DIVING INTO DARKNESS
“Lord, Save me!”
The mother of a friend of ours died recently. A cradle-Catholic, she had led a long and rich life, filled with love and service to her family and the community. She had met death with extraordinary joy and peace. “How I wish I had such faith” said our agnostic friend, “but it just hasn’t been given to me”.
And then there is a relative, a warm-hearted and generous man, a confirmed atheist, who regularly tells me that it’s ok for you Christians with your after-life, but I just don’t believe, simple as that.
It seems to me that there is a catastrophic misunderstanding at work here. I think of the parable of the sower (Luke 8:1-15), where the farmer (God the Father) showers the land with thousands and thousands of seeds, utterly careless of where they land, making sure in fact that they land everywhere, that his Word will touch everyone: an icon of liberality and generosity. This God who is all-gift, unconditional love, how could he single out some for faith and others not? It’s unthinkable.
So what then is faith? One problem, I think, is that as Christians we were taught it was a gift of God. This is true of course, but not the whole story! When I was little, I wondered if I had that precious gift – it didn’t really feel like it but I was sure I wanted it. No doubt I should work harder for it and then all would be well. It is hardly surprising that those who have received no religious education at all might feel that they have not been chosen to “receive” faith.
I have been greatly helped in this question by two Gospel stories.
The first is that lovely narrative about the events following the feeding of the five thousand ( Matthew 14:22). Jesus sends his disciples off in the boat while he goes into the hills to pray. The picture is drawn so delicately, so clearly – the wind is strong and the disciples struggle against the stormy waves – frightened that they are going to sink – and then to make matters worse they see a ghost walking on the water. They are so terrified that these down-to earth Galileans actually cry out in fear. And then the ghost speaks – “Don’t be afraid, it’s me”.
But with the noise of the wind and the oncoming darkness they really don’t know who or what it is. And then something wonderful happens – Peter stands up and says “If it’s you Jesus, tell me to come” He doesn’t say: “Jesus, come over here quick and get into the boat and help us” which you or I would probably have shouted – he is too impetuous for that – he loves more than that. Jesus tells him to come and he climbs out, no doubt infuriating all the others because he is nearly capsizing the boat. That is the very great thing about Peter, he was always getting out of the boat. I am certain of one thing, alas – I wouldn’t have jumped out into that rough, freezing, dark sea. Of course, being human and being Peter, he soon starts to realise what he is doing and begins to sink.
I think at this exact point we are at the heart of the matter. Peter has faith – a great deal really, but at the crucial moment it starts to fail him and he cries out “Lord, Save me” and “immediately” Jesus reaches out his hand and saves him. “Man of little faith”, says Jesus, “why did you doubt?” and they climb into the boat and the wind dies down. The point, surely, is that faith is not a parcel stored safely within us, it is a decision to reach out to God. We are not absolutely certain that he is there, we do not know he will save us, but we bet our life on it. Jesus wants our faith to increase and he told Peter so, but he must have rejoiced that Peter got out of that boat. After all, Peter was not certain, and if it was a ghost, it could hardly have saved him for disappearing into those icy waters forever.
Save me, Lord
The second Gospel account is in Mark (9:14) and occurs just after the Transfiguration. Jesus is told by a man that the disciples have been unable to cure his son possessed by and evil spirit. Jesus is exasperated (how human!) and asks for the boy to be brought to him. Immediately the spirit throws the boy into convulsions and the father tells Jesus this has happened since childhood.
And then we come to the central point of the story: “but if you can do anything”, the poor man says, “take pity on us and help us”.
“If you can” says Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes”. Jesus was so close to the Father, so attuned and conformed to His will, that he often found it inexplicable that others did not share his passionate trust.
“I do believe”, exclaims the man. “Help me overcome my unbelief”. Here we recognise so clearly our own position as Christians. – yes we have faith, but it wavers and is weak. Jesus then drives out the spirit and helps the boy to his feet.
A crucial thing we can learn from this narrative is that if we have at least some faith – maybe only a tiny flicker, it becomes infinitely powerful if we join it with that of Jesus, because he was the Son of God. Jesus does usually need something to work with (though sometimes not even that!) and for those with little or no faith, just reading this parable will give then the incentive to reach out very tentatively to Jesus. Reaching out is the thing.
I want to mention here some advice of Blaise Pascal – a 17th century scientist and Christian apologist of luminous intelligence and wisdom. In his book “Pensées”, he examines in great detail how to persuade agnostics to have faith in God. If you have no faith, he says, act in all things as if you did, and you will find that you have faith. This may at first sight seem counter-intuitive, but there is deep wisdom in these words, because we become the things we pretend to be. I’m sure Pascal’s advice would be invaluable for my two friends mentioned above.
Blaise Pascal. “ Act as if…”
Pascal said another wonderful thing: “If you are trying to search for God, you have already found him”. I always find that enormously comforting.
What my teacher all those years ago didn’t tell me was that although faith is a gift, it is offered to all unconditionally. It is essentially a decision to keep reaching out to God, come what may. It is not an emotion or a possession but an act of will, endlessly repeated. And God always responds. Always.
I want to add here a quotation from Ruth Burrows who is one of the great spiritual writers of the age (or of any age, who knows?). She is a Carmelite nun who has lived out her vocation of prayer in an atmosphere of unrelenting aridity and spiritual darkness – but she has kept the faith magnificently! This is the heart of revelation:
“Jesus…strains every nerve to convince us how utterly secure we are in the Father’s fathomless love. The only wise thing is to abandon ourselves trustfully into God’s hands. If we really believe, we can let go of our frantic desire for some assurance from within ourselves, for some token, feeling or intimation that we think proves all is well…Well, we cannot have that sort of sureness, for it is not to be had. But we already have absolute sureness: magnificent security in the Abba whom Jesus shows us. Sooner or later each one of us has to be confronted with the terrifying truth that we have nothing, nothing whatsoever to go on or to rely on except Jesus”.
(from Essence of Prayer, Chapter three – Faith, Trust, Surrender to God))
So we have to dive into the darkness – or what seems like darkness. Ultimately it is only in this way that we can find our true happiness and joy in this life and, ultimately, eternal bliss.
In Mark (5:36) there is the beautiful account of Jairus, the synagogue ruler, whose daughter is dying. He “pleads earnestly” with Jesus to come and heal her (How much is packed into those words “pleads earnestly”!). Some men come from his house to say that she has died and it is pointless to “bother the teacher any more”. And then Jesus says something which is surely a perfect summary of the whole of scripture – just six words (only four in the original Greek!): “Do not be afraid; only believe”. He goes in and tells the little girl to get up – and she does. I have daughters myself, and I always find this narrative incredibly moving.
So we should not be afraid. Just believe.