On Keeping the Faith

Keeping the faith in our day is no mean accomplishment. In the United States we have so far been spared from such religious persecutions as have recently broken out in many European countries, but we must not on that account be lulled into a false sense of security. The atmosphere of nominal Christianity and practical atheism with which we are surrounded is capable of being, in its own way, severely detrimental to our faith. While American Catholicism is in some respects making notable progress, we must frankly face the fact that many of us are becoming infected with a spirit of doubt and compromise. The precious principles for which we stand, although not presently under the stress of physical assault, are being constantly subjected to the incursions of an alien culture. For every culture which is not Catholic is in some degree anti-Catholic. Where Christ is concerned, there can be no neutral position. “He who is not with me is against me; he who gathereth not scattereth.” Let us therefore be on our guard.

Consider how greatly we are on the defensive culturally. The newspapers and magazines which we read, the motion pictures which we see, and the radio broadcasts which we hear are, almost without exception, the product of minds which do not acknowledge the kingship of Christ. Nearly every time we take up a novel we are subjected to a mental bombardment of notions predicated upon materialism, relativism, Freudianism, behaviorism, or other creeds incompatible with the Catholic faith. Meanwhile we are experiencing the impact of social pressures to conform our behavior to standards very different from those of Christ.

We can not properly disregard the effects of these conditions upon our religious lives. It is rash and foolish to consider ourselves specially privileged persons immune to the contagion of false doctrine. Saint Paul, who set two continents ablaze with the fire of his faith, was never so selfconfident. Indeed, he shuddered lest, while preaching the gospel to others, he should himself become a castaway. That was not false modesty on his part, but sound realism. The Church has always taught that the gift of final perseverance is a tremendous and unmerited privilege, and one which none of us can be certain of obtaining.

At the very least, we shall be distracted by the crossfire of false values and distorted ideas in the midst of which we find ourselves. Instead of meditating peacefully upon the sublime truth which God has proposed for our understanding, we shall allow ourselves to become entangled in apologetics and thus give undue attention to matters of relatively minor importance. Apologetics is merely the preamble to theology, and our faith suffers if we have a disproportionate interest in merely proving that it is not the wrong faith.

Further, it is an undeniable fact that, however alert we be to detect the presence of false principles in that which we read and hear, we can not utterly exclude such matter from entering our systems. No matter how vigorously we repudiate error in our judgment, some part of it inevitably lodges in our memory and influences our habits of thought. “I am a part of all that I have met,” says the poet. We have all assimilated to ourselves a little of each thought we have encountered. Due to the infiltration of falsehood into the lower levels of our consciousness, our view of the universe tends to become half-Christian and half-miscreant. There is a sense in which we believe even the doctrines which we most heartily reject. After our minds have been contaminated by a prolonged diet of literature based on the philosophic postulates of such teachers as Bertrand Russell and Pavlov, our thoughts become divided one against another. Like the double-minded men of whom Saint James writes (Jas. I,8), we begin to measure truth by a double standard. In such a condition we cease to be able to perform well any act of religious worship. The sacred verities of our religion begin to appear in a less effulgent light. Our reliance on Providence becomes mingled with human calculation and mistrust; our recourse to the saints becomes less childlike and more hesitant. If this disintegration proceeds very far, we are likely to find ourselves reciting the Apostles’ Creed with mental reservations.

Corresponding to the intellectual pressures which we have discussed are social pressures no less insistent. The society in which most of us move is one in which it is considered bad taste even to mention the things which come most naturally to Catholic lips. If we so much as make reference to Our Lady or to the Blessed Sacrament, the atmosphere about us becomes suddenly tense and unpleasant. In such surroundings, we can not help but compromise. Almost instinctively we cease to give outward expression to the devotion which we feel in our hearts; we tend to avoid topics of conversation which touch upon religion; we ape the moral conventions of a society which is indifferent or hostile to the Christ we know.

As soon as we make adjustments to our environment in our behavior, something inevitably takes place in our hearts. Our apostolic spirit becomes dim. In our personal lives we desist from thinking or feeling that which, being thought, we would not express in words or deeds. Once we have ceased to “Speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” then we no longer “sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.” (Eph. V, 19-20)

Miracles aside, everyone must make concessions to his environment. No one can behave without regard for the reactions of his neighbors. But even assuming that, by an act of heroic consistency, we should continue to manifest the fulness of our faith and devotion, still we should necessarily do so self-consciously. In surroundings where every act of religious conviction or worship makes one’s neighbors stare, one can not achieve the peace of mind and simplicity of intention which render such actions fruitful.

To combat the undermining of our faith which, as we have seen, tends to occur, we must take prompt and effective countermeasures.

On the negative side, we must resolutely refuse to expose ourselves unnecessarily to the contagion of false doctrine and false values. The belief that one can with impunity consort constantly with heretics and atheists, and casually exchange ideas with them, is a dangerous product of modern liberalism. We must cease to regard “broadmindedness” as a virtue to be cultivated by giving a sympathetic hearing to every erroneous view. We should, on the contrary, stop up our ears to such “lying contentions” and concentrate primarily on the difficult process of saving our own souls. Saint Paul has warned us not to trifle with this matter, but to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

On the positive side, we must make frequent and fervent acts of faith.

It is only too customary to define faith as a habit of the soul as though the exercise of it were a matter of supererogation. In the case of baptized infants, faith can not, of course, proceed beyond the point of being a latent habit. But in the nature of things the dispostion of faith is to be considered subordinate to the act toward which it tends, and by which it is defined. The act of faith is the adoration of the mind submitting joyfully to the authority of God revealing. Such submission implies a loving renunciation of one’s own judgment and a grateful participation in the light of revealed truth.

Now faith, being a virtue, can not long survive if it is not from time to time placed in act. Like other habits, it quickly atrophies through disuse, and becomes strong through exercise. Each act of faith renders the next, not only easier, but also more complete and acceptable. The converse is equally true. As soon as we neglect to meditate frequently on supernatural truths and to contemplate created things in the light of sacred science, our faith begins of its own accord to grow dim. It ceases to be a vital element in our lives. At such a time we are in imminent danger of waking up one day to find that we do not have the faith at all.

Every act of faith involves an exercise of the will. Only through abundant love of God, as the principle of all truth, can the human intelligence submit to Him with generous selfabandonment and with supreme trust in His absolute reliability. A profession of faith not prompted by supernatural love for God could not, in the proper sense, be an act of faith at all. The intellect unaided can not possibly arrive at faith. Even though, by a highly unlikely process, I should by merely rational efforts arrive at a probable conviction of the veracity of every proposition affirmed by the Catholic Church, I should still be lacking in the virtue of faith. My mind could not of itself lead me beyond the point of probability. Firm assent requires the fruitful cooperation of the Holy Ghost, which, in its turn, presupposes an aptitude of the will to receive it. The will must ardently desire to know the truth and on discovering reverence it.

By constant effort we can develop in ourselves the rectitude of will which is required to sustain and nourish our faith. We should frequently profess to God in prayer our humble submission to his testimony and our gratitude to Him for deigning to promulgate it to us.

Although not educible without a movement of the will, faith is, it must be recalled, essentially an act of the intellect. It therefore presupposes, to a greater or less extent, a grasp of the meaning of that which is assented to.

Our adherence to articles of faith may be either explicit or implicit. In the simplest act of faith, it is sufficient if a few central doctrines are known explicitly. In some instances, this knowledge will perhaps amount only to a positive familiarity with the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. But gradually, under the tutelage of the Church, we become instructed in the specific doctrines which follow from these central truths. As these implications are spelled out in our minds, there occurs in each of us something comparable to the development of doctrine experienced by the Church as a whole. This process is not only healthy but, in a sense, obligatory. Each of us is bound, according to his opportunities and capacities, to arrive at a somewhat mature understanding of his faith. We should not be content to retain in our memories the childish concepts which sufficed for us in the days when we first learned our catechisms. Such concepts should be constantly developed in accordance with our adult patterns of thought. Let it not be said of us, as Saint Paul felt bound to admonish the Hebrews, that “whereas by this time you ought to be masters, you need to be taught again the rudiments of the words of God.” Instead, let us make ourselves capable of assimilating the “solid food” meted out to those who are “practised in judgment.” (Heb. V, 14)

Further, we must not be content to have attained obediential faith, but rather regard this as the groundwork for a more eager and positive acceptance of revealed truth. Growth in faith means a progressive union of our intelligence with that of God, so that, in a sense, we come to view the world through His eyes. By faith, in the apt phrase of Saint Paul, we see through a glass darkly. Our vision is necessarily indirect, for it depends on the testimony of God. Moreover, it is somewhat obscure because of the limitation of our intelligence in this life. Concededly, then, faith is inferior to the beatific vision, in which we shall know even as we are known. But still it is a sort of vision, and as such we should by no means despise it.

Our assent to revealed doctrine should not, then, be an empty repetition of any merely verbal formula, excellent though the practice of repeating such formulae may be. Instead, it ought to be a joyful realization of the truth which God has been pleased to place within the reach of our understanding. Surely He did not unfold to us the secrets of eternity merely in order to provide us with a sort of admission ticket which we might present upon our arrival at the gates of heaven. On the contrary, He intended that His word should bear abundant fruit in our souls during our earthly pilgrimage. It was His gracious will to give us, even in this life, an analogue of the vison which we shall fully enjoy in the state of beatitude. That is why Saint Paul never tires of urging us to acquire “a deep knowledge of the things of God” (Eph. IV, l3) and to attain to the “riches of a complete understanding.” (Col. II, 3)

Undoubtedly some of the articles of faith are mysteries. But from this it by no means follows that they should not be meditated on. Mysteries are so called, not because they simply mystify, but because we can never exhaustively comprehend them. By comtemplating them, however, and understanding them so far as our poor powers permit, we can bring into our lives a splendid increase of light and joy.

The vision which we call our faith is unitary and indivisible. Far from being a loose concatenation of unrelated propositions, it is a living tissue, and can not be fully expressed in terms of its material composition. The definition of doctrine which has taken place throughout the centuries is merely the codification of elements implied in the Christian vision from the beginning. It follows that, in our day, those who devoutly ponder on the teachings of the Church will almost inevitably, with the assistance of the Hoy Ghost, discern the relevance of many implied consequences of Christian doctrine which are not yet themselves de fide.

The progressive realization in our souls of the Christian vision can be furthered in any of a number of ways. Of these, mental prayer is perhaps the best. Reading Catholic books is also helpful. Such reading should, however, be supplemented by a process of hard thinking in which we spell out in our own language the doctrines to which we subscribe with the fullness of personal conviction. Through conversation with others we can see what opinions stand up under the test of argument, and thereby increase our understanding. Thus reading, writing and properly directed discussion are all useful means of carrying us from a grudging admission of seemingly obscure propositions to an attitude of loving and intelligent assent. Our faith, as it evolves, ceases to be something painfully memorized. It becomes something joyfully understood.

Finally — and by this method alone can we be confident of preserving our faith amid the dangers which encompass us — we should daily implore Our Lady, under her title of Mediatrix of All Graces, to obtain for us, her unworthy children, the preservation until death, no matter how great the difficulties may be, of our pearl of great price, our Catholic faith. May we, on departing this life, be able to echo on our lips and in our hearts the glorious boast of the Apostle of the Gentiles, “Cursum consummavi, fidem servavi.”

(Originally published in From the Housetops Vol. I, Issue I, September, 1946)