Chapter Talk – 24thSunday – September 15, 2019, cycle-C
In our retreat with Fr. Michael Dodds, OP, our second conference was on ‘the hiddenness of God’. This hiddenness of God, the God who is unknowable leads, Fr. Michael said, to some people denying the very existence of God. What I was struck by in this conference was the connection Fr. Michael made between the hiddenness and unknowable dimension of God to ‘faith’. He quoted these amazing words from the American novelist, Flannery O’Connor:
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened… What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is a cross… You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty” (The Habit of Being, p.354).
Last week we heard many times from Sr. Barbara Green, OP, in her conferences on St. John’s gospel, that the only sin in this gospel is the ‘refusal to believe’. If we analyze the words of Flannery O’Connor she is not refusing to believe…we see her rather struggling with ‘doubts’, doubts that come unbidden…She describes it as a ‘torment’ and then writes that this intense and dark struggle is the ‘process by which faith is deepened’. Flannery O’Connor says we arrive at just enough certainty…this ‘certainty’, which is small as a mustard seed, but it is enough to continue to make our way…Faith, she says, is trust not certainty….and don’t expect faith to clear things up for you!!! How is this for toppling our ego! What, then, are we to lean on during these times of experienced absence and doubt?
‘I believe…help my unbelief’. Or, in another translation: ‘I do have faith. Help the little faith I have’ (Mk 9:25). ‘I believe…’ Each one of us is here because we do indeed believe and from our believing has come our ‘yes’ to God, to having God be the foundation of our lives…and we say our ‘yes’ each day even when we are feeling the absence of God, even when we are immersed in ‘doubt’. These opposites co-exist: the experience of presence and the experience of absence; moments of doubt and moments of faith. Is God acting in your life, in my life right now? Is God acting in the life of this community? Is God acting in the Church and in our world?
Fr. Michael said that “Merton believes that this hiddenness of God itself becomes part of our spirituality, our life of faith” (Conference #2, August 13, 2019). He then quotes Merton from New Seeds of Contemplation: “Faith does not simply account for the unknown, tag it with a theological tag and file it away in a safe place where we do not have to worry about it. This is a falsification of the whole idea of faith. On the contrary, faith incorporates the unknown into our everyday life in a living dynamic and actual manner. The unknown remains unknown. It is still a mystery, for it cannot cease to be one. The function of faith is not to reduce mystery to rational clarity, but to integrate the unknown and the known together in a living whole.” I sense that this is the interior space where we are called to be, both individually and as a community: our believing, our faith can never be reduced to ‘rational clarity’, nor can it bring us such ‘certainty’ that we are so secure about the future. Faith, even a tiny seed of faith, imparts the grace to live with uncertainty, to live into an unknown future. In silence, in contemplative prayer, we can sense this within and we are reminded that this is how Jesus lived, Jesus who so often whispers, ‘Do not be afraid.’
Remember, the sin is ‘refusal’ to believe…the sin is not to doubt, nor to struggle until we trust more than we did yesterday. ‘Believing’ is a verb, meaning it is active interiorly in our attitude or demeanor, and, as well, it is active in our lived life.
A final quote from Merton that we heard in this same conference of Fr. Michael: “Faith, then, is the only way of opening up the true depths of reality, even of our own reality. Until one yields oneself to God in the consent of total belief, one must inevitably remain a stranger to oneself, an exile from oneself, because one is excluded from the most meaningful depths of one’s own being: those which remain obscure and unknown because they are too deep to be attained by reason” (New Seeds of Contemplation). ‘Too deep to be attained by reason’ but not by our believing, not by our faith, which grants us access to this ineffable mystery of our God and our own depths of being!