The Risk of Faith: The Example of the Saints
November 4, 2012
Having survived the impact of Hurricane Sandy, the Dominican Friars of the Priory of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, hosted their annual “Vigil of All Saints” on October 31, 2012. A standing-room-only crowd of friars, friends, and guests was on hand for the event. The Priory’s Schola provided the music for the evening. Below are the text and audio of the reflection given by Br. Charles Shonk, O.P., a student brother in his third year of studies at the House.
All Saints Vigil, 2012: Reflection
Br. Charles Shonk, O.P.
Why are you afraid, O men of little faith? So said Jesus to the Apostles, after rebuking the wind and the waves. Then there was the time they couldn’t cast out a demon and wanted to know why. Because, he answered, you have so little faith. Again, when Peter was sinking on the sea, the reason wasn’t far to seek: O man of little faith, why did you doubt? And in the Sermon on the Mount, he told them to look at the grass of the field—alive today, thrown into the oven tomorrow, yet clothed in such beauty that Solomon, in all his glory, couldn’t hope to compete. So: how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith? Interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus never says, “Why are you afraid, O men of little courage?” or “Why did you doubt, O man of little wisdom?” He knows that, on our own, we’re fearful and foolish, weak and blind. And this only elicits his pity and love. What really bothers him, what he seems almost to complain about, is that we won’t trust him. In fact, there are only two things our Lord is said to marvel at in the Gospels: first, the scoffing unbelief of those in his home country—Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary?—and second, the bold faith of the Roman centurion—Only say the word, and my servant will be healed. What is this thing—faith—that its presence can cause such joy, its absence such dismay, in the heart of our Lord? As we begin celebrating this Year of Faith, it seems an appropriate question to ponder. Not long before he died, St. Augustine came up with a very concise description of the act of belief: to think with assent. Put that way, it sounds so easy, doesn’t it? And in a way it is. In one sense, belief must be easy—scandalously easy—because it’s a gift, a grace, and it’s open to all: rich and poor, smart and simple, teacher’s pet and problem child. On the other hand, we all eventually realize that, in another sense, belief is anything but easy. And why? Because really assenting to this truth, really assenting to this Person, changes everything. And is it true? the poet asks, This most tremendous tale of all / Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue / . . . The Maker of the stars and sea / Become a child on earth for me? // And is it true? / For if it is—if we answer, yes, it is true—I believe—then everything else pales in significance. Everything must change. Faith, then, whatever else it is, is always a risk—a holy risk, a joyful risk, a risk we’d be fools to pass up, yet still a risk. Well, what of it? Getting married, having children, trusting anyone: these are all risks. We don’t know for certain how well they’ll turn out, and we certainly don’t know how much they’ll demand. We only know we’re sure to fail in various ways, and we try to remember what Mother Teresa said—that God doesn’t ask us to be successful, just faithful. Or, to quote Chesterton, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly (that is, very imperfectly). Faith is a risk. But it’s a peculiar kind of risk, because the only danger lies on our side. God’s promises cannot fail (they stand forever unshaken), but when we discover what it means to accept them, we can decide to settle for less. Likewise, everything God has revealed about himself is, in itself, most certain, and (as we’ve just heard Bl. John Paul explain) it accords in every way with what we know by means of rational inquiry; but when we find that it also transcends the tiny scope of our finite minds—for after all, how could it not?—we can choose to despise the mystery and call it meaningless, rather than adore and call it numinous. Once again, the danger is on our side. How fortunate, then, that true faith is founded, not on our own meager resources, but on the surpassing strength of God—the God to whom St. Augustine said, Give what you command, and command what you will. Here, in this little prayer, is expressed both faith’s deep humility and its boundless confidence: command whatever you want, dear God (there’s the confidence), not because I’m up to the task, but because, without seeing how, I trust you’ll grant me the grace to obey (there’s the humility). This is not self-confidence, but God-confidence: the strength of the popes, like Bl. John Paul, and the steel of martyrs, like Bl. King Edmund. Faith, we’ve said, is a risk we take, not on our own strength, but on God’s. This means that it’s not just a risk we can afford to take, but a risk on which we can stake everything. In fact, one measure of the depth of our faith is just how much we’re willing to put on the line. How much are we willing to bet, not on our own power to love—for that would be a very small bet indeed—but on God’s power to love in us? How much are we willing to surrender for his use? On this point, listen to Bl. John Henry Newman:
[In the world] we venture our property in plans which promise a return; in plans which we trust, which we have faith in. What have we ventured for Christ? What have we given to Him on a belief of His promise? . . . [St. Paul] said, that he and his brethren would be of all men most miserable, if the dead were not raised. Can we in any degree apply this to ourselves? How would . . . [we] be a whit the worse off, supposing (which is impossible), but, supposing . . . [Christ’s promise] to fail?
Have we really thrown in our lot with Christ? Or are we merely interested observers? Where your treasure is, the Gospel says, there will your heart be also. Or, as the Catechism matter-of-factly states, “Lack of faith . . . expresses itself less by declared incredulity than by our actual preferences.” Faith is a risk, but, paradoxically, it’s a risk that the weakest among us are most prepared to take. The reason is simple: those who distrust themselves find it easier to let God take over. This is why the saints always regard their failures and shortcomings, not as shameful liabilities, but (in a way) as precious assets—because these “thorns in the flesh” are precisely what keep them reliant on God, rather than self. St. Therese is our teacher here, of course, but then so are the Gospels (those who are not sick have no need of a physician) and St. Paul (I will gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me). Or, to take a less obvious example, listen to St. Bernard: The whole of the spiritual life consists of these two elements. When we think of ourselves, we are perturbed and filled with a salutary sadness. And when we think of the Lord, we are revived to find consolation in the joy of the Holy Spirit. From the first we derive fear and humility, from the second hope and love. Thinking of the Lord, says St. Bernard, makes us love him. Or, as we’ve just heard St. Catherine say (speaking of God’s will), If you know it, you will love it. Love is indeed the soul of faith. For, without love, thinking would never lead to assenting. Without love, we might regard the Gospel truth as possible, or even reasonable, but we would never cleave to it as certain. Love is what makes faith take its stand. Love is what makes faith say, “It’s so good it must be true; He is so good he must be Truth itself—the very Word of God. What he says, then, is most worthy of belief. Here is a firm rock. Here I will build my house.” Then, if we have difficulty with this or that part of the Gospel, this or that part of Church teaching, we say to ourselves, “Well, that’s only to be expected; a poor blind sinner like me will be slow to understand. After all, I’d be a royal fool to trust myself over Christ and his Church.” Obscurity in the intellect is not doubt in the will. Reason can point—only faith can run. Acting on what we have heard, but cannot see: this is the essence, and the risk, of faith. God has leapt from heaven to earth, and if we would follow him back home we, too, must leap—not on our own power, but borne on the wings of the Holy Spirit, who is Love. We make this leap not once, but over and over again, until, please God, we become like the saints, who learned actually to prefer the Spirit’s lead to their own—flying in the darkness of faith rather than crawling in their own feeble light. We, too, trained in the school of humility and constant prayer, can acquire something of the saints’ exquisite sensitivity to the Spirit’s hints and whispers. We, too, can learn to say, “I do not ask to see / the distant scene; one step enough for me.” Yes, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we do seem—and indeed we are—unlikely candidates. But then we hear them say, “So were we.”