How do we define faith? As in faith in someone or something, faith that one can believe our leaders, faith in our own integrity and, ultimately, in God or some formulation of spirituality. Some, of course, profess to have no faith, at least not of the spiritual variety. God help them.
Few questions in our lives trump those that arise around what we find worthy of our faith. For many these never get beyond personal relationships and issues, matters such as politics having either no interest or yielding no figures considered worthy of trust. That way, one fears, lies despair, the absence of or emotionally absent refusal to hope. Such a malaise, for example, lies behind our lack of confidence in Congress at the moment.
Just as those in whom we have faith must earn it, we have to earn the ability to have faith. Four years ago Mother Teresa’s diaries revealed her struggles with faith, struggles that caused some shock among those who misunderstand the way faith works in our lives. Not a steady state, it eludes us at times in the face of events that confound it. Faithfulness does not imply immunity from such moments, it describes the steadfastness with which one fights against them.
I remember with some poignancy an acknowledgment of and exhortation to persist in this fight to preserve faith and the forms it takes in our lives. I had just entered a monastic community outside of Charleston, South Carolina as a prospective member, or postulant, postulating or hypothesizing myself as a monk, if you will. One of the older brothers who had recently transferred from another order leaned toward me one day in the hall that ran through the infirmary. In a monastic version of a famous scene from The Graduate—“One word: plastics”—he spoke one word to me: “Persevere.” Take everything that comes at you and keep going, no matter what. Expect difficulties and get past them.
I think of that advice often, albeit at the time I did not take it, leaving the monastery ten months later. So many times we have faith in the wrong thing, or in the right thing or person but for the wrong reason. The left-wing deserters from the Obama bandwagon come to mind as an example of misconstrued faith, faith that Obama would mirror their own desires perfectly. As a yoga classmate lamented recently, we do not come by perfection easily; perhaps we should prick ourselves when we think we have found it.
A Dominican friar recently gave an Advent retreat at my church. In his first talk he mentioned the opposition between fantasy, based in despair, and hope or faith, which yield imagination. It struck me as a useful model for me, however imperiled any such generalization and most binary oppositions as a genre of thought. My own thinking certainly bears out his logic. When I lurch from idea to idea now, I try to interrogate its motivation. It has become a useful exercise.
Faith acknowledges the positive in life, the fact that good exists, that our lot can improve, past or present evidence to the contrary. Faith does not expect crazy chances to triumph, but quiet perseverance. Faith does not give into despair, but fights it valiantly. Faith respects the steadfast and does not require the spectacular.
I wonder if our current malaise does not reveal a crisis of faith, a tendency to yield to despair. We need to recognize this crisis before we truly lose our bearings. If we do, God help us.
Chapel Hill, NC
December 23, 2011