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13 June. What do the Saints Know? IV: How do we Cultivate our Faith?

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How do we cultivate our faith? If faith is a ‘place’, as I asserted yesterday – my word and not St Thomas’s – then we need to discover where we are. It is not a place on a map. So, and this is St. Thomas now, faith is cultivated (the ‘place’ comes to be understood) through questions, says Thomas. Faith, he says, “involves the intellect in a kind of inquiry.” What kind? Not the kind demanding empirical evidence (cf. II.II.1,5). Nor, when we inquire about the object of faith are we setting ourselves up as judges of the object of belief. If so, then this is not the kind of inquiry that is an expression of faith. It is merely a pitiful attempt to out-smart God. Thomas says that the kind of inquiry that goes with faith is that which attempts to “grasp with greater understanding what God has revealed and how he has confirmed it.” Faith, then, concerns not a vacuum in our knowledge; indeed, it concerns something that already exists, something that God has revealed, something that we therefore already ‘know’ – even if we only know it obliquely.

For me, this teaching from St. Thomas helps to dispel that temptation to think that we have to have faith because we can’t know God. At all. Faith, in that case, becomes something that merely tries to plug up the vacuum, a vacuum that we might not like to acknowledge is there in the first place.

What do we know, then? What can we say about faith? St. Thomas asserts: we can say that we know about eternal life. Or at least, we know it a little. This is how he puts it: “Faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent (II.II.4:1). The little words ‘in us’ are so important, I think. They tell us that we are ‘in touch with’ eternal life. And, so eternal life is not ‘out there’ beyond our reach. It’s not in an unbearably dull theological book. It’s not across the sea. We ‘have it’ in us. Going back to the image of the vacuum, well, we simply don’t have one, because through faith eternal life is begun in us.

This word ‘begun’ is important. Faith is not about the completion of the knowledge of God – if there even is such a thing. Which I doubt. Faith is about something that exists as a beginning – a beginning of something beautiful. This is something we ‘know’, but in a different way, on a different level from what we usually say we ‘know.’

Now, I can live with that understanding of faith pretty happily. It will probably not convince a hardened sceptic, but it does help to make my act of faith intelligible to me. If faith starts with ‘a divine infusion’ then it starts with mystery. This coexistence of real knowledge with mystery is not something to dismiss but to validate, and St Thomas does. In his teaching, faith is a real connection with eternal life, not in its fullness, but in its beginnings; not in clarity, but in mystery; not in fantasy, but in reality.

SJC.

Cultivating or Ploughing near Beachy Head, Sussex.

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February 17: The Healing Gift

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Only two of the gospels encourage us to see our prospect of celebrating new life as something which began when Mary’s child was a presence in Israel. The gospels begin with the death and resurrection of the Saviour. However, this is a saviour who has been incarnated before he was excarnated. The vulnerability of fleshed existence was for him a struggle to celebrate, because of the layers of heart and mind consciousness, which every child finds difficult to coordinate. None of us is sure what kind of new life God wants us to celebrate, when we acknowledge there are genuine gifts of forgiveness and healing, for instance. We feel our way, half-blind, to a greater awareness of how God acts through us. We seek to be less blind.

We are to be grateful that Jesus’ temptations, re-dramatising the Hebrew Exodus in him, were his solidarity with our half-blind condition. So was his journey with his parents through the desert to find refuge in Egypt. He beckoned to the first followers to challenge their often childish fears by feeling closer to his mission, and the courage it required. When a child beckons to us, asking us to give our full loving attention to them, we must smile with delight at such trust. Our smile of delight at oneness with the wholeness of love in Christ is the gift we need, both for our own healing, and for becoming sources of healing for others. We must delight at the potential which God has made present in each new stranger entering our lives. If we love their potential, we also love the healing which makes it real.

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18 June, Year of Mercy: Embarking on Mercy

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mercylogoMercy is not something that can be enclosed in a static fashion in a building. No one can draw a line around grace or mercy, and say, “here it is, we have caught it”. God is always more immense than our buildings. We may celebrate the community which loves to share mercy in a specific place. But the presence we encounter must help us to progress further on a journey, to set out on new routes, to embark on a voyage. In this sense, a harbour or a pier could be as true a symbol of the newness of mercy as a doorway.

We cannot pin down the symbolism of the Bristol Channel, seen here, by deciding that this journey is just beginning or just ending. It can be both and either. The transformative character of our life of faith and grace is likewise full of endings and beginnings.

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Nothing is quite as thoroughly an ending as a retirement home, we might suggest.

Yet for people of genuine faith, that will be a place for friends visit us, gladly hearing words of enlightenment and courage from us.

What our visitors may learn, from conversation with us, therefore, is how we view the final days of our earthly life with great hope, the tremendous beginning of eternal life and joy.

St. John’s hospital in Canterbury, being an almshouse, surely has this potential too….

I often nowadays see this doorway closed off, with entry prevented. But this open image suggests far more.

CD.

Mercy is not something that can be enclosed in a static fashion in a building. No one can draw a line around grace or mercy, and say, “here it is, we have caught it”. God is always more immense than our buildings. We may celebrate the community which loves to share mercy in a specific place. But the presence we encounter must help us to progress further on a journey, to set out on new routes, to embark on a voyage. In this sense, a harbour or a pier could be as true a symbol of the newness of mercy as a doorway.

We cannot pin down the symbolism of the Bristol Channel, seen here, by deciding that this journey is just beginning or just ending. It can be both and either. The transformative character of our life of faith and grace is likewise full of endings and beginnings.

Nothing is quite as thoroughly an ending as a retirement home, we might suggest.

Yet for people of genuine faith, that will be a place for friends visit us, gladly hearing words of enlightenment and courage from us.

What our visitors may learn, from conversation with us, therefore, is how we view the final days of our earthly life with great hope, the tremendous beginning of eternal life and joy.

St. John’s hospital in Canterbury, being an almshouse, surely has this potential too….

I often nowadays see this doorway closed off, with entry prevented. But this open image suggests far more.

CD.

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