First, allow me to recount a tale the celebrant told this morning at Mass.
A young man badly addicted to various drugs had died of a heroin overdose. As part of the funeral Mass, the boy’s father read a letter – a letter he, the father, had written as if it had been dictated by his dead son “looking down from heaven.” It was a hortatory, inspirational thing, addressed principally to the boy’s coevals. The message was simple yet compelling: do not give up on your life. Considering how many people of any age do give up on life, owing to pain, depression, loneliness, or obstacles that seem insuperable, it’s an important message, certainly one we can all benefit from hearing now and then.
But beyond the message of that letter lay something else, something arguably more important: the origin of the letter. Who wrote it? The father had typed it out, but did the words and sentiments originate with him? I submit that even he, no matter how certain he might have been, couldn’t really know. And of course, neither could anyone else.
If the father was the originator, the act would strike some, including me, as somewhat presumptuous. But if it were otherwise, it constitutes a message from beyond the veil of Time: a minor miracle. As it’s not possible to know, all that remains is what one chooses to believe.
That’s the way it is with a lot of things.
Among the greater mysteries of Christian faith is the one surrounding prayer. We are taught that all prayers are answered...but also that we might not recognize the answer when it’s delivered. Jesus Himself told us to “Ask, and it shall be given you:”
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? [Matthew 7:7-11]
Yet many who pray for health are denied it. Many who pray for sustenance in time of need do not receive it. How are we to reconcile these things with the doctrine that prayer is always answered?
LK: OK fine, but this faith stuff is asking a lot of us sometimes. I’ve had faith before. Exercised it regularly. I prayed to you for things that I wanted and needed to happen. But I was let down when my prayers weren’t answered. I’ve never been married and only came close once. You know that I really loved Nick. When he left me, my heart was broken. What happened?Not only aren’t we guaranteed to recognize the answer; we’re not guaranteed to like it, either. As God says above, “This is how it works. This is life.”
God: Your prayers were answered. You just didn’t like the results. I gave you what you needed.
LK: But I loved him!
God: Trust me, I gave you what you needed.
LK: And what was that?
God: You needed a life without Nick.
God: Nick was never the right guy for you. If you were with him, you’d never get the chance to meet the man you’re supposed to be with.
LK: So, where is my Mr. Man and why am I alone now and so miserable?
God: You’ll meet him when the time is right. You’re alone now because you need to be and you’re miserable I guess, because for some reason, you want to be.
LK: I want to be miserable?? What purpose would that serve?
God: Only you can answer that.
LK: Where are you in all of this?
God: I’m right here–where I have been; where I will be. Listen to me–I give you opportunities, Laurie. You make of them what you will. You decide how to react, how to feel. This is how it works. This is life.
To believe or disbelieve is your choice. Neither is provably right...and neither is provably wrong.
The domain of faith includes all propositions that can neither be proved nor disproved: i.e., that must be accepted or rejected “on faith.” Those which can be disproved belong to the domain of science. Those which can be proved or disproved belong to the domain of mathematics.
I am of the opinion that we need faith – that it fills a space in our psyches that nothing else can fill. I’ve known no one of healthy mind who was utterly without faith, though the particular faiths some of my acquaintances possessed were imperceptible even to them. I think this also helps to explain the phenomenon of mid-life returnees to religions abandoned in youth. Young people are often utterly clueless about what they need; any college campus in America would serve as a case study.
Yet faith requires effort. Part of the effort lies in choosing what to believe; the remainder lies in believing it in the face of others’ derision. All four of the cardinal virtues must be exercised in this matter of faith:
- Prudence, for separating what is plausible from what is plainly absurd;
- Justice, for rejecting beliefs that involve the violation of others’ rights;
- Temperance, for remaining humble and not slathering one’s choice over everyone within range;
- Fortitude, for withstanding the insults and ridicule of others.
The reason is simple:
This is the great “either-or” that confronts every man who entertains a religious proposition. God – if you believe in Him, as I do – has made it possible to decline faith while retaining our reason. Hillary Swank’s overlooked little movie The Reaping provides an example of the processes involved.
The above is why I’ve maintained that it is possible for a good man to be an atheist, and yet to receive the reward of eternal bliss that’s promised to good men who believe in God, who worship Him in all three Persons, and who observe His Commandments. Human reason and knowledge are and will remain incapable of penetrating the veil of Time. Being finite creatures – while we live, at least – we are too little to engulf the infinite. Faith thus becomes the choice inescapably before us.
That doesn’t mean it will ever become easy to have faith. We’re supposed to be tried right up to the limit our souls can bear, and part of the trial is undoubtedly enduring the scorn of others who don’t believe as we do and deem us stupid, ignorant, or weak-minded for believing it. That is the Covenant with Man: the condition upon which salvation is offered us.
Time was, they who professed faith were so much more numerous than those who didn’t that they “gave themselves airs,” including the privilege of tormenting those others in various ways. It was wrong; let there be no dispute about that. And it is quite possible that the derision believers suffer today is our comeuppance, even part of our penance. The task is the same as it has always been: for each man to choose whether to believe, to conduct himself accordingly, and to accept the consequences.
No one escapes the great Either-Or.
May God bless and keep you all.