Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home –
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene — one step enough for me.
- John Henry Newman
Today we explore the concept of faith. What do you think of when you hear this word? For many Catholics, I suspect that the Creed, or Profession of Faith, comes to mind relatively quickly, if not right away. But is this faith – a series of statements about the things I believe?
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty
I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ
I believe in the Holy Spirit
I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church
Certainly these are components of faith, but during this Lent I want to look even deeper than this. It is not enough to simply “believe” to say that I have faith. I believe in gravity. I believe that I need to drink water to survive. I believe that friends are important. These are things that I believe, but I wouldn’t say that these are things in which I have faith. Why? Because faith goes beyond mere belief. Faith is defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as, “the act of the intellect assenting to a Divine truth owing to the movement of the will, which is itself moved by the grace of God” (II-II, Q. iv, a. 2). Look closely at this definition. Faith is actually an act, something we do. It is the willful act by which we say “yes” to the truth of God. To assent to this truth, though, is beyond our natural capacity; we rely on the gift of God’s grace to move us and enable us to give this response. So, I believe in gravity, water, and the merits of friendship because these are things I can observe, test, and understand through solely natural means. Faith, though, is supernatural, and is, ultimately, an act of total trust.
Faith requires such complete trust that sometimes it might mean placing our trust in something that we aren’t even certain we truly believe. Do you recall the story of the boy possessed by a demon that the the disciples of Jesus were not able to cast out? When Jesus asks the boys father about the child the father says, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And what is Jesus’ response to this? “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Here the man’s father is not certain of the power of Jesus – he doesn’t necessarily believe that Jesus has the power to heal his son, but then he cries out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24, emphasis mine) These are truly words of faith – words of trust!
When we trust, though, we do make ourselves vulnerable. We leave ourselves open to being hurt, taken advantage of, or even just disappointed. Trust can be a scary thing, even when we place that trust in God. While we know that God wills only the best for us – his adopted sons and daughters – we also know that God’s will is not always the same as our own. It would be easy to trust God fully if we knew that God wanted for us the things we want for ourselves, wouldn’t it? Maybe we want a better job, a nicer car, a bigger house, more money, a husband or a wife, children, a vacation to Hawaii, or another hour of sleep. But that’s where the trust of faith becomes risky – while these things might be what we want as humans, they might not be what God knows we need. By placing trust in God, we may not actually get the things that we ask for. The result, of course, is that so many people decide to place their trust – their faith – in themselves and in worldly things. They might think to themselves, “if God won’t do this for me, I’ll do it on my own.”
I have known many smart, religious people who do not have a firm grasp on this issue of faith, of trust. They get so caught up on the things that they think they need to do or to provide for themselves that they forget to trust in God. These people often start sentences with something like, “As soon as I…” Don’t get me wrong, planning for the future is prudent, but as soon as that planning gets in the way of letting God’s will be done we have a problem. Jesus tells us, “do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not worry anymore. All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides” (Luke 12:29-31, emphasis mine). This is hard, though! It is natural for us to want to be in control. This desire for control is not unique to the modern age – we see it all through salvation history. Adam and Even grasped the forbidden fruit to “become like God,” King David sent Uriah to the front-line of battle so he would be killed, King Zedekiah refused to heed the words of the prophets and ended up in exile in Babylon, Peter wouldn’t believe that Jesus had to suffer, St. Paul persecuted the early Christians…
All of these people wanted something that seemed good to them. They had plans for the future. They had hope and dreams. But they forgot (or just ignored) God and the message of love that he had for them. They were so busy looking ahead that they forgot to focus on taking that next single step. This post starts with the first stanza of the poem “The Pillar of Cloud” by John Henry Newman and I think it provides a very powerful image of faith and trust. We are a people often wandering in the dark, but we know that God provides us with light so that we might see where we are going. God may not show us the whole future, but he will always provide us with the light we need to see the next step.
This coming Sunday, the second Sunday of Lent, we will hear Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. In this story, we hear how Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray when suddenly Jesus is transfigured before them, becoming dazzling white, as Moses and Elijah appear and speak to him. This story appears in the three synoptic Gospels, but Luke adds this, “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him” (Luke 9:32). This concept of being “overcome” is important, and it is not the first time we see good things happening when total control is in the hands of the Lord. Adam falls into a deep sleep, and when he awakens God has given him Eve (Genesis 2:21-23); Abram falls into a deep sleep and is covered by a cloud at the time the Lord establishes the covenant (Genesis 15:12-21); Samuel was sleeping in the Temple of the Lord when he was called by name and appointed a prophet (1 Samuel 3:1-18); Mary submits herself fully at the words of the Angel Gabriel and Jesus, the Messiah, is born into the world for our salvation (Luke 1:26-38). Giving up control is not bad – it’s a good thing!
This Lent, I would encourage you to look at your own faith. How much do you trust God? Are you so busy worrying and thinking about “what you are to eat and what you are to drink” that you are missing that kindly light which is showing you the next step in God’s divine plan for you? What are the things that you are grasping for? Where are some areas of your life that you are trying to plan, to control, to become totally self-reliant? Think about these areas – pray about them. Visit the Lord in the blessed Sacrament, and cry out to the Him like the possessed boy’s father saying, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”
Remember, God loves you, and when you trust in God you will find only love. It may not always be easy – God the Father loved Jesus, God the Son, who suffered – but it will always be full of grace. Turn yourself over to God this Lent. Trust in His divine plan for you. Listen to His voice and answer His call. Look for His kindly light and take that next step.
This is the first in a series of Lenten essays exploring different areas of the human experience. For more information, see the introduction.