Why Is My Faith So Fragile?

despair, sadness, mourn, frustration, fear

despair, sadness, mourn, frustration

Why do we expect to find truth, goodness, and love, in a Judas before we know that he is a Judas? When we do not find what we expect, why are we so angrily disappointed? The recent troubles within the Church of two friends has made me think about a problem we all surely have faced, and probably still face: why is my faith so fragile? Why do I get disheartened when those who profess to follow God’s commandments, treat me poorly? Why do I sometimes think, because of others actions or words, “God is not in this place, I must look elsewhere”?

When Jesus was in front of Judas at the Garden of Gethsemane, He said, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” When Jesus was subsequently betrayed and arrested, it was easy for the other apostles to see the difference in the two men. Sometimes our Judas is wearing a bishop’s mitre,  a clerical collar, or has taken part in the presentation of Mass as a lay person. Even though we are offered the Eucharist at these occasions, this presence of Jesus for comparison may not be as easily perceived as it was for the apostles.

We Are Just Like That

The incident at Gethsemane, and what follows, can be considered more than just something that had to happen for the fulfillment of Scripture. In common language, it is also an archetype, a model we can use to illustrate our behavior that is similar to that of the apostles. Carl Jung, along with Freud, was a founder of modern psychology. He used the word archetype to specifically identify “…inborn tendencies which shape the human behavior.” In this way, Jung also attempted to connect science with his own spirituality. He called the archtype, psychoid. That term recognized a non-material reality that interacts with the material brain.

Whether we call them archtypes, inclinations, or our weakness for sinful temptations, those tendencies that make us human as we know ourselves today, came after the fall described in Genesis. “As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called ‘concupiscence’)” (CCC 418). When persons close to us in the Church give in to their human inclinations and openly deny good by doing bad things to us, we are also faced with a lack of support from those people for our efforts to remain faithful to God’s word.    

This effort by Jung is a rarity today in the public exposition of science in print and television. The usual tendency is to expand intellectual speculations about our origins, not with the purpose of curiosity, but to try and disprove the existence of God. Science can deduce by intellect, but the requirement to examine and prove, means that scientists must use tools. And tools only work in the physical realm.

I question the popular belief that the motive for modern scientific investigation is the search for answers as to how the physical universe works. Their seemingly honorable public image is challenged when a revered member like astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is often quoted but not publicly disagreed with by fellow scientists. Stephen Hawking proclaims,”What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.” “Which there isn’t” is, of course, a speculative assertion. Or, this gem of unintended self examination by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: “The idea that we are alone in the universe seems to me completely implausible and arrogant.” He was consciously referring to alien life-forms in the universe, but in his usual insolent style, has he not also stated a theological truth? Dawkins is not as revered as Hawking, but is presented on the same public stage.

Science also has its high priests. A purely material explanation for human behavior offers absolutely no justification for calling any act either good or bad. We are relegated to pure subjectivism, where the most powerful subjective judgement rules. This pressure to deny the existence of God, objective good, is a pressure on the Catholic family through the school age young.

We Tend to Want God

Catholicism clarifies the origin of the tendency to want God and His word :

Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man. (CCC 162)

Now, however, “we walk by faith, not by sight”; we perceive God as “in a mirror, dimly” and only “in part.” Even though enlightened by him in whom it believes, faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test. The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice, and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it. (CCC 164)

The betrayal of Jesus was a satisfaction of one person’s desires at the expense of another. That other, just happened to be the One that has given us our natural and revealed truths. The One most dangerous to betray, yet the One we also trespass upon when we trespass upon our neighbor. Only one person outwardly betrayed Jesus that night, yet Peter also succumbed and denied Him three times later on.

Attacks on Our Faith

We can easily see how our faith is disregarded by a secular population that seems to be growing quickly, fueled by the popular view that science is all-knowing. We read of U.S. governmental executive branch attacks on the Christian religion, and of Islamic terrorists beheading Christians. But, the strength of our personal belief is more directly attacked by those around us.

Our Catechism tells us, “Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith.” (CCC 166)  It is a link we feel is broken when we experience or hear of the priest scandal, or when a bishop ignores our anguish over the public promotion of abortion by a political parishioner. Even today, when we worry that Pope Francis may be leading us astray through his writing, as we read of public requests to withdraw his exortation Amoris Laetitia.

I see this chain of believers as a collection of links in a close pattern. Like chain mail armor worn by knights to protect them from various weapons in medieval times. Our chain mail started out with just a few links connected in a circle. This chain, when placed over the head, put Jesus at the heart position. It was later strengthened with the power of the Holy Spirit and carried intact throughout the known world. How lucky we are that our Church has a long history and many new links have been added since those days. As links have rusted and have fallen out of the cohesive whole, we are taught to learn the life of the most solid ones, the saints, in order to maintain the integrity of our link. Our link is our responsibility.

Most of us are familiar with Our Lady, but how many of us actually do pay attention to the other saints? The saints can become our teachers when we are unfortunate enough to experience the betrayal of persons we know. But, like a bad car accident, we never think a betrayal will happen to us. Just knowing the saints lives superficially is not enough, and you don’t have to be a saint to benefit from that kind of link.

The Example of Saint Francis de Sales

If we are troubled about problems within the Church today, either with one individual or several, we can relate to the social atmosphere when Francis de Sales was ordained in 1593. The great upheaval in the Catholic Church we know as the Protestant Reformation, began slowly in the 14th century with an awareness of problems within the Church. It then spread violently after 1517. A great scandal was caused by Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia, pope 1492-1503) who pursued his papacy too often more as a private business and a way to improve the fortune of his children, than as the office of the Vicar of Christ.

The Reformation finally split the Church into opposing factions that we live with to this day, thousands of smaller denominations that can’t seem to find anything to bind them back together except a general belief in Jesus Christ. You probably have encountered today, in print or in person, some of the problems or attitudes that initiated this split:

…earthly interests of various kinds were only too often the chief aim of many of the higher clergy. Pastoral solicitude, the specifically religious and ecclesiastical aim, fell largely into the background, notwithstanding various spirited and successful attempts to rectify the existing evils. Closely connected with the above were various abuses in the lives of the clergy and the people. In the Papal Curia political interests and a worldly life were often prominent. Many bishops and abbots (especially in countries where they were also territorial princes) bore themselves as secular rulers rather than as servants of the Church. (Catholic Encyclopedia)

St. Francis de Sales is a Doctor of the Church, and, coincidentally for me, a patron of writers. He put these events in perspective at his chaotic time in Church history:

Scandal, whether passive or taken, appears so thickly in the Scriptures that there is scarcely a chapter in which its marks are not seen. It would be pointing out daylight at high noon to take much pains to produce the passages. (The Catholic Controversy: A Defense of the Faith)

How Did This Catholic Maintain His Equilibrium?

The modern publisher of the above edition of his writings wrote after the Introduction:

He [de Sales] wrote them [these words] during a seemingly hopeless mission to win back to the Faith the 72,000 Calvinists in the Chablais (now eastern France). These people had heard just about nothing of the True Faith since the Church had been virtually obliterated in their area 60 years earlier by violent persecution and heavy fines for worshiping in the old religion (Catholicism)….when St. Francis arrived, only 27 persons out of the 72,000 were still Catholic, but after four years of his efforts, the figure was exactly reversed, there remaining only 27 Calvinists: 72,000 souls had returned to the true faith. It is one of the most remarkable conversion stories in all Catholic history.

In another writing, Introduction to the Devout Life, in the chapter called “Of Sensible Consolations,” we get a glimpse of the devotion of this man that provided him the strength to plow through tough times and carry many others with him:

This absolute resolution never to forsake God, nor to abandon His sweet love, serves as a counterpoise to our souls, to keep them in a holy equilibrium amidst the inequality of the vicissitudes of this life ; for as bees, surprised by a gale in the fields, take up little pebbles to help them to retain their balance in the air, and not be so easily carried away by the wind; so our soul, having by a firm resolution strongly embraced the precious love of God, continues constant in the midst of the inconstancy and vicissitudes of consolations and afflictions, whether spiritual or temporal, exterior or interior. (emphasis added)

He who has sugar in his mouth cannot say that his mouth is sweet, but that the sugar is sweet; so, although this spiritual sweetness is excellent, and though God, who gives it, is most good, yet it does not follow that he who receives it is good. Let us acknowledge ourselves to be as yet but little children who have need of milk, and that these sugar-plums are given us because our tender and feeble spirit has need of baits and allurements to entice us to the love of God. But afterwards, speaking generally and of ordinary cases, let us humbly accept of these graces and favours, and esteem them very highly, not so much on their own account, as because it is the hand of God which puts them into our hearts. (emphasis added)

Our Future

The most important thing we can do to have a sustained fruitful Catholic life for all, is the maintenance of our own link. How we do that is largely dependent upon how we perceive our purpose. If a steady progress towards fidelity to God’s word is our desire and understanding, then how others behave towards us will be seen as a conformity or a failure on their part. God is still present and His will is known.

The saint links can help us maintain our direction by understanding our weakness. When we study them, we see that their progress towards heaven was fueled by a strong desire to follow the path they knew was correct. These behaviors and attitudes were incorporated into their being completely. Those saints with a great ability to explain, offer to teach us what they have come to know. What we must do is glean from their writing the fundamental understandings that provided that strength and meaning.

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