2016-06-30

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.)

Marge told me that to seek a way to avoid chaos and pain was the true absurdity. "Life comes to call in full measure at times," she said, "and faith is the power to accept the nature of life as it is and to cease the meaningless and useless task of trying to stop change from happening to you." This final comment of hers reminded me that a touch of Buddhism always has a way of putting things into perspective.

But still...

Before I met Marge, there had always been something that irritated me about the belief that "things work out for the best." It implies that today was empty and that tomorrow, all will be perfect. Faith, it seems to me, is the capacity to keep your attention in the moment and say, "All is as it should be now." It shouldn't mean speaking of that sweet comfort zone in the language of the inevitable, the not-quite-yet, the someday-down-the-road. The secret of Marge's peace was that she did not live waiting for her tomorrow to be better. Whatever her day was filled with was "as it should be" and that was good enough for her. She had faith, a belief that in all things that looked still there was motion so fast that your eyes could not keep pace with the speed of change. She lived fully in the faith that all things could change in an instant, including the healing of an illness, an end to overwhelming poverty, or meeting the love of your life at the local gas station. Marge balked at the word "impossible," saying that if she could ever ban something from her house, it would be spiritually disabling beliefs that had no place in the description of heaven.

So how does one develop such faith?

Okay - here's the challenge. Maybe there is nothing in your life that you feel is out of order and perhaps you have come to terms with all of your fears and insecurities. But let's say you are one of the billions and billions of the rest of us who still experience nighttime tremors about something or someone in your life. Here's the practice:

1. Observe how you pray. Everyone without exception is an agenda-prayer person until he or she consciously recognizes the pattern and takes conscious steps to shift gears. When people tell me that they are agenda-free in their meditation practice, I observe how agendas dominate their "ordinary" life and I know instantly that they are no more agenda-free than the average politician. Humbug. Observe your agendas. What do you pray for and how do you pray? How many times do you have a wish list, special request, or personal agenda? Mind you, there is absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing wrong with having such intentions in mind. The hurdle you have to get over is your need to have your prayers answered exactly the way you want them answered. Agendas are not harmful in your prayers; but the agendas you have for the answers you want reflect your lack of faith.

2. Were you in a classroom with me right now with a microphone shoved in your face, you might report that you had no such thoughts rolling around in your head. Examine that agenda as deeply as you can. What are your motives? What is it you want to happen and why? Choose an area of your life where you truly have a desired outcome. How would "getting what you want" be the solution to your situation? How much of that solution favors you over anyone or anything else? Does getting your desired outcome make you feel more secure?

3. Here comes the hurdle: release your agenda with a prayer of surrender and unconditional faith. And then immediately observe whether you add a postscript to that prayer. Can you surrender? If not, what are your reasons? What do you fear the most?

4. Finally, shift the focus of your prayers. The intention is not to pray for anything at all. Rather, the intention becomes one of praying through your fears. Faith is the ability to pray without an agenda.

5. Remind yourself how often you have been afraid before, and how things that seemed problematic yesterday worked out for the best today. Then recount how many times the outcome was absolutely nothing like the way you had anticipated that something would be resolved. The Universe tends to provide outcomes that you had never considered. Keep your attention on those details.

6. Take time to pause in your day to "freeze" your thoughts and emotions and observe how often they are generated by stress and fear. Are you living a frightened life? What scares you the most? Being alone (that's always a biggie), failure, or something else? Then observe how much those fears determine your actions, thoughts, words, and deeds. Again, are you living a frightened life?

7. Finally, pray to experience just one second of the power of pure faith.
That experience gives bliss a whole new meaning. Pray for one second of bliss. I now realize that Marge was living a fearless life. She remains one of the greatest examples of a complete person, and I think of her when I am in my own times of distress. From a mundane perspective, her life was not easy, but it was uncomplicated because she saw no benefit to indulging thoughts and emotions that did not serve her well-being.

The wisdom of living in the present moment is without a doubt the most comforting companion to surrender and faith that heaven has provided for us. Keep your attention in the present moment and when you find yourself wandering down a dead-end street, freeze that perspective and breathe it away. And then remind yourself of one of the greatest truths of all time: All things can change in an instant, no matter what the challenge.

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