Several years ago, a friend of mine made a very un-Hollywood type of marriage proposal to his fiancé: He was in his mid-forties and had suffered a number of disillusioning heartbreaks, some of which, by his own admission, were his own fault, the result of feelings shifting unexpectedly on his part. Now, in mid-life, struggling not to be disillusioned and cynical about love and romance, he met a woman whom he deeply respected, much admired, and with whom he felt he would like to build a life. But, unsure of himself, he was humble in his proposal.
This, in essence, was his proposal: I’d like to ask you to marry me, but, I need to put my cards on the table: I don’t pretend to know what love means. There was a time in my life when I thought I did, but I’ve seen my own feelings and the feelings of others shift too often in ways that have made me lose my confidence in my understanding of love. And so, I’ll be honest: I can’t promise that I will always be in love with you. But I can promise that I’ll always be faithful, that I’ll always treat you with respect, that I’ll always do everything in my power to be there for you to help further your own dreams, and that I’ll always be an honest partner in trying to build a life together. I can’t guarantee how I will always feel, but I can promise that I won’t betray you in infidelity!
That’s not exactly the type of marriage proposal we see in our romantic movies and novels, predicated, as they are, on the naïve belief that the passion and excitement we initially experience when we fall in love will remain that way forever. But this is a mature proposal, one that doesn’t naively promise something that’s impossible to deliver.
But, beyond pointing us towards a more mature understanding of love, this is also a rich image for faith and how it works. Faith too, in the end, is more about fidelity in action than about fervor in feelings. Allow me an example:
When I was in the seminary, a classmate of mine set off one summer to make a 30-day retreat. His aim was precisely to try to acquire a more affective faith, one that he would feel with fervor and which would seep warmly through his heart. He suffered from what he self-described, as a “stoic” faith, a gut-sense of God’s reality and love, but one which didn’t translate much into any warm feelings of security about God’s existence and love. By his own admission, he lacked affectivity, fire, emotion, and warmth about his faith. And that’s what he went in search of.
He returned from the retreat still stoic, but changed nonetheless: “I never got what I asked for, “he said, “but I got something else. I learned to accept that my faith might always be stoic, but I learned too that this is okay! I don’t necessarily have to have warm and imaginative feelings about my faith. I don’t need to be full of passion and fire. I only need to be faithful in my actions, to not betray what I believe in. Now faith, for me, means that I need to live my life in charity, respect, patience, chastity, and generosity to others. I just need to do it; I don’t need to feel it.”
Faith and love are too easily identified with warm feelings, passion, fervor, affectivity, and romantic fire. And those feelings are part of the mystery, a part we are meant to embrace and enjoy. But, wonderful as these feelings can be, they are, as experience shows, fragile and ephemeral. Our world can change in 15 seconds because we can fall in or out of love in that time. Passionate and romantic feelings are part of love and faith, but not the deepest part, and not a part over which we have much emotional control.
Hence, unromantic as it is, I like the stoic approach that is expressed in the marriage-proposal of my friend, particularly as it applies to faith. For some of us, faith will never be, other than for short periods of time, something that fires our emotions and fills us with warm fire. We’ve already experienced how ephemeral that fire can be.
Hence, like my colleague with the “stoic” faith, some of us might have to settle for a faith that says to God, others, and ourselves: I can’t guarantee how I will feel on any given day. I can’t promise that I will always have emotional passion about my faith, but I can promise that I’ll always be faithful, that I’ll always act with respect, and I will always do everything in my power, as far as my human weakness allows, to help others’ and God’s cause in this world. I can’t guarantee how I will always feel, but I can live in the firm resolve to never betray what I believe in!
That’s a sufficient creed.