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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

That Nagging Feeling...

We all know it... that feeling like we are about to get squashed like a bug.
Yes, we are sure, there is an imaginary giant whose foot is positioned right above our heads.
Sure, some call him "deadline." Others call him "meeting." We just know, time is ticking before we're flattened.

Stress is a killer... if you grew up watching Anastasia, you'll probably never forget Bartok's clarification on that point.

Whether it is a deadline for work, or a paper, or a project, or even just starting your research for a paper or project, or getting the emails and conversations going that are necessary for your work to get done... these things can loom over you and haunt you. Moreover, not only are we subject to these forms of stress, but we have to add all those nice other daily anxieties that come in the form of not-dying-on-the-way-to-work, remembering-to-eat-during-the-day, putting-gas-in-the-car, cleaning-clothes-so-you-can-wear-clothes, buying-groceries-so-you-can-eat, etc... Then, if you are Christian or someone who takes time to mull over the interior life and your state of charity at any given point (which is probably fluctuating based on the stupidity and inconvenience of those around you), you can add that nice level of self-awareness that constantly rings in the back of your mind, "you aren't really trying very hard to be good."


At this stage, why don't we just throw in the towel? Are we getting things accomplished? Barely. Are we doing them well? That clearly depends on your definition... and then we wake up realizing that we have to relativize everything, including our work, because we live in a society that won't give up parameters (other than hired/verbal abuse/fired).

So, is it really any surprise when we take time to pray or sit in Mass and find ourselves analyzing our productivity from the past day/week, or drawing up our next task list, or recalling those six "little items of business" we keep putting off because we don't get home before the post office, hair places, banks, etc.. close (because clearly, 9-5 works for everyone)? But hey, let's add some anxiety and guilt into the mix for not praying well, or not paying attention.


Now we feel... well, at least, I feel completely overwhelmed. How they heck are we supposed to "do this" ("this" would mean life)? It was one thing growing up with the pressure of "getting As and Bs"... maybe we had the added pressure of preforming well in sports... but really, did anyone prep us for paying bills on a cell phone on the way to a meeting? Nope!

So, turns out, I was at Mass recently and the priest gave a homily on trust. I have a feeling it was coupled with one of our recent accounts of the Apostles right after the Resurrection. There they were, just trying to get some fish for dinner, and Jesus (now Risen), turns up to show them not only that he is alive (alleluia!), but that he is hungry. That's a real man for you.

So, my thoughts move very quickly from trust to faith.


What on earth do we really mean when we talk about faith, may I ask?
Or should I say, what in Heaven do we mean?

Of course, we can quote "faith the size of a mustard seed," and all of those lovely verses of Scripture that are catch phrases for people who are trying to get you to do something. But there is a whole lot more involved. There is a whole lot more at stake.

Consider, where does faith begin?

Is it something in man? Do we create faith by professing a belief? Do I have faith because I say, "I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord"?

Does faith come to us? Is it a gift? The Apostles dramatically exclaim in Luke 17, "Lord, increase our faith!" This is after Jesus talks about temptation to sin. So clearly, the Apostles understand faith as something that is given to them, and they understand its gravity in relation to sin and death.

Have patience because I think this account is so applicable (Mark 9:14-29):

When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes arguing with them. Immediately on seeing him, the whole crowd was utterly amazed. They ran up to him and greeted him.
He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”
Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit. Wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so.”
He said to them in reply, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me.”
They brought the boy to him. And when he saw him, the spirit immediately threw the boy into convulsions. As he fell to the ground, he began to roll around and foam at the mouth.
Then he questioned his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
He replied, “Since childhood. It has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus said to him, “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.”
Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”
Jesus, on seeing a crowd rapidly gathering, rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him and never enter him again!”
Shouting and throwing the boy into convulsions, it came out. He became like a corpse, which caused many to say, “He is dead!”
But Jesus took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up.
When he entered the house, his disciples asked him in private, “Why could we not drive it out?” He said to them, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”

Now, there are many elements in this that are worthy of reflection, but let us consider just two.
First, the prayer of the man in response to Christ's statement, "Everything is possible to one who has faith."
He says, "I do believe, help my unbelief!"

To me, this is powerful. Faith is understood here as something that can be increased, that can come in greater abundance. Clearly Christ also implied that when he discussed faith as a mustard seed, which is so small.

Secondly, Jesus tells the disciples that prayer is vital in relation to evil, or the enemy. This is an important interplay with faith, because it seems to me that the man's cry is certainly a prayer "help my unbelief!"

I see these as directly related; we call upon the Lord, we cry out and request that we are given the gift of faith, and this is because we are instructed that through faith, everything is possible.

Simple enough is the Catechism's instruction on faith: "By his Revelation, 'the invisible God, from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into his own company.' The adequate response to this invitation is faith" (CCC, 142). 

Faith is the adequate response to the invitation. So no, not a reply card indicating that you will be attending. Not a thank you card asserting that you received the call. No, it is an entrustment. It requires an assertion of the reception that includes an implicit and explicit giving-back. So it requires our action. Yet, it hinges on the gift. 

Catechism paragraph 143 states, "By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, 'the obedience of faith.'"

Aha! So, faith is a response, and obedience (or active trusting), and a gift. Hm. 

Last Catechism reference - paragraph 153: "When St. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus declared to him that this revelation did not come 'from flesh and blood', but from 'my Father who is in heaven'.  Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. 'Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and 'makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.'"

This paragraph is followed by a section that is called "Faith is a Human Act," just to clarify the both-and element. 

However, there is something elementary to be gleaned here. 

How much, I beg you to consider, of our day-in-day-out insanity do we infuse with the above?

How much of our craziness is surrendered? How much is placed in obedience? How much do we look at with the eyes of trust in God?

For those discerning a next step, be that a job, a living situation, a vocation (marriage, religious life, ordination), etc...this is an especially pertinent question. 

Faith, being a gift, is something to be asked for. Ask for it! 

But simultaneously, as you ask for you, you must believe it! You must believe that faith will increase, and you must believe in the One of whom you are asking the grace.

This is where I think we all lose sight of the foundations that hold faith in place. That, in case there is any question, would be God, the Holy Trinity, especially revealed by Christ. Yes, we have to recall that it is the One who created us that is the One whom we now go before with our lives.

The funny thing is, I know for myself and many whom I love, we forget a few important points. 
We forget:
a) That God is good. That is, um, how do we say it... absolutely necessary if we have any hope in actually having faith in him. Yes?
b) That God loves us. I will comment below.
c) That God intended us. This means that he created us purposefully, freely, and in love. I mean really, think about that one. You are not (no matter how you were conceived, because let's be honest, there are many variables in the circumstances) a random person. You are not someone who just happened to be a spark of life in the universe. If you believe that, I could understand not having a lot of faith, or hope. 
d) That God always has a plan, and that we are part of it. Again, tough to really grasp, but there is a "cosmic" plan, at least as far as God has revealed in and through Salvation History (Sacred Scripture and Tradition culminating in the revelation of Christ that God "so loved the world" etc...), and there is our personal plan. This is where I think people get tripped up. It's not predestination (other than the element of the invitation to live with him forever through the Sacraments, the Church, the life of holiness, etc...) and it's not something that we often notice or can see. 

However, not only do we need to be reminded of these important truths, but we need to accept them and integrate them. If we really believed that God has a plan for us that bears both joy and sorrow, but will inevitably lead us to Heaven if we consistently strive to be converted and to live as he has asked us to, in charity and truth, than... wouldn't that alleviate some of this crazy stress?

Please don't misunderstand me. Not an advocate for the non-active lifestyle. Passive gets you nowhere except places you don't want to be. No, God gives us gifts (along with faith) that we are called to use (precisely along with our faith) for the good of the Church, others and ourselves. So active. But active-in-trust. Active-in-faith.

Best example that comes to mind, besides Christ, of course, is Our Lady. The woman was not seemingly "doing" a whole lot to get herself noticed or to be someone of any "greatness" as far as the world was concerned. However, her faith was so absolutely permeating her life and her person, that it allowed for the Son of God to be Incarnate in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit! Now, I know she had an exceptional grace, being literally full of grace because of her sinlessness (from conception), but that doesn't mean that we cannot understand her life as a fundamental model for how we allow the gift of faith to live within us and to bear life in our world. 

We don't exactly see "miracles" happening everyday, although the number of people who continue to be canonized makes it hard not to acknowledge that miraculous healings are still happening, but even beyond that...we really ought to ponder on Christ's words in the passage from Mark, "O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?"

I know this is a weak analogy, but think about how you feel when you know precisely how to fix something, but the stubborn person(s) who is working on the project will not allow you to help or give any instruction. Even when you do give advice, they have their ears turned off. Typically, they sense that you probably can fix it. But they are determined to do it themselves. And you have to let them. Whether they learn a lesson or get no where, you can't step on their toes and make them do as you wish (although I know we all wish sometimes that we had the power to just make them do as we wish). 

But consider that in relation to Christ's cry! He wants to heal us! He desires that we have the openness of heart, the willingness of spirit, to be taught by him, to learn from him! "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves" (Matthew 11:29). It's so easy! But not when we are proud (which we so are!). Not when we don't want to be taught, don't want to be criticized, don't want to suffer rebukes or rejections. It is not fun being told that we are so little and so meek. Not everyone, in fact, many of us, are just not interested in serving a King. Especially one who we don't always understand or perceive.

There is is, my friends, there is is. The act of faith. That we could say with Peter, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). We can add, "Lord, you are the Way to Eternal Life. The Truth of Eternal Life. You are for us Eternal Life, through the revelation you have given us, through the Church, through the Sacraments, through the gifts of grace, and of course, in the Eucharist."

Is it that simple? Jesus has the words of eternal life (he is the Word) - do we receive that truth? Do we accept it? Do we profess it? Do we acknowledge it in the daily choices and struggles and deadlines and challenges that we face? Do we live in obedience? Do we chose to worship our King? Do we pray for faith?

Our lives are not going to get less stressful, let's just be honest about that. The daily demands and expectations and responsibilities do not go away. The choice before us, however, is how we handle them. Do we understand the words of Isaiah: "O LORD, you mete out peace to us, for it is you who have accomplished all we have done" (26:12).

Let us pray, every day, and especially when we find ourselves overwhelmed and oppressed by that giant whose foot is still lingering over our heads, that we have greater faith. No, that we have great faith! That the Lord will not find us a faithless generation, but one who believes that we will see God's glory in our lives.