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Sunday Readings for Oct. 3, 2010 (27C)
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
If ever there was a heartfelt prayer then I think that we could agree that this request of the Apostles comes very close to top of the list: Increase our faith.
As a priest you so often hear people tell you that their faith is weak, that they are riddled with doubts. Even in the Sacrament of Reconciliation people come in and confess that they lack faith. Yet lack of faith is not, nor ever could be, a sin.
Let me clarify that. Denial of faith certainly is a sin if it is the result of a deliberate systematic process of doubting. If you were someone who had the faith but then as the result of a deliberate decision clearly rejected it and denied God, then that would be a sin.
But I don’t think this applies to very many people and is certainly not what I am talking about. Neither am I talking about a culpable negligence in relation to one’s faith which begins with neglecting prayer and church attendance and leads to deliberately forgetting about God and ultimately to lapsing into a sinful way of life.
There are, however, very many people who are assailed with doubts and anxieties about their faith. Doubts come to them in a similar way to distractions in prayer. They are going along quite nicely but then are suddenly beset with worries and find themselves asking questions like: What if none of this is true? Maybe God doesn’t exist? Is the Church just one elaborate confidence trick to keep the masses quiet? If God really loves us why do terrible things happen? Will I go to hell because I don’t fully believe in him?
Worrying about these doubts doesn’t make those who experience them feel any better; in fact it leads to even more uncertainty. And neither are they the result of a deliberate decision to doubt their faith because these thoughts come unbidden and unwanted.
The person frequently tries to search for the faith and certainties of their childhood and then they despair because they can’t find them. It can be a real torture.
First of all, it is important to say that the faith of a child is not appropriate for an adult. A child needs certainties and usually finds these in the reassurance of a parent or other authority figure. But the parent has to simplify things for the child and knows that as the child grows it will in due time come to an understanding of the greater complexities of life.
It is the same with our faith. As children we take it for granted but as we grow and mature into adulthood we see more and more complexities. And our faith needs to become more sophisticated as a result. We begin to see that life as a follower of Jesus is all about choices and that sometimes it is very hard to discern the right choice. As Catholics we tend to see faith as given and static and this often blocks our faith development.
There is a real difference between the person assailed by doubts and those who deliberately reject their faith or who through neglect fall away from the practice of their faith and end up having completely excluded God from their life. And the difference is that the doubts come unbidden and unwanted.
They want to believe but find themselves doubting and they feel that God is far away. It is as if the anchor that they held onto earlier in life has now come loose.
Clearly there is no deliberate choice here. This is quite patently not a rejection of God but an anxiety state. It is difficult to deal with because the person generally feels that God is far away.
I think that this is a condition that most dedicated followers of Christ will go through at sometime or other. It is certainly something that the great saints have experienced and described. It is as if God removes himself for a time and we feel bereft and without hope and it can be experienced as a time of testing or loss.
The thing to hang onto is that these feelings and doubts are unwanted. We want to believe but find ourselves full of uncertainties. And if we can keep that desire to believe at the front of our minds it will help us through these difficulties.
As we have noted faith is not something static; it is not something that once achieved remains the same forever. This is because we believe in a person—God—and since all relationships are essentially dynamic so is our relationship with God. We experience this in marriage and the other relationships in our life, there is always some movement and change.
Our relationship with God is no different; over time we experience similar adjustment and change. Sometimes God seems extraordinarily close and at other times further away.
We use these terms near and far but what we are talking about is not that it is God who is near or far but how we experience him. God is everywhere and indeed he is closer to us that we are to ourselves but he exists in an entirely different order from us.
The saints describe these periods of difficulty as being extraordinarily fruitful. However, we only see the fruits in retrospect and at the time only experience the difficulty. Our trust in God is tested severely and we sometimes find ourselves on the verge of losing all hope.
At these times we should remember that we are not alone. The Church is not a group of isolated followers of Jesus but a community of faith. And if at certain times our faith is very weak then the faith of the whole community of believers can sustain us.
We can think of ourselves as being carried along by the faith of the others. That is why, when we recite the Creed at mass, we say ‘We believe’ not ‘I believe’. We are helped and supported spiritually but other members of the parish are, of course, also there for us to talk to about particular aspects of faith we might be finding difficult. Again this is something we Catholics ought to do much more of.
By means of an analogy Christ tells us in the Gospel today that our faith even when apparently strong is really quite weak indeed. Which of us has moved a mulberry tree lately?
I think that today’s Gospel text can be seen as a suggestion that we should not take ourselves too seriously. When we are assailed by doubts we make the mistake of putting ourselves at the centre of the picture when really it is God who is at the centre of the picture.
I think that this is also what the story of the servant is about. The master doesn’t prepare the meal for the servant. No, the servant prepares the meal for the master. The servant’s job is to do his duty. We too should therefore not become over concerned about our faith or lack of it; we should just do our duty.
God sees all and knows all. He knows that what motivates us is a wish to do good, a desire to love him, a longing to be with him in heaven. Our troubles and anxieties pale into insignificance when, instead of constantly going over and over the details of our faith and whether we believe in this or that doctrine, we simply turn our gaze on him.
When we consider the love God has for us, when we appreciate the blessings he has already poured out on us and the many more he has in store for us, then we begin to realise that even the faith we once thought was strong means practically nothing to him.
He loves us with faith or without it. And our perceptions of his nearness or faraway-ness really don’t count for much at all. All our anxieties are as of nothing compared to God’s anxiety that we should appreciate his love for us.