‘What one honestly can believe’

Towards the end of her memoir Images and Shadows, the Anglo-American writer Iris Origo, who married an Italian count and spent most of her life in the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany, attempts to sum up her religious outlook:

About more orthodox beliefs, I am very hesitant to write, for fear of saying a little more or less than is true […] Someone to whom I once spoke about these matters suggested that instead of nourishing a sense of guilt for what one cannot comprehend or fully accept it would be better to start by dwelling upon what one honestly can believe.

I find this advice very reassuring, as I think one of my problems is that I often try to believe too much, too soon. If I experience an inkling of renascent belief, I tend to stretch it out into a full-blown ‘return’ to faith, straining to convince myself that all my doubts and reservations have somehow vanished into thin air. I’m hobbled by an ‘all or nothing’ approach, a sense that I have to be one thing or the other, and the expectation that if and when I ‘return’ it will be all at once and overnight. I should have realised by now that, after more than twenty years away from regular religious practice, this is unlikely to happen – or if it does, that it will probably be (as it has been at times in the past) synthetic and short-lived.

Origo’s advice, or rather the advice she received, suggests a different perspective, and an alternative approach to the growth of faith. It encourages me to value for themselves the tentative rivulets of conviction that well up in me from time to time, and not to try too hard to turn them into a rushing torrent of faith. Perhaps that will come with time, and I need to have more patience.

I’ll attempt to express more fully my current tentative convictions, as well as the things in which I find it difficult to believe, in another post. For now, suffice it to say that the things in which I ‘honestly can believe’ would include a sense of the underlying mystery and purposefulness of life, the wonder of creation, the beauty and ‘rightness’ of the core Gospel message, together with a deep attraction to Catholic sacrament and ritual. These things have persisted, more or less, through two decades of various kinds of secular ‘faith’.

Perhaps I should take Iris Origo’s advice and dwell on these things more, allowing them more space in my crowded secular life. As she writes elsewhere, the ‘unreasonable hope’ of faith is ‘always latent: one should perhaps open the door to it more often.’


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