Where does our faith lie? What’s its seat? Where does it take its ultimate root?
Bernard Lonergan once suggested that faith is God’s brand on us. God has seared our souls, as by a great fire, in a way that goes beyond what we can conceptualize, imagine, and even consciously feel. Ruth Burrows, in trying to define mysticism, says basically the same thing. For her, mysticism is being touched by God in a way that is too deep for words, thoughts, and even feelings. Real faith then, it would seem, takes root beyond thought, imagination, and feeling.
But how is this possible? How can something be real and touch us beyond thought, imagination, and feeling? Is faith something magical, para-normal? Not at all. All of us have experiences of being influenced by, and making decisions by, something beyond what we can explain. We know things that we cannot think, we sense things that we cannot consciously feel, and often make decisions based on something beyond the imagination. Faith tends to operate like this. It is not the stuff of thought or even of feelings, but something deeper. How does it work?
We commonly speak of three centres within the human person: head, heart, and gut. The first two are a bit easier to grasp: The head is where we think and imagine, while the heart is where we feel and experience emotion. So what does the gut do? Most of us spontaneously confuse the gut with the heart, thinking of the gut as simply a deeper centre for our feelings. It is a deeper centre alright, but not of conscious feelings. The gut is not so much a centre for feeling as it is precisely something beyond feeling. In the gut, we sense more than feel, intuit more than imagine, and are addressed more in the conscience than in the intellect and heart. The gut is our “ought” centre. It’s where we sense those things that we “have to” do rather than those we would want to do. Moreover, the gut is not much moved by our feelings but often goes against them.
All of us, I suspect, have had some experience of this: For instance, we sometimes find ourselves in a commitment to someone or something (in a marriage, in a family, in a church, in service to the poor, or even just in some civic duty) within which both our thoughts and feelings are not in agreement with what we are doing, but are overruled by something else. More simply put, we sometimes find ourselves in a situation wherein our heads aren’t in it; our hearts aren’t in it; but we’re in it. Why? What holds us there? Why are we staying within something for which neither the head nor the heart can supply adequate justification. Obviously something else is holding us, something beyond the head and heart, beyond thought and feeling. Clearly there must be something within us deeper than thought and feelings and it’s here where faith ultimately takes root.
It is important to understand this, not for theoretical reasons, but so that when we are pushed to the wall, as we all inevitably will be by the dark night of doubt, we will then not be too easily overcome, but, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, will know that God’s love is something beyond what fires the imagination and the emotions. Thus, we see that Jesus, even while he sweats blood in the Garden and then later on the cross feels as if God is absent, remains faithful and is able to surrender himself in love, despite everything in his thought and feelings telling him to do otherwise. Why was he able to do what he did? As Henri Nouwen puts it:
I can’t fully answer that question, except to say that beyond all the abandonment experienced in body and mind Jesus still had a spiritual bond with the one called Abba. He possessed a trust beyond betrayal, a surrender beyond despair, a love beyond all fears. This intimacy beyond human intimacies made it possible for Jesus to allow the request to let the cup pass him by become a prayer directed to the one who had called him “My Beloved.” Notwithstanding his anguish, that bond of love had not been broken. It couldn’t be felt in the body, nor thought through the mind. But it was there, beyond all feelings and thoughts, and it maintained the communion beneath all disruptions. It was that spiritual sinew, that intimate communion with his father, that made him hold on to the cup and pray: “My Father, let it be as you, not I, would have it.” (Can You Drink from this Cup, p. 37)
Faith, properly understood, is precisely a trust beyond betrayal, a surrender beyond despair, a love beyond fear, an intimacy beyond human intimacies, and a spiritual sinew and communion that holds beyond all disruption. Faith is as much present beyond the head and heart as within them.