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.