Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Gift and the Vocation of Faith

Here I am, still blogging. Why? What do I know?

I know a few things, even if I am constantly prone to distraction and forgetfulness about them. I know the ineradicable “structure” of my own human heart that cries out for meaning and fulfillment. I know that in Jesus Christ I have encountered the inexhaustible “answer” to the “need” that constitutes my humanity. I know that He is the Word of the Father, made flesh, who died and rose to save the humanity of everyone.

I know that Jesus remains present in the Catholic Church by the working of the Holy Spirit within a historical community that carries the witness of the Gospel and a living tradition, entrusted to the authority of certain people from generation to generation—ministers of word and sacrament who are in themselves flawed and unworthy human beings like me, and who sometimes can even be criminals and/or cowards. But the Holy Spirit guarantees that Jesus will remain present and communicate Himself to those who hunger and thirst for Him, through the Church, even when His ministers are cruel, ignorant, incompetent, or wicked. He continually renews and sustains the Church in its pilgrimage throughout history. (The sins and scandals of the present time are only the particular form of the perennial failures of the Church’s members—which does not excuse their perpetrators of being held responsible and does not excuse us from following Jesus and struggling toward maturity in our own vocations.)

I know that trusting in Jesus, following Jesus by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Church, with fidelity and obedience and patience, with prayer and love for God our Father and for other human persons—especially expressed in mercy toward those in need, with whom we can share what we have been given—will bring us to the fulfillment of eternal life, sharing in the all-embracing Gift of the Triune God who is Eternal, Infinite Love.

I also know that Jesus reaches “beyond” what I can see, in ways that I cannot understand (even though theological pondering and—far better—the “prayer” of a merciful empathy can glimpse some possible paths of the Holy Spirit); His salvific love is offered mysteriously to every person, which does not excuse me from making Him known in witnessing His Gospel, but which does place me humbly before every person as a servant of the God who wants us both to be brothers/brother-and-sister in Him. I want to understand persons who are called to Him even if they don’t realize it. I know grace makes a difference in their lives, their stories, their cultures, and the history and traditions of their peoples with all their human richness and brokenness and suffering.

That is all I know.

If it seems like “a lot,” it is important to remember that I can’t take credit for any of this knowledge. None of it constitutes an “achievement” of my own. All is drawn from the free gift of faith

All I can “own” as coming from myself is my constant failure to see all of reality and every person with these “eyes of faith” that have been given to me. Too often I would rather hide in the false comfort of the Pharisee who thanks-God-that-he-is-not-like-the-rest-of-men (and who, even in this narrow self-assessment, vastly overestimates himself). Too often I would rather place my trust in my own self-coherence as a “member-of-the-tribe-of-Truth,” a partisan of the right-interpretation-of-history—the right “ism”—who can pour out contempt on the incompleteness and flaws of other views (and other people who hold them). But none of these attitudes bear any fruit. They lead only to delusions, or worse.

We would like to call ourselves courageous. But is it really “courageous” to just fight for a “Christian worldview” against other more-or-less decadent worldviews, with the aim of “winning” what is ultimately a worldly victory for our own (usually only partially perceived and so often practically-compromised) view of “Christian values”? In a world of sword fights, the Christian—often with the best of intentions—takes up whatever sword is at hand in order to fight for the truth, without realizing that they have placed their trust in the same weapon as their opponents. “Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” How quickly does the fight distract us from the real demands of charity, respect for the human person’s dignity, humility, simplicity, and joy? How soon does it lead us away from justice, into detractions and calumnies against our opponents (because we have reduced them to monsters who can be condemned without reservations)? Ultimately, are we even willing to sacrifice truth itself “for the sake of the cause” and descend into craftiness and guile and outright lies?

I have fallen into these traps many times over the years, so I do not intend to judge anyone. Moreover, in this world, danger sometimes looms imminent, threatening to destroy us or those we love, and we are compelled to fight in defense against it. In specific instances of perceived dangers, people must follow their consciences. Is it possible, however, that too often we are led not so much by conscience or the concrete judgment of the virtue of prudence but rather by the allurement of the idolatry of “success” that is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society?

Let us not forget that courage above all has to do with the willingness to endure suffering; we must ask the Lord for the grace to endure much that is burdensome in the living of our faith in front of other persons—without condemning them, dehumanizing them, hating them, perpetrating violence against them. I have sinned so many times in this way: Lord have mercy on me, on all of us, on the whole world.

The vocation of living the faith, of following Jesus, begins with allowing ourselves to see reality with the eyes of faith, to see the other person as loved by Jesus, to see Jesus identifying Himself with others in their suffering, their needs, their hunger and thirst for food and drink, for companionship and healing, for love.

What do we really know about them, about how to even begin to care for them? How will we know them, how will we know their specific, concrete needs, without listening to them, accompanying them, and also being open to receive from their gifts that can touch our own poverty, and above all being willing to co-suffer with them, being vulnerable—in the measure God asks of us—to the awful abysses of their suffering?

Such living may well lead us to “make mistakes.” But mistakes will happen no matter how we live. We are not yet perfect; indeed we are far from it. We desire perfection, we are called to perfection, we beg for the grace, we journey toward, we strive to grow into the perfection of Christ who has redeemed us. But we do not have the power to make ourselves perfect according to the Father’s wisdom and love, which are beyond any “measure” we comprehend or possess within ourselves, and can only be realized through the grace of a living relationship with Him. We must not trust in our own perceived sense of having some sort of perfect coherence in our own self-justified goodness. We are all sinners. We must trust in the mercy of God, in His greater wisdom and love, and pray for the grace to adhere to Him, love Him, and do His will each day by living in relationship with Jesus Christ, who is present in our lives now by the working of the Holy Spirit in the real Catholic Church to which our lives have been entrusted now. This is not some Church of the idealized past or of the idealized future (which are ultimately just the products of our own imagination), but the Church right now, which links us to the Apostles and Jesus who said, “I am with you all days….”

What matters is that we stay with Jesus, follow Him, take “risks” for Him—risks to our comfort, our ego, our illusory sense of “safety.” And it is possible to live this way without “giving up” a single iota of the truth of our faith. On the contrary, this is the path by which our faith becomes “flesh,” takes on the real vitality of evangelization, begins to transform the world (and ourselves).

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m afraid of these risks involved in the vocation of living my faith, of following Jesus. We need to beg Him for the grace to overcome this fear, to grow in courage and confidence by trusting in Him.

Please forgive me for the presumption of my own words, which can’t help falling short of what I hope to say. I have no commission to preach. I claim no great knowledge. I am only a poor brother who wants to speak what is in his heart, hoping that he will be heard with mercy, and offering it to the God who loves us all.