Faith is the first of the three theological virtues, its companions being hope and charity. What is faith? According to Huckleberry Finn (or was it Tom Sawyer?), “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true.” This, I suspect is what many people think: that faith is a sort of hopeful make-believe, like believing in Santa Claus or the Loch Ness Monster. But faith is something entirely different. We often take what someone tells us on faith, meaning that we believe what the other person is telling us is true, even though we haven’t personally witnessed it, or don’t perhaps quite understand it. It means believing something, trusting something, without having the evidence, that we cannot know or grasp on our own.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God, and that it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. “By faith, we believe in God and believe all that he has revealed to us and that the Holy Church proposes for our belief.” (CCC 1842) For us Catholics, faith isn’t so much something we find, rather, we believe, it is God’s gift to us. He offers it freely to everyone, but it must be freely received as well. No one can be forced to believe, because faith is a personal act — the free response to God’s initiative. When it is presented, each person responds differently and in different ways. Some choose to ignore it or reject it. For others, it sits lightly, while others cherish it deeply.
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that “He who comes to God, must believe,” (Heb. 11:6) and gives us the great definition of faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” (Heb. 11:1) This reminds us that though we trust we shall see God in glory in heaven, for now, on earth, we can only know him by the light of faith. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, then face to face.” (1 Cor. 13)
Now we seek God and we do so in faith — and the way is often quite dark, at times, would seem even pitch black; we must learn to walk in the path of ‘naked faith’, one that is totally shorn of comfort and what St Francis de Sales called ‘sensible consolations’. Modern attitudes to religion seem to centre on our feelings and seeking comfort, but to follow that line will inevitably lead to disappointment. The Carmelite writer, Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen writes: “We must not base our interior life, our search for God, on sentiment or on spiritual consolations, but on an intensive practice of the theological virtues” (viz. faith, hope and charity). It is faith which puts us into contact with God: “Faith unites the soul with God, even though it experiences no spiritual consolation.” A hard lesson, I think, especially when life is tough and our external circumstances painful or draining, when to be reminded that we are disciples of Christ and therefore following his path, the Way of the Cross, is challenging.
We haven’t seen what those who witnessed our Lord’s miracles saw, but the fact that he performed miracles is a testimony to Who He is. He is a God of abundant mercy. As God, Our Lord could have expected faith from those to whom He ministered without being obliged to offer them the “proof” of signs and wonders. This is because true faith is not based upon external evidence, such as seeing miracles; rather, authentic faith is based upon an interior revelation from God by which He communicates His very self to us and we believe. Therefore, the fact that Our Lord did work signs and wonders shows just how gracious He is. He offered these miracles to help spark faith in those who found it hard to believe through the interior gift of faith alone. It is on the evidence of those who did witness such things that we base our faith.
With that said, it’s important to understand that we should work to strengthen our faith without relying upon external signs, using all the means at our disposal: the word of God, the sacraments and study, reading solid and sensible writings of authors, like Aquinas, Chesterton, Lewis and others, who may offer us, through their scholarship, some rational underpinning of our faith. For unlike the White Queen, we do not believe six impossible things before breakfast!
In each one of our lives, it is essential that we work to develop our faith, even if God doesn’t seem to act in powerful and evident ways. In fact, the deepest form of faith is born in our lives when we choose to love God and serve Him, even when things are very difficult. Faith in the midst of difficulty is a sign of very authentic faith. We can reflect, today upon the depth of our own faith. When life is hard, do we love God and serve Him anyway? Even if He doesn’t take away the crosses we carry? The great thing is to try to have true faith at all times and in every circumstance and we may yet be amazed at how real our faith is.
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