Living on the Plane of Faith
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The gospel for this Sunday is about faith. Jesus calls Simon and his brother Andrew to follow him, as well as James and John. Immediately they left everything and followed him. They did not know where he was going or what that decision would bring; but they choose to drop everything and follow him. That’s faith.

Christ is the light of the world, the light that entered into the darkness of this world, and the only way to be illuminated by this light, the only way out of darkness, is to freely choose to trust him, to believe, to follow that light. But at first we don’t experience this light as light. Initially, it seems like a kind of darkness. The reason is that when we follow him, through an act of faith, we really don’t know where we are going. We walk without knowledge. We have put our faith in someone, and so it feels like we are walking within the darkness of ignorance.

But it is not ignorance. Supernatural faith is the highest way of knowing. And eventually, after living in real self-surrendering faith, we become aware that we’ve been walking in light, not darkness. That is why St. Augustine says: “Believe in order to understand.” Many people have this backwards; they will not make an act of faith until they understand, until they are sure. But that only leaves them in darkness, for they will never understand, because understanding follows upon faith.

To act on faith is not contrary to human reason. In fact, most of what we do every day is based on faith, and such faith is reasonable. The “faith” I refer to is natural faith, which involves accepting as true something somebody tells you because you have evidence that the speaker is well informed about the subject and is honest. It would be contrary to reason to refuse to live on the plane of this natural faith. For example, a child brushes his teeth. Why? Because his mother told him that it is good for him to do so. He doesn’t understand why; for he does not understand the concept of tooth decay or the effects of sugar on tooth enamel. And although brushing teeth is not pleasant to him, he trusts her anyway. Eventually he sees that it was wise to do so.

You and I take a prescription to the pharmacist, he or she fills the prescription and we take those pills. Unless you understand chemistry or the intricacies of pharmacology, you don’t understand what you are taking. But you trust that the pharmacist did not make a mistake, and you trust that your doctor has your best interests in mind and that what he prescribes to you is really good for you. But you don’t know that with any certainty. I once visited a man who had a stroke because his pharmacist made a mistake and he ended up with pills 10 or 20 times the dosage that his doctor prescribed. He’d spent a year in a hospital bed, his mind was deteriorating, and he was dying. I’m sure he’s dead by now, but there’s the trust—had he known, he would not have taken the pills.

I take my car in for a brake replacement. I am told that it is done, that the car will stop when I press the brake pedal. I trust him; I don’t really know. I don’t demand that he hoist the car up, remove the tires and show me. I trust him.

My students place a great deal of trust in me. I’m teaching them all sorts of things about the history of philosophy and religion, but they don’t know whether what I’m teaching them is actually true. I could be making it all up. They don’t know, but they believe me. A responsible teacher will devote his or her life to making sure, as far as possible, that what is being taught is accurate, but even that effort involves a great deal of faith. I put my trust in certain historians of philosophy; I trust Gilson, Copleston, and a few others, but I don’t trust Russell; I’ve caught him in a lie, but I have verified what the former have said against the original texts, but certainly not everything.

I’ve even had students ask me questions about what I believe about a particular issue, and I’d tell them, and they would return: “Okay, if you believe that, then I believe that”. They choose to put a great deal of faith in me. I do encourage them to question me, to challenge me, make me establish a claim, and they do at times, but they also put a great deal of faith in me as a teacher. That is natural, inevitable, and to some extent reasonable. Nevertheless, it is a serious matter to betray that trust.

The world of science relies heavily on faith. Scientists trust one another that they have not falsified data. It is not possible for a scientist to repeat every experiment that has been done in the past. They trust the results of the experiment, that is, they trust that the scientist has not lied to the scientific community by falsifying data--which happens at times. Two weeks ago I was getting my car fixed, that is, I was putting my faith in the mechanics at Toyota, and I picked up the Toronto Star—another source of faith for a great many people. I read an article about a British doctor who published a paper in the late 90s that linked the childhood vaccine for measles-mumps-rubella to autism. The study has now been thoroughly discredited. But note how the article ends: “Most scientists are to be trusted. But our systems are not ideal. We just are implicitly trustful of those we work with.”

Faith is so pervasive, necessary, and reasonable, because the human person is so limited in knowledge. We have little choice but to rely on one another in a spirit of trust.

But what is so ironic is that although we readily trust others who are not entirely trustworthy, we hesitate to trust the One Person who alone is perfectly trustworthy, who cannot lie, who cannot mislead, who has no malice whatsoever in Him, who has our best and greatest interests in mind, namely almighty God Himself. If God has chosen to reveal Himself, if He has chosen to come looking for man in order to lead him home, then our way back home to Him will require faith. If God reveals to man truths that surpass human reason, truths that exceed our ability to understand naturally, then the only way to know these truths is through faith, which transcends reason.

But that faith must be of a completely different kind than the natural faith we’ve been talking about. Natural faith is inadequate, for it cannot assent to supernatural truths. It is reasonable to believe our doctor when he prescribes a medicine--unless there is good reason to suspect that he is untrustworthy, but how can reason demonstrate that it is reasonable to believe what is completely above reason? It cannot. We need to be given the capacity to make that act of faith in what exceeds the grasp of human reason, and what Christ tells us about himself clearly exceeds reason’s ability to demonstrate: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me”; “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”; “I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though he dies, will live, will never die. Do you believe this?”; “Sky and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away”; “Before Abraham was, I AM”; “I and the Father are one”; “I am the bread of life”; “It is my Father’s will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and that I should raise that person up on the last day”; “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day”; etc.

On the plane of natural reason, there is no “reason” to believe him. To be able to believe him requires a quality that is above nature (supra nature). This supernatural quality that proportions the soul to these supernatural truths revealed by God, enabling us to believe them if we so choose, is divine grace. Baptism imparts that grace, and baptism infuses the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity into the soul of the baptised, as a sheer gift. And so, if a baptised person eventually stops believing, if he or she has lost his or her faith, it is only because he or she has allowed it die of under nourishment, that is, as a result of not living that faith, of starving it through neglect of prayer and the Eucharist, and typically as a result of welcoming into oneself a spirit of arrogance towards the faith.

What enabled the Apostles to just drop everything and follow Jesus? They were given this interior capacity to follow him. They still had to choose to cooperate with that interior grace. They could have said no. They chose, however, to cooperate with that grace, not knowing where they were going, and because of that initial decision to trust the Lord, you and I share in that supernatural heritage; we are members of Christ’s Mystical Body, we are heirs to the promises of Christ. It all began with Mary’s faith, with her fiat: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” It continued with the faith of the Apostles, and then the faith of all the great martyrs and saints and missionaries through the ages, such as the Canadian martyrs who brought the gospel to Canada back in the 17th century, and it continued with the countless unknown faithful since that time who brought the good news of Christ’s resurrection to their families, their students, and their communities.

When we live on the plane of supernatural faith, we eventually become aware of the supernatural light that permeates our mind and life; we begin to see the effects of that faith in our day-to-day existence. It’s like beginning to see the effects of the faith we put in our doctor and pharmacist: we begin to recover from sickness and experience health; and then we know our natural faith in the doctor was well placed. Life becomes so much easier with natural faith.

So too, with supernatural faith, we eventually see the difference it makes, if we persist long enough. Our prayers are answered, maybe not always as we expected, and we experience an inner strength to face life’s difficulties, we experience the ability to forgive those we are unable to forgive before, we sense God’s presence in our lives, we feel much less anxiety in life, we don’t feel lost as we did before, we begin to see the world from a new angle and things begin to make sense from the point of view of faith. We don’t delight in the things we used to desire, and we see the emptiness of much of what the world honours, and most of all we experience within that we are known and that we are loved by God with a love that is manifest in Christ’s passion and death, and we are aware that nothing much matters anymore except making that love known to others. We begin to think of God more, of ways to serve Him and to love Him back. Life becomes joyful, rather than heavy and anxious. All that results from living on the plane of supernatural faith.