To put it simply, “evangelization” is the process of introducing someone to Jesus Christ. It is about sharing His good news with them, and inspiring them to make the radical decision to follow Him. It is the fundamental turning of the heart toward God, the reorientation of one’s entire life to live not primarily for self, but for Him. Evangelization is the “why.” Why do I renounce this world for the next? Why do I follow Christ?

“Catechesis,” which happens after evangelization, is the nuts and bolts of instruction — the “how.” It is where we learn in a systematic way what we need to do in order to follow Christ, how to live as a Christian, how to grow in faith and love and grace.

Catechesis, then, presupposes evangelization. It would make no sense to teach people how to live a certain way if they don’t understand why they would want to live that way. It would be like giving someone a road map to a place they have no interest in going. They’d have no use for the map. They’d be more likely to use it to line the bird cage than they would be to actually follow it.

And here is where I see the disconnect in most parishes.

Most churches operate on a presupposition. They assume that their congregations consist of the “faithful” — people who have been evangelized, who have made the decision to follow Jesus Christ, who desire to become “new creations” in Him. They are gathered together to pray, to worship and to learn how to deepen that relationship. The church’s catechesis exists to help those people, who have already made the decision to follow Christ, to follow Him more closely.

Only, in many cases, that presupposition is wrong.

It may have been true, in previous generations, that a majority of the people in the pews on Sunday mornings were fully evangelized, committed Christians who had given their lives to following Jesus Christ. That may still be the case in some evangelical congregations. But it is not the situation in the average Catholic parish here at the dawn of the 21st century.

I believe that there are a lot of people in those pews who have never been evangelized. They’re probably sincere people, for the most part. They’re there. They want to be “good.” They want to meet nice people, maybe please the grandparents, maybe fulfill some kind of obligation. But they don’t get it. They don’t understand the power of Christ to transform their lives. They don’t see the need for the radical, life-altering transformation that He offers.

It’s no wonder our catechesis doesn’t seem to be getting us too far. We’re offering them a road map to a place they have no interest in going.

And hence, the primary need in the average Catholic church is not for catechesis. It’s for evangelization. As Blessed John Paul II said in “Novo Millennio Inuente,” “Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a ‘Christian Society’ which, amid all of the frailties which have always market human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone.” Our mission fields are no longer in far-off lands. They are right here, in our own cities, amongst the people who gather with us for Mass on Sunday mornings. Those are the people we need to introduce, or reintroduce, to the truth about salvation in Jesus Christ.

Hence the need for the “new evangelization.” There’s nothing really “new” about it, in the sense of new information. As John Paul II himself said, “The new evangelization does not consist of a ‘new gospel.’ … Neither does it involve removing from the Gospel whatever seems difficult for the modern mentality to accept.” What we need to do is to restore the ancient truths, in all of their splendor, and release them from the extremes of sterile question-and-answer catechesis on one side and “Kumbaya and felt banners” emotionalism on the other. We need to speak those ancient truths in ways that are relevant to our modern culture, without watering them down or losing what is essential in them.

How do we do that? Unfortunately, there is no road map for that. It isn’t just a matter of purchasing the right curriculum or scheduling the right programs. It is a matter, first of all, of allowing ourselves to be transformed in Christ. It is about becoming witnesses — showing them what transformation in Christ looks like, and inviting them to pursue the same through the power of our example.

To quote John Paul II one final time: “The new evangelization is not a matter of merely passing on doctrine, but rather of a personal and profound meeting with the Savior.” The first goal of parish ministries should be just that — to facilitate a “personal and profound” meeting between worshippers and the object of their worship, Jesus Christ. We shouldn’t assume they’ve already met Him personally, or that they even know much about Him. Because I’m betting that, in many cases, they haven’t.

But I’m thinking that, if they got to know Him, they’d probably really like Him.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love.

Hello blogging …

Aside

Hello blogging world!  This is my first blog post.  My main reason for starting a blog is to give myself a place to store and share ideas, articles, random snippets, and anything else that interests me.  If it interests others as well, even better!

Since I tend to over-think things, I’m trying to let this, my first blog post, flow like a stream of clear, cool water. So far so good!

I guess you could say this blog will be something of an intellectual diary. (The word intellectual makes me want to throw up, but anyway, that’s what it is.)  I find myself thinking crazy (not literally) thoughts throughout the day, and I keep thinking, “I should write that down.” So, that’s what I’m doing.  I’m going to try and track down those crazy thoughts through my head and see where they lead.

Anyway, that’s all for now.  Ultimately, this blog is about living well, and right now, life is calling me somewhere else.  So, until next time…!