What would your life be like without the Mass, the sacraments, regular prayer, a sense of God’s presence and goodness, the soaring sight of a church steeple, or the beauty of stained glass, not to mention the hope of heaven and life everlasting? Dull, hapless, horizonless, and maybe even a bit scary?
Yet this is how many people live – maybe family members, neighbors and coworkers. If you’re like me, you can remember those days, in my case in my teens and early 20s. Though raised with a fine Catholic education from the Sisters in the 60s, I lost my way in high school and began to doubt everything. Faith seemed like some starry-eyed hope of simple souls and old ladies, not fit for a savvy young intellectual like me. I would be like the poets and philosophers of the day, brave enough to face life without the solace of religion or the false hope of eternity. Every day would be filled with the meaning that I discovered or imposed, and I would be the maker of my fate.
I congratulated myself that I was not leaving the faith – as many of my classmates and friends – because I wanted to engage in sex, drugs and other immoralities. No, I was setting out to be even purer than the saints in my intentions. I didn’t need the fear of God and hell to do good and live a moral life, so I thought.
Well, the fact was that I did need that and more. Without the sustenance of prayer, the guidance of the Church and a healthy “fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of wisdom, I became selfish to the point of solipsism and suspicious to the point of paranoia. I needed the fresh air of faith; the freedom that the Commandments afford to uncertain souls, and the deep guidance and formation provided by reading the Bible.
I think of all this as we enter a new calendar year within this Year of Faith. If we do nothing else in these next few months (and we should seek to do much more to deepen and strengthen our faith), I think it would be a great benefit if we would simply reach the end of the Year of Faith on Nov. 24 with a greater appreciation of the gift that is our faith. A gift! The Catholic faith is nothing that anyone possibly could have dreamed up or concocted. There is too much that seems at first absurd, or at least beyond comprehension. There is too much of a mix of the worldly and the otherworldly, the flesh and the spirit, for it to be manmade. When men make up a faith, they tend to go all the way in one direction – all spirit like the Gnostics, all material like the skeptics; all penance like the Jansenists, all peace like the pacifists. But Catholicism is such a rare mix of human and divine – beginning with the coming of Christ as a child – that no one could have possibly thought it up, because he would have been laughed out of both polite and profane society. It is a faith of a tenuous yet unshakeable balance – all parts depending on the other for support – in a world that is off-kilter. Yet it is uniquely upright and sustaining for those who are willing to be set aright by it.
In these next few months, let’s ask ourselves what we believe, why we believe it and thus what difference faith makes – and give thanks to God for the gift we can find nowhere else.