PRAYER: Faith And Beliefs—Trusting Courage by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Faith And Beliefs—Trusting Courage by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

Suppose our argument thus far is convincing.  Suppose we agree that gratefulness is that fullness of life for which all of us are thirsting.  Then the task ahead is simple enough: to learn to live gratefully.  The key question is: How shall we go about it?

Earlier on, when we spoke of learning to live prayerfully, I suggested that we take the most prayerful moments in our daily life and start from there.  This gives us the advantage of starting with something we already know from experience.  In certain situations we have experienced an inner attitude that we consider prayerful; now the task is to approach not only some but all situations in that attitude.  At least we already know what it is that we want to make our own in a more sustained way; we know it from the inside.  That makes all the difference.  We can never learn prayerfulness by mere imitation from outside.

In learning gratefulness, we follow the same pattern.  We have experienced moments of gratefulness, and, therefore, we know from within the attitude we want to repeat and maintain.  Those moments of deep gratefulness are, in fact, our moments of true prayerfulness, moments in which our heart is wide awake.  We have already explored this and have come to recognize that prayer and thanks spring from the same root, from the heart.  It is to those peak experiences of the heart that we must go back if we want to learn to live gratefully.

But wait – I have used an expression that might all too easily be misunderstood.  What does it mean to go back to an experience?  There are two ways of going back.  One makes us draw new strength from the past; the other makes us shrivel up.  What makes the difference?  Let’s put it this way.  If I recall a past experience in order to clutch it and suck the last drop of sweetness from it greedily, it will yield nothing but disappointment.  If, on the other hand, I recall the same experience merely to celebrate it, once again, it will nourish me again and again.  This is how I suggest that we recall the moments in which our heart was wakefully alive.

All we know about “life in fullness” flows from memories of that kind.  All that we know about God by experience was given to us in those moments.  And is there any kind of religious knowledge worth its name?  When religious traditions speak of the divine life within us, they refer, implicitly at least, to our high points of wakeful awareness, to our mystical experiences.  Yes, let us not shy away from that thought.  We are all mystics.  If mysticism is, by definition, the experience of communion with the Ultimately Real (God, if you feel uncomfortable with the term), then who can disclaim being a mystic?  Unless we all had experiences of this kind, we wouldn’t even know what we mean by rock-bottom Reality.  We wouldn’t even know, as we have seen, what “is” means, or “now.”  But we do know.

Just as we cannot leave contemplation to contemplatives, we cannot leave mysticism to mystics.  It would mean cutting off the roots of human life.  By putting mystics on a pedestal in our mind, high, out of reach, we don’t do justice to them, nor to ourselves either.  Paraphrasing what Ruskin said about being an artist, we could say: A mystic is not a special kind of human being; rather, every human being is a special kind of mystic.  I might just as well rise to this challenge and become that unique, irreplaceable mystic that only I can become.  There never was and never will be anyone exactly like me.  If I fail to experience God in my own unique way, that experience will forever remain in the shadow land of possibility.  But if I do, I will know life by the divine life within me.

My own tradition has much to say about that life-breath of God within us; Christian tradition speaks about God’s presence in our hearts under three headings: Faith, Hope, and Love.  These terms point to different aspects of one and the same living reality.  But remember – we are dealing here with life.  Life cannot be neatly sliced and packaged and remain alive.  Faith, Hope, and Love are not three boxes, with specified contents, as it were.  Rather they are ways of being alive, aspects of the one fullness of life that is our topic.

High peaks of aliveness are also always marked by intense gratefulness.  Even people whose world view does not include a divine Giver to whom their thanks can be directed often experience deep gratitude in those moments.  They experience it no less strongly than others, even though their own gratefulness gets mailed without an address, so to say.  In any case, we know from experience that whenever we are truly awake and alive, we are also truly grateful.  If, then, we want to go back (in the right way) to our peaks of wakefulness to learn gratefulness, a map of some kind would come in handy.

It is true that maps can never replace the experience of an explorer, but they do help even the most independent among us.  Faith, Hope, and Love provide us with something like points on a map as we go back to our moments of grateful aliveness.  In fact, these points of reference do more than lead us back to an experience; they also point forward toward putting Faith, Hope, and Love into daily practice.  But Faith, Hope, and Love, rightly understood, are three aspects of gratefulness.

This use of reference points has another advantage.  The map helps us to return to the territory of an actual experience, but in turn exploration of that territory helps us to update and correct our map.  No matter how helpful maps are, they remain subject to correction through discoveries made by those who use them in their exploration.  Spiritual maps are no exception in this regard.  Those of us who know or think we know what our reference points signify may find to our surprise that Faith, Hope, and Love acquire new meaning in the process of being compared with data taken from our own experiences of overwhelming gratefulness.

Precisely those of us who are familiar with, say the concept of faith might, in fact, be the first ones to wonder.  Faith?  What could my faith have to do with that moment on the mountain top (or in the midst of a traffic jam) when suddenly, for no obvious reason at all, everything makes sense?  One reason for not seeing the connection could be that we never looked for something as obviously religious as faith anywhere else but in a setting clearly labeled “religious.”  Yet, labels tend to deceive.  Do we know what “religious” means except through our own peak moments?  In a full sense of knowing, we know nothing but what we have actually experienced.  Faith is not first and foremost a collection of religious beliefs handed on to us by tradition.  It has far more to do with that courageous trust in life that we know from our moments of inner breakthrough.  It may come as a surprise, but authentic Christian tradition bears witness to precisely this meaning of faith.

In the gospels, scripture scholars tell us that there is not a single passage in which the word for “faith” (tietis) means, strictly speaking, “beliefs.”  For example, that Jesus marveled at the Roman official’s “faith” means that he was surprised by the man’s deep trust, not by the way he could rattle off a list of beliefs.  He would have found it hard to do so.  And when Jesus reproved the disciples for their “lack of faith,” he meant their lack of trust and courage; it wasn’t a reprimand for dropping one or another article of faith from the creed.  The reason is obvious: no creed existed.  No beliefs had been spelled out.  Faith was courageous trust in Jesus and in the good news which he lived and preached.  Eventually, this trust would crystallize into explicit beliefs, it is true.  But the starting point is trusting courage, not beliefs.  And in our life of faith – just as in lighting a fuse – it makes a vital difference at which end we start.

Starting points are of great significance in the Bible.  The first verse, the first image, the beginning of a story – these are often of prime importance for getting the point across.  We ought to be alert to this fact in our Bible reading.  What, for instance, is the very beginning of the story of our faith, as the Bible tells it?  It starts with Abraham, whom we call “our Father in Faith.”  If faith consisted first and foremost in believing something, God would certainly start Abraham off by giving him a set of beliefs.  But this is not so.  Yes, God does give Abraham promises in which to believe, but first of all God challenges his trust.  The beginning of faith is practically empty of content.  It is pure trust.

“Go forth!” is God’s first word to Abraham, the first verse of Chapter 12 of Genesis.  “Go out!” is the challenge.  “Venture forth!”  The English language hardly lends itself to expressing the full impact of that calling.  “Outgoing go out” comes closer to the original Hebrew.  And then expression is piled on expression to make this venture as challenging as possible to Abraham’s courage: “Go forth out of your land, and out of your kinsfolk, and out of your father’s house.”  And where is he to go?  “Into a land which I shall point out to you.”  Neither map, nor direction, nor name of destination was given to Abraham.  It is as if God were saying to him: “Trust me!  I’ll get you there.  All you need is the courage to step out and leave everything behind.”  This is how Abraham becomes our Father in Faith.  And, almost as a little aside, we are told at this point how old Abraham was when he ventured forth in faith: seventy-five!  That’s not exactly the age at which people feel most venturesome.  It must have cost Abraham a fair amount of trust and courage.

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