PRAYER: Faith And Beliefs—The Ascent Of Faith by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Faith And Beliefs—The Prayer Of Faith by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

The faith of the heart, our primordial faith, is something we have all experienced in our peak moments of aliveness.  How did we experience it?  As simple trust, as confidence: trust in life; confidence that we won’t be let down.  At those moments, when we live from our heart, we are in touch with the heart of things.  Spontaneously we realize: “There is faithfulness at the heart of all things,” as Oscar Cullmann put it so well.  Spoken or unspoken, this conviction of faith is the root from which our beliefs spring.  It is the touchstone also to test beliefs.  If they are genuine, they will express that core conviction and so serve as helpful reminders.  Beliefs can never replace the experience of live faith, but they can help us keep it alive.

When our primordial courage is high, our faith articulates its beliefs and upholds them like banners playing in the wind.  Courageous faith is free.  As long as, in that freedom of faith, we hold our beliefs, rather than being held (captive) by them, they will, at times, uphold us in turn.  When our heart sinks, our faltering faith may be upheld by keeping our eyes on those banners of belief that inspire us with fresh courage.  But where trust in “the faithfulness at the heart of all things” is dead, beliefs must replace faith: a showroom full of banners, mere articles of faith.

“There is faithfulness at the heart of all things.”  Faith, alive, and full of courage, is our spontaneous response to that insight.  For one timeless moment we touched rock-bottom reality.  That is enough to know, once and for all, that we do not stand on quicksand.  What courage this experience inspires, whenever we remember it!  And, even buried under our forgetfulness, that memory remains alive, like live embers buried deep under ashes.  Could we really go on living unless we had, deep down within us somewhere, faith that life will keep its promises?  We know: life is faithful.  And unless, in our heart of hearts, we trusted that insight, we would not even dare to question and at times to deny its truth.  At a given moment, we caught sight of the truth that life is faithful, and faith in that vision keeps us going, even if it is merely a glimpse.

Starting from this “given” situation, we might draw out the lines toward a faithful Giver, toward God.  Or else we might decline to do so.  That is a matter of beliefs.  But, in either case, we do not have faith in a basic faithfulness.  Proof: we go on living.  No one could survive without that basic trust which is the faith all human beings have.  This faith is one aspect of grateful aliveness; it is the courage of gratefulness.

What does gratefulness have to do with courage?  We might, at a first glance fail to see a connection.  But looking more closely it becomes clear that no one can say, “thank you,” for a gift and mean it, without trust in the giver; and to trust always takes courage.  Take a simple example.  A friend hands you a gift-wrapped package, and you say, “thank you.”  You might think that you have expressed your appreciation for the gift.  But wait!  You haven’t even looked at what’s inside that package.  How could you express your appreciation?  What you really expressed was trust in your friend.  A grateful person will say, “thank you,” before checking what’s inside the gift-wrapping.  If you wait to express your thanks until after you have examined the gift, you might be smart, but no one will call you grateful.  True gratefulness is courage to give thanks for a gift before unwrapping it.

Now, it might not cost you a great amount of courage to trust your friend.  True enough, that box wrapped in gold paper is just the right size to contain a medium-large time bomb.  But who would even dream of that possibility?  When life hands you a gift, however, it’s a more serious matter.  God has a way of putting time bombs into pretty packages.  We know that from past experience, and now we get another one of those surprise gifts.  To be there to say, “thank you,” and mean it does take courage.  It is as if you were saying: “Watch it!  This might be another one of those whoppers.  It might blow me to pieces.  But even if it does, I trust that this is just what I need right now.”  That’s trust all right!  And that trust in the Giver is the crucial point where faith and gratefulness meet.

Once we have discovered that the courage of gratefulness and the courage of faith are one and the same movement of the heart, a gesture of trust, we can also see that learning faith will mean learning gratefulness.  Now we are in a better position to answer the question with which we started this chapter: How can we learn to live gratefully?  By learning to grow in faith.  The advantage of this approach should be easy to see.  To speak of grateful living sounds far less abstract than to speak of a life of faith.  It appeals to experience rather than to theological categories.  Grateful living is, however, a poorly defined territory.  What tradition says about faith provides us with the kind of map we mentioned earlier.  Growth in faith in something that is well mapped out.  Our journey is difficult enough.  We better use the help tradition has to offer through its insights concerning faith.

By now we have drawn the line between faith and beliefs clearly enough to realize that growth in faith does not mean accumulation of beliefs.  It means, rather, learning to make the basic gesture of faith in more and more difficult circumstances, in circumstances in which the faithfulness to which faith responds is less and less obvious.  In the end we ought to be able to trust in that “faithfulness at the heart of all things” even when we cannot see it at all.  In this sense, and in this sense alone, does it make sense to speak of blind faith.  But that means that blind faith has the most penetrating vision.  Blind faith sees nothing and can, nevertheless, truthfully say, “I see!”  See what?  Nothing.  No thing, but the meaning of all things, namely: faithfulness at the core of all.

Looking up to those heights of faith might tend to discourage us before we ever start.  But our ascent begins in the valley.  I am reminded of hikes in the Austrian Alps, where I grew up.  We would set out early on a summer morning.  And there, before us, snow covered, in the first light of dawn rose those icy peaks and ridges that were our goal.  But all around us lay lush pasture land, and buttercups were nodding in the breeze that always springs up just before sunrise.  Our journey of faith starts on easy ground.  And that is just as well.  The task is difficult enough.  Why shouldn’t we begin with the easiest steps?

The ascent of faith is a prayerful ascent.  That means: Every time we move another step, every time we repeat the inner gesture of courage and trust, we do not only exercise faith, we tap the very source of faithfulness that gives us strength to go on.  Drinking from that source of prayer: the Prayer of Faith.  Another name for it is, “Living by the Word of God.”

When the Bible speaks of “living by the Word of God,” there is more to it than the idea that God gives the word of command and we live according to it.  There is merely the moral aspect of this great Biblical concept.  The religious aspect (always in danger of being swallowed up by the moral one) is infinitely more important.  Living by the Word of God means feeding on it, being nourished by it, eating, drinking, and assimilating that Word.  The image of food and drink is always closely associated with living by the Word.  We have similar expressions in English.  When someone pays close attention to every word of a story, we say, “She ate it all up,” or, “He lapped it all up.”  There is the eating and the drinking.  Or we might say of a book, “I devoured it, cover to cover.”  That image of eating up a book is also Biblical.  In fact, it occurs both in the Old and the New Testament (Ezekiel 3:1; Revelation 10:10).


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