Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Faith: An Encounter With God

Faith is an encounter with God who speaks and acts in history and who converts our daily life, transforming our mentality, value judgments, choices and concrete actions. It is not an illusion, an escape from reality, a comfortable shelter, sentimentality, but is the involvement of one's whole life and is the proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News capable of liberating man in his entirety.
Pope Benedict XVI

Henry David Thoreau, a philosopher (among many other accomplishments) of the 19th Century, once made a statement that has echoed down through the last couple of centuries, and which I believe applies to our time more than when Thoreau first wrote this:


Is there any other way to describe the out-of-control greed and materialism that we witnessed on Thanksgiving Day into Friday as shoppers rushed into stores shoving, pushing and fighting in order to get "stuff?"

These were the headlines from the Drudge Report:

This was the face of Black Friday mayhem, truly a picture of a dying nation:


Never in the history of mankind has a nation had such material wealth as we in the United States possess, and instead of satisfying our needs and wants, it make us even more desperate.  If we can just get the latest iPad, TV, phone, computer, shoes, clothes, etc., then we will be happy.  That will take away that terrible aching void that we carry within us and which we try so hard to drown out with all of our many amusements and distractions.  But no matter what we do, that void is still there.

The United States has been a great experiment in materialism and its complete failure to satisfy man's deepest needs.  We look at these pictures and read the stories of people reduced to a state lower than wild animals in a feeding frenzy, and we know that this cannot be what our founding fathers had in mind when they created our once great nation.  "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" just doesn't translate to people trampling over one another to get a Smartphone.

So what is it that we are truly in search of?

For the past month, a white-haired, soft spoken 85-year old man in Rome has been giving us the answers to our most profound longings.  Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed the Year of Faith in October and has been following up with a series of deeply reflective talks on this subject at his weekly Wednesday audiences.  He has explained that faith is what connects us to our Creator, who is the source of every good and perfect gift, as James 1:17 tells us.  Nothing on this earth will truly satisfy and fulfill what we long for because all earthly things are temporary and will one day be gone.  If our heart is wrapped around the temporary things of this world, we will disappear with them.

The subject of this post is the talk given by His Holiness on November 14 in St. Peter's Square.  The translation is taken from the Vatican website.

The Pope began this talk by reminding us that faith initiates with God.  It is His actions that create faith in us, not anything that we do.  It is only because of God's great love and mercy in extending Himself to us that we are able to "journey towards him."  If you feel drawn to God, it is not the result of your actions but because He is working in you and drawing you, as Pope Benedict tells us in the quote from St. Augustine:  "it is not we who possess the Truth after having sought it, but the Truth that seeks us out and possesses us":
Last Wednesday we reflected on the desire for God that human beings carry deep within them. Today I would like to continue to examine this aspect, meditating briefly with you on some of the ways to attain knowledge of God. I wish to recall, however, that God’s initiative always precedes every human initiative and on our journey towards him too it is he who first illuminates us, who directs and guides us, ever respecting our inner freedom. It is always he who admits us to intimacy with him, revealing himself and giving us the grace to be able to accept this revelation in faith. Let us never forget St Augustine’s experience: it is not we who possess the Truth after having sought it, but the Truth that seeks us out and possesses us.
His Holiness goes on to tell us that even though it is God who must give us the faith we need to come to Him, there are also things we can do that will make us more open to Him.  However, just as we can make ourselves more open to God, we can also do things that will close us off from Him.  Even then, when we have let worldliness come between us and our Creator, He always remains faithful and ready to close that gap which we ourselves have created:
Nonetheless there are ways that can open the human heart to knowledge of God, there are signs that lead to God. Of course, we often risk being dazzled by the glare of worldliness that makes us less able to follow these paths and to read these signs. Yet God never tires of seeking us, he is faithful to the human being whom he created and redeemed, he stays close to us in our life because he loves us.
Pope Benedict also reminds us here of our God-given mission in life "to lead everyone to the encounter with Jesus, the one Saviour of the world."  He also says that this is not preaching to others on a street corner but "This mission shines out above all in the holiness to which we are all called."
This is a certainty [that God is always with us] that must accompany us every day, even if a certain widespread mentality makes it harder for the Church and for Christians to communicate to every creature the joy of the Gospel and to lead everyone to the encounter with Jesus, the one Saviour of the world.
However, this is our mission. It is the mission of the Church and every believer must carry it out joyously, feeling it his own, through an existence truly enlivened by faith, marked by charity, by service to God and to others, and that can radiate hope. This mission shines out above all in the holiness to which we are all called. 
As the Holy Father now tells us, few today truly understand what faith in God means because we have separated God from our daily lives.  Western society was Christian in past generations, and people's religious beliefs were a part of their everyday lives and the motivating factor behind all their actions and decisions.  This is no longer true.  It use to be the non-believer was on the outside of society.  Now it is believers who are considered outcasts and who must defend their beliefs:
Today — as we know — faith, which is all too often not properly understood and contested or rejected, encounters no lack of difficulties and trials. St Peter said to his Christians: “Always be prepared to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pt 3:15). In the past, in the West, in a society deemed Christian, faith was the context in which people acted; the reference and adherence to God were part of daily life for the majority. Rather, it was the person who did not believe who had to justify his or her own incredulity. In our world the situation has changed and, increasingly, it is believers who must be able to account for their faith.
Pope Benedict XVI now describes the persecution and belittlement that believers must endure from a society which rejects God as a "a mere projection of the human mind, an illusion and the product of a society already misled by so many alienating factors":
In his Encyclical Fides et Ratio Blessed John Paul II stressed that faith is also put to the test in our day, riddled with subtle and captious [meaning finding fault with every little thing and impossible to please] forms of atheism, both theoretical and practical (cf. nn. 46-47). Ever since the Enlightenment the criticism of religion has been gathering momentum; history has also come to be marked by the presence of atheistic systems in which God was seen as a mere projection of the human mind, an illusion and the product of a society already misled by so many alienating factors.
Pope Benedict XVI now shows us the danger of humans making themselves the center of their own universe, measuring everything by ourselves and cutting ourselves off from awareness of anything bigger than we are.  Atheism in our time has evolved from militant disbelief in God to dismissing God as "irrelevant." Atheists tolerate a certain belief in God as long as it remains superficial and doesn't interfere with our lives. This is actually more dangerous than outright rejection of God because we are no longer even exploring the question of God's existence and importance in our lives. Indifference completely shuts the door to God because he doesn't enter into our thoughts even in a negative way:
Moreover the past century experienced a strong process of secularization under the banner of the absolute autonomy of the human being, considered as the measure and architect of reality, but impoverished by being created “in the image and likeness of God”. A particularly dangerous phenomenon for faith has arisen in our times: indeed a form of atheism exists which we define, precisely, as “practical”, in which the truths of faith or religious rites are not denied but are merely deemed irrelevant to daily life, detached from life, pointless. So it is that people often believe in God in a superficial manner, and live “as though God did not exist” (etsi Deus non daretur). In the end, however, this way of life proves even more destructive because it leads to indifference to faith and to the question of God.
When we become this separated from God, shutting Him completely out of our existence, Pope Benedict says we "are reduced to a single dimension - the horizontal."  This means we do not have any kind of spiritual element in our lives at all.  This has been the cause of so much of the suffering we have seen in the last century under tyrannical dictators. As the Pope explains:  "By obscuring the reference to God the ethical horizon has also been obscured, to leave room for relativism and for an ambiguous conception of freedom which, instead of being liberating, ends by binding human beings to idols."  Pope Benedict XVI experienced this firsthand having grown up in Nazi Germany and having seen the ravages of Communism in Eastern Europe and throughout Russia.
In fact human beings, separated from God, are reduced to a single dimension — the horizontal — and this reductionism itself is one of the fundamental causes of the various forms of totalitarianism that have had tragic consequences in the past century, as well as of the crisis of values that we see in the current situation. By obscuring the reference to God the ethical horizon has also been obscured, to leave room for relativism and for an ambiguous conception of freedom which, instead of being liberating, ends by binding human beings to idols.
The idols that arise when we are cut off from our Creator and which destroy our freedom were symbolized by the three temptations experienced by Our Lord when He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. The three temptations were:  for material,worldly things (changing stones into bread), willfulness and rebellion against God (Christ tempting God by throwing Himself off of a high pinnacle) and power (Satan promising Christ the world if He will worship him).  It all comes down to man making himself a god:
The temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness before his public ministry vividly symbolize which “idols” entice human beings when they do not go beyond themselves. Were God to lose his centrality man would lose his rightful place, he would no longer fit into creation, into relations with others. What ancient wisdom evokes with the myth of Prometheus has not faded: man thinks he himself can become a “god”, master of life and death.
It is only communion with God through the Church that will give us true freedom and true dignity.  We were created by and for God.  He is the one who sustains our existence through His Love.  That is our purpose and destiny in life, and to try to substitute anything else in the place of God will destroy us:
With this picture before her, the Church, faithful to Christ’s mandate, never ceases to affirm the truth about man and about his destiny. The Second Vatican Council affirms it concisely: “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. The invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and unless he entrusts himself to his Creator” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, n. 19).
We must have faith - which is not from us but a gift from God -  in order to answer the  skeptics and atheists who challenge us with their indifference to God.  And we must answer our adversaries with "gentleness and reverence."  Our goal is to bring the concept of God back into their consciousness, to take them out of their indifference, which is so very dangerous to their eternal life, and lead them to the paths that will open them to God:
What answers, therefore, is faith required to give, “with gentleness and reverence” to atheism, to scepticism, to indifference to the vertical dimension, in order that the people of our time may continue to ponder on the existence of God and take paths that lead to him? I want to point out several paths that derive both from natural reflection and from the power of faith itself. I would like to sum them up very briefly in three words: the world, man, faith.
The Pope now gives us three paths that will open us to our Creator.  First, the physical world in which we live can be very powerful in leading us to God.  Pondering the physical creation around us, the beauty, complexity and perfection of it, is a very real path to God:
The first word: the world. St Augustine, who spent much of his life seeking the Truth and was grasped by the Truth, wrote a very beautiful and famous passage in which he said: “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky... question all these realities. All respond: ‘See, we are beautiful’. Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change?” (Sermo 241, 2: pl 38, 1134).
I think we should recover — and enable people today to recover — our capacity for contemplating creation, its beauty and its structure. The world is not a shapeless mass of magma, but the better we know it and the better we discover its marvellous mechanisms the more clearly we can see a plan, we see that there is a creative intelligence. Albert Einstein said that in natural law is revealed “an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection” (The World As I See It, 1949). Consequently a first path that leads to the discovery of God is an attentive contemplation of creation.
In something of a paradox, the Holy Father advises us to return to ourselves, not in a manner of glorifying and setting ourselves up as our own god, but to open ourselves up to the questions and longings that are innate to all people, the need for purpose in life and the realization that there is something bigger than ourselves for which we should be living.  But to do this, we have to turn off the world and find a quiet place where we can hear ourselves:
The second word: man. Again, St Augustine was to write a famous sentence in which he says that God is more intimate to me than I am to myself (cf. Confessions III, 6, 11).
Hence he formulates the invitation, “do not go outside yourself, return to yourself: the truth is higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self” (De Vera Religione, 39, 72). This is another aspect that we risk losing in the noisy and dispersive world in which we live: the ability to pause and look deeply into ourselves and to reinterpret the thirst for the infinite that we bear within us, that impels us to go further and to refer to the One who can quench it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God's existence” (n. 33).
The third path given to us by the Holy Father is simply a life of faith, the way in which believers "preach" to non-believers.  The Holy Father describes those who are living a life of faith:  "Those who believe are united to God and open to his grace, to the power of his love."  Again, Pope Benedict is showing that it is God who does the work in us.  Our part is to be open to God's grace.  By being open to God, we become strong witnesses for Him to the unbelieving world.
The third word: faith. We must not forget, especially in the situation of our time, that the life of faith is a path which leads to the knowledge of and encounter with God. Those who believe are united to God and open to his grace, to the power of his love. Thus their existence becomes a witness, not of themselves but of the Risen One, and their faith does not hesitate to shine out in daily life, open to dialogue that expresses deep friendship for the journey of every human being and can bring hope to people in need of redemption, happiness, a future.
The Holy Father now describes the transformative effects of faith, and that faith, "an encounter with God who speaks and works in history and converts our daily life", is more real than anything else we can ever experience in our earthly existence.  This is what we are called to share with the rest of humanity: 
Faith, in fact, is an encounter with God who speaks and works in history and converts our daily life, transforming within us mentalities, value judgments  decisions and practical actions. Faith is not an illusion, a flight of fancy, a refuge or sentimentalism; rather it is total involvement in the whole of life and is the proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News that can set the whole of the person free. A Christian and a community that are active and faithful to the plan of God who loved us first, are privileged paths for those immersed in indifference or in doubt about their life and action. However, this asks each and every one to make their testimony of faith ever more transparent, purifying their life so that it may be in conformity with Christ.
The Pope declares that Christian faith is much more than an intellectual belief system.  It is about a personal relationship with the Great God and Creator of the Universe whom, as the Holy Father tells us, is actually "anxious to communicate with human beings in a tête-à-tête, in a relationship of love with them."  As Pope Benedict XVI tells us, "at the root of every doctrine or value is the event of the encounter between man and God in Jesus Christ. Christianity, before being a moral or an ethic, is the event of love, it is the acceptance of the Person of Jesus.

Many people today have a limited idea of the Christian faith, because they identify it with a mere system of beliefs and values rather than with the truth of a God who revealed himself in history, anxious to communicate with human beings in a tête-à-tête, in a relationship of love with them. In fact, at the root of every doctrine or value is the event of the encounter between man and God in Jesus Christ. Christianity, before being a moral or an ethic, is the event of love, it is the acceptance of the Person of Jesus. For this reason the Christian and Christian communities must first look and make others look to Christ, the true Way that leads to God.
I felt tremendous sadness when I saw the pictures over the Thanksgiving weekend of people trampling over each other just to get perishable "stuff".  Our Lord stands at our side at all times holding out his hands in mercy and love, offering us true life, the only life that will fill the tremendous void in our hearts.  But we ignore our Creator and Redeemer and are instead taken in by the things of this world which seem so alluring, so attractive.  They give us momentary thrills, but the joy and satisfaction never last, and then we are on the next thing, only to again find disappointment and emptiness.

We can accept the momentary pleasures of this world which will eventually lead to our spiritual death, or we can answer the loving and merciful call of our Creator who wishes to share Himself with us for all eternity.  That is our choice, that is what faith, God reaching out to us, is all about.
“The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. The invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and unless he entrusts himself to his Creator” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, n. 19).


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