• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Genuine Faith in the Real World

Thomas Merton, writing in New Seeds of Contemplation (1961), reminds us that “our faith is weak. Indeed, too often the weakest thing about our faith is the illusion that our faith is strong, when the ‘strength’ we feel is only the intensity of emotion or of sentiment, which have nothing to do with real faith.”

Real faith, I think Merton would agree, is about the direction of one’s life, the inclination of one’s heart, the pattern of one’s days. Decision by decision, yes, and over the long haul: faith, or lack of it, is about tendency, aspiration, loyalty, intention, priority.

I fear untroubled faith—don’t you? I don’t mean someone who is in the delightful grip of sudden joy, of deliverance from evil, of disaster averted, or of vindication finally received. That’s the time for extravagant feelings and expressions.

But ordinary life is life lived in a good world beset—beset—by threats, frustrations, absurdities, injustices, disappointments, betrayals, and all that seems not right. Faith is not an impervious granite smile: “Though he slay me, yet will I be serenely happy because entirely convinced.” Faith is keeping calm, as the bombs rain down and the fires blaze and the structures of life explode around you, and carrying on.

Merton warns, “Place no hope in the feeling of assurance, in spiritual comfort. You may well have to get along without this.”

Enjoy feelings of assurance, to be sure. Revel in times of spiritual comfort. Indeed, store up memories of such episodes against the rainy days to come. But do not expect ever in this life to arrive, at last and now forever, at a high plateau, above the raining clouds of doubt or fear or anxiety or bewilderment, to bask in the constant sunshine of imperturbable confidence. One may, by God’s gifting, be granted such an extraordinary faith, but most likely not. Really not.

Instead, look back and see where you’ve traveled. Look ahead and see where you’re going. Is the Celestial City still in view and still in front? Then you have faith. Is the Bible still in your hands, the cross still around your neck, the WWJD bracelet still on your wrist, the Jesus Prayer still on your lips, the rosary still in your pocket? Then walk on.

Too little faith, and you stop. You stop, look around, give things a big, sad (or angry) think, and then start off in a new direction . . . toward a new destination.

Too much “faith,” and you hurtle forward, mowing down innocent bystanders, leaving companions behind you in the dust, incurring needless injury as you blithely crash along, and eventually getting yourself lost far off the path that in fact twists and turns.

Faith that is “just right” is faith enough for today, to walk today’s path in the company of God and fellow believers, to accomplish today’s major goals, if not all of the minor ones, and to say one’s evening prayers of praise and confession and thanks and petition and resolution in the shadow of the day’s failures and in the greater light of God’s love, wisdom, and providence. Faith is not an unclouded assurance that is consonant in fact only with a detachment from reality. It is leaning back into God, trusting the everlasting arms . . . receiving repair of the day’s wounds, strength after the day’s demands, and comfort for the night’s sleep.

Then up, and at it, again once more.

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