From Caroline’s 2002 Salon – Part 1 of 2
The Essence of Faith
The other day I was discussing with a friend a serious challenge she is going through in her marriage. We talked about the pros and cons of counseling, separation, divorce, and anything else that seemed like a viable option. At the end of the conversation, she leaned back in her chair and said, “Oh, well, I guess I just have to have faith that it will all work out.” I agreed with her.
Then I thought about how often “I guess I just have to have faith” was the closing remark in conversations I have had and continue to have. The realization that brought me to a pause was that I have never really taken the time to think about the nature of faith: What exactly is faith? How do we know if we have faith? And how is the power of faith manifested?
Growing up as a Catholic, “Just have faith” was practically a mantra in itself. But as I grew older, that mantra often came back to haunt me. I can remember times when I was so desperate for guidance that when someone suggested that I “just have faith,” I wanted to push them off a cliff screaming, “Just have faith! I’m sure there’s a net down there somewhere!” Every one of you reading this knows the feeling I’m describing.
What exactly is faith? How do we know we have faith? By what scale do we measure whether we have “enough” faith? And then there is the question of “unconditional” faith, which has to be the highest risk of all relationships with the heavens. That one is like giving the Divine a green light to send you on whatever missions the heavens deem essential — not to you, necessarily, but to the greater good. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, who, while kneeling at the infamous rock, inquired in prayer why he needed to die such a horrific death. With no answer forthcoming from above, he agreed with unconditional faith to follow through with his Contract.
The Essence of Faith
Faith is power. It is the power to stand up to the madness and chaos of the physical world while holding the position that nothing external has any authority over what heaven has in mind for you. That kind of power is perhaps the most enviable internal strength that any human being can attain. Like any good Catholic schooled in the lives of the saints and mystics, I know an endless string of stories that show why their faith was the proof of their sainthood. Against all odds, these individuals were able to resist the forces of the outside world that others would cave under and hold steady on their course. That course could consist of believing in the process of inner revelation that was taking place within their spirits, or of trusting that their needs would be met regardless of the odds.
Some years ago I read a book about the woman known as Peace Pilgrim. For twenty-five years, she walked across the country in behalf of world peace, carrying all that she needed with her. She ate when given food and slept when given a bed. Peace Pilgrim’s journey was one of unconditional faith, and it was that aspect of her life that captivated my attention as I read her story. Her plan was to walk across the northern part of the country during the summer and the southern states during the winter. One time as she was walking through the South, the weather turned cold and she lacked proper clothing. She heard a voice tell her to seek cover under a bridge and when she reached that destination she discovered a box large enough for her to fit into with a blanket and pillow inside. One could call that a miracle, but is it really? Could that experience be simply the way things happen when we walk in faith? Isn’t it more the way heaven would work with us if we followed the teachings of the spiritual masters and trusted that our needs would be met – IF, indeed, we trusted that our needs would be met? I love stories like Peace Pilgrim’s because I believe that heaven does watch us that closely and can intervene in a moment’s notice – and part of my inner struggle is that I just can’t seem to live in that space. Nor can most of the people I meet. So many of us (perhaps you included) want to reach that place of living free from the parasitical fears that prevent us from being fully alive.
When I was growing up, I believed that heaven had to ask my parents’ permission to send me a crisis — that as long as I lived at home, I remained underage for “adult” problems. Later, when I was in my twenties and was just beginning to wonder about the nature of God, I met a woman I’ll call Marge, who had a magnetic personality. She lived a simple life that appeared quite attractive to me because she was perhaps the first person I had ever met who was truly content and did not invest her time in “wanting.” That quality alone was soothing to me because she so clearly loved her life just as it was. Marge was soft-spoken and small-framed, not that those characteristics have anything at all to do with faith. They did, however, stand in stark contrast to the enormous spirit that she possessed. I remember so clearly asking her why it was easy for her to believe that all things were taken care of and unfolded as they were meant to unfold. I challenged her with an obvious argument, namely, Would she offer that same posture to someone whose house had just been wiped out in a flood or to someone who had just experienced the loss of a loved one?
“Well, you know,” Marge said, “everything you believe depends upon how afraid you are of life, and how well you want to know the soul of life, because life itself has its own soul.” I loved the poetry of that response. It rolled around in my head like a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. Life itself has its own soul. I am still in awe of that thought because it is truth. We discussed the “behavior” of life, its precarious personality and whimsical nature. In the end, Marge pointed out that trusting in the nature of God is the same as coming to the realization that life should not be lived “safely” but “wisely.” To expect that God does not act through pain and pleasure equally is to maintain a child’s idea of God. It seemed to me, I said, that holding onto a belief that heaven means for you to lose your home in a flood borders on pure absurdity. (Keep in mind that at the time of this exchange, I was in my twenties and this is exactly what I believed. Looking back, I realize that I was in search of the rules to follow that would insure that it would never be my home that would be swept away under the waves.)
Marge told me that to seek a way to avoid chaos and pain was the true absurdity. “Life comes to call in full measure at times,” she said, “and faith is the power to accept the nature of life as it is and to cease the meaningless and useless task of trying to stop change from happening to you.” This final comment of hers reminded me that a touch of Buddhism always has a way of putting things into perspective.
Before I met Marge, there had always been something that irritated me about the belief that “things work out for the best.” It implies that today was empty and that tomorrow, all will be perfect. Faith, it seems to me, is the capacity to keep your attention in the moment and say, “All is as it should be now.” It shouldn’t mean speaking of that sweet comfort zone in the language of the inevitable, the not-quite-yet, the someday-down-the-road. The secret of Marge’s peace was that she did not live waiting for her tomorrow to be better. Whatever her day was filled with was “as it should be” and that was good enough for her. She had faith, a belief that in all things that looked still there was motion so fast that your eyes could not keep pace with the speed of change. She lived fully in the faith that all things could change in an instant, including the healing of an illness, an end to overwhelming poverty, or meeting the love of your life at the local gas station. Marge balked at the word “impossible,” saying that if she could ever ban something from her house, it would be spiritually disabling beliefs that had no place in the description of heaven.
How do you know if you have faith, and how much is enough to generate a miracle?
I can’t recall the number of times I have wondered about how much faith is enough to get what I want, or to make what I want happen. All religions have their rituals and prayer tools; Catholics, for instance, have the rosary and novenas. The power ritual involved with a novena is that you pray the rosary nine days in a row and – voila! You get what you want. At least that’s what I believed as a child. Would that it were that easy. I used to do rosary calculations: If I wanted something REAL big, that might take two novenas, which, by the way, required a good deal of effort. I would have to pray the rosary for eighteen days straight, without a break in the action. If you broke the nine day commitment, you had to start over again. Believe me when I tell you that I am not the first to do rosary calculus. It goes along with how many candles you need to light to show that you have faith in this or that.
One day as I was saying the rosary, I realized that I did not have an agenda as such. I was just praying for the sake of praying. It had to be one of the most mind-blowing experiences of my life. I couldn’t think of a thing to ask for — which was a bit like sitting on Santa’s lap and drawing a blank. I started to float in the experience of praying without an agenda. The feeling was truly euphoric. And then I knew that this was the first time I had experienced an unconditional sense of faith and trust in God. I had no complaints to state, no wish list, no this or that. I only wanted to float in this light space of trust. This sensation was so overpowering that I am struggling with ways to describe it to you. And I need to add that as much as I would like to say that ever since meeting heaven on truly holy ground I have remained there, that is far from fact. But I recall this place more clearly than I can see and feel my computer. In that moment I knew what it was to have faith. I lacked fear. I wasn’t dense with concern over my tomorrow or thick with regrets about yesterday. I was living in that place of “all is as it should be.” This same experience recurred once some years after I had met Marge. And when it did, I learned that everything that Marge had described to me about the lightness that naturally flows from having trust in the Divine was true. In that place, your spirit simply stops wondering and wandering. It has absolutely no desire to be anywhere other than in the present moment. Regardless of what is unfolding in that present moment on the physical plane, a sense of grace rushes through you that says “all is well” and “no need to worry.” And the miracle – if you want to call it that – is how easy it is in that place to believe that all is well in some way.
Next week – Finding, Nurturing and Developing Faith.