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?

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Preparing for Advent 2016

Every year I pen a brief post about preparing for Advent; and every year I wonder whether what I write conveys anything of value to the readers. For example, last year I wrote:

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less . . . .

The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen. (abridged)

What I wrote is true and valid, I think, but this year I’d want to put a particular emphasis on the importance of silence. Here in the monastery we begin Advent with three days of near-perfect silence. Most people know nothing about it because our prayer tweets and FB prayer intentions are pre-programmed, but the house is as silent as we can make it and all unnecessary noise or conversation avoided. In the past, I’ve tended to see this as the watchful, expectant silence of those awaiting the Messiah, a chance to plumb the depths of our inadequacy and emptiness that Christ alone can fill and transform. This year, however, I think our silence will take another cast. So many brutal, treacherous words have been spoken; so many brutal, violent acts have followed; there is so much hatred and anger being expressed, even in the Church. Only silence, the silence of repentance, of the desire for conversion of heart, for real change, can turn this violent wordiness of ours into a preparation for the coming of the Word. St Benedict talks about setting a permanent clamp on our lips (aeterna clausura RB 6.8) to avoid the kind of speech that leads both ourselves and others astray. Clamping our lips tight may not look like the most obvious preparation for Advent but it could prove the one we most need to make — and the most difficult.

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On the Eve of a New Liturgical Year

Today is a day of quiet excitement in the monastery. Everything in the oratory will have been burnished to within an inch of its life. Choir books will have been marked for the Advent liturgy, and there will be a rush to try to answer all urgent letters and emails before Vespers. Once Vespers has been sung, a great silvery silence descends, spreading like moonlight into every corner of the house. We are entering into a wilderness time, when we try to keep distractions to a minimum and concentrate on the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Christ. There is a luminous simplicity about everything which is at odds with the commercialism that often takes over at this time of year. It is a great privilege to be able to spend these few weeks apart from the maelstrom, but it comes at a price. Unless our withdrawal is for the sake of the Kingdom, unless we are genuinely seeking God and prepared to accept whatever he may ask of us, it is merely a form of self-indulgence. The old monks and nuns used to speak of ‘the Advent demon’ — the tendency for things to go wrong, for little typhoons in teacups to upset our peace and overturn our purposes. Let us pray that none of us is deflected from our purpose this Advent and that you and we together come to the safe haven of Christmas.

Please note:
In order to maintain a spirit of recollection during Advent, we try to keep correspondence/visitors to a minimum, so please don’t take it amiss if we fail to answer.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail