Thursday, October 13, 2005

Schmemann on Faith

I’d like to share a passage on faith I recently came across, by the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest and theologian of considerable and well-deserved renown. He places faith squarely in the mystery and gift of God Himself, and not as a fulfillment of our own needs or a handy help for the struggles and questions of life. Faith is surrender to God because God is God, and hence all is gift. We cannot know God in the same way that we know other persons or things. We have to wait, to listen, to be open to receive, and then surrender to the divine initiative in whatever way it is manifested. Believing without seeing is required of us, yet we can (and must) respond to the gift, and this will open the door to an encounter with the Ineffable Mystery. We can all stand to grow in faith, and this meditation may help at least a little.

“Faith is a responding movement, not of the soul alone, but of the entire person with his whole being… Faith comes from God, through His initiative, through His call. It is always a response to Him, a person’s surrender to Him who gives Himself. As Pascal said so wonderfully: ‘God says to us: You would not be searching for me unless you had already found me.’ And because faith is a response, a responding movement, it always remains a search, a thirst, a yearning.

Why do I believe? I look within me, within my experience, within my feelings, and yet I find no answer there. What is God to me? A way to explain the world and life? No, it is clear to me, first, that this explanation is not the source of my belief in Him, and, second, that my faith in God does not rationally ‘explain’ all the world’s mysteries and enigmas. More than once in my life I have had to stand at the bedside of a dying child in terrible suffering. And what? Could I explain anything at all to those who stood around the bed? Could I vindicate or justify these sufferings and death ‘religiously,’ as they say? No, I was only able to say: God is here. God is. I could only confess how impossible it is to measure that presence with our sorrow-filled, earthly questions.

“No, of course faith is not the product of my need for explanations. But then where does it come from? Does it come from fear of suffering after death? Or does it come from being frightened of total annihilation, from that passionate and ultimately egotistical inner desire not to be annihilated? No, that is not why I believe… It is not because I want eternal life after death that I believe in God; on the contrary, I believe in eternal life because I believe in God.

“This leaves me with only one answer to the question of all questions: Why do I believe? I believe because God gave me this faith and continually gives it. He gave it precisely as a gift, as a present, witnessed within me by that joy and that peace I sense which are so absolutely unrelated to anything in this world and life. Oh! I do not always sense this. In fact, I rarely sense it—only occasionally, at those moments when the word God ceases to be simply a word and becomes an underground hot-spring erupting a geyser of light, love, beauty, and life itself. ‘Peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,’ as the apostle Paul said (Rom 14:17), and there are no other words, for when you believe and live by faith, even words become unnecessary and almost impossible” (Celebration of Faith, Sermons, Vol. 1).

Believe in God and believe in eternal life. Ask for deeper faith, but don’t expect faith to be merely something that helps you through the difficulties of life. Let it simply be your lifeline to God, and trust Him to take care of the rest.