Testing Faith

One of the privileges of our ‘online presence’ as a community is that we are often entrusted with the most heartfelt pleas for help. People pour out their sadness, their anxiety, their need, confident that we will pray, and pray perseveringly, even when they themselves feel they have been wrung dry and are incapable of anything more. If they make their plea public (we never do, except in anonymous terms), it irritates me profoundly if someone jumps in with a statement such as ‘Offer it up’ or implies that the sufferer is somehow wanting in faith because he or she is unable to find comfort in the conventional pieties of our youth. The pain that another experiences is not to be treated so lightly, nor is faith to be judged wanting because it is tested.

We have probably all experienced the unreality that follows the death of someone close. We walk around, our universe shattered, yet all the while others are going about their business as though nothing had happened. It seems not merely unreal, it is surreal. Our senses are heightened. We feel everything keenly, yet we are numb. Why do others not feel as we do? There is only the bleakness of what we have experienced and the mismatch between it and what we see in others. At such times, a small kindness can mean a great deal; a sympathetic silence can be balm to a wound so deep we do not know how to reach it.

This morning our email prayerline has brought us news of several deaths and some harrowing personal situations. Please pray for all who have reached out to us, and by extension you, in their need. And if you happen to be one of those suffering, know that your suffering is not pointless. In ways none of us truly understands, it is taken up into the suffering of Christ, in whom nothing is ever lost or meaningless. Your faith may seem to you non-existent; just for today, rely on the faith of others, your brethren in Christ — on the faith of the Communion of Saints.

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That Sinking Feeling

There are probably very few who do not feel, from time to time, that they are ‘going under’. Work, relationships, the sheer complexity of life in the twenty-first century, with its endless demands for immediate response/action, all take their toll — even on those of us who live in monasteries. The feast of SS Maurus and Placid is therefore one we can all take encouragement from. The story of Placid’s falling into the lake, his distress being seen by Benedict, and Maurus’s unhesitatingly walking on the water at his abbot’s command and rescuing his sinking brother, challenges any simplistic ideas about authority and obedience. It turns conventional ideas of perfection upside down and confronts us with an important truth about our desire to be in control all the time: we aren’t and can’t be.

Maurus and Placid are frequently presented as types of the ideal disciple, the bane of every Benedictine novice’s life, so perfect are they in their obedience to a charismatic leader. It is much more helpful to see Benedict, Maurus and Placid as all three engaged in mutual obedience, all listening intently. It is prayer, listening to God, that allows Benedict to know of Placid’s plight, and it is listening to his abbot that allows Maurus to rescue his brother. Any perfection there may be is in that intense listening, that alertness to the voice of the Holy Spirit. It creates a bond of mutual love and trust; and it is that which makes Maurus’s action possible.

All very well, you may say, but what about Placid’s experience? He was drowning, going under, suffocating. We identify with that rather than his miraculous rescue. Love and trust can’t be summoned up at will, we say; we can’t force a miracle just because we’d like one. Exactly. Love and trust have to be worked at, they don’t just happen; and sometimes it is only when we are out of our depth and adrift that we discover how much we have to rely on the faith of others. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. It is part of the meaning of the Communion of Saints. We rely on one another. We see that very clearly in family or community life, but our horizons need to be broader and take in the whole Church, the whole of humanity even. Whatever we face, however uncertain we may feel, we are buoyed up by the knowledge that we are sustained by the love and prayer of the whole Church in every age and generation. Our role is to contribute something to that ourselves.

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