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The head, heart and hands of faith

Pat Griffin presented a wonderful reflection on the dimensions of our faith at the recent Provincial Assembly 2013.

“There are many levels to our faith.  I have found a statement in the writings of Mother Guillemin (one of the Superioress Generals of the Daughters of Charity) which captures some of my thinking on how our faith needs to engage us personally.  She writes:

“Faith is not only an act of intelligence; it is the adherence of the heart and the source of life.  An ardent and convinced faith animates all the thoughts of our mind, influences the decisions of heart and determines the acts of our will.”  (p. 241, January 1, 1968)

Mind, heart, and will—“head, heart and hands”—all play a part in the exercise of our faith.  I will consider each and allow the Bible to illumine our path and offer us the basis for reflection today.

08 Jan 13 Faith conference – (WORD)

griffinPROVINCIAL ASSEMBLY 2013

Princeton Marriott Conference Center, NJ

08 January 2013

“Faith in the Mind, Heart, and Will”

 

The “door of faith” (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. . . . . To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime. It begins with baptism (cf. Rom 6:4), through which we can address God as Father, and it ends with the passage through death to eternal life, fruit of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. . . . (PF 1)

With this teaching, Pope Benedict begins his letter “Porta Fidei” (the “Door of Faith”) and invites the Catholic world to make this a “year of faith”—one in which we embrace and practice our faith more deeply. Each of us strives to hear and respond to that invitation with firm resolve.

Between Baptism and death—the poles outlined above—, we hear the Vincentian call and embrace our charism. These become the ways in which we define ourselves as people of faith, and as men who are called to the consecrated life. We live as a community of faith and grow in that faith together as we express it in our ministry and mutual support. We are then called to witness to that faith to the entire Church by our words and actions. In these days, we will reflect upon our responsibilities in that regard as we consider the theme: “Following Christ: Evangelizing the Poor in a Multicultural Society.”

During the past two years, I have come to a deeper appreciation of how much Peter is a foil for the teaching of the Gospel, and coming to know the identity of Jesus, and growing in faith. I have wondered if that is especially true because he is to take on a role of leadership. Why not Paul: the more urbane, multicultural, multilingual, Paul? Perhaps, because Peter’s particular cultural prejudices are challenged and need to grow and change. We can learn more through Peter. He needs to become multicultural as he grows in his faith—remember his vision in the story from the Acts of the Apostles in which the sheet filled with “unclean animals” is lowered from heaven and Peter learns how the Christian community embraces the whole world?

There are many levels to our faith. I have found a statement in the writings of Mother Guillemin (one of the Superioress Generals of the Daughters of Charity) which captures some of my thinking on how our faith needs to engage us personally. She writes:

“Faith is not only an act of intelligence; it is the adherence of the heart and the source of life. An ardent and convinced faith animates all the thoughts of our mind, influences the decisions of heart and determines the acts of our will.” (p. 241, January 1, 1968)

Mind, heart, and will—“head, heart and hands”—all play a part in the exercise of our faith. I will consider each and allow the Bible to illumine our path and offer us the basis for reflection today.

I. Personal Profession of Faith: A Matter of Mind: “Who do you say I am?”

When Jesus poses the question of his identity to the disciples, he develops the question in a particular way. Listen to how he engages his disciples and us:

Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’” Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said in reply, “The Messiah of God.” (Lk 9:18-20)

Note the development here. Jesus first asked the disciple who other people said that he was. Jesus wants the disciples to keep their ears open, to learn from the experience of others. And the disciples tell him what the word is “on the street.” Some say that he is John the Baptist; others Elijah; still others, one of the prophets. Jesus wants the disciples to gather information, but that is never going to be enough. One can never truly believe based on what someone else thinks. Jesus ultimately gets to the most important question. As easy as it is to hide behind the opinions and thoughts of others, sooner or later a person must take responsibility for his or her own life. And so, Jesus asks: “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus wants to know what the disciples believe and Peter is equal to the task. He tells Jesus, “[You are] the Messiah of God.” Peter could not have made a more powerful statement: “[You are] the Messiah of God.” In this expression Peter captures everything which he could think of saying. He still does not know what this completely means, as he reveals immediately afterwards, but he has started on the correct path.

The lesson for us with regard to our own faith in this story is that we too need to listen and learn from other people. What does the Bible have to say about who Jesus is? What about the Catechism? What does the Pope have to say about who Jesus is? What do theologians and others say? What about the books and newspaper which we read? Who do other people say that Jesus is? This dynamic is not less important for our modern world than it was in an ancient one. There are many people of deep faith who can teach us about what it means to be believers by both their words and actions. They challenge us and invite us to think and rethink what we believe about Jesus and the Bible and the Eucharist, and thus to grow in our faith. They engage us.

But once we have heard what other people believe, we can only allow that information and experience to provide the context for allowing Jesus to ask each of us the key question itself, as he asks it of the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Knowing the beliefs of others helps us, but it must also point us to a deeper conviction ourselves. Who is Jesus for me? The answer needs to flow from what I know, but more so from what I have come to believe of him. This is why our personal experience of Jesus in others and in the poor is so essential. This is why reading the Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is so effective. This is why receiving the Lord reverently in the Eucharist and realizing who it is whom we hold in our hands needs to change us. This is why praying the rosary and meditating on the cross has led so many men and women to personal sanctity. Our faith and our expression of who Jesus is for us arises from these experiences which are intensely personal and leading to and coming from prayer. We need to think about what we believe. We need to understand what it is that we affirm when we profess our faith in the creed. “We believe in one God the Father almighty . . . we believe in Jesus Christ the only begotten Son . . . we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church. . . . We believe. I believe.”

In this year of faith, one of the efforts which we can make is to study our faith. We can read (again) the documents of Vatican II, or pick up a good biography of a person of faith (I am recommending Bonhoeffer), or read a volume of the conferences of St. Vincent. There are numerous ways to nourish our minds around our faith and all of them contribute to our ability to understand and express our faith better. They teach us who Jesus is for others and lead us to that personal profession of faith which is the necessary goal for every adult Christian.

II. Personal Profession of Faith: A Matter of Heart: “Do you love me?”

After Jesus suffers and dies on the cross, after he has been raised to new life, and after he has been seen by his disciples, Jesus has another conversation with Peter (Jn 21:15-19). This time, they are walking along the lake together. Now, Jesus does not ask Peter what he knows but a different question. He asks Peter simply: “Do you love me?” And Jesus asks this same question three times and each time, Peter responds “Yes”, but (perhaps) with a deeper appreciation at what that means with each repetition. It is not enough to know the truth about who the Lord is, one must also love the Lord. It is only with this commitment of the heart, it is only with this willingness to believe in the Lord with his most intimate self, that Peter is ready to hear the call to serve God’s people (“feed my lambs, fed my sheep”), that he is willing to lay down his life, and that he is finally able “follow me [follow Jesus]” totally. As his profession of love of the Lord grows, so does his ability to embrace all of God’s people.

In this “year of faith,” we might ask ourselves if we are prepared to allow the Lord to ask us this question three times: “do you love me.” With each asking and with each response, we are invited to enter more deeply into that commitment to the Lord which bears fruit in personal living and ministry.

When we think of our relation to the Lord, it is not enough for us to know a lot about our God, we must love our God—as Jesus taught—“ with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.” Just as we love our family and our friends, we must love our God. Faith in the heart, and not simply faith in the head, allows one to be a true disciple. One gives oneself totally to the Lord in love.

We can look to the Blessed Mother for guidance in this effort as in so many others. She believed in God as a faithful daughter of Israel and out of that love she said “yes” to be the mother of Jesus. She believed with all her heart that God would do what God had said. One of the powerful places in which this level of faith is made evident is in her Magnificat. She goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. With Elizabeth, Mary is overwhelmed as she considers the goodness of God and is prompted to make her prayer of praise. It is a genuine prayer of the heart. She says:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;

my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;

behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.

The Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.” (Lk 1:46-49)

We can feel the warmth and depth of Mary’s belief. And it spreads out to include her nation. She knows God not simply with her mind but with her heart and she absolutely trusts and believes in God’s promises for her and for her people. Mary makes a prayer of the heart which expresses the truth of her faith.

The way in which we can know and believe in our God can never be fully captured by our heads. We need to love the Lord deeply with our hearts and discover the way in which this gives rise to a more profound and personal faith. Our hearts as well as our heads teach us the truth about God and help us to believe.

A beautiful quote from Blaise Pascal suggests this truth:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.” (Pascal, Pensées, para 263)

As we reflect in this year of faith about our need to grow in our love of the Lord, perhaps we will discover that we need to write our Psalm of Love, our Magnificat, for the Lord’s action and direction in our lives. It is an expression of our faith in the heart.

III. Personal Profession of Faith: A Matter of Will: “Why did you doubt?”

Faith also involves us in a choice to follow the Lord completely or not. It engages our will and then our actions: I choose to be faithful! I choose to live in such a way which gives expression to my faith.

A third time, we can look to Peter and his experience with Jesus to help us to understand this truth. On one occasion, Peter sees Jesus walking on the water, and he wants to do that as well. You remember how the story develops:

Peter said to [Jesus] in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt 14:26-33)

The story of Peter walking on the water as one about faith offers us some points for reflection. First of all, we see Peter’s ability to follow the Lord’s direction when he puts his confidence in him. As long as Peter keeps his eyes fixed on the Lord, he can do what is asked of him. When he begins to let other matters distract him, however, he begins to sink. The clear symbolism of the story makes its lesson about faith truly evident. When Jesus is that important person in one’s life, when there is no one else who comes close, then we are true believers. We allow our vision of the Lord to determine our actions and direction. There are, however, lots of other things which can call to our attention. For Peter, these are the waves and the movement of the wind and all the other things which tell him that he cannot do what he is actually doing. These other voices become too strong for him. He begins to believe in them and in that little voice in his own heart which tells him that he cannot do this. He forgets to listen to Jesus, he forgets to look for Jesus, he forgets to put his faith in Jesus, and he naturally sinks.

Once this happens, the story tells us that Jesus is immediately at his side to support him and speaks to him of his little faith. I think that Peter knows that. He is not yet ready to place all his faith in Jesus. He has lots more mistakes to make before he is ready to choose Jesus as the center of his life.

In our lives we can describe “walking on the water” in whatever way we choose. The issue is the confidence that we place in Jesus to help us to do those things which we need to do as believing Christians. When we place our faith truly in him, we can ask him to invite us to come to him walking on the water, and we can do it. But when we begin to allow all kinds of doubts and other factors to enter into our thinking and acting, then we are fated to sink. (It is like the seed scattered on the good ground but allows the weeds to choke it off.) Walking on the water is an acquired art and comes with steady vision and resolve. When we allow ourselves to believe in Jesus and his presence among us, it is not so tough. It is not enough to know what we believe, or to feel the strength of this belief, we must also act on our belief.

Our faith is a matter of the will; it is involved in the decisions which we make and the way in which we choose to act on these choices. Saint Vincent de Paul famously told his followers:

“Let us love God, brothers, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow.” (CCD 11 #25, p. 32)

For Vincent and those who embraced his charism, the expression of one’s faith must take place in action. Love of God leads to the choice to serve and so does one’s study:

“Nothing is more in conformity with the Gospel than to gather light and strength for our souls in meditation, reading and solitude on the one hand, and then to go out and share this spiritual nourishment with others. This is to do as Our Lord did. . . . that’s how we should witness to God by our works that we love him.” (CCD 11 #25, p. 33)

Vincent was not enthused with those whose faith never led them to action:

“The flatter themselves with their ardent imagination; they’re satisfied with the sweet conversations they have with God in meditation and even speak of them like angels; but when they leave there, if there is a question of working for God, of suffering, of mortifying themselves, of instructing poor persons, of going in search of the lost sheep, of being happy when they lack something, or of accepting sickness or some other misfortune, alas! they’re no longer around; their courage fails them.” (CCD 11 #25, p. 33)

Our belief in Christ present among the needy must be expressed in flesh and blood. Our faith is not simply a matter for the head and heart, but also for the hands and feet. We continue to learn that lesson. The letter of St. James powerfully affirms this truth:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. . . . For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-17, 26)

Conclusion:

“Head, heart and hands:” three ways in which we can call attention to our Year of Faith as well as the directions and decisions which we can make for our growth in prayer and service in a multicultural context. Peter offers some example in this regard. So too, does Vincent and fidelity to our charism. To be “evangelizers of the poor in a multicultural context” requires us to be integral men who are committed to grow together for the good of the Church and people of God—most notably the poor. St. Paul reminds us: “The just shall live by faith.” May it be true for us! And may we seek this wisdom through the intercession of our Blessed Mother, Queen of the Miraculous Medal, who has always been a particular gift for the faith in our Province..

 

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