Empowered By Faith

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Abraham did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief; rather, he was empowered by faith and gave glory to God and was fully convinced that what God had promised he was also able to do.

Romans 4: 20-21

Today is the feast day of Saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brébeuf and companions. It is impossible, in our time, not to be of mixed mind about the great missionary efforts of the past. We are aware of the tension involved when a principally European Church became an arm of the expansion of European culture to the then “undeveloped and uncivilized” world. Without doubt it was very often difficult to separate the drive to offer the salvation of Christ from the arrogance of “Europeanizing” indigenous populations and appropriating their resources and wealth.

Yet, all the same, to reflect on the life of Isaac Jogues and his companions is to be brought face to face and so challenged by their extraordinary faith. How is it that a person, once escaped the privation and torture afflicted on him by a people, would desire and insist on returning to those very people for the sake of their salvation? How was it possible for Isaac Jogues to believe that his return to the place of his suffering and torture could conceivably have a different outcome, that his presence could somehow be a source of life for those whose salvation was his burning passion?

In “Kierkegaard’s Speculative Despair” Judith Butler writes:  “The task of faith is to continue to affirm infinite possibility in the face of events which appear to make existence itself a radically impossible venture” (quoted in Daphne Hampson, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique, p. 37). Abraham is “fully convinced” that God’s promise of his becoming the seed of God’s chosen people will be fulfilled even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. So too Isaac Jogues believes that following God’s call to return to his life among the Mohawks is not futile, despite the evidence to the contrary.

In today’s gospel we hear the parable of the rich landowner who has such a bountiful harvest that he builds larger barns to store his grain in order to secure his future. Our need and desire for a security that is self-assured is precisely what makes faith so difficult for us. When we work and act primarily in service of our own sense of the possible and the useful, when our primary motivation is to maintain our control and comfort, we evade our deeper call and minimize our own lives. Of course, we need to recognize our limits and to maintain an adequate sense of physical and psychological security. Yet, to live by faith requires, as well, to serve possibility in the face of the seemingly impossible. Abraham and Sarah were too old to engender progeny. After Isaac is born, Abraham, in faith, is willing to sacrifice the one possibility of the promise’s fulfillment. Yet Abraham continues to act in response to the promptings of faith, however impossible events make the promise seem.

At times you will discover
that God’s ways are not your ways, 
and God’s thoughts are not your thoughts.
When this happens,
try to surrender yourself trustingly 
into the arms of God, 
who knows you, understands you,
and loves you.

To surrender ourselves into the arms of God who loves us may sound like a basically passive endeavor. Yet, as Simone Weil points out, love is a direction. The love of God, from moment to moment, is giving direction to our lives. It is a direction that we can only receive in faith. As with Abraham, faith empowers us to act, but to act in a context in which we long to give glory to God and in which we live from the conviction that God is able to do what God promises. To surrender ourselves trustingly to God is to realize a context for our choices and actions that transcends the useful, the practical, and the gratifying. It is to act in self-emptying rather than in holding on and storing up, trusting that it is the seed that falls to the ground and dies that bears fruit.

Affliction causes God to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead person, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final. The soul has to go on loving in the void, or at least to go on wanting to love, though it may be only with an infinitesimal part of itself. Then, one day, God will come to show God’s self to this soul and to reveal the beauty of the world to it, as in the case of Job. But if the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something which is almost equivalent to hell.

Simone Weil, The Love of God and Affliction

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