By DON FIER
Last week, we saw that faith and understanding go hand-in-hand. Although mankind does not possess the capacity to intellectually grasp many of God’s infinite mysteries and truths, he was created with a nature that aspires toward truth, beauty, and goodness. With regard to faith, the human person has a natural desire to seek to understand what he comes to believe through faith. This innate tendency is indeed good, for a more penetrating knowledge leads not only to deeper faith but also to a greater and more profound love of God.
We saw also that faith and reason never contradict each other, that although faith is above reason there can never be a true discrepancy between the two. If such ever appears to be the case, one or both have been misunderstood — for God, who is Truth, is the Source of each and cannot contradict Himself.
We now turn our attention to another fundamentally important characteristic of faith: It must be free. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) unambiguously teaches that to be human, “man’s response to God by faith must be free” (CCC, n. 160). The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae (DH) instructs us with compelling clearness that “it is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that . . . no one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will” (DH, n. 10).
Why is this so vitally important? Simply put, it would be a violation of man’s free will, an affront to his very dignity as a human person, if he were forced to believe through coercion or threats.
For as Dr. Peter Kreeft puts it, “what can be coerced is fear, not faith” (Catholic Christianity, pp. 21-22). Authentic love cannot truly be present if it is through fear that one believes.
The Catechism goes on to emphasize that faith is necessary to attain salvation. In St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims that “he who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Again in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says that “he who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36). These are but two of numerous instances in Sacred Scripture where our Lord and Savior unmistakably makes known to mankind that each person’s freely given “response of faith” is not an option, but a necessity if one is to attain the ultimate goal for which we all were created — union with God in Heaven.
Dignitatis Humanae makes the connection between the freedom of one’s response in faith and its necessity in the following way: “God calls men to serve Him in spirit and in truth, hence they are bound in conscience but they stand under no compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of the human person whom He Himself created and man is to be guided by his own judgment and he is to enjoy freedom….[Christ’s] intention was to rouse faith in His hearers and to confirm them in faith, not to exert coercion upon them. He did indeed denounce the unbelief of some who listened to Him, but He left vengeance to God in expectation of the Day of Judgment” (DH, n. 11).
One is reminded of the parable of the wheat field in which weeds were sown. Both those who received the word of God with faith (the wheat) and those who rejected it (the weeds) were allowed to grow together until harvest time at which time they were separated and judged accordingly (cf. Matt. 24-30).
So we know that “believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent Him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation” (CCC, n. 161), and that faith is “an entirely free gift that God makes to man” (CCC, n. 162). But at the same time, we must realize than man can misuse his freedom — by defining his own misguided and false definition of happiness, man is capable of losing the priceless gift of faith. St. Paul makes that very point in his letter to Timothy when he implores him to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:18-19).
Does not what St. Paul warns of seem to be prevalent in modern-day society where so many appear to outright reject God’s saving message? The parable of the sower who went out to sow his seed comes to mind. The seed (the word of God) is offered to all to believe and act upon, but man can freely choose to refuse (see Luke 8:5-15). How often that seems to happen in our secularized culture, and for so many futile, irrational, and fleeting reasons!
The Catechism, however, has good news even in this life for those who persevere and are steadfast in their faith: “Faith is already the beginning of eternal life” (CCC, n. 163). The distinguished fourth-century Doctor of the Church St. Basil the Great tells us: “When we contemplate the blessings of faith even now, as if gazing at a reflection in a mirror, it is as if we already possessed the wonderful things which our faith assures us we shall one day enjoy” (De Spiritu Sancto, chapter 15, n. 36). St. Paul tells us in Sacred Scripture: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor. 13:12).
In other words, through our faithful response to the word of God during our sojourn on earth, a foretaste of the joys of Heaven is possible. Within the innermost recesses of our soul we can experience a deep sense of peace that is a prelude of what is everlastingly in store for us in Heaven. This is despite “our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice, and death, [which] seem to contradict the Good News” (CCC, n. 164).
Periods Of Darkness
This seeming contradiction provides an excellent stepping-off point to briefly examine the phenomenon of interior darkness in the life of faith. Faith, as may be said of the other virtues, is not a feeling. It is an act of belief in truths revealed by God which requires assent of the intellect and the command of the will aided by the movement of divine grace. We know of great saints of the Church (e.g., St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Gemma Galgani) who experienced extended periods of darkness, of the total withdrawal of sensible feelings of faith. They demonstrate that interior darkness, even to the point of feeling complete abandonment by God, can be experienced in the midst of heroic faith.
As expressed in Come Be My Light (the private writings of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta as compiled by the postulator of her cause for sainthood, Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC), “Interior darkness . . . has been a common phenomenon among the numerous saints throughout Church history who have experienced what the Spanish Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross termed the ‘dark night’” (p. 22).
Consider the following excerpt from a letter that Mother Teresa wrote to her archbishop:
“There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God — so deep that it is painful — a suffering continual —and yet not wanted by God — repulsed – empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. Souls hold no attraction — Heaven means nothing — to me it looks like an empty place — the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything. For I am only His — so He has every right over me. I am perfectly happy to be nobody even to God” (ibid., pp. 169-170).
As related in Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa did not sensibly feel the presence of faith for approximately 48 years except for one brief one-month period. Yet her heroic witness and the joy she continually radiated demonstrated the exact opposite: She not only possessed but tremendously increased in faith, hope, and charity during these dark years.
Let each of us pray for and aspire to attain the response of faith of this remarkable foundress of the Missionaries of Charity.
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)