Has faith a future?

Dear Donagh,

…. I worry a lot about my grandchildren.  Their parents don’t go to Mass at all I think, so of course the children don’t go either.  I had to do a lot of prompting before any of them were baptized.  It’s not that the parents were opposed to it, they just didn’t bother.  When I ask the children what they learned in religion class they give good enough answers, but I'm often disappointed at what they don’t know.  They love their teachers, unlike my time, and they love going to school.  That has to be better than being terrified as we were.  But they don’t know any catechism answers.  It’s all about stories and beautiful things.  Are you hopeful about the future of the faith in Ireland?  Helen

Dear Helen,

We have no alternative to hope.  Hope is not optional, it is as essential as faith and love.  St Paul keeps these three together: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).  And St Peter advised to be “always ready to give an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15).  We might have expected him to say ‘the faith that is in you’, but it would seem that they are interchangeable. 

I know that it is distressing to see the lack of interest, but I also know (being old enough now) that life is a long game.  I've met many people who returned to the faith after many years, sometimes half a lifetime.  I can't remember even one who returned because of the Catechism.  Quite the contrary, I think it may have been the Catechism that drove many of them away, with its arch-sounding but threadbare answers, and its astounding omission of the Beatitudes and of any affirmation that God loved us.  If the religion teachers of today emphasise story, that has to be a good thing in itself.  The faith is a story, not a catechism. 

I have a lot of hope in the seeds that drop into our minds.  (The problem now of course is that seeds of every kind are scattered prodigally in the media, but we have to trust that the seeds of truth are more enduring than the weeds.)  Once seeds are planted they are completely hidden from view, and are soon forgotten.  But nothing, we are told, is ever completely forgotten.  We may not be able to recall it, but it remains somehow in our unconscious mind, and it will germinate when the time and conditions are right.  Memory is a subject of immense interest.  We remember far more than we have ‘memorised’.  St Augustine had penetrating insights into this.  Let me quote a passage from his Confessions.

“Memory… is like a great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds which are conveyed to it by the senses….  The vast cloisters of my memory: in it are the sky, the earth, and the sea…. The power of memory is prodigious, my God. It is a vast, immeasurable sanctuary.  Who can plumb its depths?  And yet it is a faculty of my soul.  Although it is part of my nature, I cannot understand all that I am. This means, then, that the mind is too narrow to contain itself entirely!  But where is that part of it that it does not contain?  Is it somewhere outside itself and not within it?  How then can it be part of it if is not contained in it?  I am lost in wonder when I consider this problem.  It bewilders me….”

But the burning interest of his life was the search for God.  How can he know he has found God, he asks, unless he already knew God, and had memory of God, in some sense?  So he goes on: “I must pass beyond memory to find you, my true God.  But where will the search lead me?  Where am I to find you?  If I find you beyond my memory, it means that I have no memory of you.  How then am I to find you if I have no memory of you?  The woman who lost a coin searched for it by the light of a lantern, but she would never have found it unless she had remembered what it was like.  Otherwise, when she found it, how would she have known whether it was the one she was looking for? Something similar happens when we see or think of a person whom we know, but cannot remember their name and try to recall it. If any other name but theirs occurs to us we do not accept it….” 

How could anyone recognise the truth, he asks, unless they already had some knowledge of it in their memory?  This knowledge is embedded in us, he says.  And in finding the truth “I found my God, who is Truth itself…. So since the time when I first learned of you, you have always been present in my memory, and it is there that I find you whenever I am reminded of you and find delight in you.  This is the joy that in your mercy you have given me, heedful of my poverty.”

It may seem far-fetched to go back to St Augustine in the 5th century for light on present-day predicaments.  But his book, Confessions, has shaped the search for God from his time to the very present.  There are grounds for feeling confident that the search for God hasn’t ended.  The demise of faith has been predicted so often and so confidently that its continued existence is itself a mystery.  Charles Taylor (b. 1931), the Canadian philosopher, said that the best external evidence for the truth of faith may well be the fact that it keeps raising its head, century after century, no matter what anyone does to destroy it. 

So, taking the long view, Helen, you can feel confident that one beautiful future day your grandchild will suddenly realise that what he or she has been searching for all along is the Ultimate, the Source of all.  When that day happened for St Augustine, he cried out, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!  And behold, you were within me and I was outside.” 


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