Monday, March 5, 2007

Faith and Feelings

This week's Gospel is one I particularly like. The story of the Transfiguration is so rich with meaning, so beautiful and potent. The very fact that Our Lord, Who would soon face His Passion and Cross, would strengthen His apostles with this glimpse of His glory, is something that may be pondered for a considerable time.

I really liked our pastor's interpretation in his homily, too. He equated St. Peter's desire to make the experience a permanent one with our own tendency to misinterpret those mysterious consolations or exaltations we sometimes experience in our own spiritual lives, as something that 'ought' to be happening, some integral part of faith without which our faith lives are somehow deficient. Father reminded us that these things, while very good in themselves, are not what faith is about. The emotional 'highs' we are sometimes given for our own benefit are not intended to be permanent; our faith is most tested and purified when we struggle to believe at all.

I think this is worth reflecting on, particularly in this day and age. On all sides we see and hear from people who leave the Catholic Church, in part because they expect some supernatural experience of holiness or goodness to be a part of their spiritual birthright, something which God 'always' gives to those who are following the right path. Some leave for sedevacantist sects; some leave for evangelical fundamentalism; some leave to become Eastern Orthodox; some even leave Christianity altogether, because they find some religion like Buddhism, for example, to be more 'spiritual' than the Christianity they've experienced in the Roman Catholic Church in America today.

This is a deeply sad thing to encounter. I recall one bright, energetic young man I met in college, who kept saying he 'had' to leave the Church because as long as he was Catholic, he wasn't 'being fed.' It's hard to imagine leaving the substance of the Bread of Life behind for the sake of some more illusory meal, but this young man had come to associate the good feelings and sense of spirituality he had encountered in the Protestant church he was attending with the substance of Christianity. He needed to 'feel good' in church, and this became more important than continuing to believe in the Church in which he'd been raised, which at one time he'd believed was the Church founded by Christ.

Sadly, those who choose this route often end up drifting from church to church, as the 'good feelings' subside and the day to day routine of living out one's faith, including having to co-exist with people who show up only occasionally and take the whole notion of religion far less seriously than the enthusiastic believers do, wears them out and dries up the positive emotions they've come to associate with faith. But as my pastor reminded us, faith isn't emotion. It isn't feeling holy, or feeling spiritual, or feeling good about yourself. Faith is a supernatural gift from God, nourished by the sacramental life of the Church, and if we're any kind of followers of Christ at all, our faith will be tested.

Many of the saints have left records of their periods of spiritual dryness. Many of them suffered for years from an emptiness or sense of abandonment. As Father put it, we may be invited to ascend the mountain--but we will always have to climb down from the heights again, to return to the ordinary practice of our faith.

And at the base of the mountain, after the Transfiguration, there would come the Passion of Our Lord, and His ignominious death on the Cross. Any of Jesus' followers who expected Him to be an earthly king, any of them who expected Him to purify the religious practices of the Jews of His day, any of them who thought that He would overcome the Roman soldiers by force or by miracle, were as shattered and broken that day as the leg-bones of the two thieves crucified beside Him. But one of those thieves, sometimes called St. Dismas, made the supreme act of faith before he died: he looked beyond the hideousness of the suffering Man beside him, and said, "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."

It is easy to have faith in Christ Transfigured, in times and places where we 'feel' holy or good. It is hard to have faith in Christ Suffering, when the wretchedness of sin and the evil of this world threaten to overwhelm us. But faith that can't survive being tested is no faith at all; faith that would sacrifice the Truth for the sake of a more pleasant experience of religion is a faith that depends on man, not on God.

1 comment:

annonymouse said...

What a wonderful and consoling reflection of the Transfiguration. I am guilty of wanting to set up camp on Mount Tabor.