In the wake of the tragic attacks in Paris, we held an impromptu vigil of prayer in Corpus’ Chapel this morning – few stayed for
the full two hours, but a variety of people came and went, seeking to do something, anything, in the face of such an appalling example of human sin. One student, who sat himself down very close to me, muttered a simple prayer that took me completely by surprise, Lord, how do you expect me to believe now?
In the heart of this prayer is a contradiction, he addressed God as ‘Lord’, he confessed his existence and his sovereignty. But to believe takes on a more powerful meaning in this prayer, what he truly asked was, ‘Lord, how can I trust you? How can I know you’re who you say you are?’ In the closeness of our shared stall, in the intimacy of a shared silence, it felt like he was speaking to me. When he saw I’d heard, he looked across me, almost as if to ask how can you still believe?
For me, the influence of St. Augustine, a great friend to have (so to speak), has helped me understand this more than anyone. For Augustine, faith is not an experience of the constant and uninterrupted sense of God’s presence but is rather an experience of holy desire:
“The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.” – On 1 John
I don’t have a direct connection to the mind of God, I don’t come close to understanding him and there are certainly times when I feel baffled and lost in my faith. Yet, there have been moments where God has revealed his presence to me, when he has interrupted the order of things to reveal something of his majesty and in this we have a sure ground for hope. We have been welcomed, known and anointed by God and, in his revealing himself, God plants desire in our hearts and we follow in the footsteps of the one who one day, we pray, we will see face to face. As long as we live, our desire for God cannot be fully satisfied, for that will come with the beatific vision when the dross and sin of our lives is burned away, for now, God reveals glimpses of himself to us and, in doing so, more kindles our desire than satiates it. Our desire is our preparation, our heartfelt longing to know and taste and see the Lord is what prepares us for his revelation – if we fail to focus our desire on God, we risk missing him altogether. Yet, thankfully, although the ruin of our fallen nature fills our head with all sorts of other desires, for money and power and attention, God never stops reaching out to us and rekindling our true desire by the working of his life-giving Spirit. In Augustine’s words again:
‘You never go away from us, yet we have difficulty in returning to You. Come, Lord, stir us up and call us back. Kindle and seize us. Be our fire and our sweetness. Let us love. Let us run.’ – Confessions
In the wake of the tragedies of Paris, or the many countries torn apart by war and the countless lives scarred by sin, poverty and suffering, God will not provide any easy answer and neither must we Christians. To attempt easy answers is to diminish the seriousness and unthinkable evil of these actions which scar so many, so instead, we must stand with the people of Paris and the world and weep at the loss of life and the result of sin, and we must re-kindle our desire for God and our passionate love for his kingdom. For in that desire is the hope of the world. As suffering and pain seem to fill the news and flood our hearts, it is so easy to feel so lost at sea that we ask, how can I believe now? or Where is God in this? But we have the anchor of the cross. The firm anchor of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself so that the world might know the fullness of eternal life.
Augustine said, ‘God had one Son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering’ – as we gaze on the suffering of the world, we bring it into relationship with the suffering of our Lord upon the cross for us. As intellectuals try to explain these tragedies in terms of religious or political ideology, as atheists boast yet another failure of religion and many find more proof that the universe is void of meaning or morality, we look to the One who was crucified. As leaders speak of war and revenge, we
worship the one whose dying moments formed a family and forgave a sinner; as people see more proof that borders should be closed and Islam repressed, we see one who longs to draw all people to himself in one loving fellowship together. In the crucified Jesus, we find the reason why our faith remains vital, why we can find hope in God, for he is not some far-off Being whom we cannot touch, but a God who became flesh, who wept at the death of his friends, was tortured although innocent, and was crucified by an oppression regime who wanted to make an example of him. As the great theologian Balthasar has said, ‘being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.’ Our God tasted our suffering and stood, and stands, alongside us in our pain. His purpose will be done, that is the promise of the Gospels, but as we await the blessed hope, our Saviour stands alongside us and his wounded his hands reach out to love and embrace all humanity in its travail.
This is what I ought to have said to him when he looked at me, instead I smiled faintly and returned to my prayers. He messaged me after to say it was one of the most powerful things he’d ever done, we trust that in the silence of the Chapel, the Lord answered his prayer and rekindled his heart.
May God grant him, and all the Church, a true and holy desire.
A final quote from the beginning of the Confessions:
“Belatedly I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee. These things kept me far from thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in thee. Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odours and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace.”
– Solidarité –