Dear Fr Donagh,
…. I find myself questioning the Faith in ways that would have troubled me deeply in the past. Of course everything is questioned and every institution is suspect today, but I'm troubled to see the rot spreading to the Faith that came down to us at such cost. Sometimes it is painful to read the papers, and even religious magazines. Our traditional beliefs don’t appear to offer much security anymore. Everything seems to be up for grabs. What worries me particularly is to see this insecurity in myself. Even after I receive Holy Communion I have questions in my mind, and this takes away all comfort. I certainly want to hold on to my faith, but now it is so compromised with questions that I feel that I have cheated everybody, including myself. Can you offer any thoughts or any kind of reassurance that there is hope for me, and for all of us…? J.L.
Thank you for your letter. And thank you, if I may say so, for all your years of service that you describe in the other parts of your letter. Nothing will ever negate all that good work and all that goodwill.
Yes, these are difficult and confusing times. We are all pulled into the curve of history, and a very tight curve it is at present. There are people erasing lines that we thought were there from all eternity. It isn't just raging liberals who are doing so; there are cardinals challenging the pope and telling everyone that he is on the wrong path. These latter are the very people who used to tell us that solidarity with the pope was the cornerstone of the Faith. To be in the midst of all this is like being swept up in a chaotic rush-hour, with drivers swerving to this side or that, honking their horns and shouting abuse at one another. It’s like road rage.
We have to do some sensible manoeuvres if we can, keeping our common sense and our sense of history, and our instinct for the faith.
I find it reassuring, sometimes, to think of the 14th century. I'm thinking in particular of the Western Schism, when the Church was divided, with three popes, each claiming legitimacy, and excommunicating the others. Our present-day situation is far different: we have one real pope, and a former pope (who prefers the academic title ‘emeritus’). It is all peaceful and proper. That is not to deny that there are people who would exploit it: I saw a tee-shirt that said, ‘Benedict is my pope.’ (Pope Benedict would surely not go along with that.) Yes, the times are challenging and confusing, but the Church has been down this road before. There isn't a single Christian teaching that hasn’t been a bone of contention at some time in the past. My point is that if the Church survived the 14th century it can survive anything. That, of course, is the promise of Matthew 28:20. But it will be better than mere survival. Remember that the 14th century gave the world some of the greatest Christian mystics. The worst brings out the best. The pattern is always death and resurrection - that's like the DNA of the Christian faith.
It's a good thing to have questions. I remember a wise old priest, now long dead, who was instructing a convert. Someone asked him how it was going. “Not well,” he replied. “He has no questions.” There’s a Chinese proverb that says: one who asks a question may appear a fool for five minutes; one who does not ask a question remains a fool forever. It is by struggling with questions that the mind is stretched and enlarged – just as the heart is deepened by struggling with problems. We were given the impression in the past that the Faith was a set of readymade answers: the Maynooth Catechism of 1951 had more than 400, to be memorised by children. Because we were given a set of answers before we ever asked a question, any curiosity we might have had was blunted. But questions will bubble up sooner or later. They are evidence of life. There’s no need to be afraid of them.
You probably remember the arithmetic textbooks we had in primary school. They gave all the answers at the end of the book! It was tormenting to have the right answer in front of you and yet to be unable to reach it. The given answer was useful only as a confirmation of your mathematical skills. Now, imagine a teacher who said to the class, “Knowing the right answers is the important thing, so we will forget about the questions, and just learn by rote all the answers at the back of the book.” But wasn’t that more or less what was done in the Catechism?
There’s a passage in Johann Tauler that I love to quote. “When we go into our house [our inner self] and look for God there, God in turn looks for us and ransacks the house. He behaves just as we do when we are searching for something, throwing aside one thing after another until we find what we are looking for. This is just what He does to us. When we have gone into our house, when we have searched for Him in the depths of our souls, God comes and searches for us and ransacks our house…. Our house is ransacked; it is as if we had never known anything about God at all. As he seeks, for us, this happens again and again; every idea that we ever had of him, every manifestation of him that we have ever known, every conception and revelation of him which we ever had will be taken away from us as he searches to find us.”
No sign there of the tidiness of the Catechism! (Significantly, Tauler lived in the 14th century.) There’s nothing wrong with tidiness, but it has to be kept in its place!
It occurs to me just now that the internet is similar in one respect to the Maynooth Catechism: it gives us answers to everything. Picasso lived long enough to be told about computers. When he had listened for a while he said, “It’s not interesting: all answers, no questions.” Because information is so readily available today, we are all weighed down with too much of it. This must lead to indifference; it leaves no room for one’s own experience. Everything is second-hand, owned and controlled by others, and we don’t truly wonder about anything anymore. It has the same effect as the Maynooth Catechism.
The Faith came to us as a story, not as a treatise or a quiz. We need a great many John Moriartys to retell the stories of the faith. When you find yourself tormented by questions, just retell yourself one of the parables, for example – or indeed any page of the gospels. Catechisms come and go; treatises are forgotten; many questions are hollow, or aimed in the wrong direction, or conspicuous by their absence. In the first chapter of the Maynooth Catechism, for example, which is all about God, nowhere does it say that God loves us – much less that “God is love” (1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:16). To compensate for the likes of that, read the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). We are paying a heavy price for having neglected the Scriptures. Steep yourself in them, read a short passage of the New Testament every day and come back to it in your mind many times. Then when questions come, you will have a broader context, a full-bodied understanding, a reassurance that comes directly from the earliest tradition. Just about everything in the Gospel could be seen under the heading of “and yet….” Nothing good was ever seen to come from Nazareth, and yet…. The apostles were simple uneducated men, and yet…. The crowds had nothing to eat, and yet…. Jesus was crucified along with a couple of thieves, and yet….
A parting word from the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “We want you… to realise the full assurance of hope to the very end” (Heb 6:11).
God bless, J.L.