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12 March 2018
Faith: The Promise And The Price
My beloved wife recently suffered a severe fall resulting in serious injuries. Weeks of hospitalization followed, and she continues to endure further weeks of slow, often agonizing, physical therapy. Her pain is unrelenting. To those who love her dearly, all of this -- all of this -- seems bewildering, needless, pointless.
And so arises that perennial human quandary: When those we love suffer so much, we cannot avoid the piercing realization that there is so much pain in this world, so much pain and so much suffering; so much senseless pain and so much needless suffering – and now, this…… Why this? Why now? Why ever?
Of course, these thoughts lead to the inevitable question: “Why does God allow this to happen to such good people, to such good, innocent people? If God is good, why does God visit pain upon those He says He loves?”
Such confounding questions raise awe-filled challenges to our limited, faltering logic. Contradictions arise which our minds cannot clarify nor aptly resolve. We are driven to ask, “What’s the point? What’s the point?”
We then confront two options.
The First -- And Obvious -- Reaction
Our first option is an unguarded response to grief and trauma. We are quickly overwhelmed in an unrestrained whirlwind of aggrieved emotions, plunged into the uncensored cauldron of our worst fears. We lose control; our sense of helplessness and our understandable rage at apparent inequities takes firm hold of us and carries us away …. and we believe we simply cannot help ourselves.
As we are increasingly submerged into the darkness of our resentment and anger, righteous bitterness enters our hearts. Far too often, our bitterness is accompanied by an encapsulating sense of self-justified victimization.
For many people, this bitter, cynical option overrides all else and evolves into a life-style. The grip of depression and despair takes hold. People then reject right reason, accept denial and avoidance, and risk surrender to pain’s depressing legacy.
In some circumstances, this adjustment results from extraordinary trauma; PTSD is an example. Even then, a second option exists. It may be a costly option, but a choice does remain, and we must struggle mightily not to let tragedy and discouragement dominate our lives, sour our hearts and paralyze our soul’s yearning to give and to receive love.
The Other Choice
So, we all know that painful events are universal and inevitable. The sweep of cruel emotions thus occasioned is often more powerful than our heart’s hesitant vision. Yet, as we come to grips with tragedy and bewilderment, I believe this second option is the more human option, the choice which wisdom always pursues. I say “more human” because we cannot spend our lives in the stranglehold of distraught emotions without losing a significant part of our potential dignity to futility’s dreary treadmill.
Right reason -- based firmly on solid moral principles and benign confrontation -- is the core of this second option. Right reason is essential if we wish to live a healthy existence which is not tainted by smug bitterness or colossal selfishness.
Right reason is the natural parent of principled common sense, of moral clarity and candor with oneself, and readiness to learn, even painfully. Right reason evolves throughout life and aims at the achievement of wisdom.
Right reason teaches us to accept our human limits, to respond to our needs without self-pity or subterfuge, to seek goodness and to adhere to the truth. It asks much of us, but it leads humanity to its better angels.
Even in the midst of painful loss, emotional upheaval and inescapable ambiguity, right reason offers a better way. Right reason also leads us -- rationally and logically -- to accept the role of faith in life.
Faith of all sorts helps us live sanely and safely as we encounter a series of incalculable daily unknowns. But faith in God reaches far beyond the normal routines to inspire us to moral virtue. It is our faith in God which urges us to seek purpose and meaning in events which our experience cannot explain.
Among these inexplicable events is the pain which our loved ones endure.
To be sure, faith in God may not extinguish skepticism. It surely does not eliminate doubt, caution or the need to know. But rightly reasoned faith in God does make doubt and rage far less overwhelming as we face life’s mundane mysteries and demanding depths. And faith rightly reasoned reveals how limited our knowledge really is, how little we really know or understand about Creation -- and how little we understand ourselves and our own human nature.
Faith’s Fundamental Necessity
As a young Catholic, I was taught to admire (I still do) people who exemplify heroic virtue in their lives. We call them saints. We learned that the sacrifices which faith in God asks of us are often exceedingly heavy, such as the enigmatic suffering of the innocent, as well as the charitable chores which faith asks from all of us.
We also learned that our feelings cannot be the main standard by which we make choices. Making choices according to right reason’s dictates often means overcoming our feelings, putting aside our emotions, seeking virtue and humility over violence, practicing self-restraint and kindness when anger is strong; all these, so that we may stretch for a higher standard than personal satisfaction or the acidic comfort of righteous rage.
We learned that feelings alone are not reliable signposts to virtue and grace. If our feelings -- which are most often subjective and self-serving -- were the supreme “truths” by which we should live, then nothing outside ourselves would have any credibility, any worth or any lasting influence.
The cumulative weight of all this – i.e., the evidence from right reason and logic, from faith and common sense, from universal human need and the incomprehensible mysteries of Creation – all tell me that my belief in God makes so very much sense.
This cumulative evidence long ago persuaded me that God is not only possible but necessary as the Ultimate Reality, as the First of All Realities, so far beyond our comprehension that we can never grasp the purpose to which the suffering of the innocent may lend itself, a purpose far beyond the pious clichés which our ignorance weakly proposes.
In truth, then, we are all so very small and God is so immense – and yet faith in God attests that love is ever there amongst us, within us, moving us, touching us, enlivening our spirits.
It seems that God gives us faith – all sorts of faith, in varying degrees – so that we may muddle through the uncertainties of each day … but lovingly so … as we live partly in the light of faith, partly in the shadow of our ceaseless, unanswered wonder and awe.
The Consequences Of Truth
To persons of contrary disposition, the cumulative evidence I mention inspires them not to faith in God nor empathy for others, but to cynical nihilism and rejection of God. These doubters and deniers often abide in a state of dismissive disgust toward God and, sometimes, toward other people, too.
Nonetheless, all people -- believers and doubters alike -- live by faith a hundred time each day. For doubters, this may be a normal, natural, easy state of living -- except when it comes to God. Many committed deniers deliberately exclude God from their lives. Still, one must ask (without expecting an answer), why so? Why exclude God from one’s exercise of faith, yet have faith in the mechanic who fixes your car or the doctor who tends your ills or the teacher who imparts the ways of knowing to your child?
I admit that my personal faith in God involves me in a set of relationships which keeps my life in balance. More than that, my personal faith helps me realize that my beloved spouse and I are still, and always, upheld in our relationship by God's reality.
I find God’s reality reflected in the marriage we share with one another. I find God’s reality reflected in our knowledge that our few-but-precious secrets are loved and dearly held; reflected in our minds with which we think, in our hearts with which we seek to do what is right and kind for those around us, in our souls which, as Augustine says, are restless until we rest in God.
Thus, our faith in God allows us to live with our doubts, even with our pain and our grieving … and not be overwhelmed by our unknowing.
Our faith in God illumines what we know and what we do not know.
Our faith in God -- and our forgivable doubts about His hidden agendas -- inspires us to believe and to love, sometimes in the comforting light of moral certainty, sometimes in restless shadow. But we do believe .. and love does follow ……..
Even in darkness and uncertainty, our faith in God comes alive in the virtues and in those countless quiet moments of goodness in life, in Creation itself, and in the wounds of our hopeful humanity.
Faith quietly nudges us to love, and gently informs our souls that God is truly our God -- and trust in God is our best response.
Today, as a Catholic elder, I see so many persons who live heroically - but in modest, humble ways, just as my beloved spouse lives, in her quiet faith and in her loving smile.
And I am moved, time and again, to agree with Georges Bernanos when he says that “grace is everywhere ….”
Now, in my elder years, I daily see heroic virtue which I once read about in my youth. But now, that virtue comes even more alive to me in the pain my beloved spouse so nobly bears each moment.
And then I know that God is with us in the faith we hold – and then I know that I am blessed with God’s loving gift of marriage … blessed beyond measure to love and to be loved by such a woman as she.
And then, once again, our faith in God makes even more sense to me --- and God’s grace is, surely, everywhere in our lives.