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Sunday 2 October 2022: Trinity 16, Twenty-seventh in Ordinary Time, Proper 22

What is faith, really?

Habbakuk1:2-3; 2:2-4; 2 Timothy 1:6-8,13-14; Luke 17:5-10

By Peter Fleetwood

Parish Priest of Mariukirkjan, Tórshavn, Faroe Islands

Context: Sunday Mass in a parish community, more than eighty per cent of whom are immigrants, including 6 religious sisters and the parish priest. Most of the Faroese who attend are converts from Lutheranism. English is not most people’s first language

Aim: to discover the depth of our faith and to go deeper

When I was preparing to become a priest, an old Spanish Jesuit taught us about the special virtues of faith, hope and charity. When he was talking about faith, he said that there is a beautiful phrase in the Hebrew Bible which describes believing in God. The literal meaning of the words is ‘leaning on God’ - an image came into my mind, and it has never gone away, even 46 years later. I suddenly thought of a pet dog, which leans on its owner’s leg. If you have ever had a dog, you will know what I am talking about. When a dog leans against your leg, it knows you are there, so it is sure you will probably soon give it something to eat and drink; it also reminds you that the dog is there, and that soon you need to give it something to eat and drink. It is a perfect example of communication without words. The dog knows it can depend on you, and it reminds you that it is your job to look after it. I think that is a lovely view of the relationship between us and God. By leaning on God, we remind ourselves that God is there, and we remind God that we are here, and we need Him.

Usually, we just get on with our lives and do things normally, but awful things sometimes happen, when we really don’t know how we are going to survive. It is then that we need that solid, reliable presence of God, the one on whom we can depend.

How do we know we can depend on God? It’s not something you can prove, like doing some kind of scientific experiment. It’s about getting to know God well enough to know that we can rely on Him, depend on Him, or lean on Him. In this sense, faith is a relationship. A dog learns gradually that it can depend on its owner to give it food and to look after it. Children learn gradually that their parents are always there when they need them. There are some horrible exceptions, but generally it is true that our parents, or the people who look after us as we grow up, are always there when we need them. We can depend on them and rely on them; in a very real sense, we can lean on them.

The apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith. He replied that their faith was tinier than a mustard seed. I think of them as exceptionally blessed, because they spent time with Jesus: they heard Him teaching and preaching, and they saw how He cared about people, especially those who really needed help and healing. But they still needed to grow into a faith which instinctively knows that God is always there for them.

If you asked me how to increase your faith, I would suggest that the best way is to spend more time with Him, to get as close as you can to Jesus. But how can we do that? We need to hear the words of the Gospel stories again and again, and we also need to learn how to ‘see’ Jesus in our imagination, to watch the little actions like the way He breaks bread, and to see the expressions on His face and hear the tone in His voice. The key is to use our imagination and all our senses, to put ourselves right there in the Gospel stories we have been listening to since we were children. They will all come to life and tell us much more about Jesus if we learn to listen to them in a different way. We will see and hear - and even smell - details we had never noticed, and we will find we are really close to Jesus.

I’m not saying anything original. The idea of using our imagination to get to know Jesus better is at the heart of what Saint Ignatius of Loyola taught in his Spiritual Exercises. He was desperate to do God’s will in everything. He wanted to have the same experience of Jesus that the Apostles had, and the way he found was to train himself to imagine being there with them in the Gospel stories he knew so well. It worked so well for him that he felt God really was guiding him through the most important decisions he had to make. His way of leaning on God is probably worth discovering for anyone who feels the need to grow in faith.

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