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In August of 2007 the New York Times reported that in her collection of letters, Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa (1910-97) confessed that for years she had harbored deep, troubling doubts about the existence of God, even as she worked tirelessly to relieve the pain and suffering of the sick and dying in Calcutta.
In one of her journal entries, she cried out, “Where is my Faith – even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness – My God – how painful is this unknown pain – I have no Faith – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart – & make me suffer untold agony. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. – I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”
Her honest confession evoked a wave of criticism. Was she a hypocrite? Had she been faking it all along? Or was she, as atheists are now claiming triumphantly, simply a self-deluded person trying to have a faith in something that obviously doesn’t exist?
But in the flood of public comments that followed the publishing of her diaries, a student named Krista E. Hughes made the most telling comment in a letter to the editor. “Mother Teresa’s life,” she wrote, “exemplifies the living aspect of faith, something sorely needed in a society where Christian identity is most often defined in terms of what a person believes rather than how he or she lives. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
Krista Hughes speaks truth, and Mother Teresa illustrates that truth: faith is not just about what you believe, whether you give mental assent to a propositional statement about what Reality is or isn’t; faith isn’t simply believing that God exists. Faith is, as Harvey Cox (emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School) in his book The Future of Faith puts it, “more a matter of embodiment than of axioms … a way of life, a guiding compass … the experience OF the divine displacing theories ABOUT it.” And sometimes the experience of the divine is more an action in harmony with the Presence than a feeling of Presence (as Mother Teresa showed).
There were times Mother Teresa wasn’t even sure God existed, at least for her. But she continued living the Way of Love to the suffering and dying poor in Calcutta. She continued the practice of compassion regardless of her doubts because of her love for Jesus not just her experience of Jesus.
That’s why Jesus called himself “The way, the truth, and the life.” And to illustrate an experience of Jesus in this reality, his disciples were called followers of The Way. Following Jesus meant walking the path of Jesus, the path of self-denial and unconditional compassion and justice. Spiritual practices and disciplines emerged to help empower followers to walk this Way of Jesus. Following that was known as a life of faith – a way of the heart, not just the head.
SO IN THIS SERIES, we’ve been taking a look at three words that are translated as “faith.” We’re unpacking each word and exploring what it means and what the differing nuances suggest about developing a faith that works in real life, a faith that transforms life, a faith that defines ourselves and produces a rich and deeper experience of both God and Life. It’s a return to the core of what religion was always meant to facilitate but has too often lost along the way: a transformation of the heart. So far, we’ve looked at FAITH AS fiducia – trust, relaxed confidence, fidelitas – faithfulness, loyalty, allegiance. The third word is visio.
Faith As Vision
The third Latin word for faith is visio which literally means “likeness, face, visage.” It’s our English word for “vision.” This is faith as a way of seeing – a way of seeing “what is,” of seeing the whole. The Christian New Testament often connects faith with seeing a certain way. H. Richard Niebuhr, a mid-twentieth century theologian, in his book The Responsible Self, speaks of the central importance of how we see the whole of what is, for how we see the whole will affect how we respond to life. He describes three contrasting ways of seeing life and reality. Notice the corresponding attitudes and responses to life with each life vision.
REALITY 1: Life is hostile and Threatening. Corresponding attitudes: Paranoia; “None of us gets out of here alive”; Life is filled with threats to our existence. Response to life is: Defensive; Seek to build systems of security and self-protection to fend off hostile powers; God is our Judge – God is going to get us – unless we do the right things to secure His favor.
REALITY 2: Life is indifferent. Corresponding attitudes: “What is” is simply indifferent to human purposes and ends and meanings; Universe is neither hostile to nor supportive of our lives and dreams. Response to life is: Less anxious and paranoid than the first vision; But still likely to be defensive and precautionary; We build up what security we can in the midst of an indifferent universe; Though we may enjoy times of rich aesthetic to life, ultimately, we are likely to be concerned primarily for ourselves and those who are most important to us.
REALITY 3: Life is life-giving and nourishing. Corresponding attitudes: Sees reality as gracious; It has brought us and everything that is into existence; It is filled with wonder and beauty, even if sometimes a terrible beauty; Jesus’ theology: God feeds the birds and lilies, clothes them; God sends rain on the just and unjust; God is generous. Response to life is: Faith as a radical trust in God; Frees us from the anxiety, self-preoccupation, and concern to protect the self with systems of security that mark the first two viewpoints; Leads to a “self-forgetfulness of faith and thus to the ability to love and to be present to the moment”; Generates a “willingness to spend and be spent” for the sake of a vision that goes beyond ourselves; St. Paul: leads to a life of freedom, joy, peace, and love.
Niebuhr’s point is that the way we see the whole radically impacts the way we live life. Vision makes a transforming difference. And since faith is about vision, how we see, the quality of one’s faith directly affects the quality of one’s life. This is why Albert Einstein made the provocative observation, “The most important question you’ll ever ask yourself is, Is the universe friendly?” With all his scientific knowledge, along with his growing spiritual awareness, he began to put the two “worlds” together and realized that one’s perspective on the universe and the cosmos and the Force behind and in it all was a hugely important issue. Is Life, is God, is the Universe friendly or not? That starting point affects everything.
But to develop a vision of reality as life-giving and nourishing is not to be naive or to turn a blind eye to the darker side of life. Here’s the way Marcus Borg summarized it: “Niebuhr was no Pollyanna. He knew about the Holocaust and all the terrible things that we are capable of doing to each other. The point is not that reality is simply ‘nice,’ or that one can demonstrate that it is gracious. Rather, the point is that how we see reality matters, for how we see ‘what is’ profoundly affects how we experience and live our lives.” Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 36
Faith then is a choice for how you want to see, what lens you want to look at life through. As quantum physicists are saying these days, your perspective helps to create and shape your reality. You end up seeing what you choose to see. The depth and quality of your spirituality and faith is a lot about making choices about vision and sight and a view of reality. And what you decide impacts what you experience.
So of the three realities Niebuhr describes, which do you tend to live in the most? How has that impacted your life experience? Do you see yourself as being able to change visions and lens? Or are you simply stuck where you’re at? Are you living out of an expansive and liberating life view or a constricted and confining view? Are you caught up in your own little world (preoccupied with self survival) or are you living life with a clear vision of the whole, an ability to live beyond yourself in loving response to others? Or like many people, perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle between those two poles, leaning toward one side or the other depending on your current life circumstances?
I’m amazed at Mother Teresa’s honest recounting of her often painful spiritual journey. But I’m also comforted. I can relate to pieces of her journey. Faith isn’t about never doubting God or about never questioning or about having all the right answers. Faith is about staying on the journey even in the midst of uncertainty, about hanging on even when you can’t sense the divine. And that comes from a certain vision, a way of choosing to look at life and what’s most important. Mother Teresa, though not feeling God’s direct comforting presence, chose to hang on, continually addressed her journal to her Jesus, expressed honestly her doubt and pain, and kept on working for the poor and suffering in the world anyway. She chose to live compassionately as her highest value. Which of the above 3 Realities was she choosing to see and live from?
In my next blog post, we’ll look at an intriguing story from ancient scripture showing how these contrasting views of reality impact life experiences and how this Latin word for faith (visio) plays out. Maybe you’ll see your current faith journey illustrated somewhere in the story. Stay tuned.