Beliefnet

The other day I was discussing with a friend a serious challenge she is going through in her marriage. We talked about the pros and cons of counseling, separation, divorce, and anything else that seemed like a viable option. At the end of the conversation, she leaned back in her chair and said, "Oh, well, I guess I just have to have faith that it will all work out." I agreed with her.

What exactly is faith? How do we know if we have faith? And how is the power of faith manifested?

The essence of faith

Faith is power. It is the power to stand up to the madness and chaos of the physical world while holding the position that nothing external has any authority over what heaven has in mind for you. That kind of power is perhaps the most enviable internal strength that any human being can attain. Like any good Catholic schooled in the lives of the saints and mystics, I know an endless string of stories that show why their faith was the proof of their sainthood. Against all odds, these individuals were able to resist forces of the outside world that others would cave under and hold steady on their course. That course could consist of believing in the process of inner revelation that was taking place within their spirits, or of trusting that their needs would be met regardless of the odds.

Some years ago I read a book about the woman known as Peace Pilgrim. For twenty-five years, she walked across the country in behalf of world peace, carrying all that she needed with her. She ate when given food and slept when given a bed. Peace Pilgrim's journey was one of unconditional faith, and it was that aspect of her life that captivated my attention as I read her story. Her plan was to walk across the northern part of the country during the summer and the southern states during the winter.

One time as she was walking through the South, the weather turned cold and she lacked proper clothing. She heard a voice tell her to seek cover under a bridge and when she reached that destination she discovered a box large enough for her to fit into with a blanket and pillow inside. One could call that a miracle, but is it really? Could that experience be simply the way things happen when we walk in faith? Isn't it more the way heaven would work with us if we followed the teachings of the spiritual masters and trusted that our needs would be met - IF, indeed, we trusted that our needs would be met? I love stories like Peace Pilgrim's because I believe that heaven does watch us that closely and can intervene in a moment's notice - and part of my inner struggle is that I just can't seem to live in that space. Nor can most of the people I meet.

When I was growing up, I believed that heaven had to ask my parents' permission to send me a crisis -- that as long as I lived at home, I remained underage for "adult" problems. Later, when I was in my twenties and was just beginning to wonder about the nature of God, I met a woman I'll call Marge, who had a magnetic personality. She lived a simple life that appeared quite attractive to me because she was perhaps the first person I had ever met who was truly content and did not invest her time in "wanting." That quality alone was soothing to me because she so clearly loved her life just as it was. Marge was soft-spoken and small-framed, not that those characteristics have anything at all to do with faith. They did, however, stand in stark contrast to the enormous spirit that she possessed. I remember so clearly asking her why it was easy for her to believe that all things were taken care of and unfolded as they were meant to unfold. I challenged her with an obvious argument, namely, Would she offer that same posture to someone whose house had just been wiped out in a flood or to someone who had just experienced the loss of a loved one?

"Well, you know," Marge said, "everything you believe depends upon how afraid you are of life, and how well you want to know the soul of life, because life itself has its own soul." I loved the poetry of that response. It rolled around in my head like a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. Life itself has its own soul. I am still in awe of that thought because it is truth. We discussed the "behavior" of life, its precarious personality and whimsical nature. In the end, Marge pointed out that trusting in the nature of God is the same as coming to the realization that life should not be lived "safely" but "wisely." To expect that God does not act through pain and pleasure equally is to maintain a child's idea of God. It seemed to me, I said, that holding onto a belief that heaven means for you to lose your home in a flood borders on pure absurdity. (Keep in mind that at the time of this exchange, I was in my twenties and this is exactly what I believed. Looking back, I realize that I was in search of the rules to follow that would insure that it would never be my home that would be swept away under the waves.)

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