Archive for November 15th, 2007

A Faith Worth Believing

November 15, 2007


In the past month of more I have been working from time to time on posts about a “One-Storey Universe” versus a “Two-Storey Universe.” The comments and the readership have said to me that I am writing about a topic that touches many. Perhaps the most poignant responses I have had have been those who have heard descriptions of the One-Storey World, in tales from monastics in which the language is clearly simple: the monks speak of God, the saints, miracles, visions, healings, etc., in precisely the same language they use to described beans and sand, the sunrise and everything else in their day-to-day existence. A “miracle” is a much a part of their day as the soup that sits before them. The responses to such normalcy and integration of the spiritual life have occasionally been of the sort I would expect: “This is wonderful. I would like to believe like that, but I find it so hard.”

Perhaps the greatest journey many of us have to make in this modern age is the journey from the corroded faith of modernity itself towards a faith worth believing. Some have made a journey to the Orthodox Church because they sensed that here such a faith can be found. Some have made that journey though they have not personally found such faith as yet. They are simply not willing to stay where they have been and listen either to the vapid emptiness of modern liberal Christianity, or the emotion-filled delusions of pentecostalism and much of modern-day evangelicalism. And thus they have made the difficult journey to Orthodoxy – waiting for the arrival of a one-storey faith, a time when the words they say and hear will become the words of their heart, without question, without second-guessing. This is a very difficult journey indeed.

Part of this is the plight of modern man. He lives in a world in which faith has been largely removed. Faith has become a function of the second-storey. We may speak of things that have been relegated to that realm and believe in them much like we believe in imaginary numbers (I can’t remember what those are!). That the things on the second-storey are true, we believe. Indeed, the doctrine about the things that have been relegated to that place are believed very vehemently, for the doctrines are almost the sole intellectual content that we can access. We cannot access the angels, or God, or the resurrection. Instead, there are a set of rational principles, derived from Scripture (perhaps even the Fathers) and these we may access and “believe” and argue.

But this is still not a faith worth believing. Our town has just endured a devastating tragedy. A young middle-school girl, well known to many (our town is only 25,000) was struck by a school bus on the way home from school and killed. The pain engendered by such an event is beyond description. Peoples’ reactions are much as I would have expected. My own grief is palpable.

But such a death, simply moved to the second-storey, is inadequately addressed. Children will listen to the explanations but will not be much comforted. For the weakness of the second-storey is that it removes things from us and places them beyond our ability to access. They are gone, and replaced by slogans. I go to graveyards here in East Tennessee and I see the grave of a young child. On top sits a decaying flower arrangement, complete with a little telephone. On the arrangement is written: “Jesus called.” It is too small a slogan to fill the emptiness of a parent’s heart.

Instead, I believe there has to be a steady movement and growth towards a one-storey world – where our faith, our experience, and our day-to-day existence are not separated. Where God and the saints, the angels and the world to come, are themselves constantly impinging on our consciousness.

The journey to this one-storey existence – to a faith worth believing  – is long and slow. It first means leaving behind the language and the false comfort (however little it is) of the two-storey world. I will not satisfy myself with the false reasonings of those who do not know anything about that of which they speak. I do not want to hear someone parsing the various forms of grace as if they knew what they were talking about. I do not wish to hear warmed-over medieval arguments as if they meant something to a parent who has just lost a child.

I do want to pray the prayers of those who stood in the lines of the Gulag and found the prayers to be real. I want to know God here and now where He is everywhere present and fills all things. I want to converse with my guardian angel and know that my words are heard. I want to carry my heart before God in its grief and pray for those I have lost, crying to God, “Memory eternal!”

I think we make this journey to a faith worth believing in first by coming to where faith is expected to be the normative way of life – the living Orthodox Church.

Second, we make this journey to a faith worth believing by slowly, day to day, praying and pressing our heart towards the place of believing.

Pray for the departed like it matters. Pray to God in the words of the saints (and in your own), and speak to Him here and now. Give to the needy as though you were giving to God (you are). Live the sacramental life of the Church. Use everything the Church gives you for a normal, one-storey Christian existence. And be honest with God and with your priest about the struggles you have – about the assaults you experience against the faith.

The great good news is that this faith worth believing is true. It survives even into the modern world because the modern world is weak and crumbles. It cannot feed a modern man, while the faith once and for all delivered to the saints sustains human beings even through the unimaginable horrors of the modern world. God is with us.

If you wait on your modern heart to just suddenly become the heart of a desert monk – you’ll have a long wait. The first floor is full of strange and wonderful things, but your heart will have to be changed in something longer than an instant (most likely). But most of us can find our hearts changed with something less than 40 years of weeping in a desert or a 20 year sentence in the cold of Siberia. Instead, you’ll have to pray even when you don’t feel like it and fast when you’d prefer to forget it, and attend Church like an old “Baba” in the dark years of Stalin. If the doors are open, be there – or at least try to be there – as if your life depended on it. It does. And the faith worth believing will come. Day by day it will come.

And then. in this modern world, you will see something that others don’t. You may be asked to tell what you see. Or you may prefer silence. But the reality of what you see will have removed the anxiety in your heart and replaced it with true faith. It is enough.