Before I was able to drive, I needed to take lessons. Each successive week, these taught me the basic skills necessary to drive and to drive well, as well as giving me a chance to practice those skills in the real world and to build upon the lessons I had already learned. Reading a book about driving is definitely not the same as actually driving. After passing my driving test, I realised that this was where the real learning began. I was also aware that unless I drove often, I would almost certainly lose the skills I had acquired.
The practice of one’s religious faith, it seems to me, bears many similarities.
For those of us born and raised Catholic, there may be a temptation to think we already know everything. We have, after all, “been Catholic all my life”. Returning to the driving analogy, I can think of several drivers I know who have “been driving all my life” – and who remain terrible drivers regardless of that. So length of time doing a thing does not necessarily equate to doing that thing well.
When it comes to the practice of our faith, what does “doing it well” look like?
Well I suppose that to start with, we have to be doing it in the first place. If we are not practising the faith, then we can never hope or expect to do it ‘well’. After that, I think it needs to be something that we are doing because we actively want to do it – it has to have meaning, or else what is the point? Faith is belief – and if we do not believe, there seems little point in doing it out of sheer habit. Now, I don’t mean those moments we probably all have at times, when we question the faith or some aspect of it, or when we are not sure what it is we believe in. Questioning is generally a good thing – it clarifies things for us.
Assuming, then, that we have belief in what we profess and that we are not driven by simple habit, what should our faith life look like?
Well, the clues are all in the Gospel. Everything we need is there. If we read the words of the Lord about discipleship and see at least something of a reflection of that – of Him – in ourselves, we ought to be on the right road. And for those of us who fail or who fail often, this should not deter us – the Lord sees the intentions in our hearts, even if we don’t always match those intentions in practice. The important thing here is that we keep going, keep trying and do not – no matter what – give up. Those characteristics of the Lord – you might call them virtues – are what we are seeking to emulate. There are perhaps two such virtues which we see over and over again in the Gospels, and which we might look for within our own lives, to determine if they are present or absent, and to what degree.
The first virtue is merciful compassion. Look carefully at all the Gospel accounts which describe people of all sorts approaching the Lord. These people were rarely already good and holy – in fact, most often they were wounded, battle-scarred, battered by life, broken and sinful. A bit like every single one of us, really. And the Lord’s response to them? It was always the same – the warmest welcome, with no exceptions. He did not dispense Himself from loving any of these souls, no matter who or what they were. Even tax collectors. Nor even Judas, who betrayed Him with a kiss.
Do we do likewise? This is the first core mark of how we are doing as Catholics.
The second virtue is prayer. Look carefully at all the times the Gospels tell us that Jesus prayed. Over and over again, we are told that He is at prayer, maintaining that spiritual and very real connection with His Father in Heaven. Prayer precedes everything, especially the greater events of His life and ministry. Prayer supports everything He does and it enables everything He set out to do. Prayer was absolutely crucial. Even – especially – on the Cross.
So there we have the second mark of being a Catholic. We pray. Prayer is what we do.
Needless to say, there is a great deal more to it than just these two things. But if we begin with these two and hone them as the blacksmith hones the steel he has forged, we are off to a good start.