Trust and the Open Profession of Faith

How many people do you trust, how many institutions? And by ‘trust’ I mean what the word always used to mean, to have confidence in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something. It is a searching question, because when it comes down to it, most of us tend to qualify our answers. Absolute trust is placed in very few, usually only someone very  close to us and never, in my experience, in an institution. Yet today’s first reading from Isaiah (Is 26. 1-6) urges us to ‘trust in the Lord for ever, for the Lord is an everlasting rock’ while the gospel (Matthew 7.21, 24-27) insists that doing the will of the Lord will mean that our house, our life, is founded on rock. That suggests both strength and reliability should characterize our lives as Christians, but the plain fact is that Christianity and its adherents have never had a worse press than they do today; and despite the fact that our beliefs prompt us to many acts of charity and service, it is not unusual to encounter hostility and suspicion. Even our festivals are mocked or circumvented with neologisms like ‘Winterval’ though no-one, I think (hope?), would dream of re-naming Eid al-Fitr or Rosh Hashanah or any of the great celebrations of other religions.

Sometimes it can be instructive to listen to what our detractors say about us. The most common charges against Christians seem to be that we are

  • obscurantist and anti-sciencee
  • hypocrites
  • intolerant (homophobic, misogynistic, racist, right-wing, left-wing, etc)
  • child abusers
  • out for personal gain
  • worldly

It is true that some of us are guilty of one or more of these charges, but by no means all. In fact, I’d dare to say the majority of Christians are guiltless of all these things. Personal sin and failure affect the whole body, of course, but so too does the faithful living out of our Christian vocation.Why should the negative outweigh the positive?

I think we are beginning to have a real problem with the public perception of Christians as trustworthy people whose beliefs should command respect, even if they are not shared. Time was when a very British reticence would have made me prefer to die on the spot rather than even hint at my beliefs in public. Not so now. It’s time we all came out of that particular closet. I habitually say a cheerful ‘Bless you!’ as often as I say ‘thank you’. I mean what I say, and if I get a snarl in response, as I sometimes do, I simply smile. I have no hesitation in saying grace when I have to eat in public or using the ritual gestures when I have to say the Office away from the monastery. I’m not forcing my beliefs on anyone, but I’m not hiding them, either. Scio cui credidi, as we sing on our profession day. I know in whom I have believed, in whom I have placed my trust.

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The Limits of Sincerity

How would you feel if the best that could be said of you were, ‘Well, (s)he was sincere’? There is something midly dismissive about the phrase — meant well, you know, but never quite made the grade. That is not to denigrate sincerity, which is in itself a wonderful expression of that integrity of heart the prophets write about, but it is to acknowledge that sincerity by itself is not enough. It is necessary, but there must be something more. We can be sincere admirers of Jesus as a holy man, but that is not the same as recognizing him as Lord and Saviour and acting on his words.

Today’s gospel is an uncomfortable one for ‘professional pray-ers’ like me (Matthew 7.21–27). Monks and nuns spend a lot of the day saying, in effect, ‘Lord, Lord’, but Jesus is not content with our words, no matter how beautifully or sincerely uttered. There must be action, too, and that is where the difficulty lies. What sort of action? Very few find discipleship uncomplicated. Questions of right and wrong have a way of becoming more complex the more one thinks about them, and even faith itself can be distinctly fragile at times. We want to do the right thing but often end up doing the wrong one — or nothing at all. That is where I think the reading from Isaiah (Is 26.1-6) is helpful. There is a lot about trusting in the Lord, being steadfast, keeping the peace. Those unspectacular virtues have something very Benedictine about them. I’d dare to say that they have something very Christian about them, too, because they emphasize that whatever good we do is a work of grace, attributable to the Lord. He is the only real doer. Our problem is not getting in his way!

Most of us are not called to be heroes of faith like St Francis Xavier, whose feast we celebrate today, but all of us are called to fidelity in the duties of every day, to preaching the gospel through a life of good deeds and perseverance. We may feel that we are weak and wobbly, that we haven’t prayed enough or done enough, but that is to turn our gaze on ourselves in an unhealthy way. The Lord is our Rock. This Advent, let us build on him, for he will never fail or forsake us.

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The Intimate and the Epic

That is not a bad strapline for Advent. We are preparing for the birth of a baby which, when it took place in history, was an obscure occurrence in a troublesome part of the Roman Empire — nothing to get excited about. But it was also the most amazing event ever to occur in any place or time: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Word made Flesh.

God seems to enjoy linking the intimate and the epic, often in ways we fail to register properly. The sacrament many of us receive most often comes to us in the humdrum form of a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, but we surround it with our own ideas of beauty and majesty.* Like Naaman, we prefer to have things complicated. We want grandeur rather than simplicity; we want to do great things for God rather than the little ones he actually asks. Today’s gospel (Matt 7.21, 24–27) is a case in point. We want to address God with all the grandiloquence and ceremony of which we are capable, to give free expression to all the words in our hearts, but he just wants us to be attentive to his word, to do his will.

Now that we are a few days into Advent, it would be useful to pause and ask ourselves whether the programme we have drawn up for ‘our Advent’ is really about drawing closer to God or puffing ourselves up with a sense of our own goodness. John the Baptist was great precisely because he was small in his own eyes. He had no other desire than to point towards Jesus. Maybe there is a lesson for us all in that.

*Please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for making our liturgy, and the places where we celebrate it, as beautiful as we possibly can. The casual and the sloppy are anathema to me. But without love and reverence even the grandest liturgy, the most beautiful music, are wanting.

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