FREEDOM FOR THE MIND
Limitation and imperfection.
Nevertheless in the human mind itself there is a limitation, a confinement. It can reach outside the day or the hour, it can reach back into the past or ahead into the future; it can reach up even to God. But only to God as the author of nature, only to a partial view of divinity. However long the labors of a man, however keen his intellect, however earnest his efforts, man must always come up short against the barriers of the natural universe. The nature of man does not surpass the powers of nature.
Man, left to himself, is essentially a prisoner; a prisoner of his own nature. At the same time that nature is crying out for freedom, crying out for fuller and fuller vision of the things that remain to be seen. The prison walls that limit his freedom can be penetrated by only one force. Those walls are the walls of nature; only the supernatural can tear them down, only an agent above nature can give man the vast freedom of infinity, of eternity, can permit him to grasp the things that are too bright for his eyes — only God Himself through the gift known as the virtue of faith.
The limitless freedom of faith, from its object
It is essential that we see faith in the guise of a liberator, if we are to see it at all. To see it as a limitation, a suppression of, or a substitute for, man’s intellect is to lose completely the essential notion of faith. Let us look at it this way: man has a journey to make: to take one step on this journey he must know his destination. To give that knowledge is the work of faith. It is the starting gun in the race of life; by faith man is set free to rush to the goal of faith, which is the goal of life. Since the goal is no less than the essence of God Himself, we can see immediately that faith sets a man free to rush beyond the uttermost limits of the universe.
The object of faith — the Supreme Truth
Some men have described faith as an exaggerated optimism, a kind of super-confidence; but that was because they did not know the purpose of faith. Others have reduced faith to emotion; and that was because they did not know what faith was. Still others have cynically put under faith every bit of our rational knowledge of God; and that was because they did not know what man was. Faith is something bigger than all this. In fact it is so big we can walk by and never see it; it is not to be caught in the corner of the eye, it demands the whole of a man’s eye, the whole of his mind. Its bigness can be appreciated only by concentrating on the goal to which it goes and the means by which it reaches that goal. Seen in this light it towers over us frighteningly, for it aims at supreme Truth and so at the supreme perfection of the intellect of man. How can we know the First Truth unless we be told by the one Being Who can know it, knowing Himself? Faith has rightly been called a theological, a divine virtue; it looks to the very essence of God Himself, and attains to its sublime object through the action of God Himself, through the supreme Truth’s gracious stooping to tell us about Himself. It is saturated with divinity though it is made for man.
Because faith is so wrapped up in divinity, it brings to the human mind mystery piled on mystery. Nor is the element of mystery confined to thc ineffable secrets of divinity which faith brings to man; the very revelation by which these secrets are made known is itself mysterious. It is the strong light which brings out in the dim sharpness of a silhouette the lineaments of the face of God. Of course this light does not need, indeed cannot have, another light by which it itself is seen; in other words, the very revelation itself is not only the means, it is also an object of faith. The divine message cannot be made known by natural means; its contents surpasses all of nature. Miracles may be worked by way of confirmation of it or as evidence of its credibility but it can be surely known only by faith itself.
Faith then is a giant cannon which hurls man out beyond the boundaries of thc universe into thc world of the infinite It is not to be conceived of as something mild, sweetly enfeebling. Rather it must be thought of in terms of strength, of an explosion which has broken down the walls of the world, of a storming of nature by the hosts of heaven that man might be released from the limitations of his humanity. It grants to man the freedom by which he can surpass not only the limits of the present, of the past, of space, of material things, but even the limits of all nature. By it his mind walks into the limitlessness of God.
The attitude of the modern world to faith is as unreasonable, and in its own way as comic, as the attitude of the man who dislikes only one thing about collars — that they go around his neck. In the face of faith we feel an irritation at its darkness, its obscurity. Of course faith is obscure. The whole point of faith is precisely that it gives us a truth we cannot see of ourselves. Because we are using the eyes of God, in the darkness we can know the incredible truths that only God can see. To demand clear brightness in matters of faith and at the same time to expect to win to the freedom of faith is like wishing the sun would disappear forever from the heavens that we might the more comfortably enjoy the summer.
The young lady who attempts to enhance her charm by using baby-talk presents as distastefully incongruous a picture as a child swearing like a trooper. Adulthood and infancy are not thus intermingled. Yet it is something like this we insist on in demanding that we see the things of faith. When it comes to the inner life of God Himself, God is the teacher and we are the children gathered at His feet; we do not, cannot see the things of which He tells us, for vision is the work of the adult, even of our Father God. Our part is the part of children, to believe, not to see; until one day when we are supernaturally grown up, possessed of our own mansion in heaven.
The authority of faith — a guarantee
There are some truths which a man may first believe and later see, truths that are within the reach of reason but which the circumstances of life do not allow to be scientifically investigated by everyone Even such as these are guaranteed by the gracious authority of God. But the primary truths of faith, supernatural truths, are beyond the finger-tips of our minds.
In fact we make ourselves ridiculous when we mistake the reasons offered by saints or by theologians for proofs of such truths as the Trinity or the Incarnation. They are never proofs: persuasions perhaps, evidences that these truths are not impossible, facilitating the bending of our stubborn wills and petty intellects, but no more. The reason, the only reason, for our acceptance of supernatural truth is the authority of God Himself. It is always a solid, safe thing to accept truth from the Supreme Truth.
We are not only irritated at faith’s darkness, we too often resent the very authority upon which faith rests. Behind this irritation there is a fear of error if a truth is not subjected to the judgment of our mind that is not unlike the uneasiness of a woman who is quite sure the house will not be cleaned properly unless she cleans it herself. Acceptance of truth on faith seems somehow to be a reflection on ourselves, to be an indignity to the nature of man. But the whole point of faith is that it gives us truths we cannot possibly reach of ourselves. If we do not take these truths on some one’s authority we cannot have them at all; and we must have them for the living of life.
The obscurity of faith — a promise
The obscurity of faith gives us a promise that here and now in this darkness we will hear of unutterable things, things that only God has a right to see. More than that, it is a promise that when this present darkness cowers and flies before an eternal sun, these incredible truths will remain for us to see with our own eyes. Indeed this obscurity is a beginning of a future life, the beginning of that vision of God which will reach its full clarity only when life is over and we have attained our goal. The authority to which we must submit is not an insult, it is a guarantee, a guarantee that trusting ourselves to God in this darkness, nothing of injury shall come to us. We shall not be misled, not be tricked; but rather we shall be shown the riches, the beauty, the goodness of divinity.
It is rare that a girl finds her prince charming in the lad who lives next door. Either he is a complete stranger, or he is so well known as to be taken for granted, which means that he is never seen at all. Somewhat the same thing is true of faith in the modern world. It may be taken for granted by those to whom it has been so freely given, or ignored by those to whom it is a stranger. But it demands a peculiar blindness to miss the charm of faith. There is obviously about faith the charm of tenderness, of whispered details between lovers as God shares the intimate secrets of His divine lite with his friends. Even more touching perhaps is faith’s charm of thoughtfulness. The Infinite Being stoops to the level of our childish minds, putting into the short, simple, straightforward language of the creed the ineffable truths of His divinity in order that the simplest of the faithful might easily and securely hold to truths that surpass the highest of created minds.
Faith fitted to human stature — the creeds
There is, in fact, a divine ingenuity about the formulation of the creed. What could be more divinely simple than the limitation of the creed to the end or goal of man — God and the things of God — and the way by which man reaches that goal — the humanity of Christ and the things that pertain to that humanity? Yet that is precisely the make-up of the symbols of the faith. On God’s side, faith has the unity of divinity itself. On our side the individual articles of faith are distinguished in order that what might represent a special difficulty for our belief might not in any way confuse us as to what is to be believed.
ln this connection men too often make the mistake of seeing the Church as an imperious mother regulating the last details of the lives of her children long after they are well able to take care of themselves. It is true that ecclesiastical authority determines the form in which these articles of faith shall be proposed; but it is not ecclesiastical authority that reveals the truths which are to be believed. The Church tells us, not that these things are true, but that they are truly revealed. Their truth rests on God, and on God alone.
Faith’s story is not a bit of gossip started by a whisper from God and bandied about down through the ages, becoming richer, more spicy with the telling, until finally it becomes a story so tall that it would astonish God Himself. It is not a primitive discovery of truth that has been enriched through the thought, the experiments, the imaginations of men. The Church has made no substantial increase in matters of faith. Let us put it this way. The articles of faith are the first principles of supernatural knowledge; every supernatural truth must be traced back to the first principles and is, in fact, contained in those first principles. Of these first principles, the absolutely first are the truths of God’s existence as author of the supernatural and God’s providence by which men are led to their end. Perhaps St. Gregory had it right when he said that those who were very close to Christ did not need so much explanation, so much explicit statement of those first principles. They saw in them all the other truths, much as the angels see all other truths in the first principles of natural thought.
But that is hardly so of the rest of us. From Adam to Christ the story of faith was slowly being told; after the death of John the Evangelist, faith was a story completely told. From then on it was a matter of repeating again and again an old, loved tale, savoring it, caressing it, allowing its perfume to permeate the remotest corners of our souls. All this involved no substantial increase, but it did demand what might be called an accidental increase; that is an unfolding, an uncovering of truths contained in these first truths. Or, in one word, a penetration of the truths that had been given us.
There have been, for example, explicit propositions of implicit truths such as the Immaculate Conception; scientific expositions of such truths as the Trinity — through the distinction of nature and person; express propositions of truths formerly proposed only passingly, or by practice, or truths that had been called into doubt such as the validity of baptism by heretics.
Indeed it would have been most strange if there had been no such increase. The Church would have been a most unkind mother to ignore the threat of confusion to her children made by heresies when a clear definition would have protected them. Her love of truth could not ignore the opportunities offered for illustration and further exposition by the progress of philosophical and scientific thought. Surely the love and thoughtfulness of the Holy Ghost, the long investigations of theologians, the sincere and profound devotion of the faithful should not have failed to uncover more and more of the profound beauties, the hidden truths contained in these first principles of all supernatural truth.
The acts of a mind freed by faith
Internal act — belief, a contrast to natural belief
Faith’s object, the Supreme Truth, is reached by the act of faith, an act which is first internal — belief — and then external — confession of that belief. In the order of human faith, the internal act is completed when the gullible victim believes the soothing story of the confidence man. The external act is the eager purchase of a gold brick. The comparison of human and supernatural faith is not without purpose. Human faith has considerable discredit attached to it, and rightly so. It is not a virtue perfecting the intellect of man; much more frequently it is a means of emptying his pockets or betraying his mind for it contains too many possibilities of error and mistake even when the human authority upon which it rests is most sincere. In history, for example, based as it is on human faith, we have uncovered serious mistakes which have endured for centuries. No such thing can happen in supernatural faith. It is an infallible source of truth; it rests not on the mind and veracity of man, but on the mind and the veracity of God.
Distinct from all other acts of the mind: knowledge, doubt, suspicion, opinion.
To describe the act of supernatural belief we could do no better than to define it as “the act of pondering with assent”. It is, of course, paradoxical that our intellect should be restless, pondering, in the face of a truth, yet at the same time assent to that truth firmly. Actually this definition brings out the full nature of the act of faith We do not suspect this truth, as a man might suspect the presence of burglars from the uneasiness of his dog; we are not doubting it; we have not merely an opinion of it, such as we might gather from the hasty accounts in a morning newspaper; we do not see it clearly, as we might the results of a scientific experiment. We believe it. And we thereby produce an act distinct from all other acts of the mind.
The merit of belief
Faith is like a jack-in-the-box: the spring is the intellect; the lid, holding down the spring, is the will. The intellect is straining against the obscurity of faith. With the weakening of the will, through moral degeneration, the power to hold down the intellect becomes less and less until finally, with sufficient weakening of the will, the spring pop, out — faith is lost. With the loss of faith man becomes a rebel against God, for the act of belief completes man’s subjection to God, a subjection which perfects his will in its loving, the intellect in its belief. Indeed, that paradoxical pondering with assent is the secret of the great merit of faith for it means that every act of faith must come from our free will, not at all forced upon us by our intellect faced with indisputable evidence.
It is not intellectual progress, then, but moral decay which represents a threat to faith. The cardinal of the Catholic Church has learned much since, as a tot, he stumbled over his catechism. Undoubtedly now he can prove to his own satisfaction many of those preliminary truths he formerly accepted by faith. But obviously his intellectual progress has not equipped him to grapple with truths that are above all natural powers. Just as obviously his present abilities have done no injury to his faith. If you like, the extent of his faith has decreased but not its intensity; for now, as in the beginning of his rational life, the cardinal has that same deep respect for and ready acceptance of the authority of God. And it is this which provides the merit of faith.
Whatever his genius, this cardinal, all through life, will constantly face the thoughtfully humiliating gesture of God by which He assures men that spirit of humble inquiry which is the root of knowledge. It was kind of God to toss before our minds truths which those minds can never possibly absorb; to give us something to think about that no amount of thinking can possibly unravel. Now we shall be slow indeed to cherish any illusions about the supreme powers of our minds.
Necessity of belief
But all this was more than kind, it was necessary. It is only by such humble belief that we can possibly know of the supernatural end which constitutes our happiness, and it is only by knowing of it that we can take any steps towards it. Faith ordains us directly to God; and by that ordination both unites us to the rest of the universe and at the same time cuts us off distinctly from every other creature. Every creature in the universe is moved by a superior, ordered to an end above itself, though in achieving that end it is itself destroyed. Man alone has no immediate superior in the universe by whom and to whom he can be moved. The plant can exist for the animal to feed upon it, the animal for man. Animals can be moved by men and elevated to the plane of man, sustaining him; they can even participate in the very reason of man by the training he gives them. But man is a solitary creature, a lonely sovereign in the universe. He is at the top, and the top is too often an empty, desolate place. For his movement, for his perfecting termination and ordination, for his final end, man must look to God Himself. And achieving that infinitely superior plane, he is not destroyed but perfected.
To our modern generation, one of the most annoying characteristics of faith is its absolute character. It permits of no compromise; you must take all of it or have none of it. How much nicer it would be if we could shop around among the wares of faith, accepting heaven but rejecting hell, embracing the Saviour and snubbing the Judge, sighing over love and ignoring justice. Just so a woman might stroll out in the early afternoon to buy asparagus but shudder at carrots and, perhaps, be insulted at the butcher’s suggestion of stew for supper. It would be so much nicer — if we weren’t looking for faith! However pleased we might be with our selections, when the package was untied we would find any number of things there; but not faith. For faith accepts truths because of the infallible authority of the one revealing, not because of the palatability of those truths to jaded appetites. To reject any one truth is to reject the authority which offers all of these truths; to accuse God of having been fooled Himself, or of trying to fool us.
Of implicit belief
In matters of faith we cannot pick and choose; we must take all or nothing. Of course much may be taken implicitly; but some at least must be believed explicitly — at the very least the existence of God our supernatural end, and His providence. It is the opinion of St. Thomas that the Trinity and Incarnation must also be explicitly believed, that they too are truths absolutely necessary for salvation. His reasoning is clear and compelling. Man must believe the truths without which he cannot reach his end. Since the Incarnate God is the way of salvation, the Incarnation surely must be believed; and to believe the Incarnation is to believe that the Son of God was conceived by the Virgin through the power of the Holy Ghost. In other words the proposition of the truth of the Incarnation necessarily involves the declaration of the truth of the Trinity. However, this opinion of St. Thomas is not a blanket condemnation of infidels as will be made evident in the next chapter. Other truths must, of course, be explicitly believed; but not because of their absolutely essential connection with our last end, rather because of the solemn nature of the assurance given that these truths are indeed revealed by God. Such, for example, are the articles of faith contained in the creed and the sacraments necessary for salvation.
Of explicit belief
No one expects an unlettered wash-woman to have the same explicit faith as has a bishop. Perhaps the woman has never heard of transubstantiation, though she knows with the sure knowledge of faith that she receives her Lord and her God in Holy Communion; but may God help the bishop if he has never heard of transubstantiation. In the orderly divine plane of the universe, inferior creatures are moved to their ends by their superiors. Nor is the divine order different in the world of men. High positions, rare gifts, are not merely assets or privileges; they are much more responsibilities, and in a sense debts in reference to those in inferior positions or of inferior gifts. In the ecclesiastical world, those in authority by their very office are obliged to have a much more explicit faith than their subjects that they might more surely guide those over whom they are placed. But of course every Catholic is obliged, by the very notion of faith, to believe, at least implicitly, absolutely every truth God has revealed. Anything less than this is a rejection of the basis on which every truth of faith rests.
External act — confession of faith
We can ponder without grunting, we can assent without shouting hallelujah; for active belief is something entirely within us. The external expression of the act of belief is called confession of faith. In a negative sense we are all of us obliged to confess our faith always; i.e., there is never a time when it is licit to deny the faith, for there is never a time when we may deny God and the truth of God. But in a positive sense confession of faith is quite another story.
The drunkard who solemnly recites the Hail Mary as he staggers down the street is doing himself no good, and is certainly doing the Church no good. He is surely not fulfilling a precept commanding him to confess his faith. A Catholic is not obliged to jump up in a meeting of Orangemen and shout out his Catholicity. Riot is not necessary for the confession of faith; common sense is. Some courage is necessary; cowardice is never wholly excusable. The simple norms by which our obligation to confess our faith can be determined are: the honor of God, and the good of our neighbor. We are obliged to confess our faith when our silence would do great injury to the honor of God or fail to win a great honor for God. As far as our neighbor is concerned, when our silence drives some one away from the faith or seriously holds back some person from approaching to that faith, we fail at a time when we should confess our faith. Or when a great spiritual advantage is lost to our neighbor by our failure to confess our faith if that advantage cannot be given effectively in any other way or any other time and place except here and now by our confession of faith, then we have failed not only our neighbor but we have failed God. Yet the obligation to confess the faith does not mean that we must walk up to a persecutor and demand that he shoot us. Indeed the Catholic in full flight from an enemy of the faith is confessing his faith though in a different fashion than his fellows who face a firing squad in defense of the faith. He flees precisely that he may not run the risk of failing to confess his faith; for surely there would be no need of flight if he were to disown the faith that is being persecuted.
Up to this point we have been dealing with faith as though we were tracing the trajectory of a heavy shell from the hole it has made, trying to determine the angle that we might come back to the big gun from which it was hurled. We began by examining the object of faith, the final goal which faith hits. From that goal we saw the long arch of the act of faith by which men come to that last goal. Now we come to the source, the gun from which that act of faith is projected. We have come to the habit of faith.
The habit of faith: Its definition
Thomas’ definition of it, “a habit of mind by which eternal life is begun in us, making our intellect assent to unseen truths”, is worthy of his metaphysician’s mind and his poet’s heart. However dark or obscure that beginning may be, faith is a beginning of that vision of Supreme Truth which will make up the essence of eternal life. Into those few words Thomas has packed the supernatural character of faith, its celestial beauty, and the work of intellect and will in the habit of faith. Let us look at these last two more closely.
In his insistence on faith as a “habit of mind”, St. Thomas stresses the intellectual character of faith. It was almost a prophetic emphasis Thomas made, for about this very point revolve two of the most serious errors against faith since the time of St. Thomas. As an intellectual virtue — a good operative habit — faith perfects the intellect in order to its proper object of truth; indeed faith equips the intellect to know the Supreme Truth And this is in flat opposition to the sentimentalists and irrationalists from Feuerbach down who have made faith a matter of feeling or emotion. However great the perfection conferred on the intellect by faith, as a virtue it must always limp simply because it is an intellectual virtue. Its supernaturality does not excuse it from the common fault of intellectual virtues, i.e., the fault of limitation of perfection. Excellence in the science of chemistry does not make a man good, but rather makes him a good chemist; for these intellectual virtues, of their very nature, seek not the good of man, but the good of his intellect only. It was ignorance of this fundamental philosophical truth that was at the root of the exaggerated optimism of Luther and the reformers relative to Faith.
Living and dead faith
The fact remains that faith, of itself, must always stop short at its proper intellectual goal; giving a man knowledge of sublime truths, but no more. The elimination of this imperfection of faith must come from outside itself, from another virtue that will order it beyond its own proper object to the goal of the whole man. It is in this way that faith is changed from a dead to a living faith, from faith unformed to formed faith, when charity, coming with sanctifying grace, orders it to the end of the will, the end of charity which is the goal of man.
In the sense that this further ordination does not come from faith itself, it is accidental to faith. But it is by no means unimportant to faith. Yet this accidental character of faith’s perfection must not be forgotten; it means that God in His goodness, does not give the sinner a full foretaste of hell. While serious sin, other than infidelity, destroys grace, charity, and most of the infused virtues, it still leaves the foundation stone of supernatural life, the basis of hope — a firm belief in the supreme Truth and the infallible authority of that supreme Truth telling us the details of His personal life.
Its place among the virtues
For faith is fundamental, and therefore first. Not of course in the sense of the winner of a six-day bicycle race being first. All the infused virtues are given simultaneously; but in the order in which we must think of these things, the theological virtues dealing with the end of man come before the moral virtues dealing with the means to the end and the end must be known (by faith) before it can be striven for (by hope) or embraced (by charity). There may, of course, be some accidental virtues preceding faith such as a kind of fortitude or humility to deal with the fundamental impediments to faith. Whether we are looking at the case of the Anglican minister who hesitates to embrace the faith because of the family dependent on him, or of the university professor who hesitates to sacrifice the self-sufficiency of his intellect to belief in the First Intellect, these fundamental impediments to which all others are reduced are always fear and pride.
The part of the will in faith, which is to bring about assent to unseen truths, far outweighs the part of the intellect. Normally one sick and one healthy parent generate a sickly child, one good and one bad football team produce a miserable game; it is expecting too much to demand that the effect be more perfect than the principles which produce it. But though faith proceeds from both intellect and will, its vigor depends little on the intellect, desperately on the will. After all the truths of faith do not depend on the acuity, vitality or energy of the human intellect; these truths are above all created intellect. But as the will is less strong, there is inevitably a loss to the strength and vigor of faith.
For all the restlessness of the intellect, the house of faith is a serene, peaceful home. Certainly there is in it none of the bickering always to be found in the mansions of art and prudence which deal only with contingent things. Indeed, in its cause, the certitude of faith exceeds even the certitude of the speculative virtues, knowledge, wisdom and understanding; it is, in fact, as much more certain as the intellect of God is more perfect than the intellect of man. It is true that subjectively we might feel more secure holding to the first principles seen by the intellect than to the truths believed by faith. But so too might a man feel much more sure that he has seen a ghost than that two and two are four, although certainly the simple sum of addition rests upon a much greater metaphysical certitude than does the wandering ghost. But faith is not a question of feeling, it is not a question of intellectual rest, it is not a question of stubborn adherence. It is a matter of complete, absolute infallibility that can come from only the one source, the First, Supreme Truth. Even the angelically operating intellectual gifts of the Holy Ghost must make their obeisance to faith as their superior, as the mistress they work to beautify and adorn.
The possessors of the freedom of faith: Slaves of disbelief: the damned, devils, heretics
The modern pagan business man shrugs off faith as contemptuously as a football star might shrug off the rubbers sent out to him on a rainy day by an over-solicitous coach. After all he is doing very well without faith; obviously he can get along without it. Let the women, children and weaklings have it. As a matter of fact the only man who does not need faith is a dead man; it is only in heaven or hell that there is no room for faith. What need have angels or the saints in heaven for faith when they are seeing God face to face? What need have devils for the foundation of hope, who are without hope? What right have the damned souls of men to a supernatural gift where there is nothing of the supernatural but punishment? The devils may have their suspicions of opinions on matters of faith, the damned may have poignant memories of the acts of faith they have made in life; but the faith that gives infallible knowledge of the intimate details of the life of divinity — no, there is none of that in hell.
What of those who have “lost the faith?” Their eyes remain the same color, their walk has the same aggressiveness, their smile the same attraction. But then we did not expect an exterior change. What if they had lost only one truth, say the truth of papal infallibility; do they not hold as firmly as ever to all the rest? Indeed they do not. So long as faith remains, nothing pertaining to faith can be denied; when anything of faith is lost, all is lost.
The heretic has been too often painted in heroic colors, as a strong man who stood up in defiance of the lightnings of ecclesiastical, and often civil, authority. Actually the heretic is a weakling. The faith is for the strong, for those who are willing to go all the way; there is no room here for mediocrity, for compromising. We must take all or take nothing. Faith demands a boldness, a storming of the walls of heaven with all bridges burnt behind us, a courage that must always make the weakling of the world shiver.
Sole cause of faith, living or dead
The heretic is a weakling, but a weakling who has suffered a tragic loss. How can he regain his faith? Faith is not to be bought or sold; it cannot be stolen, or wheedled out of some one. If Christ working miracles, preaching divinely wise sermons, making prophecies and fulfilling them, giving up His very life, left many astonished and struck with fear but only a few believing, it is clear that no external cause can bring us faith. Nothing within us can give us something above all nature. Faith must always remain a gift of God, a story told by the only One Who knows it. But — and this is supremely important — it is a gift offered to every man who comes into the world; withheld from a man only because he has placed an impediment to its reception. Once we have tossed the inestimable gift away through pride or sensuality, it is only the benevolence of God that can return the lost gift to us.
The child, who does not think about so serious a thing as health, dreams of meals that are made up of desserts. Men and women, who do not think about so serious a thing as living, dream of a life that consists only of sweetness, soft music and rest to the echo of applause and gently sympathetic understanding. But meals are never like that; neither is life. In the same vein, our modern men and women dream of God as a being of whom no one could ever be afraid, a gentle, stupid god who would allow men and women to ruin themselves and then admire them for the work they had done in destroying his masterpiece. You see they never really think about God, for God is not like that.
Effects of faith: fear and purity
One of the very first effects of faith is fear. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise. For one of the disconcerting things about faith is that it tells us not only of heaven but also of hell; it not only speaks of the true but it also warns of the false end of man; it insists, not only that God is worth having, but also that the loss of Him is the supreme tragedy. Really to know God means that we must know Him also as the judge of men, the punisher of evil; and we are afraid of His punishments. This is what the theologians call the “fear of a slave”. Understand it is not that hypocritical fear that holds back a man’s hands or feet from sin, leaving his heart free to embrace the evil action. It is rather a solid, honest, thoroughly understandable fear, a supernatural fear that is the product of unformed or dead faith.
When charity breathes the breath of life into faith, the fear engendered by faith is the fear of a loving child faced with the possibility of becoming separated from its parents; for by this live faith we not only know God, He is the most desirable thing in our life. As this “fear of a child”, this reverential fear increases with the increase of charity, the fear of punishment decreases because the very grounds for fearing punishment — the temptation to separate from that desirable good — becomes less and less. In a word, we think less of self and more of God. An interesting corollary of this fear inspired by faith is that there is really more hope for the salvation of those who frankly fight God than for those who are indifferent to Him; for this battle against divinity springs from fear, a fear that should lead to hope but which can be made to end in despair.
If we recognize the fact that thc farther a man gets from mud the less likely he is to pick up mud on his clothing, or the further we remove gold from its alloys the purer it gets, we are in a fair way to see that purity is a second effect of faith. This purity is, of course, primarily intellectual purity, freedom from error; but it is at the same time the foundation and the goal of purity of the affections, moral purity. For moral purity is a means to an end, a step taken toward a goal; it is asking too much to demand it when there is no goal in sight. Moral impurity in a world that has pushed aside the intellect, denied the goal, or smiled at the possibility of approaching a Supreme Truth which would give infallible knowledge is not surprising, however pained the classroom philosopher may be by its appearance on his campus.
By the gift of faith we stand outside the walls of the natural world, free and thoroughly bewildered, We are as much puzzled by our freedom as we were resentful at our limitations. In a world that is native to God, we are immigrants, awkward, strange, ill at ease; for we are not gods. We need something more than faith to give us that flexibility, familiarity and suavity that belong to a citizen of this world; and that something more comes to us by the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
Gifts of the Holy Ghost perfecting faith: Understanding
In the natural order, when we see that turnips do not agree with us, we do more than assent to that truth; we penetrate it to some extent, it becomes a part of our equipment and enters into our judgments. We may take turnips again, but only because our passion for turnips has rushed us into action against our better judgment. Such a truth is natural to us. But the truths of faith are above us; assenting to them by faith, we do not penetrate them, have them enter into our judgments. Rather we handle them somewhat as a foreigner handles our language. But we must penetrate these truths, seize on them, experience them, intimately apply them in all our judgments, they must become a part of our point of view. This is the work of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, supplementing and perfecting faith.
Its relation to faith and distinction from other gifts
The first of these gifts, the gift of understanding, has for its special work precisely that penetration of faith. It goes beyond assent to a kind of probing of these truths, but in a way as different from our natural operation as an angel’s mind is different from a man’s. It makes the truths of faith connatural to us. We plunge into their depths with the speed of an angelic mind, probing them to their core; not with effort, slowly, step by step, stumbling from principle to conclusion, but intuitively, immediately, connaturally.
We get some notion of the work of this gift when we realize that its perfection is no less than a clear vision of the essence of God. It is then impossible to have the full perfection of the gift of understanding in this life. Indeed it is difficult to describe the effect of that share of the gift possible in this life. Perhaps we can say best that it deepens the darkness of faith. That is, it allows us to see intimately what this particular truth is by seeing what it is not and, consequently how far above anything natural, above all the capacities of our intellect, this truth is. The gift allows us to appreciate the sublimity of the truths that faith has given us.
Remember now, the gift of understanding is not an exotic thing reserved for the higher levels of sanctity. It is absolutely necessary for everyone if life is to be lived successfully. It is by no means a spiritual luxury, for it has that eminent practicality of the truths of faith themselves, the practicality of the fundamental rule of life and action. Our actions, all of them, must be steeped in divine truth, dyed with the divinity which is their end; otherwise they are disastrously against all we are living for. There are, of course, different grades of perfection of this gift of understanding; but at least the lowest grade must be had by everyone who is to win to the goal of life.
Possessors of understanding
This will be immediately clear when we understand this first or lowest grade is that which is sufficient for fulfilling our obligations, the grade of penetration of the truths of faith by which we resist all objections, all difficulties. Up a step higher, we are enabled to see more profoundly into the perfection of God and, by contrast, into the miseries of man; this is the grade of perfection of the gift necessary for the observance of the counsels of Christ. Finally the sublime grade of understanding in this life, the heroic grade, pertains to the mystical life and is a principle of infused contemplation. It is what the saints have tried to describe vaguely as a mystical marriage to the spouse of the soul; it is, somehow, an intimate knowledge of the presence of divinity.
Its beatitude and fruit
Earlier in this chapter we have said that moral purity while an effect of the intellectual purity of faith, was in a larger sense a beginning of an intellectual purity that ultimately will be the essential happiness of man. It is in the light of this truth that St. Thomas points out the beatitude, “Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God,” as corresponding to the sharply intellectual gift of understanding; cleanness of heart as the element of merit, vision of God as the reward. Indeed this growth to a greater and greater intellectual purity is stated in the very terms traditionally used to describe the progress of spiritual life — the purgative, illuminative and unitive way; for it is by his intellect that man receives light and ultimately is united to God. The supreme effect, the ultimate ripe fruit of this gift of understanding is an eminent certitude which is, indeed. Common to the three intellectual gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom, for all work to the perfection of faith and faith itself is given to us that we might certainly know God.
Knowledge — its nature and beatitude
We are released from the prison of the universe by faith. Understanding allows us to enter intimately into the divine world. The gift of knowledge enables us to see the world from which we have escaped in the light of the world to which faith has brought us. It is seen in a high degree of perfection in the life of St. Francis of Assisi where, obviously, its work was not assent, nor penetration, but judgment of created things in the light of divine truths. We might say that it makes the knowledge of faith a personal knowledge. By it we are enabled to see God in the dust, as the good thief saw a king in the criminal dying on a cross. Strictly speaking there is no beatitude corresponding to this gift for it deals with the created world which contains no final resting place for the soul of man; it is always a step, a means to beatitude, not a place of ultimately desirable things. However on its less practical side, speaking in our clumsy sense of practicality, it might be said that the beatitude, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” does correspond to the gift of knowledge.
A not uncommon error sees in this beatitude a justification of the whiners of the world. At the mere mention of “this vale of tears”, the weepers heave a sigh that has about it the suspicious perfection of a publicity department, and indulge in another fit of tears of self-pity. The truth of the matter is that beatitude and self-pity are not even distant relations, however comforting self-pity may be. By valley of tears we really mean valley of mistakes. We have no grounds for tears that we are abused, misunderstood, suffer, have accidents happen to us; in fact we do not have nearly as much misfortune as we deserve for our ingratitude to God. Our real grounds for tears are to be found in our own mistakes, in the intimate knowledge of the damage we have done to ourselves by our inordinate affection for and use of creatures. On the other hand the knowledge of the good that has come to us from orderly affection for and use of creatures is a source of solid comfort.
To put all this more plainly, this gift of knowledge lights up the path by which we can avoid puritanism and at the same time escape the absurdities of plunging into the world of creatures. This gift, like all the gifts, not only leads us securely to God, its operation is evident in the heights of mystical life; in other words, this gift insists upon the advantages of an orderly affection for and use of creatures all along the long road to God, indeed not only advantages, positive necessities of such an orderly affection.
Conclusion: Modern intellectual slavery
To say that the modern world has condemned itself to intellectual slavery, or to say that the modern world knows nothing of supernatural faith is really to say the same thing. We can approach this conclusion from either of two angles: either by looking at modern notions of faith, or at the actual limitations placed upon the intellect by the modern world.
Modern notions of faith
From the first point of view, it is clear that practically from the time of the Reformation faith has been relegated to the realm of the emotional. In our own times this tendency has reached what must be a climax when the neo-supernaturalists, the very champions of faith, reject intellect as a constant source of error; ethical intuitionists and aesthetic naturalists make faith an irrational thing in no way connected with the rational; while the philosophers rooted in the tradition of naturalism — by far the greater part of vocal American philosophers — chuckle cynically at all this and put faith aside as unworthy of man, particularly of a man of science accustomed to investigating evidence and arriving at logical conclusions.
Today faith is an hypothesis, a postulate, a mere wish or will to believe, perhaps an emotional affair that is entirely individual and personal. Certainly then our modern world will condemn the intellect, at the very least, to its own limitations, to the limitations of the world of creatures.
Modern limitations of intellect: To the tangible; to the demonstrable; to the fictitious
But viewing the modern position from the angle of the actual limitation placed upon the intellect by philosophers, we see the incredible picture of a man who not only insists upon his own confinement, he refuses to take advantage of the prison courtyard for his exercise, indeed refuses even to move in the narrow corridors between the cells. He insists that he be kept rigidly in his cell bound hand and foot on the grounds that there is nothing beyond his chains. This may sound incredible, but it is not nearly so incredible as our modern philosophers limiting the mind of man to tangible things, or going further and limiting the mind of man to those things that can be demonstrated, or even, in these latter days, limiting the intellect to the purely fictitious, as a purveyor of error for practical purposes. The future will have a hard time indeed if it is to surpass this as a climax of absurdity; for never in the history of the world has there been anything so impractical as error.
Faith and intellect — a perfection not a substitution
All of this is intellectual slavery; all of it implies an abysmal ignorance of the very nature of supernatural faith. Faith is not an opponent of intellect, it is not a substitute for intellectual operations. It is a perfection of intellect. It carries the intellect far beyond anything it could reach of itself; surely it in no way makes intellectual activity useless, suspicious or positively vicious. Faith and natural intellect operate on different planes. Our minds can go just so far, as far as the limits of the universe; and that would seem to be far enough for many men. Faith allows us to go as far as the essence of God. The whole purpose of faith is to allow the intellect to step beyond itself, as the telephone allows our voice to stretch beyond itself, or the telescope extends the vision of our eyes. Yet no one considers a telephone or a telescope an insult to a man, nor a substitution for his voice or his eyes. Faith is not an enemy of the intellect, rather it is intellect’s liberator.
Freedom for the mind: The courage of faith
Because it gives freedom, faith demands courage. It takes courage to see God not only as the ultimate reward to be gained, but also as a reward that may be eternally lost. It takes courage to see in every one of our actions a deliberate choice of eternity, of heaven or of hell; to kneel before the gentle Christ and tell Him with complete frankness how completely we have betrayed Him; to pick oneself up again and again and again, with the grim determination to continue to pick oneself up, to continue to try no matter how often we may fail. It takes courage to be a man; it takes much greater courage to be a Christian man, a friend of Christ. It takes the kind of courage that carried Christ through the last moments on the Cross — but beyond that to the morning of the resurrection.
The fullness of faith
The fullness of faith, comparable only to the limitless fullness of infinity, makes our natural life seem a narrow, dark, blind corridor. Faith opens up eternity itself to us and allows our spirit to stretch itself to the limits of its great possibilities. While giving us intimate details of divinity, it also gives the only solid ground of hope and of love, furnishing a measuring-rod for both.
The practicality of faith
And, considering the part that hope and love play in human life, faith is surely possessed of a practicality more than sufficient to satisfy the most practical-minded age. Only the dead can dispense with faith. To the sinner it gives a reason for hope and the means of attaining that hope; to the saint it gives the reason for love and the means to perfect that love. To the layman it is a short cut to necessary knowledge; to the religious it is the very basis of his life. To the successful it teaches moderation and corrects easily mistaken values; to the mediocre, the elimination of dullness, of drudgery in a divinely high romance; to failures in our human sense it gives happiness and a knowledge of the real difference between eternal and ephemeral success. To the laborer it gives consecration, courage, and an unshakeable basis of justice; to the employer it teaches the limitations of power, the deep roots of justice, the pettiness of the great things of this world. And so we might go on and on through men, women and children, the sick, the healthy, the young, the old, the apostle, the scholar, domestic society, political society and so on. The universal practicality of faith is bound up intimately with the absolutely universal practicality of the one and only goal of human life, plus the infallible authority of the word of God.
The future of faith
Perhaps the most inspiring thing to remember about faith is that it is only a beginning. It starts a life that goes on for all eternity. As such it carries with it in this world the joy that can be fully appreciated only by God and those to whom He has opened up the secrets of his divinity. There is an obscurity about faith now; there is an intellectual restlessness at its darkness; in it there is a rigid dependence on the moral strength of our human will. But, like every beginning, it is a promise. And the promise faith holds out to us is not one of increased obscurity, or even of decreased obscurity, but of brilliant light, the promise of the light of glory by which we shall see God as He is and in that vision attain the goal of human living which is the happiness of man.