As it turns out I have A Very Little Faith. Perhaps I am a product of my human father who believed personal greatness was achieved through his tenacious hard work. Having a false humility, showing off A Very Big Faith, I saw that it was one that didn’t fundamentally change his character. Not really. This was my experience.
Still doubting his own goodness at the end of his life, my father died longing to hear “Well done.”
All of my life I have feared the thought of not really knowing. What do I believe? Feared this very thing: A Very Little Faith. Consequently my prayer life has been frantic and hapless. There’s a weariness in faith achieved by your effort. And yet, this is faith. Not knowing, striving. the balance needs to be in how much is human effort and how much is laying down, in relief, our human need.
When strife hit us it struck like a cold winter’s storm. Those of us who live where the seasons always come know that winter is expected.When adversity came and set up camp in our lives, at first I thought, “Of course.” And “I deserve this, somehow.”
Then, as time went on, I came to understand something entirely different. A realization about myself that only adversity has brought. I’ve done a lot of my spiritual life in my strength. The work of living with clinical depression and occasionally overcoming at least for seasons. The strength of mothering with depression. The control required to get sober. And stay sober for seven years. And live sober daily. All me.
Our child three years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. A great effort required me to find and work with all kinds of doctors, psychiatrists and therapists. To wrangle with the school system. All to advocate for my child’s current and future health. To hold on to hope in the middle of destruction and pain, singular sorrow, a mother’s grief, all took my personal strength and wits. There is the constant not knowing how to receive help and not allowing others in, to protect my child’s privacy, How does one receive encouragement and take help for a while to share the load? Almost impossible. Layered atop it, helping my mother in the last two years of her rapid decline, physically and mentally. All required doggedness and charity and choosing to do the right thing. Too much of me. And over time this has weakened me, isolated in unhelpful ways, the searing fear and solitude.
Prayer then is what? I have struggled to understand. My Little Faith drove me to my knees, humbled. Hurt and pressed in by all this pain. Call it suffering if you like, most people would but I’ve become uncomfortable with the comparison.
As if life isn’t just hard. For good people and bad alike, life brings good and bad things. Calling it suffering presupposes that somehow I don’t deserve hardship. And that’s not the point. It simply is what it is.
I don’t want to know how will it all turn out? That question remains unspoken, becomes the greatest test of My Very Little Faith. Erroneously, for as I said, life is hard. For good people and bad.
Will we be okay? Will she grow out of her mental illness? Will he or she ever grow up to work and live on their own? Will the business survive? Will I stay sober? Will I ever be free of depression? How will my mother’s last years disappear into the fog of her memories?
I don’t ask God to explain.
I think it, I wonder about it. But these are not prayers.
I’m afraid to pound on God’s chest which assumes an intimacy I wonder if we have ever shared.
Turns out I have A Very Little Faith.
I do have Hope. An unreasonable belief that we will get through this. Life may yet give us a reprieve. Life may not.
This is the tension of being human. Hope, I suppose, is a freedom to not be dejected by it all. To not be destroyed. Ultimately, to be content in this, too. To grow comfortable with life enough to pray something altogether different. I accept this.
Hope is believing God is good and longs to share goodness with us all. Do I know what this means, not really. Is it enough to believe that God is faithful to us? To let go of the how, the why and the when, all existential? Hope is based on the premise that God only gives what is good, which is not the same as gives all the good things that I can imagine to ask for. Peace is found in the release of open hands, willing for anything to come–the unimaginable. Even something better than my limited imagination and Very Little Faith allows.
The unseen is ahead, the future is unclear, the mist heavy and yet the person of hope finds peace which is beyond intellectual understanding.
The prayers of a Very Little Faith faith weakens my soul. Corrupts the possibility of a good future. All my attention on the present moment and not on the One who is good beyond my comprehension.
Whether we ask and we question, or we rail against God and we ask again. Or we thank or praise. It comes to this. Is it a prayer made in hope or A Very Little Faith?
For months now, even years, my spiritual life is stagnated by fear of more pain than I can handle. My Very Little Faith holding to a pattern of foggy, doubting emptiness.
Henri Nouwen says, in this moment “Spiritually you are dead. There can be life and movement only when you no longer accept things as they are now, and you look ahead toward that which is not yet.”
How much of the spiritual life is wrongly asking but not hoping for what is not yet? What we want will surely never come. For we long for peace, for comfort, for good health, for success and happiness for our children, for all the good things we feel promised somehow. Not promised by God, surely but by a fractured, ill, witless weak culture. We subconsciously buy in and are subsequently dismayed with our lives. Or are we thinking wrongly again. Yes, with certainty.
And in the end people of A Very Little Faith are compelled to open our hands to God in hope.
Simple hope. This, then, is A Very Big Faith grown in us without our doing anything at all.
P.S. I’ve been reading With Open Hands (Ava Maria Press, 1972) by Henri J. M. Nouwen which has heavily influenced the laudable parts of what I’ve thought here. The foolishness is all my own.
I’ve been honored to be a part of a collaborative book titled Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels. I wrote on my ideas of prayer based on my understanding of 1 Thessalonians 5 that we are to pray without ceasing.
Award-winning religion columnist Cathleen Falsani (Chicago Sun-Times, Religion News Service, Orange County Register) and Jennifer Grant edited this labor of love, the new anthology Disquiet Time.
In their words: