“Letters to a Growing Catholic” are letters I will someday send my children about our religion. Of course, your feedback and advice are welcome, or I wouldn’t be posting any of it in public.
My good egg,
In my last letter, I said that Faith is not a magic trick that makes 2+2=5. Faith is the act of placing trust in someone who has earned it. In this letter, I will describe the practice of Faith as a virtue.
It might seem odd to call Faith a virtue. It seems almost automatic, doesn’t it? When someone earns our trust, we just give it to them. When someone asks for our trust, we just dispassionately decide whether that person has proved herself trustworthy. That may be technically a choice, but it’s a pretty easy one, right? You technically have “Faith” in math, but it’s probably never occurred to you to think of it as something you chose, much less something that’s virtuous.
Alas, we aren’t as dispassionate as we like to believe.
Who and what we choose to put our faith in very often has as much to do with who we want to trust as it does with who has actually earned our trust. Our stomachs get nearly as much say as our brains.
This can be quite innocent. In Mere Christianity (which you must read soon), C.S. Lewis says that one of the greatest acts of faith is made at the doctor’s office:
My reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.
When you think of it you will see lots of instances of this. A man knows, on perfectly good evidence, that a pretty girl of his acquaintance is a liar and cannot keep a secret and ought not to be trusted; but when he finds himself with her his mind loses its faith in that bit of knowledge and he starts thinking, "Perhaps she'll be different this time," and once more makes a fool of himself and tells her something he ought not to have told her. His senses and emotions have destroyed his faith in what he really knows to be true.
…Now just the same thing happens about Christianity. I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in. But supposing a man's reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks.
There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair: some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments where a mere mood rises up against it.
Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods "where they get off," you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.
Faith is not there to make 2+2=5. It protects your belief that 2+2=4, even in the face of changing appetites and irrational fears. Faith is not opposed to Truth; it is Truth’s most important guardian.
Unfortunately, the challenges to Faith are not always so innocent.
I don’t know whether I’ve shown this one to you yet, but there’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard is captured by the Cardassians. Picard is handed over to a torturer named Gul Madred, who tries to break Captain Picard’s mind so that he helps the Cardassians defeat Starfleet. Madred’s favorite trick is to turn on four bright lights and then ask Picard how many lights there are.
Madred wants Picard to say that there are five lights. He promises Picard rich rewards if he will just say that there are five lights. Whenever Picard answers, truthfully, that there are really only four lights, Madred tortures him horrifically. Gul Madred knows that, if he can just get Picard to defy the Truth, even in this very small way, Madred will be able to unravel everything that makes him Picard. Fortunately, Captain Picard never breaks.
And yet. After his rescue, Picard confides in Counselor Troi:
PICARD: What I didn't put in the report was that, at the end, he gave me a choice between a life of comfort or more torture. All I had to do was to say that I could see five lights, when in fact, there were only four.
TROI: You didn't say it?
PICARD: No, no, but I was going to. I would have told him anything. Anything at all. But… more than that… I believed that I could see five lights.
It was sheer faith that kept Captain Picard together… until, finally, it couldn’t.
There will probably come a time in your life when the daily minor tests of faith that we all face will give way to a huge test, a full-on assault. You will (probably) not be physically tortured, but you will feel like you’re being tortured. I don’t know when, I don’t know why, but the test comes.
For many people, the test comes in adolescence or young adulthood, when they face the first real temptations of their lives. These temptations are so beguiling, so seemingly necessary, that to even try resisting them seems absurd, inhuman. How dare the Church ask us to say “no” to such wonderful things? In our century, the strongest temptations are usually about embodiment (sexual desires, drugs, eating disorders, and so on), but it’s different for each person (and for each century).
Whatever your particular temptation is, to powerfully want something—something you could easily have, if you weren’t following the inexplicable instructions of your obviously (obviously) cruel God!—well, it’s perhaps not quite as bad as being tortured by the Obsidian Order, but there are days when it’s hard to tell the difference. Your whole being may cry out that, surely, there are five lights if you just squint hard enough! That is where Faith must reassert that, no, she has it on good authority that there are four lights, even though it’s hard to see them in the teeth of temptation. The test is listening to her.
For an internet writer named Rod Dreher, the test came in 2006, when he was leading an investigation into awful crimes committed by priests and bishops throughout the Catholic Church. He wrote a long, painful, quite beautiful post about the crimes he had uncovered. He wrote about the children who had grown up and killed themselves because of molestation. He wrote about the Church officials who had known about it and lied. He wrote about betrayals large and small, which culminated in a final lie that struck too close to home:
This was too much. When I told Julie what Father's true background was, we were both shattered. I mean shattered. Given all that had come before, and given that we finally thought we could let our guard down, that we were among orthodox Catholics now, and we could trust them—well, something broke in us.
It would be months before we realized how broken. We returned to our old parish, and spent months going through the motions. It's hard for me to express how spiritually depressed we were. The only strong emotion I felt about faith in those days was anger and bitterness. I got into the habit of routinely leaving during the homilies… because I felt so weak and vulnerable in my faith that I just wanted to get through mass and to receive the Eucharist and go home without having to get mad all over again. I was in such a state that the usual AmChurch banalities that orthodox Catholics learn to endure early on had the effect of setting me off. It was a rotten way to live, and I began to despair over what kind of icon of Christ I was for my children.
…This whole Sacrament Factory approach to living the Christian life left me ice-cold. I started to see my own faith and relationship to the Catholic Church as a purely mechanical thing. I’d go to fulfill my Sunday duty, receiving the Eucharist and then getting the heck out of there, wanting as little as possible to do with parish life.
Dreher and his then-wife, crushed under this weight, finally converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, where they found a spiritual home, a vibrant life of faith, and a measure of healing.
When I read that post in 2006, my heart went out to the man. The things he’d gone through were agonizing. I couldn’t find it in my heart to blame him, exactly, for abandoning Catholicism. Even Frodo fell at Mount Doom.
Yet I remember reading Dreher’s post back a second time, looking for the actual, concrete reason he now believed Catholicism false and Orthodoxy true. Aside from a vague reference to papal primacy, he gave no reason. Dreher made clear that it was not careful reasoning that drove him from the Catholic Church, but deep pain. So I said a Hail Mary for Dreher and pitied him. We had both been led to Catholicism by our pursuit of Truth, but it seemed to me that Dreher had been led away by something else. That he had failed the test.
A decade or so later, though, I was in trouble. The “synod summers” of Pope Francis’s Synod on the Family had come and gone. For three years, the Pope made clear that he wanted to open a debate about whether divorced and “remarried” Catholic couples could receive communion—something Scripture and two thousand years of teaching expressly forbade. Although there were many examples throughout history of bad popes courting heresy, and although I intellectually knew that such things were possible, I cannot tell you what a shock it was to my system to see it actually happen. I had just lived through the papacies of St. “John Paul the Great” and Benedict XVI! In my heart of hearts, I had come to believe that Holy Spirit not only protected the papacy from actual formal error, but from many other kinds of stupidity and evil. Now I had learned that it didn’t, and it left me shook.
Here in the Twin Cities, it was also a season of scandal. Sex abuse and coverup allegations had ripped through our diocese in growing waves for several years. A priest who had served as my associate pastor at Nativity went to prison, convicted of abusing a vulnerable woman whom I knew in passing. A priest who had served as Mom’s associate pastor also went to prison, convicted of abusing children. A priest-teacher, a good friend of mine, with whom I’d shared countless meals, who said Mom and my wedding Mass, was suddenly on the front page of the Star Tribune every day, accused of grave wrongdoing by the sister of someone I knew from school. (His case was inconclusive, which was in some ways harder.) The whistleblower at the heart of all of it had been my favorite babysitter when I was eleven. As I pored over the documents, obsessed, the list of priests and laypeople I knew who were connected to the scandal became dizzying, their lies and rationalizations laid bare. It took years, but, eventually, the bishop was implicated in serious wrongdoing—as were both of his predecessors, going back to before I was born. So was the papal nuncio. I can’t imagine how horrible it was to be an actual victim of the abusers; it was awful enough just seeing from afar the moral rot in so many people I’d respected. And it just kept mounting.
At some point during those awful years, I found Dreher’s old post and reread it.
This time, I wept. Not for pity this time, but because I finally knew in my bones that Dreher was right. I felt just what he’d felt—anger, bitterness, “going through the motions.” I had no more reason to leave the Church in 2017 than Dreher’d had in 2006. But it didn’t matter. I had to get out of the Catholic Church. I knew it, deep down, with the terrible conviction of the broken-hearted. It was impossible for me to think otherwise.
Many people would say that I had lost my faith.
They are mistaken. This was when I discovered my faith.
My desire to be Catholic was gone. I had recently moved, so I had few ties to my new parish. Since I had lost confidence only in the Catholic Church, not the Resurrection, the obvious choice was to join the Eastern Orthodox. Ex-Catholics from Dreher to Gershom made Orthodoxy sound so beautiful. The Orthodox have valid sacraments, so my parents would be disappointed but not crushed. My spiritual life could presumably pick up where it had left off, perhaps even flourish. All I had to do was walk away from Catholicism, swim the Bosporus, and stand up in the Eastern Church.
The only thing that kept me rooted was a quiet voice deep down, asking, “But is it true?”
This is where Faith shows up. It’s not there to make you believe that 2+2=5. It’s there to protect your belief that 2+2=4. The teachings of the Catholic Church had won my trust, not the warmth of its parishes (ha) or by the sterling example of its clergy (hahaha), but by convincing me they were true. Faith insisted that I could not leave unless I discovered they were false.
At first, this seemed like only a small obstacle. I had believed many arguments for Catholicism for many years, but they had always come buttressed by various emotional supports. Surely now, with those buttresses all burned away, I would take my first clear look at all the weaknesses in the arguments for Catholicism, and I’d punch enough holes in them for me to crawl through and escape.
However, because I knew that I could not trust my own judgment, I set myself a rule: it would not be enough to simply raise questions or doubts. I needed to devise a decisive argument, a proof so strong it would convince Mom to convert with me. We are responsible for one another’s salvation, so we needed to do this together—but Mom was not hurting nearly as badly as I was, so she would need a good reason to leave the Church, something more than “it hurts too much to stay.” Until then, I would practice Catholicism and keep my weekly Holy Hour. With that rule, I set to work plotting my escape to Eastern Orthodoxy.
I failed. I acquired a highly recommended book of Orthodox theology… and had to abandon it early, because it was dreadful pap. I tried to understand how the Orthodox see the Church’s teaching authority… and found it unreasonable, both on its own terms and in light of the ancient traditions of the early Church. Reluctantly, my brain swatted away Orthodoxy’s challenges to Catholicism, one after the other, apologizing to the rest of me all along. I never even presented anything to your mother. The Catholic Church, to my despair, continued to appear true.
Spiritually, I felt like I was half-dead in the desert. The oasis I was running toward was turning out to be a mirage. Now I was being called back into the deeper desert whence I’d come. I thought I would die of thirst there. But I had no choice but to follow where the Truth led, even if it killed me.
I clung to the Church with bitter resentment, but still I clung. This saved me. Most especially, my commitment to keep my weekly hour of Perpetual Adoration saved me. As I tried to find an escape, the Adored, all the while, was starting to knit my shattered spiritual bones back together—only now in a new, less brittle shape. Which was probably His plan the whole time. Eventually, I stopped fighting back. One day, after a longer time, I was even okay.
This last is important: in a season of doubt, it is not enough to stand by and let the case for doubt mount up unanswered. It is crucial to balance the doubt by reminding oneself of what one currently believes, and who, and why. This is even more true when we move from intellectual faith to personal faith. When a friendship or a marriage feels like it is falling apart, it’s important to spend more time with the beloved, not less—at least for a while, until a firm decision to recommit or break away can be made. So, too, with Jesus. In my experience, this is an iron law: if you quit praying because you’re not certain He’s there, pretty soon you’ll be certain He’s not. To stop spending time with Him is to break off the relationship, even if the fumes of belief sputter on for a little while.
So that’s Faith. It’s not a feeling. It’s not warm or fuzzy or comforting. It isn’t loud. It’s only active when it isn’t wanted. It feels rather like being choked. Sometimes it actually does kill you—Jesus’s faith was never stronger than it was when he walked, willingly but in tears, to His crucifixion. Faith would never tell you to cling to falsehoods… but Faith insists that you keep your grip on those things that have earned your trust, especially when it hurts to hold on.
In this, she is an indispensable companion to her sister, Truth. Truth is always jumping up, looking around, getting excited about every new idea that sounds plausible. If, every time Truth picked up a new shiny, you instantly followed her wherever she led, you would never believe anything difficult longer than the fifteen minutes it takes for your mood to change to some other shiny. You wouldn’t live in the Truth, but in an infinite series of unstable delusions. Faith solves this by making Truth wait. She tells her to look before she leaps, to trust what she has already built up, to stand fast against the fickle winds of sentiment and mood. Faith loves Truth and will move if Truth tells her to, but insists on being convinced—especially on the most important questions.
Now that we have met and befriended these two sisters, we are ready to go on a walk with them. In my next letter, I will start to explain why our family believes what it believes about those most important questions: who am I? why am I here? where am I going? what is good?
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By far the most comprehensive and clear explanation of Faith I've ever seen. I know we've landed on different conclusions faith-wise, but this was definitely an important piece that I'll probably revisit. Loving each installment!
Thank you for a moving and compelling witness! I hope it was not nearly as painful to write about your experience as to go through it.
It happened that this morning on Facebook I saw a post from a society dedicated to the thought of Bertrand Russell (why they send these to me I don't know). It was a dismissive and simple-minded comment about faith, claiming it has no place in intelligent people's lives: If you already know something is true, you just know it. If you know it isn't, don't believe it. And if you're not sure, suspend judgment. I checked to see if he followed this in his own relationships. Married four times, divorced three times, multiple adulteries. Yes, never kept faith with anyone, never deserved the faith of any woman. A consistent man.