OCTAVE OF EASTER: CHAPTER


UNLESS I SEE IN HIS HANDS THE MARK OF THE NAILS, AND PUT MY FINGER IN THE WOUND ON HIS SIDE, I WILL NOT BELIEVE.. With these sharp words the apostle Thomas gave vent to the bitter disappointment he felt at the death of his Master. Precisely because he had been so determined to follow him in life and death, he was shaken to the depths of his being by the way the Lord had been removed by his enemies. Today, just one week after his resurrection, Jesus appeared again in his risen body to the assembled apostles. This time, Thomas, who had been absent at the first appearance on Easter evening, was among them. We know how Jesus made a point of healing his unbelief, so that Thomas not only acknowledge him as his risen Lord but in the same breath confessed him as God. He was not one to do things halfway, as Americans say.

Faith will always be a highly personal act; along with love the most personal of all our choices. Who and what we believe is one of the most indicative revelations of our character. Jesus was keenly conscious of this fact, and repeatedly stressed that he could effectively work only with those who trusted him and put their faith in him. Our human condition is such that a trusting faith is essential from the first days of our life in this world. There can be no sufficient human development, nor even survival of an infant without a healthy relationship based on faith. It has been documented by clinical observation that human physiology does not properly function in an infant whose spontaneous reaching out for the satisfaction of basic needs does not meet with an adequate human, personal response. Only when there is an essential measure of such personal interaction does the infant display interest in taking nourishment.

Such interchange is the primary matrix for the development of patterns of trusting behavior that is a condition for satisfying social contacts and enduring relationships. The same remains true in ever varying degrees throughout life, though the influence of success or failure in treating with others alters progressively at the various stages of development. The capacity for a truly human life implicitly, and unconsciously in large part, depends on a form of faith in the reliability of the environment as constituted by nature, society, and, more importantly for attaining to higher spiritual life, by significant persons. The most eminent of these are, to be sure, the three divine persons of the Trinity.

Faith in God's promises was fundamental in assuring the perseverance in their belief they had been chosen as the people of God. This belief sustained Israel at the various critical stages of their history. The temptation against faith in the Old Testament is not whether God exists (that is not raised until the very last, in the Book of Wisdom (ch. 13); rather, the issue of faith was whether God is truly the master of history. Does every event in fact fall under his ultimate power and fulfill his purposes? Is there such a thing as Divine Providence that is always and everywhere operative, achieving God's purposes in keeping with a transcendent plan? In the face of disaster, suffering and the seeming triumph of evil, such as the apostle Thomas had experienced in the death of Jesus, for example, does it make sense to believe in God's universal and benign guidance? It is quite consistent with this situation that the word in Hebrew for faith refers primarily to the sense of solidity and security, not to intellectual persuasion. Though this last is of course contained in the act of faith it is the determining feature; God's fidelity, his power and willingness "to deliver the goods", that is, to provide for the security of those who trust in him- this is what faith means above all else for Israel. Still today the Jewish religion has what strikes a Christian as a very broad view of what intellectual content binds its followers.

If faith in the promises made to the Patriarchs and Moses was fundamental for the people of Israel, faith in Christ's promises from the time of the apostles has been a radical conviction of the Christian religion from the time of the apostles. It continues to serve as the living heart of the Church's conviction that she can rely on the grace of God to see her through times of trouble and temptation. The promise that Jesus made at the end of his post-resurrection visits to his followers assuring them "I shall be with you always until the end of the world" (Mt. 28:20) is an unfailing source of confidence for all the faithful. Such firm faith has been a particularly effective persuasion on the part of those who have a particular responsibility for preserving the deposit of faith.

But faith in God's promise in turn must be based upon a firm trust in his person. Such faith is itself a gift from God. St. Paul is the great doctor of faith. His own experience of conversion with all it entailed made him highly sensitive to the radical role of faith in salvation and of its nature. He speaks of "the obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5) for one thing, for he well understood that faith is, as Dei Verbum 5 of Vatican II puts it, a complete surrender of both mind and will to God. While the patriarch Abraham is the Father of faith, Mary, the mother of the Savior, is its most perfect exemplar. When Elizabeth greeted Mary she found no better way of addressing her than as "she who believed." Her faith in God never wavered even in the dark days of the persecution, trial, passion and death of her son. St. Augustine maintained that "Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ"(De virginitate, 3 PL 40: 398 cited in The Catechism of the Catholic Church #506).

There is such a thing as weak faith, but there can be no such reality as partial faith, that is, faith in some things that God reveals but not in others. Those Catholics who knowingly opt to reject some point of revealed faith by that very fact lose the gift of divine faith. This follows from the nature of theological faith. To pick and choose which teachings to accept is to make human judgment the authority for one's position, whereas the essence of faith is total acceptance of revealed truth because of God's authority. Such faith is not based on reason and preference, but is a supernatural gift. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the matter with all desirable clarity:

Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature
(#150).

As with all moral issues, applying this principle to concrete decisions made in particular contexts results in a certain ambiguity in many instances, and it is the task of each individual to resolve such dividedness of heart through honest self-examination, repentance and confession where called for, and efforts to purify faith and trust in God. This task is, in fact, an unending one throughout life. The perfection of faith, as St. John of the Cross has so tellingly described, and as we learn from the lives of such saints as Therese of Lisieux, often requires passing through the most severe temptations to doubt and refusal.

Adherence to the Lord's teaching and to his Church's articulation of the faith in times of temptations whether from outward circumstances or inner darkness of the spirit is a challenge that confronts every believer on occasion. Fidelity to every manifestation of God's will for us in daily life is the best preparation for the successful negotiation of the inevitable temptations against faith and trust in God. Our monastic life facilitates the task imposed on every Christian of growth in those habits of virtue which prepare the spirit for a loving response to God's will wherever and however it leads us. The observances of our community life provide us with opportunities for the constant interior alertness essential for such consistent responsiveness to grace and to the indications of God's will for us as they arise in the course of personal encounters and of events.

While there are some people who seem to pass from one desperate situation to another, for most persons, crises are relatively rare in the flow of life. But they are commonly unpredictable both in the time of their overtaking us and in the specific forms they assume. How we confront or seek to evade them often determines our cast of mind and the state of our heart for a long while after they are resolved or buried within our soul. Through the daily practice of remaining in the presence of God, and of cultivating the living memory of the risen Lord who abides within us, so as to respond in the light of faith from the heart to the persons and occurrences that fill our day, we develop habits of fidelity that serve us well in times of crisis and testing. We learn from the practice and teaching of Jesus himself and of the saints who followed in his footsteps through the centuries that our habits of mind, our alertness of spirit, determine whether or not we are ready when the trials of life overtake us. "Watch, therefore, for you know not the hour when your Lord will come (Matthew 24:43)", Jesus taught in one of his several parables to this same effect.

St. Augustine

Faith is not only a principle of action in conformity with God's will, it is also a source of understanding. St. Augustine has expressed this point in a dictum which is often cited(cf. for instance The Catechism of the Catholic Church #158 : "I believe in order to understand; and I understand the better to believe (Sermo 43:7,9 PL 38: 257-8)." St. Anselm was led in the same direction to explore in a fresh manner the mystery of the Incarnation for, as he said in one of his letters:

A Christian should progress through faith to understanding, not reach faith though understanding or, if he cannot understand, fall away from faith. Indeed, sosmeone who can attain understanding should rejoice, but someone who cannot understand, should venerate what he is unable to comprehend (Letter 136 cited in William Shannon, Anselm: The Joy of Faith, p. 85).

Reason does not add certitude to faith, for of all sources of knowledge that supplied by faith is the most certain: "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives." (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, 171.5 obj.3 cited in The Catechism of the Catholic Church #157). Anselm goes a little further in his explanation of the working of faith when he states in a letter to Pope Urban II that

St. Anselm .
..one who has not believed does not understand. For the one who does not believe will not have experienced; and one who has not experienced will not understand (cited in William Shannon, Anselm: The Joy of Faith, p. 87).

Faith is more than a source of deeper understanding, then; it is a door to experience of divine mysteries. Further, it is a fount of life for it represents the beginning of eternal life already here below. Faith, as has been indicated earlier, forms a bond of communion among persons. This is surely the case in regard to faith in God and in his son Jesus Christ. Already in the three hundreds St. Basil had pointed out this function of faith.

When we contemplate the blessings of faith even now, as if gazing at a reflection in a mirror, it is as if we already possessed the wonderful things which our faith assures us we shall one day enjoy (De Spiritu Sancto 15, 36 cited by The Catechism of the Catholic Church. #163)

If we recite the Creed at mass every Sunday, it is because faith is itself an act of worship and fittingly finds a prominent place in the liturgical service. We confess our faith publicly at mass in the presence of the whole congregation who represent the whole of the Church throughout the world. Here the word ‘confession' means not only "acknowledgment of truth' but also ‘praise' of God's glory manifested in the mysteries we adhere to by faith. This confession of faith, moreover, is a dynamic source of spiritual strength. St. Irenaeus understood and proclaimed this role of faith in the 3rd century. Let him have the last word for he witnessed, shortly after writing it, to their truth by the shedding of his blood. May his example assist us to make faith a daily renewal of our spirit until we arrive at its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God the Father.

We guard with care the faith that we have received from the Church, for without ceasing, under the action of God's Spirit, this deposit of great price, as if in an excellent vessel, is constantly being renewed and causes the very vessel that contains it to be renewed (Adv. Haereses 5.20.1 cited in The Catechism of the Catholic Church #175).

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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