They call it ‘faith’ and there is a good reason for that – in fact, two good reasons.
The first reason is that faith is a gift.
Faith is not something we purchase or secure or earn – no, it pure gift. And that means that it is given; not by us or by any other living creature, but by the Lord. It is His alone to give and He gives it to whom He wills, when He wills and to the degree He wills. Our job, having been given this precious gift, is to respond to it and to nurture it and to hold on to it and share it with others, until we can give it back to Him as certainty, when we see Him face to face.
The second reason is that faith and certainty are not the same thing – that is why it is called (and requires, as the name suggests) faith.
Problems begin when we become ‘certain’ about the faith we profess. Such certainly led to the Inquisition – many people were murdered in the certainty that this would save their souls. It led to the despicable treatment of many young unmarried mothers in the Irish ‘mothers and babies’ scandal – there, nuns made the young women “dance for their entertainment, like dancing monkeys”, as one of the women described it. And all the while, telling those women how sinful and evil they were, scarring them for life at the emotional level. I cannot help wondering – if an unmarried mother and such a nun were to each stand in judgement before the Lord, which soul would fare better.
In the present day, this certainty has also led to something very unpleasant – a self-centred belief in the unassailable ‘rightness’ of many who profess their Catholic faith loudly online. I have often seen such people write that “the dogma lives loudly within me”. I’m sure that is a wonderful experience for them and provides them with a great deal of certainty – but does it leave room for the mercy which is at the heart of the Gospel?
The Scribes and the Pharisees of the Gospel were also certain in a similar way – in fact, they protested their certainty in the Temple, thanking God that they were not like those others, those sinners.
Also in the present day, I note with some sadness that for many, the practice of the faith seems to be about the rubrics, the superficial, the part that is seen. That faith may appear visible on the surface, but seems to go no deeper than that.
And I see it, too, in the current drive in the United States to determine a ‘coherent approach’ to the reception of Communion. What troubles me about this is that it is clearly political in intent – it is not about faith – and it has one very specific aim in mind. Such single-minded approaches often fail, in my experience, because the foundation upon which they are built is not secure.
Pope Francis has spoken over and over about the ’culture of encounter’. This means we engage with others – especially those with whom our views are not shared or aligned – and we each listen to the other. The reason for this is to find the common ground, and then to determine a united way forward from that unified point. Encounter and certainty, then, are not the same at all.
Certainty, it seems to me, is often our way of telling ourselves – and others – that we are in the right place, doing the right thing, not open to challenge or dialogue because “we are right”. I’m not certain at all that this is accurate anywhere near as often as we might think.
But this belief has one other aspect to it – if we are convinced we are right, then it means all those with whom we disagree are wrong; they are in ‘the wrong place’. And this creates that sense of ‘us and them’ which has been at the root of so very many religious and social ills throughout the centuries. And when this sense of right and wrong is clothed in a religious certainty, it can become a very ugly and poisonous thing indeed. When nuns, vowed to proclaim the love of Christ to those in their care, instead beat and castigate and otherwise dehumanise terrified young women, something has gone very badly wrong. Certainty removed any possibility of encounter.
Encounter means we are open not only to the person, but to Christ in that person; our encounter seeks to see Him in them. And if done with His grace and a humble heart, then it is more likely that the other person will see Christ in us, too.
That divine grace is a funny thing. For some people, like Saul on the road to Damascus, it is all-transforming and instantaneous. But for most people, it is incremental. It begins lows and builds slowly and there will be obstacles and setbacks along the way; like anything worthwhile, we will need to seek it, work for it, hold tenaciously to it and recognise that at any moment we might lose it either partially or fully – but accepting, too, that even in this instance, there is always hope of recovery. Everything is grace and mercy. And grace and mercy are always there for us, for every single one of us.
Reading a lot and observing quietly, it often seems to me that the ‘certain’ approach sees things differently; whilst proclaim how right we are and – inversely, therefore – how wrong others are, we fail to acknowledge the way divine grace works in reality. If we are in any doubt, we need only look back at the history of the Church – how many of the greatest Saints were once the worst of sinners! And yet divine grace transformed them – usually gradually.
The danger is that if we perceive others to be ‘wrong’ or ‘sinful’ or ‘not Catholic’, then not only are we setting ourselves up as both judge and jury (always an exceptionally dangerous position for a Catholic to take), but we allow no hope for that person. And if, by our words or actions, we kill the sense of hope that lives within any other soul, we will be called to account for that one day.
The ‘certain’ approach bears one other poisonous fruit – it kills any sense of evangelisation stone dead. There is nothing so unattractive as a judgemental Catholic – being perceived as such will not draw souls to the Lord and to His Church. In fact, quite the opposite. We are not building up the Church – we are tearing it down.
If you have read anything much of what I have written here on this website, you might be surprised to learn that my Faith is my greatest struggle and my greatest challenge. It calls me to account constantly and keeps me in a very real fear of the Lord – not a servile fear, I hasten to add, but a fear of knowing that I, too, will one day be called to account for myself and my life; and looking back upon it, I see so very many failures which demand the divine justice. But at the same time, this is tempered by the knowledge that – as I mentioned above – ‘everything is grace and mercy’ and these are there for me, all the time.
I end this by hoping that the Lord, in His compassion, might take from every one of us any sense of certainty and ‘rightness’ about ourselves; and that He might replace these with the perception of our nothingness, our sinfulness, our weakness and our human frailty. And in seeing all these within ourselves, let us then recognise the same in every other soul – let this be the common ground we find with them, which allows a moment of authentic encounter. Then – and only then – will it be possible for us to move forward together.