Living the Faith we profess
I remember an incident from when I was a boy, probably about 12 years of age.
It was the practice of my family to attend Mass together on a Sunday morning. I wouldn’t say that my brother, two sisters and I were particularly fond of this aspect of family life, but it had been the case for as long as I could remember and none of us thought to question it.
I had to admit that, by the time my early teens came around, there was a quiet resentment starting to build toward anything the relevance of which I couldn’t immediately see. Church seemed to be the obvious recipient of this resentment, primarily because it fell on a Sunday morning and surely there were better ways we could be spending our time…
I guess I was mulling these things over as I knelt in church with my family all those years ago. A bit preoccupied and bored, I found myself suddenly paying attention to what was happening up the front. I wondered why the priest was doing what he was doing. It is not a particularly profound thought, but it took me into a frame of mind where I was paying attention to more than the superficial.
The point in the Mass we were at was the great doxology, where the priest holds up the host and the chalice and proclaims ‘through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours Almighty Father, forever and ever…’
The words struck me, and two questions occurred: ‘what’s he talking about?’ and ‘who’s he talking to?’ Then the realisation dawned: either ‘there’s nothing here, and none of this means anything,’ or ‘it is deeply true, and that changes everything.’ I could no longer have it both ways: believe it may be true and yet relate to it as if it had no relevance to my real life.
I don’t know why I decided on the side of ‘this is deeply true, and that changes everything’: plenty of people don’t. I recall the English comedian, Ricky Gervais, saying that he gave up on the existence of God when, as a child, his older brother laughed at his faith.
Ricky seemed suddenly sure that none of it was real and that he was somehow ridiculous for believing that it might be. Along with many others, he chose the ‘there’s nothing here, and it’s all meaningless’ approach – at least for now.
I believe we all need to go through that moment of questioning and decision. A child’s faith in the existence and love of God is a beautiful thing to behold, but it cannot take most of us through the complexities of adult life.
The fact is, this is true of almost any aspect of human experience: our view of ourselves, our relationships, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the world, etc. etc. all evolve and deepen as we grow. If they do not grow and develop, we become stunted as human beings.
So why should we be surprised that the same is true when it comes to our relationship with God? The moment needs to arrive for all of us when we acknowledge that our naïve faith, as beautiful as it might have been, is but one stage on a journey that we need to undertake the whole of our lives, and which will take us into eternity.
Eventually, we have to choose: either we reject that naive faith because we can’t see how it helps us make sense of our experience, or we go on the journey toward deepening our awareness and understanding of God.
This journey is not always easy. As with any growth, it is often painful and dislocating. The whole point of belonging to a community is that each of us should be able to access the support and wisdom of those who are either having to address the same questions or who have walked the road before us.
I believe a reading of “Stages of Faith” by James W Fowler would be beneficial to everyone who would like to take the life of faith seriously. There we read of the different stages of the faith journey, the misunderstanding of which accounts for many a disagreement within the Church.
There are those who require simplicity and to feel that everything is black and white. There are those who valued that once but the complexities and ambiguities of life make them wary of that approach now. And there are those whose experience of faith opens them to new ways of seeing and being that can no longer easily be contained within the well-loved structures and formulas.
While Fowler identifies the journey through the stages of faith with the path to spiritual maturity, I don’t think it is as simple as that. I have known men and women at various stages of faith according to Fowler’s schema, and in each stage there were those who are sinners and those who are saints. That is to say, holiness can be manifest in any stage of faith development, and God in his mercy can work within the life of anyone who opens him or herself to God.
I raise Fowler not to endorse his schema but to acknowledge that he has a point: each of us approaches the reception and living of our faith in different ways, and each of us finds meaning in ways today that may be meaningless to others at another stage of the journey. The question is: can I welcome and accommodate you, and can you welcome and accommodate me?
I find myself with my own wishlist in the lead up to the upcoming Plenary Council. Chief among them is that all Catholics in Australia will soon feel supported and valued wherever they happen to be on the spiritual journey: able to have their questions and their doubts, and to find brothers and sisters who are content to walk with them as they make their complex and nuanced journey to the life God has for them. Otherwise, what’s the point? Seriously.
Shane Dwyer is the Director of the National Centre for Evangelisation and the Catholic Enquiry Centre.