Faith, by Father Richard Frederick Clarke, SJ

detail of a tympanum painting, date and artist unknown; Saint Luke Catholic Church, Danville, Ohio; photographed on 2 April 2016 by Nheyob; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsWhat is Faith?

Faith is that disposition of our minds which makes us ready to accept all that God has revealed simply because He has revealed it. It is an assent to that which comes to us with God’s authority because it comes with His authority, and not because in itself it commends itself to our reason. It is quite satisfied that God has said that this or that is true, and it gives its adherence to what He has said without any further question. It thus earns the benediction of those “who have not seen but have believed.” (John 20:29) Have I this simple, unquestioning faith?

Faith is never opposed to reason. It is above and beyond reason, but never contrary to it. What God has spoken can never be in contradiction with what our reason tells us is true. It may contradict our ordinary experience, as in the case of miracles; it may seem to set aside the testimony of our senses, as in the case of the Blessed Eucharist; it may require our acceptance of what is beyond the power of reason to grasp, as the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity; but it never requires us to believe in an absurdity. Thank God for your faith in the Catholic religion, since all others are ultimately in contradiction with reason.

Yet faith requires us to believe many things that are difficult of belief, and that we cannot believe without the help of God. Faith is a gift of God. No amount of searching or inquiry will obtain it. I must humbly pray to God, “Give me a strong faith; increase my faith; make me loyal in my readiness to believe,” if I wish my faith to be that of a true child of the Catholic Church.

The Necessity of Faith

“Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Until faith exists in the soul it is dead in the sight of God, and an outcast from the kingdom of heaven. The innocent child born into the world is not the child of God or pleasing in His sight, until it receive in Baptism the infused gift of faith, nor will it ever see the face of God unless Divine faith be found in its heart. Thank God that He has given you this priceless gift, and remember the greater responsibility that it involves.

Faith must precede all other virtues. It is the door into the Church of God. He who has not entered in may be possessed of the most brilliant talents and of a very high degree of natural virtue, yet these are of no account in the sight of God, and receive no reward in heaven. A man may be generous, charitable, kind, affectionate, resolute, persevering, courageous, but these natural virtues will not avail him hereafter unless he has faith. How we ought to pity those who have not this gift of faith, and still more those who have lost it through sin and pride.

Faith is a privilege which belongs as of right only to the children of the Catholic Church. Yet those outside the Church, if they have not willfully rejected grace and light, may nevertheless possess this grace of faith in some degree. Perhaps it was poured into them at Baptism, and they have not forfeited it; or God, seeing their good will amidst all their ignorance and prejudice, has in His mercy given them the grace to make an act of faith and submission to His authority. Thank God for His mercy, which extends to all.

The Obscurity of Faith

“Now we see through a glass in a dark manner.” It is the characteristic of faith that it sees only obscurely that which it apprehends. It it were not so there would be no room for that reliance upon the authority of God which is of the essence of faith. All supernatural truths are in our present life hidden by a veil from us, and we must be satisfied with this imperfect knowledge. Just as the trials of this life are meant to whet our appetite for the joys of Paradise, so the ignorance of Divine things is meant to make us long for the clear vision we shall enjoy in the sight of God in heaven. Have I this longing after a greater knowledge of God?

Yet amid all this obscurity the certainty of faith is far greater than any natural certainty. It is greater than that of the evidence of our senses; it is greater than what seems to be a certain conclusion of our reason. It is of a higher order than these and sets aside all else. It proclaims its supremacy over reason not by contradicting it, but by regarding everything from a higher standpoint, by penetrating where reason finds itself at fault, as in the mysteries Of our holy religion. Is my faith firm and unshaken in these days of doubt?

To those who have a strong faith, this very obscurity is a fresh reason for acts of submission to the teaching of God. We learn from it our dependence on Him. If we could see directly in themselves the truth of the propositions of faith, we should be tempted to forget God’s authority and to fall back on our own powers. We must thank God for the opportunity He gives us of trusting to Him, and earning merits by our child like but reasonable confidence.

The Obedience of Faith

We can never obey any one as we ought unless we trust him, and we cannot trust him unless we place reliance on his word. This reliance on what God says to us is thus the beginning of obedience to His commands; it is the acceptance of what He tells us to receive as true, not because we ourselves see it to be true, but because He vouches for its truth. Our intellect must first submit before our will consents to follow. Thus faith is the keystone of obedience, and our obedience will be in proportion to our faith.

The heroes of faith commemorated by Saint Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews (of which we shall speak hereafter), were all of them primarily remarkable for their Obedience. They did great things for God and things that would have been impossible without a strong and vivid faith. God asked of their obedience many things repugnant to human nature. But the obedience of the saints was made easy by their faith. They saw Him Who is invisible; they heard His words, and knowing them to be the words of God, obeyed with joy. Have I this strong faith that makes obedience easy?

All sin is accompanied by a weakness of faith. If we believed and realized with the certainty of an undoubted faith what sin is before God, what God is, and what is the consequence of disobeying Him, disobedience would be impossible. It is because our faith is already clouded by sin that we venture to set at nought the sway of the Omnipotent God. I Pray that you may so have God before your eyes as to make it impossible for you to sin.

The Gift of Faith

Faith is like a tender plant that grows up if it meets with a favorable environment into a strong and powerful tree. God gives to all baptized Christians the grace necessary for an act Of faith, and gives it before all other graces. And he who makes an act of faith has henceforward the habit of faith, even though he had it not before, until he forfeited it by his own unfaithfulness. Thank God that you have not forfeited this grace, and pray that it may never die out of your heart.

As faith is the virtue for which the first grace is given, so it is the last that dies out of the sinner’s heart. Charity may have fled; hope may have died away, and yet faith may remain, and as long as it remains there is something to build upon. From faith to hope is a comparatively easy step, and from hope to charity. This is why those who have lost the faith are so hopeless—there is nothing to build upon, nothing to appeal to. Until they make an act of faith we can get no further. Pray then for those who have given up their religion, since they deserve our pity more than any others.

In the prayers for the dying we appeal to God for mercy on the departing soul because, although he has committed many sins, he has not denied the faith. To deny the faith is thus represented as the lowest depth to which the sinner can fall. Of all sins none are so terrible as sins against the faith; they are not only a refusal of submission to the law of God, but they are a positive denial of His authority and of His very existence. My God, may I never sin against faith!

The Loss of Faith

The loss of faith generally arises from a long continued and willful course of sin, by which faith is weakened until it is unable to hold its ground against the difficulties of skepticism, or of its own accord fades away and disappears. No calamity in the whole world is so terrible as this. Woe to those who through sin lose their faith! Yet there are souls without number to whom this terrible calamity has befallen. Nothing but a miracle of mercy can save them. We must pray God for such, that He may bring them to the truth before it is too late.

The loss of faith is always the result of pride in one shape or another. Nothing is so subversive of faith as pride. The proud man hates submission and loves to choose his own path. Faith demands submission, and marks out our path for us. Faith requires that we should lean upon God. Pride will lean upon none other than self. Faith requires loyalty; the very essence of pride is rebellion against God. How anxious then must I be to humble myself in order that I may preserve my faith.

All sins, of whatever kind, tend to gradually destroy our faith. Faith is a willing dependence upon God’s authority, and all sins, even venial sins, involve a disregard of His authority and an independence of Him. Faith, then, if it is to be strong in its apprehension of Divine things, must be based on a continual obedience to God. If we love obedience, and are careful to avoid all that displeases God, we need never fear the loss of our faith.

Temptations Against Faith

There are many pious souls who are much tormented by temptations against faith. They are in darkness and desolation, and God seems to have forgotten them, and not to be true to His own promises that those who come to Him He will never abandon, and His assurance that as a mother yearns over the son of her womb, so He yearns over them. Dark thoughts that He is not a God of immeasurable goodness and compassion and mercy present themselves and refuse to be shaken off. When such thoughts come, we must make acts of faith and confidence and humility, saying, “Just are Thy judgments, O Lord, and in mercy Thou hast afflicted me.”

There are other temptations against faith which are very painful to the loyal soul. The devil whispers: Perhaps there is some truth in the attacks of heretics on the Church; perhaps the Real Presence is all a delusion; perhaps after all punishment is not eternal. With such temptations we should never argue, but simply make an opposite act of faith in all that the Church teaches, however inscrutable to us.

If temptations against faith beset us, we must ask ourselves if we have done anything to cause them by reading bad books, by an overweening idea of our own ability, by obstinacy of judgment, etc. On the humble, temptations against faith make no impression, though they may be present to their minds and refuse to depart. Their habit of sub mission to God’s authority enables the humble to bid defiance to the evil one. Have I this safeguard of humility?

The Power of Faith

Our Lord tells us that if we have faith as a grain of mustard-seed we shall be able to say to a mountain, Remove hence, and it will obey us. This was the wonder actually performed by Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus. He prayed that a mountain which left no room for his church to be built might retire somewhat, and one night it did so. He believed that our Lord would accomplish His promise, and because he believed it, he obtained its fulfillment. We all of us are inclined to help those who believe that we shall keep our promises, and are anxious to reward their confidence in us. So too God will never fail those who do not lose their faith in Him.

If so small an amount of faith is able to work such wonders, how is it that we can do so little? It is because we are not thoroughly convinced that God will keep His word when He promises that He will grant all the petitions of those who fear Him, and assures us that all things work together for good for those who love God, and that He loves each one of us with a love far greater than that of a mother for her only son. If we really believed all this we should experience its truth, but our want of faith prevents God from giving us these blessings.

An acorn is very small, but it contains the germ of the magnificent oak. So our faith. (1) It must contain in itself the power of continual growth. This it cannot do unless it is firmly rooted. (2) It must go on steadily increasing as time goes on. Every supernatural act we perform promotes its progress. (3) It must be the initial germ of the Beatific Vision by making God our one end and aim. Is this so with my faith?

On Saving Faith

Can faith alone save us? Not faith as meaning the acceptance of supernatural truth on God’s authority. It is a condition of salvation, but it is not enough by itself to ensure salvation. The devils also believe and tremble. Many a Catholic who has kept the faith will nevertheless be lost. Our Lord warned the Jews not to trust to their being the children of Abraham; we must beware of trusting to the fact of our being children of the Catholic Church. Instead of profiting us at the Day of Judgment, this will only add to our condemnation unless to faith something else be added.

What is this necessary addition? Besides accepting all that God reveals to us, we must act upon our faith. We must add works to faith. We must be able to show our faith by our works. Our faith must be a living faith, that is to say, a faith actuated by charity, a faith that brings forth fruit, a faith that unites us to Jesus Christ, not by the mere tie of a willing assent to His Divine words, but by the further and closer bond of obedience to His Divine commands.

Yet faith is the first step to justification and points the way, and if a man does not resist the grace of God, faith will lead on to hope, and hope to charity. If a man has the faith in his heart, he has the spark with which God’s help may be blown into a flame. An act of faith cannot be made without the grace of God, and this grace contains the initial disposition of faith and charity. Hence in dealing with sinners or with the dying, we should begin with eliciting an act of faith, and this will pave the way for an act of hope and of charity.

The Rewards of Faith

Although faith is the first step towards justification, and may exist firm and strong in those who are at enmity with God, yet its presence has the power to obtain from God many graces. It is one of the most certain means of obtaining what we want from Almighty God. He who asks in faith, and doubts not of God’s willingness to hear, and power to grant his petition, is sure to obtain it if it is for his spiritual advantage, and if he himself puts no obstacle in the way. Our Lord has promised it: “Whatever you ask in prayer believing, you shall receive.”

Faith is moreover the most efficacious means of inducing God to work miracles for us, whether in the physical or the moral order. Our Lord made faith the condition of healing the sick while He was on earth. He said to the woman of Canaan, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt.” So now it is those of simple faith to whom miracles are most often granted, not to the wise and learned of this world. If only we firmly believe in our Lord’s power to help us, and in His love and willingness to come to our aid, we are certain to obtain His help.

But the greatest benefit that accompanies a strong faith is the sense of dependence that faith carries with it. As long as a man has the faith, he turns naturally to God in trouble and distress, and when the hour of death draws nigh, if he is not hardened by persistent sin and willful resistance to the grace of God, he can scarce avoid that act of submission which is the key of heaven. O my God, grant that at the hour of death I may have a strong faith as well as a fervent charity!

The Model of Faith

Are we to look to Jesus Christ our Lord as our ideal in faith as in all other virtues? No, we cannot do so. Faith is the virtue in which He does not set us an example. He always possessed the Beatific Vision, by reason of the Hypostatic Union, and its perfect brightness is incompatible with the obscurity of faith. Even when the Divinity was veiled in the Sacred Humanity it was impossible for Him to see “through a glass, in a dark manner.” He saw everything distinctly, as it really is. So in Heaven there will be no faith, because we shall always see God.

Where then are we to look for our model of faith? ‘In the most perfect of creatures, the Holy Mother of God. In her conduct at the Annunciation we have a model of ready acceptance on Divine authority of what was naturally impossible. In spite of her virginity, in spite of her vow of chastity, she doubted not God’s promise that she should be the Mother of the Son of God. What is impossible to men, she knew to be possible to God.

Yet she showed that prudence that is a part of faith. Faith does not mean that we are to gulp down everything which is impossible to nature unchallenged. Faith is always discreet, and makes sure of the promise being from God. Until Mary understood that God would intervene, and that she would remain ever a virgin, she was slow to believe that God had sent the message. But when once she had a sufficient motive for belief, she accepted with firmest confidence what was impossible to man. Is my faith like hers? Do I accept all that God has revealed with undoubting confidence as soon as I know that it is He Who speaks?

Examp1es of Faith

The eleventh chapter of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews sets before us a number of wonderful instances of faith.

Abel was the earliest instance of faith. God had revealed to our first parents that sin was to be atoned for by the offering of sacrifice, and that without the shedding of blood there was no remission. Cain offered to God the choicest fruits of the field, preferring his own judgment of what was a fitting offering to the Divine command. Hence Abel was accepted and Cain rejected. Learn from this that what God desires is not what seems to us best, but what He Himself commands or asks.

Noah believed God when He revealed the coming Deluge and built the ark, amid the scoffs and jeers of those who looked upon him as a fool for his pains. The Apostle tells us that he had received an answer concerning those things that were not seen, and he believed the Divine voice. How many truths there are that God reveals to us but which we explain away or put aside, as, for instance, that we shall give an account of every idle word, and that what ever we ask in the name of Jesus we shall certainly obtain.

But the signal example of faith in the Old Testament is Abraham, the father of the faithful. He believed God when He promised that Sara’s aged womb should bear. He believed God when He sent him forth from his home and country promising that he should receive a rich inheritance elsewhere. He believed God when commanded to offer up Isaac, and never doubted the Divine promise that from Isaac should spring a seed like the stars in number. Have I a faith that believes God in spite of appearances?

Further Examples of Faith

Those who received signal mercies at the hands of Christ were either strong in faith, or else they recognized their weakness and begged for more faith, like the father of the demoniac, who cried, “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:23) The Samaritan woman, sinner though she was, believed in the word of Jesus when He declared Himself to be the Messias, and was converted with many of her fellow citizens. The nobleman believed our Lord when He said: “Go, thy son liveth.” On returning home he found that the boy had begun to recover from the moment that the words were spoken. If we want our Lord to do great things for us, we must say: “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.”

The woman of Canaan who when she received what seemed a refusal of her request still persevered, showed a faith such as we shall do well to imitate, for (1) It was humble faith. She was not offended at being compared to the dogs who eat the crumbs from their master’s table. (2) It was a persevering faith. She was determined to obtain her daughter’s cure. (3) It was a confident faith. She had the strongest conviction of the compassion and of the power of Jesus. Is my faith like hers?

The thief on the cross was the most wonderful instance of faith. He sees beside him a convicted criminal condemned to die the same ignominious death as himself. Yet he recognizes in Him the King who is to reign in the ages to come to all eternity, and begs Him to remember him when He enters on His glory. If faith can work such a wonderful change, what may we not hope for if our faith is strong?

Faith and Reason

Are faith and reason friends or foes? They are the firmest and closest friends. Faith is the superior, and issues commands which are out of the sphere of reason. But it never sets reason aside or asks us to believe anything which enlightened reason does not on its own grounds approve. Thank God that He has given you the knowledge of the true faith, which is so essentially reasonable; make an act faith in the perfect truth of all that the Church teaches: and pity those who belong to false religions, which ask them to swallow absurdities.

Do faith and reason ever come into conflict? They may seem to do so, e.g., when faith tells us that our Lord’s Sacred Body is present whole and entire in each little Host; or that Mary remained a virgin after bringing forth her Divine Son. But these truths of faith are not really against reason. They are indeed against the common experience of men. But so is every miracle. It would be against reason to suppose them untrue, for this leads in the end to an irrational and contradictory skepticism.

Does reason then bear its witness to the truths of faith, in spite of our receiving them on authority? Yes, it bears witness to each and all, and shows that the contradictory of every truth of faith is ultimately self-contradictory. Reason is the gift of God as well as faith, and approves all the truths of faith, even where it cannot fully understand them. Thank God for this, and make an act of faith in the reasonableness of faith.

The Difficulties of Faith

If faith is always in accordance with reason, where is its difficulty? Why is it that an act of faith sometimes requires an heroic sacrifice? Though faith never contradicts reason, yet it often requires us to believe what at first sight seems utterly improbable and unreasonable. What seems more unlikely than that the walls of Jericho should fall down when the priests of Israel blew their trumpets? or that the sun should stand still at Josue’s word? Or that an angel should come down once a day to impart to a pool the power of healing the first incomer? Or that Job’s ulcers came from the immediate influence of the devil? Yet faith requires us to believe this, and to do so needs a strong faith.

Faith also requires humility. We do not like to put our proud necks beneath the yoke; to accept unchallenged what comes from Divine authority; to be precluded from doubting and judging whether this or that is true. We are inclined to say, why should I not enjoy the liberty of thought that my will craves after? Why should I not be allowed to criticize without any foregone conclusion? Why do you make me accept my beliefs ready-made, instead of constructing them myself? All this is difficult to human nature.

Faith also involves almost all worldly disadvantages, loss of friends, fame, money, position, often the sacrifice of our strongest affections. It sometimes brings upon us contempt, ridicule, ill will; all this is hard. Yet those who love God esteem it a happiness to suffer and even to die for the faith. Grant, O Lord, that I may rejoice in suffering for the faith, and that I may count it my greatest honor to incur dishonor from men for my faith in Thee.