In the previous Of Many Things column (4/24), Father Jim McDermott remarked how Easter, after the extended observance of Lent, can seem to come and go with barely any impact on believers. Because it demands more of us, Lent seems to draw our attention more dramatically. I have a different take on the seasons. It seems to me that the seven weeks the liturgical year assigns to the Easter season, culminating in the feast of Pentecost, imply that the work of the feast, like that of Lent, is not done in a single day. On Easter Sunday our faith, like the disciples’, has only just begun to grow. If Lent purges us of sin, then week by week the Easter season elicits faith from our hearts. Like doubting Thomas, the hesitant Peter and the grieving Mary, we all need to grow in faith in Jesus and the power of his resurrection. The weeks of Easter are intended to foster that Easter faith.
Sometimes, however, I wonder whether in the contemporary church the insistence on truth has dulled our sense of faith as a personal engagement with the mystery of God. Faced with moral and religious relativism, we make appeals to the truth of the faith to bolster church teaching in the hearts of wavering Catholics and to challenge an unbelieving world. There is a rightness in these appeals. In the person of Jesus and the pattern of his life, the truth of human existence has been revealed. He is the truth for which people yearn, and cradle Catholics, as much as anyone, need to be reminded of the light he bestows on our existence before God. The Catholic tradition, moreover, has always affirmed the compatibility of faith and reason. Augustine and Anselm regarded theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Aquinas taught that the existence and nature of God (the divine wisdom and goodness, for example) could be known by natural reason. Yet too much insistence on the reasonableness of the faith may obscure its riskiness and uncertainty.
St. Paul contrasted knowing by faith with knowing by sight (2 Cor 5:7). The Letter to the Hebrews defined faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”(11:1). In St. John’s Gospel (20:29), Jesus blesses “those who have not seen and yet believe.” C. S. Lewis, in his science fiction novel Perelandra, captured the venture of faith in an oceanic metaphor. At sunset the planet’s inhabitants had to leave dry land and throw themselves into the sea. There in the darkness they had to trust themselves to unseen forces to keep them alive till morning’s light. So in faith we place ourselves in God’s hands, not knowing where he will lead us. We can be sure only that God will change our lives. Holding to the truth, by contrast, can be like clinging to Perelandra’s rocks rather than abandoning ourselves to the sea. Adhering to a system of truths can hinder us from an encounter with God that shatters the narrow boundaries of self and opens us to the seas of transcendence.
Acknowledging the limits of the intellect, even in the service of faith, Karl Rahner prayed: “Knowledge seems to me a pain-killing drug that I have to take repeatedly against the boredom and desolation of my heart.... All it can give me is words and concepts, which perform the middleman’s service of expressing and interpreting reality to me but can never still my heart’s craving for the reality itself.... Truly, my God, mere knowing is nothing. All it can give is the sad realization of its own inadequacy” (Encounters With Silence).
The desire for certainty in the form of truth statements often manifests our unwillingness to accept the mystery intrinsic to faith. It yields not just spiritual dissatisfaction, but corruption of mind and weakening of spirit. Intellectually it can give rise to fundamentalism, thought-policing based on abbreviated catechetical formulas, depreciation of theology and misconstrual of tradition.
Spiritually, a misplaced preoccupation with truth tends to infantilize its victims. It inhibits religious growth and is threatened by growth in others. It narrows the religious affections and becomes fixated instead on talismans of orthodoxy. In prayer, it is comfortable only with rote formulas. It can puff people up with spiritual pride at being the faithful party in the church. It is frightened at the free movement of the Spirit and recoils at the surprises of grace.
When we place our trust in Christ and follow him, we can be sure there will be surprises ahead. As we move toward Pentecost, the liturgical cycle should lead us to a stronger, more venturesome faith. Like Peter, we should be able to say, “Lord, you know I love you.” If our faith has matured these seven weeks, we will hear the Lord say, “Follow me,” and, like Peter, we too may “be led where [we] do not want to go” (John 21:18).