I have been reading ‘Life Is Not A Long Quiet River’ – the memoir of recently-deceased priest Fr Willy Slavin, from Glasgow. He looks back over his life and at intervals, he asks quite searching questions – not only of himself but also, by extension, of the reader. At the tail end of the book, he quotes a Benedictine monk who “was fond of saying that losing faith is part of old age and a call to a different kind of faith”.
A few pages on, recounting the deaths of various people close to him, he ponders that “it is possible to see only the embers of faith. That is when it becomes possible to believe that from the ashes, a new fire may arise.”
For the past few days I have been thinking about these lines – and what they describe – quite a lot. And I have to say the thought of losing faith troubles me deeply. In large part, I consider my faith to be the single thing which, in an essential way, identifies me and says something about who I am as a person and who I consider myself to be. And this view would, I think, be shared by those who know me well.
What, then, would I be like without faith in my life? I think this is my greatest fear.
Trying to imagine this, I think it likely that I would do most of the same things I am doing now – I wouldn’t expect any great divergence or change there. So what would the difference be, if not in what I am doing? For me, the difference would be both clear and profound – that change would exist at the level of why I do those things and why I do them in the way that I do. For me, that faith is the driving force which is the reason behind everything else – it is precisely what impels me to act (or not act) in particular ways, whilst giving those actions a far deeper meaning, beyond the actions themselves.
In my professional life as a nurse, I saw many other nurses who were filled to overflowing with compassion and empathy – for them, this drove them in the way I am trying to explain here; it was the reason for what they were doing. Conversely, I met other nurses who could do the specific things involved in nursing and, for the most part, do them fairly well; yet, there was just something missing. The absent element was that sense of compassion. And whilst intangible, still it was – in my view, at least – absolutely crucial.
So it would be with me were that faith to be missing. I could do all the specific things, but the reason for doing them would be gone. And so ultimately, they would be empty other than being good things to do in themselves. But that would be the extent of their meaning.
Strangely, I could manage far easier with the loss of organised religion – in some senses, that part of faith is the “thing” we do – but it really needs the impelling “reason” to actually be (or become) something meaningful. Anyone can go to Mass even without a shred of belief in the heart – it is possible to do the “thing” when it is quite detached from the “reason”. Further to this, the time of lockdown perhaps showed many of us the difference between faith and Church – and how one can exist quite independently of the other.
If Fr Slavin is right, then even at those times when faith might diminish to some extent or even be extinguished completely, still it is possible that this is like the fire in the forest which is necessary in order to purify the ground and, at some point, not only allow but to actively encourage new growth to take place. When the wild shrubs, the weeds and all which has become overgrown has strangled everything else, only that devastating fire can provide the necessary room for the essential plants to burst into life.
A priest I was speaking with this morning touched on something to do with this. He was talking about that well-known Gospel passage – “unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it brings forth a harvest”. And listening to this, I couldn’t help but return once more to those thoughts of Fr Slavin.
What if, in the later years of life, the good Lord allows our faith to change in some existential way – to rid us of our comfort and complacency, perhaps; or to draw out from it a deeper and better good; or to give it a form or expression closer to His will than to our own, reflecting Him rather than us. I can only imagine how hard this might be for that person, even if entirely necessary.
On the final page of his memoir, Fr Slavin offers us a guide for such moments, such experiences, and one which I think answers the questions I have been asking myself in these days –
What we do know is that faith, hope and love can be our guide.. At the end of the day it all has to be how we were loved and how we loved others. This must include a particular concern for others, especially the stranger. In other words, a sense of charity that amounts to real compassion, a willingness to suffer alongside others. It is a special kind of life of its own, uniting the person tangibly to a higher plane of contemplation. We are not waiting on Christ to come. He is waiting for us.