A Forthright Faith

Painting: St. Franics of Assisi adores the Cross and studies Scripture. By Cigoli.

In his book Conversion, Donald Haggerty relates the following story:

Toward the close of the Spanish Civil War, two soldiers from the Communist Republican faction were returning to their barracks after a night of drinking and cavorting with prostitutes. They were walking down a dusty road not far from a Carthusian monastery when the bells of the monastery began chiming loudly in the early morning light. With the bells ringing, their conversation halted, and they walked on in silence. The war ended not long after, and the first one, then the other, joined this monastery. Around 1961, a newly ordained auxiliary bishop, later to become Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid, paid a visit to the monastery, hoping to meet these men and hear their story. He had heard on a number of occasions about their conversions and their entry into the monastery. He was received into the monastery by the abbot, and they took a slow walk through the corridors and grounds of the monastery. The bishop was waiting for a chance to ask if these men were still there. When he inquired, the abbot nodded and guided him outside. They entered the Carthusian graveyard, where among the simple white crosses the abbot stopped in front of a grave, silent for a while, brushing the loose dirt with the toe of his sandal. “This is one of them,” said the abbot. “And the other?” Looking up now into the face of the bishop, the abbot replied, “I am the other.”

This story dramatically describes how a person’s faith can change from something one rarely thinks about to that which is central in one’s heart and soul. When an individual truly lives his or her faith, that faith is a steadfast anchor for morals, ethics, values, and goals. We cannot discover our authentic self without God. A forthright faith contains a transparency that indicates our beliefs are clear and at the forefront of our lives. Therefore our morals, ethics, values, and goals are sound and life enhancing. An individual need not say he or she is Catholic. It is evident in his or her behavior, words, and actions.

Such an orientation helps us know ourselves better. It is rare to draw attention to ourselves, because we put God first. We engage in appropriate self care, and then are able to meet the needs of others. Charles Dickens wrote: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” The energy needed to lighten the burdens of others results from a steadfast faith and a positive response to grace. We are most alive when we love God and care for others. Because some of us are not able to help others in a physical way, care need not be by external actions. To offer a listening ear, a look of kindness, a shoulder to cry on, a few words of comfort or encouragement, and, most of all, prayers for others can help beyond description. Indeed, little things mean a lot.

Sometimes we may wonder how vital our contributions are when helping others. At these times, we remember the words of Saint Paul: one person plants the seeds, another person waters them, and yet another reaps the results. We do a small task, but in God’s sight, there are no small tasks. In a choir, every voice, and in an orchestra every instrument, contributes to the whole. All the loving tasks we do are precious in the eyes of God. Teresa of Calcutta saw herself as a small pencil in God’s hand. A small pencil, of itself, is an insignificant object. However, Mother Teresa, joined with God, wrote love letters to the world. She said that of themselves, what the sisters were doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if those drops were not in the ocean, the ocean would be less.

Another example is in the following story: One morning a man was walking on a beach. He saw a young woman picking up starfish stranded on the shore by the retreating tide, and one by one throwing them back into the ocean. He asked her why she was doing this. The young woman said that the starfish would die if they were left exposed to the morning sun. The man said she would not be able to save them all because the beach goes on for miles and there are thousands of starfish. How could her efforts make any difference? The woman looked at the starfish in her hand and then threw it into the sea. She said to the man that to that starfish it makes a difference. Faith is the root of good works, which flowers in love through the fruit of action, no matter how small.

Honesty, a Precursor to Faith

An important component of living our faith is honesty. Before we can be honest with others, we need to be honest with ourselves. If we seek things that are good, true, and beautiful they pull us toward God. If we dwell on toxic situations or dehumanizing activities, they pull us away from God. The fourth century Christian monastics who lived in the deserts of Egypt identified a path of self honesty called honest recognition of the thoughts of the heart. It begins when we examine the stories, beliefs, and feelings we repeatedly think about that make us feel bad about ourselves or others. They can be labeled as demons because they reveal the shadow side and negative orientation that are elements of our false self. If we can identify what feeds our shadow side, we can begin to abstain from them. Like any good diet, this will take discipline. As we delete our demons, our heart opens more to the light of God’s truth. Demons can hide in dark shadows, but they cannot hide in the light of God‘s love. When God’s light shines on what is painful inside us, the painful situation begins to dissolve. How do we find God’s light? We strive to be transparent so that God’s light can shine through us. We do this by reading the bible, receiving the sacraments, praying each day, and living as if Jesus was next to us. We can also talk with a trusted person, because it is good to get another person’s perspective about what hurt us. We can pray for God’s help and learn to be more attentive to his presence in our daily lives.

An ever watchful faith can only be lived with an upright heart and hard work. To believe in Jesus is to do what he commands. We watch what we say: Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? Augustine said: “Do not rejoice in earthly reality, rejoice in Christ, rejoice in his word, rejoice in his law. . . . There will be peace and tranquility in the Christian heart, but only as long as our faith is watchful; if, however, our faith sleeps, we are in danger.”

Trying to see ourselves as God sees us, being true to ourselves, and telling the truth are good for our physical, mental, and spiritual health. We need to know ourselves before we can be true to ourselves, and in order to know ourselves we must know God. Teresa of Avila tells us self knowledge is so important that, even if we were raised right up to the heavens, we should never relax our cultivation of it. Knowledge about ourselves aids us in knowing our vulnerabilities, weaknesses, strengths, and gifts. In other words, what we can do and cannot do. This is necessary before we can be honest with others. If we strive to be authentic with ourselves, we will reveal authenticity to others. Honesty fosters a candidness that enables us to be consistent in presenting facts, sharpens our perception, and aids us in observing events with clarity. Honesty is always to our advantage. It creates confidence, strengthens will power, and promotes trustworthiness. How do we become trustworthy? We think before we say something harsh, cynical or misleading. We say what we mean in a gentle but direct way. People usually understand us because we do not embellish, sugarcoat, or minimize what we say and correct a misinterpretation as soon as possible. We live the tenants of our religion and respect others for their religious beliefs. We try to see both sides of an issue in spite of a personal bias or conflict of interest. We do not compromise our faith or personal integrity and easily admit making a mistake or an error.

Changes

Striving for a forthright faith is a dynamic process that can have a myriad of expressions and degrees that change throughout a lifetime. Elizabeth Seton was a wife, mother, widow, convert, teacher, founder of a religious congregation and of the Catholic school system in the United States. A faith that shines can be evident in great strides, but is usually made in small steps. Sometimes they are so small they can’t even be noticed or seen. Bold faith occurs when grace obliterates the satisfaction we find in self serving behavior or actions. We understand that negative self discoveries cam lead to positive change. Cursory religious practices change to a deep communion with God. Images of God become ever changing, until they finally disappear into God who is beyond all imaginative expressions. Living our faith is far from being dull or boring! It keeps us ever attentive to the next good step that leads deeper into the mystery of God. The pursuit of a forthright faith is a captivating journey from a known, bordered landscape to an unknown, endless terrain that broadens our limited notion of God. His eternal realm brightens everything around and within us. John Paul II said: “Life, long or short, is a journey toward paradise. There is our fatherland. There is our real home. There is our appointment. Jesus is waiting for us in paradise. Never forget this supreme and consoling truth.”

A strong faith in life is like the roots of a sturdy oak tree. Fierce winds blow, but the deep roots keep the oak tree standing firm. If our faith is firm we withstand the godless winds of evil, and strive to find God in every situation that comes our way. We try not to be bitter or cynical when bad things happen or when we seem overwhelmed by the injustice, violence, or poverty in society. We live in a broken world and do what we can to fix it. Our faith in God stabilizes us by understanding when we should stand firm and when we should surrender to another person’s wishes, or when to say yes and when to say no. Only with God’s help can we attempt to do this. We all have specific gifts and use them rightly with God’s help. Failure can disappoint us for a time but faith restores our ability to persevere. We acknowledge our fears and then move forward. Catherine de Hueck Doherty wrote: “Faith is a gift from God allowing us to enter peacefully into the dark night which faces every one of us at one time or another. Faith is at peace, and full of light. Faith celebrates the very warp and woof of one’s existence. Faith considers that its precariousness and its finiteness are but the womb in which it abides, moving toward the plenitude and fullness of the eternity which it desires and believes in and which revelation opens to it.” A fervent faith is our stronghold when suffering shakes us up. Below the suffering, there is a certain peace because faith unites our personal suffering with Jesus’s suffering. Faith keeps us moving along on the bumpy road of life and helps us realize that God is not responsible for adverse events along this road. His goodness is found in negative events when they teach us forgiveness and compassion. How sweet are the ways of faith. We repeatedly sin and fall. However, we take Jesus’s hand and get up quickly. Jesus continues to inspire and guide us. We rarely get discouraged and continue to try to live as good Christians again and again.

John of the Cross tells us: “Faith lies beyond all understanding, taste, feeling, and imagining that one has. However impressive may be one’s knowledge or feeling of God, that knowledge or feeling will have no resemblance to God and amounts to very little. To attain union with God, a person should neither advance by understanding, nor by support of one’s own experience, but by belief in God’s being.” Faith declares what the senses cannot perceive. We believe what we do not see, hear, or understand and, in the end, we will be rewarded by what we have believed. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). Authentic faith gives us the capacity to be open to that which is intangible and invisible in daily life. It lets us be comfortable and unaffected in the presence of mystery and in the unexplainable. We willfully go beyond our senses and cognitive abilities as we respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Faith rises above the limits of humanity and reaches into the realms where we cannot go without divine help. Loving God is greater than knowing about God because God’s love is greater than what we are able to comprehend. It is impossible to describe Jesus within the boundaries of human thought, culture, and language. Metaphors and allegories can fall apart. Letting go of attempts to explain God assists us in surrendering to his tremendous ineffability. Angela of Foligno, a 13th-century Franciscan Italian mystic wrote: “I have known with certitude that the more one has a sense of God the less one can speak of God. The more one has the feeling of infinity and the ineffable the more one lacks words for it.” A forthright faith elevates a Christian to greater goodness and helps maintain his or her pristine soul. There is no love or hope without faith. Indeed, a forthright faith in the Catholic tradition is the foundation for a very good life.

Faith of our fathers living still,
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword;
O how our hearts beat high with joy
Whenever we hear that glorious word:

Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to thee till death.

Our fathers chained in prisons dark,
Were still in heart and conscious free,
And blest would be their children’s fate,
If they, like them, should die for thee:

Faith of our fathers holy faith,
We will be true to thee till death.

Faith of our fathers! We will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife;
And preach thee, too, as love knows how,
By kindly words and virtuous life:

Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to thee till death.

– Frederick William Faber, 1814–1863

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns. Her latest book is Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. You can find her reflections online at contemplativechristianityorg.wordpress.com.

Comments

  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Thank you for a good piece on Conversion. In my case the Lord took me from repetitively passing through relationships and a kind of broken loneliness to marriage and family life. Having been married for over twenty years, with eleven children, three of whom are in heaven, life is completely different! But the grace of conversion grows in that what was experienced as a decisive moment of the help of God was like a seed that swells to encompass the whole of life as it is daily lived and prayed (cf. The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends: http://enroutebooksandmedia.com/familyonpilgrimage/).

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