Mary Ellen Ireland — Guest Speaker
I pray that something I say will be useful to you.
How’s your faith?
“Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.”
Faith is a verb in Latin and Hebrew and most likely Navajo. Faith is not a singular state that we either have or don’t have. It is something we do.
Just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. suggests: Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase just take the first step.
Faith is what gets us out of bed. It is the glimmer of possibility that is the beginning of faith. Faith inspires us to envision a better life for ourselves.
Faith gets us on an airplane to an unknown land, opens us to the possibilities that our lives can be different. Though we may repeatedly stumble, afraid to move forward in the dark we have the strength to take that magnitude of risk, because of faith.
Faith is not superficial or sentimental. It doesn’t say everything will turn out all right, according to our wishes. Life is not likely to deliver only pleasant events. Faith entails the understanding that we don’t know how things will turn out. Faith allows us to claim the possibility that a helping hand will reach out to us. Have faith in our own innate goodness and capacity to love.
We can’t take faith for granted. It takes some thought and effort. I often see people in the hospital who haven’t been fostering their faith during the good times and finding a great need for something to believe in when they hit a rough patch.
Finding a spiritual community is a significant step on the journey of faith. A trustworthy refuge enables us to go against the misleading premises of an unexamined world, to move beyond conditioned attitudes and responses, to eschew superficial or heartless answers to our deepest questions. The voice of the community reminds us we aren’t traveling alone.
James Fowler in the Stages of Faith reminds us that the faith of our childhood does not last. For our faith to mature, we have to weigh what others tell us against our own experiences of truth. We honor ourselves by relying on our own experiences more than the experience of others…parents, teachers, pastors, priests and ancient spiritual texts.
A herd of cows arrives at the bank of a wide stream. The mature ones see the stream and simply wade across it. The younger cows, less mature, stumble apprehensively on the shore, but eventually they go forward and cross the stream. This leaves the calves, trembling with fear, some just learning how to stand. But these vulnerable, tender calves also get to the other side. They cross the stream just by following the lowing of their mothers. The calves trust their mothers and, anticipating the safety of reunion, follow their voices and cross the stream.
We need to verify our faith through our own experience and practice examining to see if the teachings hold up in our own lives. Having questions, being uncertain or maybe believing in some aspects of religious doctrine and not others, does not mean we have a lack of faith, as we may have been told as children. It means we have not had the opportunity to verify our faith by examining our beliefs. We can question our beliefs freely without fear of losing our faith.
Faith in contrast to fear reminds us of the every changing flow of life with all its movement and possibilities. Faith allows us to relax into the vast space of not knowing. How comfortable we are with uncertainty is a sign of a mature faith.
We may be going along in life when suddenly the bottom falls out from under us. We receive a diagnosis of cancer, perhaps, or a loved one is injured or dies. This is trauma–an intense, abrupt and complete alteration of our circumstances–and it can throw us into the depth of despair–the opposite of faith.
Despair is the sense of utter isolation and disconnection. We are unable to access our faith. We are consumed by hopelessness. Yet our suffering can be a springboard to faith over time.
Consider a specific occasion when your faith was tested. What did you learn about yourself, your relationship with god, and your relationships with others?
Is it necessary to go through despair on a spiritual path–a proverbial dark night of the soul–in order to deepen our faith? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that as human being it is necessary to let go of many things, undergo loss and unhook from the world’s insistence that we cover up our pain in order for us to see what is really important in our lives. With just a glimmer of a little bit of faith there can be sufficient energy to get help or keep getting help, to accept support, to begin or begin again walking the spiritual path. You never know when a slight touch, a kind word, a friendly smile may give someone the inspiration to keep going.
At times when someone’s suffering seems to have no end, when it is too much to bear, we can lose faith in our ability to make any difference at all. This is exactly at these times when faith is needed most. How do we cultivate a faith that enables us to take positive action in the world against seemingly overwhelming odds?
Where can we place our faith that enables us to make a difference– especially when it seems no matter what we do–it’s not enough. Even when we don’t know what to do to make things better for someone, we can have faith that we are not isolated individuals in a fragmented world. We are all interconnected and our lives are intertwined.
We can place our faith in something that endures–A bone-deep, lived understanding of who we are and why we’re here. It is our ultimate concerns, such as justice, sense of purpose, nature and the environment, loving our neighbor, remembering God… These are ultimate concerns. What we rely on for when things get rocky or a sense of comfort on a bad day. It is what we count on.
The connection between our faith and our health is getting to be pretty mainstream now. Faith gives us the ability to make sense of illness and its meaning. It can give us a sense of purpose and meaning in the midst of a crisis or calamity. Along with having a supportive family and friends, having a community that acknowledges, respects and supports our beliefs is a proven indicator of health. Faith can give us a reason to get our minds off ourselves and focus on others, putting our own concerns in perspective. We can take responsibility for our health and happiness and use coping skills to reduce stress and monitor anxiety. Faith can give us a sense of feeling connected and cared for. Our faith lets us acknowledge our mortality and accept the mystery of life.
Hopefulness is a sign of spiritual health. Hope can remind us of light when we are in darkness but when, our hope is based only on getting what we want, in the precise way we want it, then we bind hope to fear rather than faith. When hope and prayer become strategies to avoid facing what is, then we having nothing on which to base either effective action or real peace of mind. Faith allows us to relax into that vast space of not knowing. Hope is the power of letting go in the face of the unexpected changes of life. We have a choice between acting out of fear masquerading as hope or acting with faith.
Of course as humans we hope and plan and arrange and try. We can be fully engaged at the same time as realizing that we are not in control. As long as we are alive, we will experience fear–no matter how deep our faith, when our life is threatened, or we think it is, we will feel afraid. We are not going to stop falling but we can find faith in the midst of the fall.
What I’ve described are determinants of a healthy, mature faith. They are believing in something greater than ourselves; having a spiritual community that affirms our beliefs; believing that our faith influences our health; having traditions, symbols and rituals that support our beliefs, and having hopefulness. These are the things we can do to foster faith in our lives. As Sharon Salsberg writes, Whoever we are, we can proclaim that we are no longer standing on the sidelines but are leaping directly into the center of our lives, our truth, our full potential. No one can take that leap for us; and no one has to. This is our journey of faith.
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