WISDOM: Faith by Joan Chittister

Faith by Joan Chittister

From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light

Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessariaon, said: When we were walking along the sea one day, I was thirsty, so I said to Abba Bessarion, “Abba, I am very thirsty.”  Then the old man prayed and said to me, “Then drink from the sea.”  And the water was sweet when I drank it.  So I poured it into a flask so that I would not be thirsty later.  Seeing this, the old man asked me, “Why are you doing that?”  And I answered, “So that I won’t be thirsty later on.”  Then the old man said, “God is here and God is everywhere.”



aith is the gate, the goal, and the bedrock of the contemplative life. Faith is not denominational.  It is confidence in a God we cannot see but know without doubt exists – if for no other reason than that we feel the power of life within us and know our smallness at the same time.  Immersed in the awareness of God everywhere, overwhelmed by the effort of living in a consciousness punctuated by death, the contemplative has faith in the process of life.

Contemplative faith is not based on magic or belief in a Great Puppeteer.  The contemplative knows simply that the God who gave life sustains it, makes it possible, and has provided everything we need to negotiate it with deep meaning and endless consequence.  The contemplative knows what it is to live in the womb of God.  The contemplative, the Rule of Benedict says, “prays always,” is always in touch with God in whose Life we live.

Faith is beyond denominational purity, more than religious devotion, more than saintly rigor.  Faith rests in the arms of God, trusts today and accepts tomorrow because faith knows that whatever the day, God is in it.  Where there is possibility without certainty, faith assures.  Where there is uncertainty without surety, faith sustains.  Where there is confidence that life has purpose even when it does not have clarity, faith is its foundation.  Faith lives in the mystery that is God and thrives on life.

Faith is not belief in an afterlife based on today’s moral litmus test.  To the contemplative “bad” and “good” make no matter.  Each has the capacity to become the other.  Out of bad much good has come.  It is often sin that unmasks us to ourselves and opens the way for growth.  Mature virtue is tried virtue, not virtue unassailed.  Great good, on the other hand, whatever its effects, has so often deteriorated into arrogance, into a righteousness that vitiates its own rightness.  But both of them, both bad and good, lived in the light of God, blanch, are reduced to size in the face of the Life that transcends them.

Life is not a game we win, and God is not a trophy we merit.  No matter how “good” we are, we are not good enough for God.  On the other hand, no matter how “bad” we are, we can never be outside of God.  We can only hope in each instance to come to such a consciousness of God that no lesser gods can capture our attention and no trifling, self-centered gods can keep us from the fullness of awareness that is the fullness of Life.  It is the project of life, this coming to Wholeness, this experience of Purpose beyond all purposes, this identification with everything that is.

Life, the contemplative knows, is a process.  It is not that all the elements of life, mundane as they may be, do not matter.  On the contrary, to the contemplative everything matters.  Everything speaks of God, and God is both in and beyond everything.

Having the faith to take life one piece at a time – to live it in the knowledge that there is something of God in this for me now, here, at this moment – is of the essence of happiness.  It is not that God is a black box full of tests and trials and treats.  It is that life is a step on the way to a God who goes the way with us.  However far, however perilous.

The thought of life on a small planet whirling in space is a recipe for despair.  It is the source of human anxiety, this thought of having been cut adrift alone and without meaning.  To the person of faith, it is this very mystery that pushes us to the edge of our souls where life is the beginning, not the end, and presses us down into the center of our souls where God, the energy of space, waits for us smiling.

To the contemplative, faith is not about having lights turn green before we get to the stop light at the corner or even about having cancerous tumors disappear on command.   Faith is about knowing that life is the tabernacle of a living God made small by our meager icons of Being.  To the contemplative, it is clear that the many forms of life all reveal in some measure the Life that is their Ground.  The life to come, the contemplative knows from having lived this one, will be good.

To be a contemplative, we must have the faith that is beyond our need for magic solutions to daily questions.  We must allow the soul to soar far freer than simply to the thought of a God who exaggerates the natural order in our behalf.  Faith comes only when we are willing to trust the Blackness that is Light, the hard spots of a fragile world, each of which we would rather have had made easy.

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