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.

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