“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God, have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?”John 14: 1-2
I can’t recall when or where it was, but some years ago it was speculated that the last judgment would involve each of us coming face to face with Jesus and somehow being asked to declare our faith in him as Divine. I must admit that I haven’t thought too often about this, but in reading these words of Jesus as given to us in John’s gospel, this memory surfaced again in my consciousness. “You have faith in God, have faith also in me.” What could have been the source and meaning of this speculation concerning the ultimate test of faith? Perhaps it is precisely what Jesus is speaking about. Can we have faith in him and the Incarnation that he reflects as we have faith in God?
As the gospel presents it, it is Jesus in the flesh with his disciples who says the above. So, when he asks if they have faith in him, he is asking them to believe that God is present in him, that God is not only in the cloud by day and fire by night of Exodus, but is also present here in this very moment of our human life. In Luke 17: 20-21 we read:
When asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
Some say that it was really Christianity that planted the seeds of secularism in Jesus’ very insistence that the kingdom of God is not to be found “out there,” either spatially or temporally, but rather in our very midst. So, in the midst of his disciples, Jesus asks if they have faith not only in a God “out there” but in him. To have faith in Jesus is to believe with our whole selves that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28) only in God.
The sacred and the secular are separate for us only because we are divided. We need sacred spaces and moments of figural presence to God in prayer and ritual because we are prone to lose contact with the Divine ground of our very being. In other words, it is of our very nature to live much of our lives without “faith in Jesus,” that is without reference to the truth of the Incarnation, of “God with us.” We live much of our lives not in a state of awareness but rather half asleep. This is why Jesus, in the Garden on the night before he is put to death, tells the disciples to “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mt. 26: 41)
Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them. They, of course, fear his going from them, of being abandoned by him, and yet he tells them that it is only by his going that he is able to prepare a place for them. There is a dwelling place for each of us with his father. In the Christian story, Jesus says he must go if the Spirit is to come. As we see in the Acts of the Apostles, once the Spirit comes upon the apostles, they are able to go out to all the world and tell the good news. They become the mission for which they have been created.
To have faith in Jesus is not only to have faith in the historical personage but in the Risen Christ, the one who is present in Spirit in each of us and in the world. Our secular mindset, in the negative sense, is our forgetful and dissipated state of mind. It is, as Thomas Merton describes it, our deliberate state of evasion and avoidance of our existential anguish. It is the addiction we all have to those things that distract us from our own fears and misgivings about ourselves through the momentary gratifications they offer. Lately, I have realized I am becoming very tired, bordering on exhaustion. After eating supper at night, and once even at supper, I immediately begin to doze off. After fading in and out of sleep, for some time, I am then sufficiently awakened that that I am unable, when it is bedtime, to get to sleep until what is quite late, at least for me. I then awaken early in the morning and so the conditions are set to repeat the same pattern day after day.
Because I feel so tired, I tell myself, I am unable to read or to think or to pray and instead search for something to watch that will entertain me enough to keep me awake. What this habit of being usually results in for me, as the exhaustion increases, is becoming physically ill, which then forces me to rest rather than agitatedly seek distraction. What am I doing as I recreate this pattern? At least this time, my sense is that I am avoiding becoming aware of what it is that is exhausting me. And, even though I have yet to face the truth of this in the present, I know enough from the past to realize that in refusing to face the truth of what is happening, I am evading my responsibility for it. I am doing so out of a lack of faith in Jesus.
“Faith in God” can be something of an abstraction for us. Because God is at a distance I can tell myself that my faith in God is intact, even as I refuse the truth of my own present moment. To have faith in Jesus, however, is to have faith that God is in this place, that what I so fear because it feels overwhelming to me is the place where I am to discover the presence of God, to see the face of Jesus. To have faith in Jesus is deeply to understand that I can face my responsibility in and for this moment because it is God who is calling me to act, and God will not ask of us what we cannot do.
When Theodore James Ryken shared his aspiration that the members of his brotherhood would live the non-dichotomized life of Martha and Mary, of action and contemplation, he was pointing to the possibility of a life that does not separate the sacred and the secular. The meaning of the Incarnation is that God has pitched God’s tent with us. Our dwelling place, not in a remote hereafter but in the eternal now, is our living “with Christ in God” (Col. 3: 3).
When I am “exhausted” in this way, I refuse to do the very thing that is called for: “to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study.” As Pascal says, I refuse this because it “feels” unbearable to me. I fear that I will confront, in the stillness, my own “nothingness, falseness, insufficiency, dependence, weakness, and emptiness.” In short, I evade quieting my own agitation and busy-ness to confront the truth because I lack faith. In this state my consciousness belongs to Apple, or Google, or Netflix or HBO rather than to myself and God. As any addiction, such dispersion and evasion only increases its demand of us, so that, as Merton says, “More and more it tends to need and to demand, with insatiable dependence, satisfaction in pursuits that are unjust, evil, or even criminal.”
The nature of addiction involves a profound level of passivity and inability to accept responsibility for our own life, and so, of course, for the life of our world. It is the usurpation of our consciousness by our own feelings of impotence. And the disgust which this evokes in us must be palliated by outer objects of gratification. Despite our passivity, as we see in my own case, we are unable to experience true leisure. For real rest requires of us a freedom and responsibility that comes only from true faith in God who abides, and so can only be truly known, in reality.
The sleep of the disciples in the garden and of my own dozing off at supper is not the deep rest we find in moments of presence, stillness, and prayer. I know from past experience that if I dare to be still, which means risking thoughts and feelings I am refusing, I will begin to rest and to sleep in a very different way. “Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me.” (Psalm 131: 2) The first step, however, needs be a response to Jesus who says to me today, “You have faith in God, have faith also in me.”
In the words of Pascal:Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 52
Nothing is so unbearable to a person as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his falseness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness . . . (Pensées 131)
“Secular” society is by its nature committed to what Pascal calls “diversion,” that is, to movement which has, before everything else, the anesthetic function of quieting our anguish. All society, without exception, tends to be in some respect “secular.” But a genuinely secular society is one which cannot be content with innocent escapes from itself. More and more it tends to need and to demand, with insatiable dependence, satisfaction in pursuits that are unjust, evil, or even criminal. Hence the growth of economically useless businesses that exist for profit and not for real production, that create artificial needs which they then fill with cheap and quickly exhausted products. Hence the wars that arise when producers compete for markets and sources of raw material. Hence the nihilism, despair, and destructive anarchy that follow war, and then the blind rush into totalitarianism as an escape from despair. . . .
In the sacred society, on the other hand, one admits no dependence on anything lower than oneself, or even outside oneself in a spatial sense. One’s only Master is God. Only when God is our Master can we be free, for God is within ourselves as well as above us. God rules us by liberating us and raising us to union with God from within. And in so doing God liberates us from our dependence on created things outside us. We use and dominate them, so that they exist for our sakes, and not we for theirs.