What can Catholics do who are struggling with their faith but have a strong desire to believe?
by Father Gregory Haman
Father Gregory Haman
This is a real issue for a lot of people. Without a doubt, it always has been an issue, but today our culture – sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly – discourages faith. Science is touted as faith’s replacement.
At the same time, life itself brings hard questions. Even if we have never suffered much ourselves or helped people through suffering, we still see it on TV and we know it’s there. We ask, “Why?” “Is God not listening?” “Can I trust God if he doesn’t seem to be helping?” and we can get caught spending too much time in our thoughts and not looking at the world around us.
The problem is not that there aren’t answers. Yes, God seems elusive at times, but we also believe that God is the most knowable thing in himself. That is not to say God is the easiest thing for us to know, we whose minds are often cloudy and distracted. Yet the Scriptures tell us that we can see God’s fingerprints in the world we study.
“Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Things that bring us awe inspire us to learn how they came to be, and this search will lead us to what could not have been created by anything else.
In this vein, St. Thomas Aquinas describes certain “proofs” of God’s existence. Granted, these are not “proofs” in the usual sense of the word. When we typically “prove” something we rely on experiments that can be repeated and whose results can be measured. Instead Aquinas’ proofs rely on our mind’s ability to recognize what is logical or illogical. It is illogical to believe that time (or anything that’s governed by time) could have always existed, or could have begun without something else making it exist. There must be one thing that is not under the normal laws of space and time, but which instead makes those laws. That “thing” is God.
Yet, these mental exercises don’t make us feel better if we still don’t have real faith. Faith compels us to surrender to the One who is unseen. So how do we practice faith? To get practical, I will offer some good ideas from JRR Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings. He gave advice for what he calls “sagging faith” in a letter to his son, Michael. (Another nice commentary on this letter can be found on the website, www.truemyths.org.)
First, Tolkien gives his son – who had been feeling mildly depressed – encouragement by reminding him that this is a “universal human malady.” Everyone struggles to find meaning and purpose at times, and that has direct effects on the intensity of our faith. Don’t forget in the tough times what God may have done for you before.
Secondly, Tolkien warns him against looking too much at the examples of other Christians. Sometimes Christians – even Christian leaders – demonstrate great shortcomings and can make us question if anyone’s faith is real. At other times, we might think that faith comes easier to everyone else, and our struggle is quite unique. Yet faith isn’t automatic in anyone; everyone has a certain fogginess. Heaven is described as seeing the face of God, and no one on earth is in heaven yet. Resist becoming cynical either toward others or yourself and your road will be smoother.
Tolkien also recommends that his son make an act of faith. Faith is ultimately a choice. This can seem counter-intuitive because we expect faith to elicit a feeling or an easy confidence that God will make everything fine, but that is in fact not faith. Faith is trusting in God and following his instruction, even when he seems distant and it does not feel good.
Lastly, Tolkien encourages his son to stay close to Christ, especially in the Mass. “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion,” he writes. Keep drawing close to Christ in Holy Communion, and make the Apostle Thomas’ words your own prayer, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) whenever you are walking down the communion line. You’re choosing to believe here, even though you don’t understand and perhaps feel nothing. That’s okay for now. Do what you can.
In the end, what is faith? The Letter to the Hebrews says it is, “the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). It is nothing you can pack into a box and keep nicely. There is always something elusive about it, because it is a connection with God, and God will always be somewhat elusive, somewhat beyond us. But he will always stretch us and keep us moving.
Father Gregory Haman serves as parochial vicar at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Grand Forks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to email@example.com with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.