“The Sweet Spot of the Faith”

 

Pope Francis with a Filipino girl who asked him why children suffer.

A few words of comfort from Pope Francis, both old and new, for people walking in the dark.  From an old interview, “A Big Heart Open to God,” on seeking God in blindness and doubt:

…in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good….The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties….Often we seek as if we were blind, as one often reads in the Bible. And this is the experience of the great fathers of the faith, who are our models. We have to re-read the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. Abraham leaves his home without knowing where he was going, by faith. All of our ancestors in the faith died seeing the good that was promised, but from a distance….

I find this so consoling!  When you are in a state of doubt and walking blindly, it’s very easy to feel that you are far away from God.  I was surprised to see Pope Francis say that people in this situation are not only on the right track, but are actually closer to God for their uncertainty.  If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that the uncertainty is a positive thing because it acknowledges the mystery of God’s plan.  By seeking and following God even when we can’t see where he’s taking us, we are making that uncertainty a cause for trusting a providence that is far larger than our range of understanding, rather than a cause for mistrusting God.  I was reminded of this passage a few days ago when I read a very recent interview, where the Pope talks about what it means to have stability in faith, even when you don’t feel God’s presence:

In some moments we are conscious of the presence of God, other times we forget about that….How to be consistent in the faith? If you do not deny feeling it, you are going to feel it very close to you, you are going to find it in your heart. Another day, it is possible that you do not feel anything. And nevertheless faith is present, right? It is necessary for one to get accustomed to the faith not being a feeling. Sometimes the Lord gives us the grace to feel it, but faith is something more. Faith is my relationship with Jesus Christ, I believe that he saved me. That is the sweet spot of the faith. Go and seek the moments of your life in which you have felt bad, where you were lost, where you did not hit the mark, and look how Christ saved you. Embrace it, that is the source of your faith. When you forget, when you feel nothing, embrace that, because that is the basis of your faith….At the end, faith is a gift, it is not a psychological attitude….

This is a good thing to remember when you’re in the lost, wandering state of uncertainty that he talks about in the first quote.  Don’t let the feelings going through your head convince you that God is not there!  “Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I fear no evil, for you are at my side.”

Finally, here’s the Pope’s tender explanation of the gaze of Christ that consoles us in the face of incomprehensible suffering (from a 2013 interview):

One man who has been a life mentor for me is Dostoevskij and his explicit and implicit question “Why do children suffer?” has always gone round in my heart. There is no explanation. This image comes to mind: at a particular point of his or her life, a child “wakes up,” doesn’t understand much and feels threatened, he or she starts asking their mum or dad questions. This is the “why” age. But when the child asks a question, he or she doesn’t wait to hear the full answer, they immediately start bombarding you with more “whys.” What they are really looking for, more than an explanation, is a reassuring look on their parent’s face. When I come across a suffering child, the only prayer that comes to mind is the “why” prayer. Why Lord? He doesn’t explain anything to me. But I can feel Him looking at me. So I can say: You know why, I don’t and You won’t tell me, but You’re looking at me and I trust You, Lord, I trust your gaze.

I can imagine that a secular person might not find this consoling at all: even the POPE doesn’t understand suffering?!  But for me it’s a relief.  My peace of heart doesn’t have to depend on me figuring out everything by myself, because let’s face it, that’s never going to happen.  Instead, I have the gaze of Christ and his Church to return to when I feel lost.  My faith doesn’t have to be constantly defended against doubt or feelings of loneliness, because it all comes down to something unshakable.

 

 

 

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Attitude of Heart

A quick review of a spiritual self-help book that has meant a lot to me.  (I’ve also written about this book here.)  God kept putting this book in my path, through various recommendations and offhand mentions, until my sister sent me a copy out of the blue and I finally read it.  These days it’s one of those books I give to people so often that I like to keep an extra copy on hand.  (This post ran in its original form on Simcha Fisher’s blog.)

Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart by Fr. Jacques Philippe

searching for an maintaining peace

This is a small, extremely easy-to-read little book, written in a gentle and tender tone.  At first glance it seems to offer the kind of cliche spiritual advice that is hard to take to heart, but it is actually full of extremely practical advice about breaking destructive mental habits.

Fr. Philippe begins by dismantling the subtle temptation to fight the “wrong battle,” which he describes as the misplaced desire to attain peace by conquering all of our faults and all of the external obstacles to peace.

…if we expect peace…because everything is going well…and our desires are completely satisfied, …then it is certain that we will never know peace or that our peace will be extremely fragile and of short duration.

This is a double temptation–to doubt God’s mercy on our sins, and to doubt his ability or desire to aid us in our troubles.  Both lead to despair–either despair of salvation, or despair of any happiness and peace in this world.  If instead we contemplate Christ’s love for us, embodied in the Cross, we will gain the confidence we need to survive our trials, whether they go away or not.  Fr. Philippe describes his own peace after adoration, not as a feeling that conditions are going to improve, but as an “attitude of heart:”

The external situation was always the same, there were always problems to solve, but the heart had changed, and from then on, I could confront them peacefully.

Here’s a prayer upon making a decision, which demonstrates how effectively Fr. Philippe cuts through mental confusion and scrupulosity:

‘Lord, I have thought about it and prayed to know Your will.  I do not see it clearly, but I am not going to trouble myself any further.  I am not going to spend hours racking my brain….I know well that, even if I am mistaken, You will not be displeased with me, for I have acted with good intentions.  And if I have made a mistake, I know that You are able to draw good from this error….’  And I remain at peace.

One last snippet, which is explained further but makes a good mantra all by itself:

The reasons why we lose our peace are always bad reasons.

First Aid for an Existential Crisis: Part 2

Please see part 1 here.

The pictures in the Baltimore Catechism say it all.

Did you ever try to talk yourself out of sadness or depression by “counting your blessings”?  I don’t mean to disparage this important exercise in gratitude, but it doesn’t usually work for me.  For one thing, I may be in the kind of mental state mentioned in Part 1, where external blessings seem irrelevant; or I may be in such a difficult stage of life that it seems impossible to find blessings meaningful enough to outweigh my troubles.  But the core of the problem is that even when I do feel blessed and happy, it doesn’t always reassure me of God’s love.  Where was he when I was unhappy?  Where is he when others are suffering?

Fr. Jacques Phillipe, in his short and wonderful book Searching for and Maintaining Peace, gently reminds us not to lean on our blessings–or lack thereof–to answer the question of God’s love.  Because happiness is so fleeting, we must place the source of our peace in something deeper, something that remains true beneath the cycle of sorrow and joy.  He later asserts that peace can only be found in contemplation of the Cross; but I never understood what that meant until now.  (I hope to post more fully on Fr. Phillipe’s book later this week!)

Here, as far as I can figure it out, is the answer: God proves his love for us by sending his Son to save us from Hell.  Everything else is extra.  We don’t have to rely on mental contortions to try to justify the apparent imbalance of God’s blessings; instead, we can rest assured that the only truly necessary thing–salvation–is given to everyone. Dayenu.

This also helps me deal with the paradox of the Bible’s promises.  How can God promise peace, happiness, prosperity, and freedom from fear to the just man, when we see good people suffer all the time?  These promises only make sense when they are interpreted in the light of eternity.  They do not promise peace and happiness according to earthly definitions, but heavenly ones. I think this must be the secret to the serenity and happiness of the saints even in the face of torture and martyrdom.

Most mornings I pray the Canticle of Zechariah, which contains a long list of God’s promises to

save us from our enemies…to show mercy…to set us free…to worship him without fear…to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)

Usually I find this comforting, but sometimes it is very hard to believe.  I know so many people who are at the mercy of their enemies and feel no peace.  But as I read the Canticle more closely, I noticed that it provides a specific answer to this problem: God will “give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”  The shadow of death may be more present at some times than at others, but in this life it will always be there.  The only remedy, the knowledge of salvation, is guaranteed to us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  This is the certainty we were looking for at the beginning.

The next time you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, I pray that God will send you comfort and aid.  But if he doesn’t, remind yourself that, although you have nowhere else to go, everything you really need to prove God’s love and to bring you ultimate happiness is already there.