Head Faith; Heart Faith; No Faith; Advent

One of the things that perplexes me is the relationship between what we might call ‘head faith’ — the articulation of belief variously referred to as doctrine or dogma  — and ‘heart faith’ — the principles by which we actually live, usually fewer in number and often very difficult to put into words. 

I am on record as saying that I think there is nothing more exciting than orthodox Catholicism, and I mean it. No theologian myself, I can claim to have read quite a lot of other people’s theology and have found it inspiring because of the light it throws on the mysteries of faith. Read Augustine’s De Trinitate with a little modern physics in mind and suddenly the Church’s teaching about the Blessed Trinity explodes into life. Even the most ‘difficult’ subjects prompt further efforts to understand, and one ends up on one’s knees, lost in adoration and wonder. But I would be the first to admit that this is ‘head faith’: exciting, stretching one’s mind, but not necessarily at the forefront of our practice of loving and serving the Lord. To take the example of the Blessed Trinity again, what I believe about the Trinity makes me read and pray but does not always translate into virtuous action. It does not make me kinder or more patient, nor do I think I will lie on my death-bed, if I am granted a death-bed, questioning whether my belief in the Trinity was accurate in all respects. I am much more likely to be worrying about my ‘heart faith’ — what I made of the opportunities given to me; how I lived my vocation as a Christian and, more specifically, as a Benedictine; how I treated other people created in the image and likeness of God. In other words, how I translated all that theological eloquence into discipleship.

Let me say at once that there is no opposition between ‘head faith’ and ‘heart faith’: both are necessary. Like Martha and Mary they represent different aspects of a single truth. I would never agree, for example, that it doesn’t really matter what we believe provided we have some generalised goodwill, nor that we can pick and choose among the doctrines of the Church and still call ourselves Catholic. That is one reason why I maintain that what we believe about the Church is more important than many recognize. I would always argue that unless we can say that we believe what the Church teaches is true, we are far from a Catholic understanding of ecclesiology. But that isn’t what determines most of my everyday conduct. That comes from much simpler streams, and possibly yours does also. 

I think trying to be loving and merciful is a better indicator of how far we are willing to co-operate with grace than, say, making barbed comments about what we see as deficiencies in the faith of others. So, for example, slandering or libelling the pope, Cardinal Burke, or whomever we disagree with or simply dislike, is a rather risky undertaking. It sets us up in judgement on those who may, in fact, be more pleasing to God than we are ourselves. It can easily lead to the bitter zeal against which St Benedict warns in RB 72. The trouble is, once we are infected with it, we lose the ability to see clearly and tend to plunge deeper and deeper into anger and bitterness. Again, I stress that trying to be loving and merciful doesn’t mean that we adopt an ‘anything goes’ approach to Christian living, but I do believe that more people are drawn to Christianity by example than are argued into it. If we have got into the habit of condemning the sins or shortcomings of of others, isn’t it time we took a look in the mirror? We may not like what we see; is it any wonder that others don’t, either? And how does God see us? 

Matters can get worse. When we abandon ‘head faith’ and ‘heart faith’ and regard ourselves as the arbiters of all things we fall into ‘no faith’. I am not talking here of agnostics or atheists but of those who would still say they are Christians but whose lives and attitudes proclaim that they are so in name only. It is much commoner than might be supposed, but we tend to be blind to it in ourselves and only notice it in others. 

‘No faith’ begins with a falling off from prayer but the danger isn’t always obvious: we are too busy doing good works, championing good causes, fussing about details of the liturgy or church furnishings (all good things in themselves) to waste time with God; and, if we don’t waste time with God, we’ll never really get to know him. The next stage is to give up reading. We know scripture pretty well, don’t we, and as to those dull tomes of theology, they are too dry to be of use to anyone, aren’t they? And when we have given up prayer and reading, when we no longer think deeply about what we believe, the Christian community becomes a kind of optional extra. Why bother to go to Mass and endure an uninspiring liturgy in a cold and draughty church that is inhabited by people even more cantankerous than we are? We go on for a while, but there are better things to do with our time. Gradually, ‘no faith’ becomes our default mode, and we become just one more statistic, one more person in whom the light of Christ is almost extinguished.

Why am I saying this now? Soon we shall begin Advent, a time of renewed preparation for the coming of the Lord. In the West it coincides with a season of lavish spending and self-indulgence, making it difficult to concentrate on what Advent is really about. For those who desire to follow Christ, however, Advent provides an opportunity to look at our lives afresh and see what we need to change to welcome him more fully into our lives. It isn’t a penitential season in the way that Lent is a penitential season, but many people prefer to give up chocolate or make some small sacrifice of something or other rather than address the really big things, the things that are obstacles to grace. May I suggest it would be useful to start thinking about Advent now, before the parties and the present-buying begin in earnest? The sketches I have given of ‘head faith’, ‘heart faith’ and ‘no faith’ may not speak to you, but I hope they may suggest a new line to take, a way of thinking about Advent that hadn’t occurred to you before. With the prophet Isaiah, we must prepare a way for the Lord in the desert of our hearts and not be surprised if we find a few stones and other obstacles en route.

One further thought. Every night at Compline we review the events of the day that is past. I have always found the words of the psalmist, ‘My every desire is before thee,’ a good way of taking stock. What have I wanted; what do I want? How does it measure up to what I believe, in my head and in my heart, and how has it influenced or determined what I have done?


12 thoughts on “Head Faith; Heart Faith; No Faith; Advent”

  1. I find it helpful to ask myself at the end of the day, while praying the Examen, have I done my best to be a disciple or have I been an admirer of Christ?

    I like your analogy of head faith and heart faith – yet another perspective, something to work with throughout Advent. Thank you.

  2. I understand!; but too, I have never to yet, had a head calling/pray. I will spent Christmas working, in healthcare, my choose; with others, who, have no personal family around?, as I don’t.. this gives release to others in the company with young children, so they can spend this time with them! Christmas in the personal has passed for me. Odd, as I still live here on earth.. blessed, in grace to you sister.

  3. Thank you for this. After having cancer surgery I stopped going to church and haven’t been back to see my spiritual director. I am still, however, volunteering in a prison chaplaincy. I need to think about all this before Advent is here.

  4. Very thought provoking . Especially the slippery slope of missing prayer , reading , spending time with Him , even as we are engaged in His work ,
    I find myself constantly in Martha mode including the creeping in of resentment that no one else is helping . Mary knew what was best !
    I am always searching for the most helpful prayer of examen online for bedtime to reflective music . I find when I actually give this space the desert of my heart receives much needed living water . However some I have found are rather Americanised
    If anyone has recommendations I would be grateful .
    In the meantime your post reminded me of how I must resist Martha ism ., Grateful for the nudge to look in the mirror .,

  5. Dear Sister Catherine.

    Wooh! Thank you, there is lots in this blog, possibility beyond me, I have just deleted my responses trying to work out head and heart faith. 6th paragraph – hmm? . Thanks for the suggestion to think about Advent now!

  6. Thank you for this thought-provoking and inspiring post. ‘Wasting’ time in prayer and meditation is daily bread. It’s so easy to get bound up in exhausting ‘chasing your tail’ actions, fine though the intentions are, when what all concerned really need is the shortest and most effective cut to God’s Kingdom. It’s also good to remember that he turns our mistakes on their head when we pray. He can use them to extend his Kingdom.

    God’s gift at Christmas reminds us that he desires mercy and not sacrifice from us. This is Grace and Peace, a generosity of spirit blossoming into Life.

    Your comment about applying ‘a little modern physics’ is one that really resonates with me and suggests that physics is the servant of Abundant Grace. The Virgin Birth, the Ever Virgin, when, clearly, Jesus had earthly brothers and sisters (besides his spiritual family.) The loaves and fishes, the calming of the seas, the healing miracles. How great our capabilities might be in Christ, now and beyond, though what we experience here is the thinnest end of an unquantifiable wedge.

    You’ll be happy to know that my church is already preparing for Advent with Bible study house groups.

    God bless and thank you for your posts.

  7. Since having knee surgery – one knee, the other is still on the back burner! – I can‘t keep going as long as I used to, which has the knock on advantage of forcing me to sit down for 10 minutes or so bang in the middle of hoovering or some such. These pauses are an excellent time to have a chat with the Lord, anything which is buzzing around in my head gets brought to Him. Maybe not the official way of praying but it gives me the sense that He is with me doing the daily round, the common task.

  8. When buttons are pressed regarding uncomfortable thoughts – busy studying theology, ‘wasting time’ with the Lord in prayer decreasing , just getting ‘the job’ done – it’s time, yet again, to pay attention; how do I reconcile my genuine desire to put Him first when I don’t? Guess it’s the work of a lifetime, fall, be provoked, make promises, get up, over and over. Thank you for this post. Confession before Advent coming on…

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