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Doubt and faith in a secular age

Some Lenten lessons in belief from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Mother Teresa, and Flannery O’Connor.

Editor’s note: The following homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., for the Lenten sermon series on “divine questions” at the Church of Holy Innocents in New York City, February 27, 2018.

Listen to three new questions raised by Our Lord in the Gospels.

Why did you doubt? (Mt 14:31) is asked after Peter falters as Jesus bids him come to Him.

Do you not yet perceive? (Mt 16:9) is addressed to the disciples who had just witnessed the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? (Lk 24:38) is directed to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who apparently find their encounter with the Risen Lord just too good to be true.

Can you hear the frustration in Christ’s voice? I think it fair to say that nothing so exasperated Him as a lack of faith. So, it would behoove us to give some serious consideration to the virtue of faith, first given us on the day of our baptism. To help me help you come to a deeper understanding of faith, I am going to enlist the assistance of a number of holy women, who lived the life of faith to a heroic degree.

Saint Paul tells us that, here below, “we walk by faith, not by sight” [2 Cor 5:7]. But what does that mean? Let us take as our starting-point the encounter between the Risen Christ and Saint Thomas the Apostle a week after the Lord’s Resurrection, as recounted in the Fourth Gospel [Jn 20: 24-29]. Let me tip my hand at the outset by saying that I believe that the Thomas we meet on that occasion is perhaps one of the most unfairly maligned characters in the New Testament. He has suffered this fate because he apparently had doubts about Jesus’ Resurrection and because he set some conditions for belief. However, I think Thomas’ behavior simply showed him to be a man of intelligence and insight.

He doubted. So did all the others. If the Resurrection were such an obvious thing, the whole world would have believed in Jesus. But it wasn’t obvious! Secondly, he says that he will not believe unless he sees the signs of Jesus’ redeeming Death. What’s wrong with that? Thomas was willing to believe, but he was not ready to be made a fool or butt of someone’s pranks. He saw this all as rather serious business.

And Jesus took him seriously. The Risen Christ offered him the proof he required the very minute He appeared in the room again, the very same proof – we should note – that the Lord had given the other Apostles on Easter night when Thomas was absent. Nor does St. John condemn Thomas in his Gospel because the whole point of John’s work was to present signs of Jesus’ power as a way of helping people come to faith.

What is involved in an act of faith today? First of all, it is important to remember that an act of faith is, above all else, a human act. That means it must involve our whole person, both intellect and will. Belief begins with the mind as I question and examine the doctrines proposed for my belief. Some people today say: “Don’t raise those questions for me. I just want simple faith.” What they are really saying is: “Don’t confuse me with the facts; don’t tell me too much because then I might not be able to believe.”

After I have gone as far as my limited human intellect can carry me, then my will takes over as I make a leap of faith. However, it is a reasoned leap of faith, not a blind leap. I think it is also important to mention that the believer is never completely sure or totally free of questions. If I did have such assurance, I would not have faith; I would be in Heaven. Sometimes we are afraid to admit we have such questions, and we give others, especially young people, the wrong idea. Some years back, as a high school administrator, I had a boy come into my office in tears. He said: “Father, I don’t know if I can be a Catholic anymore. I have all these questions, all these doubts.” I told him not to worry because this is the lot of all of us, but the fact that we want to believe is itself proof of our faith, and more importantly, a proof of our love.

Where am I going with all this? Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was tormented, especially in the last eighteen months of her life, by nagging questions about God’s love and His very existence. Following Christ, you see, is not all sweetness and light. Sometimes the sequela Christi must take place amid darkness, and the Little Flower was not exempt from the phenomenon known as “spiritual darkness,” that state in which the soul knows no satisfaction and often is tempted to despair because God seems so remote, so far away. And what was the young contemplative’s solution? She asked the angels to “make reparation” for her dry thanksgivings. Throwing herself into that comforting doctrine of the communion of saints, she said: “I beg the Blessed Virgin. . . and the saints to conduct a magnificent concert. . . because I myself can find no words for Him.” She learned what the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, before her had learned: “The desire to pray is prayer.” Praying only when convenient or emotionally satisfying is not a sign of love or maturity; conversely, giving oneself over to prayer when little joy or response from God is apparent, literally being willing to “waste time with God,” is the greatest sign of love and mature spirituality imaginable.

You may recall how several years ago the secular media treated us to one of their usual confused and confusing circuses – involving the then-Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. They claimed to have unearthed evidence from heretofore unpublished letters of hers to the effect that she really didn’t believe at all. She writes to her spiritual director in 1979: “. . . the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – listen and do not hear – the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak. . . I want you to pray for me – that I let Him have [a] free hand.” Twenty years earlier, she anguished, judging herself harshly: “I utter words of Community prayers – and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give – But my prayer of union is not there any longer – I no longer pray.” And in what can only be deemed one of the most profound prayers of abandonment to her Jesus, Mother Teresa throws herself on Christ’s pity:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of Your Love – and now become as the most hated one – the one – You have thrown away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on Whom I can cling – no, no One. – Alone. . . . Where is my Faith – even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness – My God – how painful is this unknown pain – I have no Faith – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart – & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – if there be God – please forgive me – When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. – I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

The first point to make here is that this was no news at all to the informed, for all that material had been read most carefully by those charged with examining her life and writings before her beatification a decade earlier. Or, as Father Andrew Greeley put it somewhat wryly: “Catholic nuns are interesting only when they become cops or bricklayers or baggage handlers at the airports or other weird jobs. . . . And, anyway, how do you explain to a religiously illiterate, secularist reporter about the Dark Night?” Secondly, ironically enough, it would seem that the Church’s demands for faith are not nearly as stringent as those of our secular critics. Thirdly, what Mother Teresa endured was not unique to her; indeed, Saint Teresa of Ávila (for whom both Mother Teresa and Saint Thérèse were named) knew this same phenomenon; “Big Teresa” and Saint John of the Cross called it “the dark night of the soul.” Listen to the Little Flower describe her situation twenty years prior to that of Mother Teresa:

. . . then suddenly the fog which surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelops it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland, everything has disappeared! When I want to rest my heart, fatigued by the darkness which surrounds it, by remembering the luminous country to which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog which surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.

Dear Mother, the image I tried to give you of the darkness that obscures my soul is as imperfect as a sketch is to the model; however, I don’t want to write any longer about it; I fear I might blaspheme. . . . I fear that I have already said too much. . . . Ah! May Jesus pardon me if I have caused Him any pain, but He knows very well that while I do not have the joy of faith, I am trying to carry out its work at least I believe I have made more acts of faith in this past year than through my whole life.

One can say that Jesus Himself knew “the dark night of the soul,” first in the agony in the garden as He pleaded with His Heavenly Father to let the cup of suffering pass Him by and then on the Cross as He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You abandoned Me?” [Ps 22:1]. That death-cry of Jesus led Archbishop Fulton Sheen to observe that, at least for one brief moment, God Himself sounded like an atheist. But we must also think that the Lord Jesus, knowing and loving the Scriptures as He did, chose Psalm 22 for a reason, namely, because its opening cry of abandonment finds its fulfillment in the prayer of confident trust in God’s Providence by Psalm’s end.

Faith does not imply total clarity. Nor does it imply total blindness. Faith is not not seeing; it is seeing in a different way, putting on the corrective lenses the Good God gives us in Baptism, which enable us to view reality from the divine perspective. Does it always “work”? No. When it doesn’t “work” for prolonged periods of time (as in the forty-plus years for Mother Teresa) or even for shorter but extremely critical periods (as in Saint Thérèse’s experience of approaching death), we can feel like atheists as we ask: “Why is God doing this to me? Why does He seem so far away? When will this ‘dryness’ end? Will it ever end?”

Faith can be viewed from two different but related vantage-points. At the first level, faith – aided by reason – is a decision to believe all that God has revealed to us in His Son and through His Son’s Church. At a second level, faith refers to an on-going and abiding attitude of mind that keeps one convinced of the truths to which one has assented. And here is where the problem often occurs as we begin to confuse a decision to believe with feelings of satisfaction and consolation that we presume should flow from that primary decision.

What are some practical applications we can make of all this?

First, we must never mistake consolation for conviction. We moderns are accustomed to immediate self-gratification, with contemporary brands of religiosity promoting warm, fuzzy feelings as an essential part of the package. In my experience, the people most apt to describe their relationship with the Lord in heavily emotional terms are among the most shallow.

At the same time, honesty compels us to admit that just having a supernatural perspective does not take away either the physical or psychological pain. As Thérèse lay dying, the poor nun was nearly beyond comfort:

Oh! I have prayed to [the Blessed Mother] with such fervor! But this is pure agony, with no trace of consolation. . . . O my dear Blessed Virgin, help me! . . . Oh! You know I am suffocating. . . . If only you knew what it is like, not being able to breathe! . . . My God, take pity on Your poor little girl! Take pity on her! Oh my Mother, I tell you, the chalice is full to the brim! . . . He has never let me down. . . . Yes, my Lord, anything You wish, but have mercy on me!

Who cannot hear the resonances of the Crucified Christ in that Saint’s last moments?

What kept her from cursing God in these circumstances? The ability to say: “And I do not regret having given myself to Love.” In fact, she had thought this all out long before her final hours. In a letter to her sister Céline, she once wrote: “Already God sees us in His glory. He rejoices at our eternal beatitude. How this thought sustains my soul. I understand then why He lets us suffer. Trial has ripened and strengthened my soul to such a degree that nothing here below could any longer sadden me.” She moves on to note that she now knows peace which, in her words, “is not the same as joy. To suffer in peace,” she observes, “all that is needed is to will all that Our Lord wills. It is a great consolation to think that Jesus, the strong Son of God, experienced all our weaknesses, that He trembled at the sight of the bitter chalice, the chalice which in earlier days he had so ardently desired to drink.”

Second, we should not beat ourselves up over a lack of total assurance. Blessed John Henry Newman got it right when he declared, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” “Seeing through a glass darkly” is our mode of vision this side of the grave, as Saint Paul reminds the Corinthians and us [1 Cor 13:12].

Third, if we find ourselves haunted in times of crisis or for prolonged periods of time by nagging doubts and uncertainty, what should be our response? Here, Mother Teresa’s spiritual director can help us as he assisted her with an insight. In addition to reminding her that such situations can be quite normal, he also told her to offer these feelings of loneliness to the Lord as a spiritual component to accompany her physical work on behalf of the poorest of the poor. This caused her to write to Jesus: “If this bring You glory – if souls are brought to You – with joy I accept all to the end of my life.” And to Father Neuner she wrote:

I can’t express in words – the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me – for the first time in . . . years – I have come to love the darkness – for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it [as] a “spiritual side of your work” as you wrote – Today really I felt a deep joy – that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony – but that He wants to go through it in me.

Can we not hear in those lines an echo of Saint Thérèse as she exclaimed: “The greatest honor God can grant a soul is not to give much to it, but to ask much of it.” Or again, “I am thinking of the words of Saint Ignatius of Antioch: ‘I, too, must be ground down through suffering, in order to become the wheat of God.’”

Fourth, contrary to what the televangelists would have us think, believing is not easy business. That marvelous Catholic writer and grande dame of the South, Flannery O’Connor – a realist if ever there was one – said with characteristic candor: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” Therefore, we must be prepared to accept Jesus on His own terms, which was precisely the invitation to carry one’s cross in union with Him. Significantly, Saint Luke adds the word “daily” to that line found in Saint Mark. Faith and discipleship are not one-shot deals but demand a daily re-affirmation, even in the midst of darkness.

Fifth, living according to the Gospel, without absolute certitude, can actually serve as a bridge thrown across to non-believers or what then-Father Joseph Ratzinger termed an “avenue of communication” between the two for, as he put it in his 1968 work, Introduction to Christianity, “both the believer and the unbeliever share each in his own way, doubt and belief.”

Sixth, when the temptation comes to give up on prayer or even Holy Mass because “I get nothing out of them,” we need to ask the Lord for a double portion of perseverance, born of love. When a mother goes to the hospital day in and day out to attend to her comatose child with tenderness and devotion and receives not a single indication of his awareness, let alone his gratitude, that mother exhibits heroic virtue. That same mentality must be operative in our interaction with God.

Yes, faith is difficult, especially in an age like ours. Some say that an act of faith doesn’t make sense anymore. But the Gospels promise us that faith in Jesus leads to “life in His Name” [Jn 20:31]. And as absurd as such an act may seem to many, it sure beats any of the alternatives modern culture has to offer, for it holds out the promise of the development of a “civilization of love.”

Amazingly, even the New York Times seems to have gotten it right at least once. In its editorial on Mother Teresa, in comparing Flannery O’Connor with the one they dubbed “the Saint of Darkness,” we read: “O’Connor suffered from isolation and debilitating illness, Mother Teresa from decades of spiritual emptiness. But – and here is the exemplary part, inspiring even by the standards of a secular age – they both shut up about it and got on with their work.”

Yes, we all need “to shut up about it and [get] on with [our] work.” In the final analysis, I think that Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Saint Teresa of Calcutta would all counsel us to make the prayer of the Roman centurion our own prayer: “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief” [Mk 9:24].

Many years ago, after teaching a group of high school sophomores the traditional Act of Faith, a girl piped up, “Wow, that’s so beautiful.” “What’s so beautiful?” I inquired. “That line which says that God “can neither deceive nor be deceived.’ You see, Father,” she said, “my whole life long I’ve done nothing but deceive everybody and been deceived by them.” She intuited in that moment that responding in faith to our God brings with it a corresponding reward from Him.

May we always endeavor to staunch the frustration of our Divine Questioner by standing in that long procession of those who have “walked by faith” and merit to inherit the ultimate reward for such faith, which is nothing less than life on high with the Triune God.

About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 70 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

1 Comment

  1. This line hit home Fr Stravinskas, “Where am I going with all this? Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was tormented, especially in the last eighteen months of her life, by nagging questions about God’s love and His very existence. Following Christ, you see, is not all sweetness and light. Sometimes the sequela Christi must take place amid darkness”. We try as a human act of faith to encompass the meaning of God’s revelation, yet become bewildered dismayed even if occasionally. We cannot comprehend the incomprehensible and John of the Cross continuously admonishes that to the reader. Eternal suffering and a merciful loving God seem irreconcilable anomalies. God asks for complete trust. If we really believe he is love itself that satisfied realization of his justice inherent to his love will occur only when we know him as he is.

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