We are living in a difficult time in history. Numerous aspects of the modern world prevent us from living truly Christian lives: secularism, atheism, relativism, technology (when used inappropriately without temperance)—the list is quite lengthy. When we are living in a world that is seemingly divided against itself, it may sometimes be difficult to see God’s hand in history. We may struggle to have the faith to turn to him in our times of need. Nevertheless, times like these demand a deeper faith on the part of Christians, a deeper trust in God’s providential plan of love. Reflecting on Pope Benedict XVI’s homilies on faith will both help us to renew our faith and to discover that we are not alone in our pilgrimage toward Heaven; rather, we are constantly accompanied by Christ himself.
After calling the “Year of Faith”, Pope Benedict XVI gave a series of homilies on the virtue of faith, which are in a short volume published by Ignatius Press, entitled,The Transforming Power of Faith (2013). These homilies can be useful for reflecting on the virtue of faith as we strive to live more deeply Christ’s call to trust in him always. In his introduction, Benedict writes, “Today we are living in a society in constant movement, one that has changed radically, even in comparison with the recent past. The process of secularization and a widespread nihilistic mentality in which all is relative have deeply marked the common mind-set” (p. 11). While we may be tempted to despair in the face of such nihilism, Benedict reminds us that the virtue of faith is the proper response to our secularized culture. He offers the following definition of faith: “It is a confident entrustment to a ‘You,’ who is God, who gives me a different certitude [not of science], but one that is no less solid than that which comes from precise calculation of science” (p. 14). What does this mean? While “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, RSV), as St. Paul describes, this does not mean that it is any less certain than scientific reasoning. While our secular world wants to place all its trust in the things that can be seen with the physical eye and proven empirically, there is actually more certitude in faith, because we are placing our trust in the Trinity, who is the author of and wisdom behind all things (Wisdom 7:22). Moreover, faith is always a gift from God. As Benedict explains, “We can believe in God because he comes close to us and touches us, because the Holy Spirit, a gift of the Risen One, enables us to receive the living God. Thus faith is first of all a supernatural gift, a gift of God” (p. 16). Faith is not something we acquire by our own power; rather, it is a gift from God that we receive if we are open to his grace and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This further explains how faith is more certain than science: God himself gives us faith. He is the one offering us the gift to believe in him and trust him.
Benedict offers Abraham as a model of faith. Indeed, we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go” (11:8). Benedict explains, “In faith and with faith, we are able to enter into communion with him [God]” (p. 83), and we do this in a particular way through meditating on the Word of God. Abraham also listened to the Word of God: he was called into the unknown, for he was called to leave his homeland to journey to an unknown land. “Yet the dark unknown—to which Abraham had to go—was lit by the light of a promise; God added to his order a reassuring word that unfolded to Abraham a future, life in fullness” (p. 85). Abraham had the faith in God that he would always be with him, no matter the difficulties of his circumstances or the fact that he “was as good as dead,” as St. Paul describes. Benedict adds:
Faith led Abraham to take a paradoxical path. He was blessed, but without the visible signs of blessing: he received the promise that he would become a great people, but with a life marked by the barrenness of his wife Sarah; he was led to a new homeland but had to live there as a foreigner; and the only land he was permitted to possess was a lot in which to bury Sarah (cf. Gen 23:1-20). Abraham was blessed because in faith he was able to discern the divine blessing, going beyond appearances and trusting in God’s presence even when God’s paths seemed mysterious to him (p. 86).
What does this mean for us? There are many times when we know that we are blessed “without the visible signs of blessing.” We know that God has given us many gifts, and that he even sustains our being, but we may perhaps be experiencing spiritual dryness or the inability to trust God fully. In such times, we must trust in God, and we must have faith like Abraham, who believed that he would still be guided by God’s light even in the darkest times.
Indeed, this earth is not our final home, and this is perhaps what faith teaches us the most. “Abraham the believer teaches us faith and, as a stranger on this earth, points out to us the true homeland. Faith makes us pilgrims on earth, integrated into the world and into history, but bound for the heavenly homeland” (p. 87). Despite this “vale of tears,” despite the trials we face now, we know that they are not the end of the story. Abraham reminds us that we are called to the heavenly patria, the heavenly fatherland. We are called to be at home with God, and this is why faith is the belief in things unseen. Even though we cannot see Heaven yet, we have the faith that it exists, and we have the hope that we will someday be there with God. In the last analysis, Benedict says the following,
Faith gives us this certainty [that the love of God the Father never fails] which becomes a firm rock in the construction of our life: we can face all the moments of difficulty and danger, the experience of the darkness of despair in times of crisis and suffering, sustained by our trust that God does not forsake us and is always close in order to save us and lead us to eternal life (p. 91).
What comforting words for us, who live in a difficult time in history, when nothing seems stable and everything seems to be in flux. Faith in God is our rock, even when everything and everyone else around us seems to be falling to pieces. Even when we are called to difficult tasks like Abraham, faith in God sustains us, and orients us toward our final end of the Beatific Vision with God.