Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
The manufacturing of parachutes is a highly skilled operation undertaken with utmost care and attention to detail because lives depend on the parachute’s proper functioning. And yet, despite all this care, the final and ultimate test of any parachute occurs when the parachutist leaps from the plane and pulls the ripcord. And although parachutes failing to open are a relatively rare event, there remains an element of faith in the parachutist’s leap from the plane. trusting that the parachute will open successfully and bring him safely to the ground. However, although I speak of the parachutist’s faith, this faith is a reality significantly different from the faith we just heard Jesus extol in the Canaanite woman who begged for the freeing and healing of her daughter. The parachutist’s faith is some “thing” whereas the woman has faith in some “one”.
And it is the faith in some “One” that lies at the heart of our Christian lives. But if you are among those whose faith has undergone extended periods of spiritual trial and darkness, you know that we sometimes reach the point of feeling that we have lost faith and that our claim to believe is an elaborate exercise in self-deception. Under such circumstances faith can seen–at best–little more than pretense and–at worst–spiritual hypocrisy. Monks, whose entire lives are dedicated to prayer and deepening union with God, are especially vulnerable to this struggle. We need only think of those times when prayer and worship become empty and it feels as if we are merely going through the motions. Those times when our efforts at summoning faith seem to represent a lack of personal integrity and the honest courage to simply admit that we no longer believe. Those experiences of knocking at a door that remains firmly closed by a God who seems either not to exist or to have rejected and spurned us.
One might well wonder how many there are who arrive at this juncture and simply give up the fight and abandon faith and all religious practice–opting thereby either for a life of unsatisfying superficiality or one of deepening, despairing, meaningless and purposelessness. And so we might ask if today’s Gospel offers any guidance and light to those who don’t wish to opt out but remain in the struggle and, like Saint Paul, be able to say I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.
I began comparing and differentiating the faith of the parachutist and the Canaanite woman–the former having faith in some “thing” and the latter in some “one”. Yet, despite this obvious difference there is an important point of convergence between these two types of faith. And that is that both involve doing something as an expression and consequence of that faith. The parachutist leaps from the safety of the plane while the Canaanite woman trustingly approaches Jesus and his disciples and, even when initially rebuffed, persists in her pleading. And it is this “doing” aspect of faith that is one of the more important expressions of faith as well as a means of deepening faith. “Doing” faith is thus to be distinguished from “feeling” faith and in our Christian context, this “doing” faith can be more important that “feeling” faith.
We don’t know what thoughts and feelings were going through the Canaanite woman’s mind as she encountered the disciples’ rebuffing and Jesus’ initial seemingly insulting response to her plea. What we do know is that whatever her thoughts and feelings might have been, she refused to give up and in a powerful example of “doing” faith, bravely and even audaciously pressed her case and refused to accept “no” for an answer. According to Mark’s account of this same scene, the woman’s daughter is not with her but at home; and after commending her faith, Jesus tells her: For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter. Once again we don’t know what feelings and thoughts accompanied this amazing woman as she carried out another “doing” of her faith and hurried back home to her daughter whom she found lying in bed and the demon gone.
Obviously it is wonderful when our faith is accompanied by feelings totally congruent with that faith, but experience reassures us that this is frequently not the case–even with holy people. We have no way of knowing, for example, what went through the minds of martyrs as they approached their torturers and executioners. Perhaps they didn’t feel any great fervor for the very faith they were laying down their lives for, but rather like Jesus on the cross, approached their horrific deaths feeling empty, abandoned and in darkness. Theirs was thus also a “doing” faith and not a “feeling” of the faith. Accordingly, in our own times of darkness, when faith reaches a very low ebb at the feeling level, we need to draw from this infused gift by an act of the will and strive to act in accordance with it. Sometimes this will mean something as simple as remaining faithful to prayer and lectio divina or, as Mother Benedict of Regina Laudius once put it, simply doing the next thing that has to be done! At other times, however, it may require all the courage and determination we can muster to remain faithful to our monastic vows even when the urge to abandon the monastic life seems overpowering. At still other times it will involve simple acts of trust and faith generated by the will and not by the feelings.
And in each of these doings we will–without necessarily feeling it–be advancing step by step closer to that final moment when the veil of mortal life will be torn asunder and we will behold with our own eyes the one in whom we have placed our faith. In the meantime, as Pope Benedict insists, faith can only mature by suffering anew, at every stage of life, the oppression and the power of unbelief, by admitting its reality and then finally going right through it, so that it again finds the path opening ahead for a while. Belief has always had some of a leap about it, because in every age it represents that risky enterprise of accepting what plainly cannot be seen as the truly real and fundamental. Belief has always been a decision calling on the depths of existence, a decision that in every age demanded a turnabout by man that can only be achieved by an effort of the will.