This title is a bit misleading in that it is not so much that faith itself has changed but rather our understanding of it. It used to be that when someone said they had a strong faith, we immediately assumed that they belonged to a church, temple, synagogue or some other religious tradition. Now we can no longer make that assumption. Today many people have a faith without a religious affiliation. Everyone has faith in something but the important thing is what you put your faith in. Does it bring you and those around you more peace, love and joy?
I would like to share with you this prayer which is attributed to St Therese of Lisieux, a saint who died at age 24 in 1897. To me, it captures the essence of living in faith.
May today there be peace within
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith
May you use those gifts that you have received
And pass on the love that has been given to you
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.
What a joyful, inclusive and loving prayer! St. Therese wasn’t trying to push her faith on anyone but was simply inviting them to know they are a child of God. We all express our faith in different ways. Some speak of a belief in a higher power that guides their life and gives them strength in times of trouble. We don’t have a common language to describe this very real presence of spirit in our lives. I asked a friend how she would describe her faith. She replied, “Faith is knowing there is something more than we can see.” I love the simplicity and clarity of that definition which is similar to the one found in 2 Corinthians 4:18. “We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” I asked another friend what faith was to her. She felt uncomfortable with the word “faith”, which she associated with a religion that she had left behind. The word “trust” came up for her as it conveyed more of an energy coming from within rather than directed outside of herself.
I have explored a variety of spiritual modalities, through reading and the internet. What I have found is that all these different ways of faith are essentially the same from a mystical perspective. The following story describes this idea.
A teacher asked his disciples to describe their vision of God. The first one said that God was big and powerful like the vast expanse of the heavens embracing all the stars in the galaxy. The holy man said “You’re right”. The second disciple said that God was more like the tiniest spark hidden inside each person. “You’re right”, said the teacher. The third man said: “Hey just a moment. They can’t both be right.” “And you’re right too,” said the sage.
I love this story. When I first studied theology in school, I was very much like the first disciple. Now I am more like the second. We humans often get caught up in proving that we are right. I had a rather opinionated friend who used to say “I have many faults. Being wrong isn’t one of them.”
Why is faith important? Well, we are faced with the unknown every day of our lives and so we need something to get us through this chronic uncertainty. We often push the knowledge of our vulnerability aside and try to pretend that everything is going to remain the same. Yet death continues to send us reminders that our earthly life or that of our loved ones could end at any time. How do we live with this knowledge? Often we deny it. Somehow we continue to think that death is what happens to others, not us. But denial doesn’t work for very long. We need something to ground us, to sustain us and guide us, no matter what happens to us on this very challenging earth journey.
Although everyone uses different language to describe their faith, most people refer to something beyond the world of the five senses. Eckhart Tolle, in Stillness Speaks states “An intelligence greater than the human mind is at work. You cannot get any closer to that intelligence than by being aware of your own inner energy field – by feeling the aliveness, the animating presence within the body.”
Eckhart speaks a lot about presence as the divine force that animates and guides our lives and we can only become aware of this presence in the present moment, since that is all we have - the past and the future are not real. He points out how our thinking leads us away from living a peaceful life. Sometimes we think life and other people, should go according to our expectations. But life isn’t like that. It never unfolds the way we think it should and so often we get upset.
I used to think that faith was about improving my life (and that of my loved ones) in the external world. I thought faith could improve my health, my relationships and bring me more success in my work. It can certainly do all those things but I now believe it goes so much deeper than that. I find that surrender to what is, brings more peace and contentment. Again I quote Eckhart.
When you say “yes” to the “isness” of life, when you accept this moment as it is, you can feel a sense of spaciousness within you that is deeply peaceful…Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world.
I was brought up to believe that God was separate from us. I now believe that we are all part of a divine, collective intelligence which includes all beings - animals, insects, plants, trees, oceans, rivers and the earth. If we truly believed in our hearts that we are all one divine consciousness, then we could not devastate the rainforests, pollute our waters and kill off other species and humans for our own greed. I am convinced that God rests in the essence of each and every one of us. This knowing can bring us joy, peace and love. But sometimes we need to, in St Therese’s words, “let this presence settle into your bones and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.”
I have just tried to describe something that is un-describable. Faith in ultimate being is not about words but if I were to pick one word to describe it, that word would be Mystery. Maybe we just need to surrender to and embrace the wonder of this Mystery and become comfortable with not knowing.