When Saint Augustine was asked to define time, he replied, “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it, I do not know.”
I often feel the same way about faith.
I would certainly describe myself a person of faith. But it’s difficult to provide a concrete definition of how I understand it.
When I say I have faith, does it mean I hold out some kind of naive hope? Does it imply I believe in some parental entity up in the sky running the show? Can I simultaneously have faith and be a rational, intelligent person? Is it right to even speak of “having faith,” as though it’s a possession?
Asking these questions allowed me to refine my understanding and see that, for me, faith doesn’t have anything to do with belief or Gods.
Rather, for me faith means I live life trusting that love is at work in every situation. This often happens in ways the rational mind can’t entirely grasp, even in situations that may be filled with pain and suffering.
This attitude has very little to do with belief; in fact, it is something based on direct, lived experiences.
One such experience that bolstered my faith occurred recently when my wife and I were going through a difficult period in our relationship. For several months, we were trapped in a cycle of conflict, misunderstanding, and fear. At several points, our union nearly dissolved. But over the course of many months, we addressed some deep-seated issues that had lead to the conflict. This work broke down barriers we didn’t realize we had erected between ourselves, and ultimately allowed us to be more open, honest, and intimate.
At the time I was going through it, I wasn’t very grateful for the challenges. But now that I see how much it allowed us to grow, I consider the struggle we went through as a gift. Just as fire is a necessary part of the forest’s capacity to regenerate, perhaps that pain was the only way to bring us to a deeper level of love. Just as some seeds only germinate after being exposed to fire, some form of destruction is required to crack the shell of ego.
This is but one example of a situation when not getting my way was actually the best thing for me, when the suffering I was running from was actually a great teacher in disguise, when life was indeed bringing me toward a deeper understanding of love despite my resistance.
I don’t know if I can chalk this up to the workings of supernatural forces, nor if I can make any grand pronouncements about how it might work out for other people in other circumstances. I can only say that, from my little corner of the universe, seeing love in every situation is the most accurate way to interpret my experience.
Looking backward and seeing how things really do work out even when I thought they wouldn’t gives me the strength to confront the challenges and difficulties that continue to come my way. I’ve seen that as difficult as the fires may be, there is always the wonder and miracle that sprouts in their aftermath. It’s in this sense that I live in faith.
The question is whether this attitude is something chosen or given. Is it something I’ve earned or something I’ve received?
I don’t have a cut and dry answer to this, because, as with most “spiritual” matters, the answer lies somewhere in between. This shouldn’t be worrisome, however, as paradoxes often draw us in deeper to life’s mysteries and force us to see things outside of dualistic categories and labels.
The best I can say is that faith is a gift… but one that is earned. Like falling asleep, there are some active things you can do to set the right conditions for faith to arise. But at a certain point, you have to set the active will aside and simply surrender yourself.
It sometimes feels like faith is something I’ve chosen. I might not be able to choose the experiences that come my way, but I do have the power to interpret them in the way I see fit.
But the idea that faith is simply a choice is problematic in a number of ways. I can’t, in all honesty, say that if I grew up in different circumstances, I would have arrived at the same conclusions. I often wonder whether the faith I describe is based on my relatively fortunate upbringing and experiences.
If I would claim that faith is purely a matter of choice, it would be like taking credit for growing a beautiful flower while ignoring the soil that nourished it. I can only make the “choice” to have faith because of a whole host of un-chosen factors.
While it’s true that I should feel very fortunate to have had the conditions that allowed faith to blossom, healthy soil is not everything. A good gardener also needs to take care of his plants, to water them and prevent weeds from taking hold.
There are many others who have been raised in similar circumstances, yet hold very different attitudes about life. There are those who collapse under the slightest bit of suffering or critique, who will immediately dismiss any talk of things “working out” as childish fantasy. Some people, no matter how good they may have it, remain jaded, cynical, and doubtful.
This is where the “work” side of faith comes into play. There are certain things that I have done- that anyone can do- to allow faith to take root inside them.
The first and probably most important thing that one can do is meditation (or any form of contemplation). Practicing mindfulness is an effective way to counteract the natural tendency to see yourself at the center of the universe, prioritizing your immediate needs and desires above all. This “default setting” leads us to get caught up in situations and loose sight of the larger picture, of how love may be at work in unseen ways.
When difficulty arises, if I take the situation as evidence that the world is against me, that I am abandoned, alone, and condemned to suffering, then I will react accordingly (and likely make things worse).
If instead I take a step back, take a deep breath, and remind myself to simply witness hardship arising, I step out of my own way and allow the situation to offer me whatever lessons I need to learn. When the forest is on fire and you just want to get out, this can be a hard thing to do.
This is why faith does not automatically drop into your lap if x,y,z conditions are in place. You have to work to recondition and retrain yourself to see the presence of love, since the mind tends to spot and complain about any little thing that’s not delivered immediately in the way it wants.
Seeing the world this way, in some senses, is very challenging, since faith is easy to speak about when things are going well, but very difficult to apply when things get tough. But in other senses, it’s the most natural, obvious, and simple thing in the world.
Faith did not just appear in my life one day and has been there ever since. There are some days when I feel unshakable confidence in my convictions, and others when I really question whether I’m just deluding myself.
But faith is one of the important parts of my life, since it allows me to persevere through difficult situations, to work with them as creatively as possible, to continue exploring and reflecting until I can find the love that I have seen is present and at work in every situation.
While certain efforts are necessary to arrive at this vision, I also have to remember that, like life’s capacity to regenerate itself through destruction, my ability to go through life this way is a mysterious gift.