“After trying out several churches over the last few months, I realized that none of them could work for me because you need faith to go to church.”
“Do you want faith?”
After several seconds of silence, she replied, “No, I’m doing fine without it.”
A good friend related this conversation with a mutual friend of us both during a recent chat on the telephone. Although it’s been over three weeks since that talk, my mind revisits the words of my two friends time and time again.
“Do you want faith?”
“No, I’m doing fine without it...”
Shortly after I converted to Catholicism, I memorized St. Paul’s definition of faith: A straightforward, elegant interpretation of the ineffable:
Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen.
But the apostle’s definition of faith is circumscribed, isn’t it? Had those words been used in the conversation between my two friends, the one who claimed that she was ‘fine’ without faith could no more understand them than if they had been uttered in Urdu or Swahili.
I understand my areleligious friend. For much of my life, I lived, worked and prospered in her land, convinced that zealous Christians like me were throwbacks to a less enlightened time.
Until I could no longer. To friends, colleagues and business associates, my conversion to Catholicism looked hasty, even precipitous. But in fact, the way back to God began the very day I walked away, I just did not know it. I suspect this is so for my friend who claims not to be searching, while all the while yearning for what cannot be named.
All of which impels me to look back in my life and ask the question for the millionth time, “How did I get to this place where I know the truth?” Where I can recognize as Truth these words of Pope Leo the Great:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, born true man without ever ceasing to me true God, began in his person a new creature and by the manner of his birth gave man a spiritual origin. What mind can grasp this mystery, what tongue can fittingly recount this gift of love?
Mystery and unmerited gift to be sure, but only recently have I appreciated the reciprocal nature of this gift of faith. While at the Vigil Mass this last weekend, I heard a homily from a priest whose words never fail to illuminate.
Fr. Chris Kanowitz laughed as he began his sermon. “I’m nervous because the homily I prepared has totally left me my mind! It’s gone.” After a pause, the young priest smiled back at his chuckling parishioners and began to speak.
The Gospel in this last Sunday of ordinary time was that plea by the Leper: “If you wish, you can make me clean...and Christ’s merciful reply, “I do will it. Be made clean.” Fitting as we begin these forty days, ‘if you wish, you can make me clean.’
But, the priest insisted, there’s more here. Consider what the lives of Jewish lepers were in ancient Rome and Israel: Outcasts, they were prohibited from all acts of temple worship, even the annual acts of atonement. They had no chance for absolution. Instead of asking for healing, the leper begs to be made clean.
“What a risk!”, delared Fr. Chris. Is it possible to imagine the courage of this man as we look back from our 21st century lens? To a culture where everyone believed illness and poverty to be the fault of the sick and weak?
But I can. I get it...or at least close. Those first gut-wrenching prayers on my knees are as memorable as if it were yesterday. And for the very first time, I see reciprocity in this most precious gift of faith. "Help me!"
Indeed you love truth in the heart,
Then in the secret of my heart, teach me wisdom.
Purify me and then I shall be clean,
Oh wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.