A Faith Worth Believing

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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.

26 Responses to “A Faith Worth Believing”

  1. jeuby Says:

    i think you meant imaginary numbers instead of irrational numbers.

    mr. webster defines irrational numbers as:
    a number that can be expressed as an infinite decimal with no set of consecutive digits repeating itself indefinitely and that cannot be expressed as the quotient of two integers

    examples of irrational numbers would be π or √2, as opposed to rational numbers like 3 or 1/2.

    imaginary numbers are numbers that are the squareroot of a negative number, which in reality don’t exist but do in the wonderful world of math.

    sorry, i’m a engineering student and nerd.

    nonetheless, i enjoyed the post. thanks for writing.

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    I have made the change in the text, sola fidei, trusting that you know what you’re talking about. However, your post proved my point perfectly. They were both 2nd storey events for me. Even the explanation. Thanks.

  3. Margaret Says:

    May God bless you richly for this post, Father! It is such a blessing, thank you!

  4. Blake Says:

    There is so much we take for granted, Father. At the Divine Liturgy we are present with the hosts of heaven, yet our hearts are as slabs of wood. We are richer than the Old Testament Saints, who sought God from the other side of the veil, who never saw the Liturgy, or the fullness of the faith they committed themselves to. We stand in the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Church of the Nicene Creed, the Church of the Holy Scriptures, of Pentecost, of Acts, adorned in the blood of the radiant and victorious martyrs — and so often we take it for granted. We mindlessly hum through chanting with the angels and leap for talking about politics or the ballgame during coffee hour.

    Yet, to keep going… to offer those prayers from unclean lips whether the heart is entirely there or not, to offer such a small sacrifice of standing at the divine services though our minds may wander, through our canons of prayer and the fasting of the Church, through reading the lives of the Saints and seeking to emulate them even fractionally… there is grace there. And it’s as you said. Day by day, it will come, and the assurance of your faith is manifested, you begin to see the spiritual in the mundane, the opportunity for victory in Christ in all circumstances, and the hardness of our own hearts gradually fading, for “a slow but steady discipline hollows out hard rock” according to St. Isaac the Syrian.

    Thank you for the post, Father, and forgive my ramblings.

  5. Fatherstephen Says:

    Well made remarks, Blake. To the point. Thanks. I so deeply agree with the time involved. It does come. I can see that far more now than I did 10 years ago when I converted. And I still see so little. But it does come. But we should never settle for a 2 storey Orthodoxy (such a contradiction). This would true spiritual failure. And it need not be settled for. I agree with you.

  6. Steve Says:

    A one-storey universe is really the *only* comfort I have found in this particular tragedy. The way the girl died, it is heart-wrenching. Only a one-storey universe can even begin to bring comfort. She is in the same house, just behind a closed door. It is horrific looking from the outside, but there is hope and peace on the other side, from the inside. I want to see from the inside, even as I’m waiting for my turn.

  7. mike t Says:

    fr. stephen,
    you blessings!

    I really loved what you had to say here! It is especially pertinent to some friends who have just begun the journey into Orthodoxy…they are really struggling with doubts–even as fundamental as the existence of God. I really appreciated your words of encouragement towards that end…it does get better…and to step away from this view of loving a certain doctrine that Orthodoxy offers above other traditions (an especially nasty pitfall for converts or those of us who go to school in non-Orthodox/non-one-storey colleges)…as opposed to recognizing and engaging in the reality. This is very hard for me. My mind is often an abusive jailor to my search for reality. I think it was john of the cross, in “dark night of the soul” who talked about our need to loosen our grasp on God in order for him to work. I have noticed this in myself, that I need let go of that attitude of seeing doctrines etc as new commodities/beautiful lines in a poem…and let God–reality–grasp ME. Anyway, any thoughts about that?

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    mike,

    Absolutely. Now we are getting down to the real meat of Orthodoxy. It is about believing in God – the real God. The doctrine is correct because it is the teaching of the real God. But because God is real I do not have to be anxious like a fundamentalist who only has his doctrine to reasurre him in the dark night of a 2 storey universe.

    Learning to relax in the truth of Orthodoxy, and knowing that it is to be believed for our salvation (in the day to day sense), but not to make us better than anyone else or to give us new weapons in our ongoing arguments with those around us.

    Orthodox (like life in a one-storey universe) is not an argument, it is a way of life. Live as though you really believed in God and as though no one else can do anything about it. All of this is true and I can’t change it, because it is true.

    My first year as Orthodox I was surprised by how much simply believing that there really is a God was both hard and the only point of my existence. Everything else was gone, no need for arguments. Now suddenly I was coming face to face with the Living God and the emptiness of my tired old heart.

    Slowly He is filling that old heart. And I rejoice. I hope someday in my life to be of help to others and, by my life – not my words, to make a proclamation of the Kingdom. I’m not there yet.

  9. Rebecca Says:

    Father Bless,

    Thank you.

    In Christ.

  10. david puline Says:

    From Finland. Just found your site and the meditations sink deeply. In Him, david.

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  12. Lessthantheleast Says:

    Father, I just returned to the Faith after an absence of 3 years. I was beguiled by the promises of liberal Christianity, and your words touched me deeply. Thank you so much.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    lessthantheleast,

    Welcome home. We all beguiled from time to time. May God have mercy on us.

  14. ole rocker Says:

    You write like Father Z. in the “Brothers K.” by Fydor D. Amazing – that dialog in the book by the good father seemed as if a real character were speaking to me .. very one storey, wouldn’t you say?

    Thank you so much for this and many more 100,000 viewers!

  15. Fatherstephen Says:

    ole rocker,

    Many thanks – Father Z is definitely one storey – it’s all right there. Many thanks. I have to ask. In Tennessee, if you say “ole rocker” you might mean a piece of furniture on the front porch. Does yours refer to that or to ole rocker as in “Keith Richards?”

  16. Michael Bauman Says:

    Lessthantheleast, Father says, “We all beguiled from time to time” How true. My beguilement lasted far longer than three years and I have flashbacks even yet.

  17. Michael Says:

    Father Stephen,
    How does one talk to someone dealing with death in a one-storey way? Two-storey comments like, “Well, he’s in a better place now,” are always so weak.
    Thanks for the post -it is excellent.

  18. namiknom Says:

    “Some have made that journey though they have not personally found such faith as yet.”

    Father, what would you say to a person who wants to believe, who realizes that existence without God is meaningless, but still can’t stop “second-guessing”?

    Some time ago, I started discussions with a local priest–a wonderful man–but ended them just at the point where he suggested I begin a formal catechumate. Intellectually, I agreed with everything he had told me, but the closer I came to a formal commitment, the stronger the second-guessing became.

    “But what if it’s all an illusion?”

    So now I’m trapped: unable to forget Orthodoxy after drawing so near, yet powerless before the doubt such proximity evoked.

    Can I approach God while still I doubt?

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Mike,

    A very close friend in my congregation lost his first wife to a car wreck some years back. I remember at the time some converstaions we had about how comfortless and meaningless most comments were even though well meant. He said, the one thing that held meaning for him was, “Christ is risen.” And he appreciated anyone who said, “I will be praying for her.”

    The difficulty entailed by the second story is that death utterly removes someone from us and there’s nothing we can do. In a one-storey universe there is much we can do. We especially can pray and in our prayers know the fellowship of the saints.

    We lost a baby (in utero) 14 years ago. We have prayed for him every day since. It is the only relationship I have known with him, other than holding his small body in my lap and arms on the day he was delievered. My I have an abiding sense of his presence that has matured over the years and a deep confidence in his presence with Christ. Christ is risen.

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    namikom,

    You can approach God while you still have doubt. As I recall a man brought his son to Jesus and could only pray, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” What you are describing is an affliction that is deeply common in our modern world. I would not be ashamed of it, but press on in spite of it. Just go slowly. Be frightfully honest with your priest. If he would make you a catechumen after your direct honesty, then let him. Or at least ask him to pray about whether you should. But if he’ll receive you let him do so. But go slowly. The catechumenate is a time for learning and these things will be slowly healed. I’ve had catechumens who waited for far more than a year (rarely but it has happened).

    I think a goal in your spiritual life might be to think less and “be” more. In reading books, read the lives of the saints (the well-written ones). Mostly attend services and pray. God is there and will make Himself known in time. Pray. And when you pray be sure to ask for God to change your heart and to calm your fears.

  21. Bill Moore Says:

    Thanks for this article… I suspect that it is in part a response to some of the comments I’ve posted in other sections. Even if it is not, directly, I still appreciate the sensitivity and gentleness with which you teach. Your comments here to namikom speak to me as well. Thank you…

    I printed off excerpts from this article, to share with my wife. 🙂

    B

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    Bill,

    I think I write as much to myself as to anyone else. We’re all making this pilgrimage and struggle together. Thanks for your kind words.

  23. namiknom Says:

    Thank you, Father. I’ll contact the priest that I wrote of.

    Your mentioning of being “ashamed” was spot on. As I considered the monastics and the martyrs, I grew ever more ashamed of admitting that I couldn’t even dredge up the strength to defeat my doubt.

    I guess it’s time that I stop seeking the stairway to the second-story and start spending some time with the Master of the house 🙂

    Thank you.

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    namikom,

    Thank you. Well put.

  25. Michael Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you. That is very helpful.
    Indeed, He is risen!

  26. Mary Says:

    Thank you so much for all your remarks and for the wonderful article above. I cannot tell you what it meant to me. My husband forwarded it on to me knowing that it would touch my soul and it did. We are new converts on the road to becoming full-fledged Orthodox Christians. We will be chrismated this August around the feast of Dormition and soon after we will welcome into the world our fifth child and first cradle orthodox in the family. Needless to say – my family (all LCMS Lutherans) are a bit confused and concerned. Your words went deep to my soul and were of great comfort. I am learning what it is to be Orthodox – always be kind, humble, gentle, full of grace, I will not try to convince anyone that the choice I and my family made is the ‘right’ one, but will allow the Holy Spirit to do the convincing. Forgive the ramblings – but your words (and those of my incredible husband this morning) meant so much more than you will ever know – thank you for doing His work!

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