Friday, March 25, 2011

Mary: A Lesson In Humility & Faith

Someone has said, "A person who has never doubted is a person who has never thought." Frederick Buechner goes further: "...if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." Some folks seen almost always at peace with their faith. Others seem to be in a state of constant questioning. 

To speak of doubt is to speak of testing or difficulty in believing, not of refusal to believe.The presence of doubt says nothing about the certainty with which we believe. A person can be torn by doubt, yet be very dedicated and firm in faith. Strong faith, in fact, can often be accompanied by great doubt. The more a believer loves and surrenders self, the more one has abandoned one's own ground, and more is at stake. A challenged faith can remain a full faith, for true faith is always full. It isn't a question of half-believing and half-unbelieving. 

The man whose son was possessed by a spirit and who cried out to Jesus, "I believe, help my unbelief," had a full faith. And Jesus healed the son. Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun, often known as "The Little Flower", had painful doubts about faith even as she lay dying of tuberculosis at age 23. "My 'little way'," she wrote, "is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute self-surrender." In the example of Jesus himself we can see best of all the certainty which is not crushed even by the worst difficulty or doubt. Jesus was tested in the desert. Though, quoting Psalm 22, Jesus cried out in agony on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", his surrender, his faith, his gift of himself was at its most total in his temptation and doubt.

Scripture constantly talks about people in crises of faith and confidence. One could cite such stories as that of Abraham, or of the Exodus, or of Jeremiah, or of the people after the destruction of Jerusalem. Such crises of faith take on a different form in each age. Some centuries have been called the "Ages of Faith", while others have been marked by darkness approaching despair. Many in our own day feel that any sort of belief in God's existence or Jesus or the Spirit is a complete illusion.

Doubt has its origin in many things, mostly in such questions as arise in all our minds at some time or other. How do I reconcile the cruelty and violence of the world with God's goodness? What do I do when the salvation I hear proclaimed seems to bring me no deliverance? What if I don't perceive God as part of my existence, as meaning nothing to me practically? Why do people witihout faith seem to get along just as well, perhaps better, than those who profess to believe? Many of us remember a time, perhaps, when "the faithful" were advised not to busy themselves too much with such heady issues, to simply pray to God for guidance and to go on leading a good life, with assurances that it'll all be OK in the end. Such simplistic platitudes are largely ignored in an age which constantly seeks, probes, and questions. There's no way, ultimately, to dodge honest doubts, nor should we. While it would be foolish to allow ourselves to become the playthings of every new thought or idea which crosses our mind, or slaves to compulsive notions, we should take time, make time, to thoughtfully discern the meaning of our doubts. 

Even this can be somewhat simplistic, because difficulties in faith go far deeper than simply the intellect. The real source of doubt often is that we've lost a sense of God's presence and peace, or contact with it. The testing may, in fact, be a call to deeper belief. It may be that we're not living in faith, that we're allowing ourselves to be choked "by the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things" (Mark 4:19) Sometimes we try to fit our convictions to decisions we've already made, decisions contrary to conscience. Or we may be inwardly unable to bring ourselves to love certain people, or perhaps we're feeding a hatred in our hearts.

Sometimes serious doubt spills over into actual despair. Thomas Merton described such critical times as "the absolute extreme of self-love", when a person makes a choice to turn her/his back on all help from anyone else, including God. Perhaps there's some hidden root of despair within all of us. There's a pride which raises its head as soon as our own resources fail us, which they will, inevitably, at times. Despair is the result of letting pride develop to such a point, where even despite the reality of the suffering of Christ on the cross, one chooses the absolute misery of complete separateness and alienation, rather than accept happiness from God's hands. 

The way out of doubt and despair, the way to God's presence and peace, calls for humility. Humility is primary if one is to live spiritually. It is the key to faith with which our life in God's Spirit begins. Deriving from the Latin word humus = earth/ground, humility "grounds" us, helps us see reality, things as they are, not the fantasies we wish they would be. Only when I can humbly accept the reality that I'm a creature in relation to God can I submit, surrender, myself -- even in the face of doubt or despair -- to God's presence and peace.

This feast of the Annunciation is a celebration of Mary's extraordinary humility and faith. If anyone had reason to doubt, maybe even to despair, it was this young Jewish girl of marriageable age, who, though unmarried, found herself pregnant and with no explanation which anyone could comprehend, much less accept, least of all her intended, Joseph. We can only conclude from Luke's story of Mary that somehow this young girl had learned quite early the key to wholeness and holiness. The Lord's messenger addresses her as "Highly favored one, the Lord is with you." God's presence is there, unrecognized, and the only way that could be is if she were at the same time humble, grounded: she knew the way things were in relation to her Creator. When it was made known to her that she was to be a key figure in the greatest event in history, a thousand doubts and questions must have rushed in on her. She expresses some of them: "How? I have no husband. I'm afraid. Why?" But as soon as it becomes clear to her Who is behind all this, the Most High, the Holy Spirit, she exclaims: "...I am the Lord's servant; let it be to me according to your word." We'd be very wrong to read into this scene that, for Mary, it was somehow "different", or that for her it was easy, but surely not for us. That would be to rob her of her true humanity. French writer, Jean Guitton notes that Mary might well have said of her humble and faithful "Yes" to God what the French painter, Corot, said of a canvas he'd hastily completed: "How much time did I spend on it? Five minutes -- and my whole life."

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