Faith is not something you achieve. If you try to nail it down, it gets up and walks away with the nail. Faith works this way: Some days you walk on water, other days you sink like a stone. You live with a deep secret, the poet Rumi says, that sometimes you know, and then not, and then know again. Sometimes you feel the real presence, and sometimes you feel the real absence.
Why? Because, like love, faith is a journey, with constant ups and downs, with alternating periods of fervor and dryness, with consolation giving way to desolation, and with graced moments where God feels tangibly present eclipsed by dark nights where God feels absent. It's a strange state. Sometimes you feel riveted to God, steel-like, other times you feel yourself in a free-fall from everything secure, and then, just when things are at their lowest, you feel God's presence again.
Why does faith have this confusing dynamic? It's not that God is cruel, is playing games with us, wants to test our fidelity, or wants us to have to do something difficult to earn salvation. No, the ups and downs of faith have to do with the rhythms of ordinary life, especially the rhythm of love. Love, like faith, too has its periods of fervor and of dark nights.
All of us know that inside of any long-term commitment (marriage, family, friendship or church) there will be certain days and whole seasons when our heads and our hearts aren't in that commitment, even as we're still in it. Our heads and hearts fade in and fade out, but we experience love as ultimately not dependent upon the head or even the heart. Something deeper holds us, and holds us beyond the thoughts of our heads or the feelings of our heart at a given moment. In any sustained commitment in love, our heads and hearts will fade in and out. Sometimes there's fervor, sometimes there's flatness.
Faith works the same. Sometimes we sense and feel God's presence with our heads and our hearts and sometimes both leave us flat and dry. But faith is something deeper than imagining or feeling God's presence.
How do we come to that? What should we do in those moments when it feels as if God is absent?
The great mystic, St. John of the Cross, offers this advice. If you want to find God's presence again in those moments when God feels absent, listen to a word filled with reality and unfathomable truth. What might he mean by that? How does one listen to a word filled with reality and unfathomable truth? How does one even find such a word?
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what he means, even as his words explode with possible meanings inside my mind. The phrase might be easier to untangle if he was telling us to look for an experience that's deep and filled with reality; for example, giving birth to a child, being awed by exceptional beauty, or having your heart broken by loss or death. Such experiences are real, unfathomably true, and jolt us into a deeper awareness. So if God is to be found, shouldn't God be found there?
But John isn't directing us towards an in-depth experience; he's asking us to look for a word that carries reality and depth. Does that mean that when we are unsteady and in doubt we should hunt for texts (in Scripture, theology, spirituality or in secular literature and poetry) that speak to us in a way that re-grounds us in some primal sense that God exists and loves us and that, because of this, we should live in love and hope?
I suspect that this is exactly what he means. God is one, true, good and beautiful, and so the right word about oneness, truth, goodness or beauty should have the power to steady our shifting minds and hearts. The right word can make the Word become flesh again. But what words have the power to do that for us? We're all different, so not everyone will find truth and depth in the same way.
Each one of us must therefore do our own, deeply personal search here. For myself, the words of various authors have carried this kind of truth for me at different times in my life. St. Therese of Lisieux’s “The Story of a Soul” has steadied me in some moments of doubt; John Steinbeck's “The Grapes of Wrath” can still refocus my vision when it gets cloudy; various passages from Karl Rahner, John Shea, Raymond Brown and Henri Nouwen can help steady my ship when I feel it rocking; and some words of Dag Hammarskjold can make me want to live so as to mirror more the greatness of life.
But each of us needs to search in our own way for words which, for us, are so filled with reality and unfathomable truth so as to evoke a felt-presence of God.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.