The other day I had one of those flashes of insight which, at the time, feel like they change everything, but afterwards are very hard to write about without making them sound bland or ‘so what’-ish.
It occurred to me that, for the last few years or so, I’ve seen my spiritual or philosophical journey as leading towards a turning point, some time in the future, when I would be able say that I am now, once again, a believer. But what if that moment never comes? What if I’m looking at this in entirely the wrong way, seeing faith as something yet to be, something that I haven’t yet gained or achieved? What if, in fact, I already have faith, but maybe not enough of it to think of myself as a believer?
In recent months I’ve come to see that what I describe as my ‘attraction to’ or ‘interest in’ Christian faith is, actually, a kind of faith in itself. I’ve come to imagine my mind as a field or space in which there are these pockets of ‘faith’– a sense of ultimate order and purpose in the universe, a belief that the Gospels are the best guide to life, a love of Catholic ritual – scattered about the place. Meanwhile, the rest of this field is dotted with other kinds of beliefs and ideas, some of which contradict or are in tension with the Catholic Christian ones. I imagined that, eventually, the Christian elements in my thinking would increase and expand until they ‘took over’ the entire field, squeezing out or overcoming the unbelieving bits – to the point where I could describe my mind, heart or whatever as unequivocally ‘Christian’.
But, as I say, what if that moment fails to arrive, or if it’s actually unrealistic to expect that it will ever come? What if there are always destined to be believing and non-believing elements in my thinking and feeling? What if this mental field of diverse and sometimes contending elements is not a stage on the way to faith, but actually the normal condition of faith?
Have I been seeking a condition of certainty, or perhaps sufficient near-certainty, that can never be attained? Perhaps I have been wrong to imagine faith as something in the future, that I will one day possess, rather than as something that I already have, albeit in imperfect form. But then, isn’t everyone’s faith always imperfect, incomplete, in process? Isn’t that in the nature, certainly of Christian faith?
I can see, also, that there’s a kind of comfort in the mindset that sees faith as something that will arrive in the future, something that I am still struggling to attain. Seeing one’s life as a journey towards truth, and oneself as an eternal spiritual seeker, has its attractions and provides a certain kind of reassuring identity, a way of making sense of oneself – but part of its attraction is that it lets one off the hook of commitment, of getting on with living out what one believes. Spending one’s life travelling, but never arriving, is extremely tempting. I can see, on reflection, that it’s how I’ve spent much of my own life.
I think this is what Thomas Merton was getting at, in the quotation I included in this post, when he wrote that ‘anyone who sees the credibility of the Catholic faith and feels at some time or other a definite desire to embrace it, has already received sufficient grace to do so’. The fact that I sometimes pray, occasionally go to Mass, find myself in accord with Catholic thinking in many ways, may mean, not that I might have faith at some point in the future, but that I already have faith now. These things that I think, feel, say, do are real, not the foreshadowing of faith but the component parts of faith itself.
And the fact that ‘doubts’ persist which seem to challenge the very foundations of that embryonic faith – well, maybe they will always be there, as they are for almost every other believer, and maybe what I describe as my ‘faith’ will always be in contention, for as long as I live, with what I call my ‘doubts’. What if, again, I’m looking at this the wrong way? Didn’t Newman say that a hundred difficulties don’t make a doubt? To elevate my ‘problems’ with faith into something called ‘doubt’ and to erect it as a barrier to faith, or as an unexploded mine that, when stepped on, will always bring my faith crashing down – maybe this is just another unhelpful mental habit. Perhaps I should get used to the fact that the Catholic Christian tendencies in my thinking are always going to be in tension with the secular, rational, liberal elements in my make-up.
Yet again, maybe this, too, is seeing things in entirely the wrong way, as if these different components of my thinking were somehow completely separate from each other – as if my mind were some neutral field in which these distinct objects struggle against each other. But they are all part of me – it’s the same person , the same mind, the same soul, doing the Catholic thinking and feeling as does the secular thinking and feeling. I don’t have a Christian self and a secular self, though that is often how I’ve constructed things in my head – there’s just me, thinking and feeling these different things.
It was a big step forward, some time ago, when I realised that coming back to belief wouldn’t mean, as I had imagined it would, jettisoning everything I’d thought and felt in the decades I’ve been away from faith. And on the one occasion that I consulted a priest, a few years back, it was heartening to hear him confirm that, on my return to faith, I would need to bring with me everything that I’d thought and felt and been in the interim, and that this could only enrich my faith. So becoming a believer again would be about effecting a reconciliation, an accommodation, a negotiated settlement, between the different things that were important to me – rather than about swapping one set of mental furniture for another.
I suppose where all of this might fall down is in the realisation that having faith is, ultimately, a public act – of being able to say, if only to oneself, ‘yes, I am a believer’. When will I have ‘enough’ faith to feel comfortable making that kind of declaration? (And is seeing faith as a ‘quantity’ that you can have more or less of yet another unhelpful metaphor?) It’s more difficult for those who are trying to decide whether to convert to a particular faith: for example, whether to become a Catholic. As I recall from my own conversion many years ago, it can be incredibly difficult to determine whether your faith has reached a point where you can make that kind of public commitment. But I have the advantage that I already am a Catholic, having never publicly renounced my affiliation, despite having drifted far away from it in practice. Soon after my conversion, I remember telling my parish priest that often I didn’t ‘feel’ very Catholic. He reminded me (a bit snappily, as I recall) that feelings had very little to do with it: whatever you feel, you are Catholic. I liked that realist, objectivist strain in Catholic thinking, and still do.
What I’m suggesting here, lest there be any mistake, is a long way from the notion that, in order to have faith, you just have to decide that you already do. In my far-off teenage years, when I hung around in charismatic house church circles, this strain of thinking was often in evidence when people talked about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t feel anything, they would say, you just need to believe that something has happened, and everything else will follow. That way lies dangerous self-deception.
No, what I’m talking about here is not some kind of ‘pretending’ to believe, but a different way of looking at how I already think and feel: seeing it, not as the prelude to faith, but as a kind of faith in its own right. It’s the parable of the mustard seed, in essence, and the heartfelt cry of the father of the possessed boy in Mark’s Gospel, and indeed of most thoughtful Christians down the ages: ‘Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief’.
Update: Sunday 17 July
Today’s Gospel at Mass is the parable of the good wheat and bad wheat, and the parable of the mustard seed, from Matthew 13. Coincidence?