LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
This poem by Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman is one of my favorite depictions of the search to follow God's will, written during Newman's time abroad in Europe for reasons of health all-the-while wanting to return to England for "the work" of the Oxford Movement there. It is a hymn to the abandonment to divine Providence, to asking only to see that step which comes next and no more. [You can find a beautiful musical setting of the whole poem by Corpus Christi Watershed that was shown on the occasion of Newman's beatification or this shorter one by Howard Goodall]
In today's world, most mankind has seemingly moved away from seeing faith as a light at all. Rather, you have the outspoken few who see faith as an illusory darkness that can only lead either to fanatical violence or prejudice, or, at least, on the other hand, the misery and pain of believing a false fairy tale. Even more so, we find so many people moving away or just drifting away from the Christian faith because they don't find any solace, any help, any light from it.
Pope Francis' first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), engages precisely this problem of today's world. Unless we learn to see faith as a light and the world embraces faith as a guide amidst the darkness then, "once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim" (LF, 4). We have undoubtedly begun to see this with what Pope John Paul II termed the "culture of death" that so pervades our world today. It was visible, too, in the way in which, in the not-so-far-distant past of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, without the light of faith even the light of natural morality was extinguished, leading to mass exterminations, horrible experimentation, and suffering for untold millions.
We Catholics hold, however, that "the light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God" (4). It surrounds us and guides us onward as apostolic, begun in the past with Christ's foundation of the Church on the cross, and draws us into the future, in communion with all others.
The faith of Abraham was a faith that "God sheds light on the depths of his being, [and] it enables him to acknowledge the wellspring of goodness at the origin of all things and to realize that his life is not the product of non-being or chance, but the fruit of a personal call and a personal love" (11). The faith of Israel illuminates two more aspects of this light. On one hand, "God’s light comes to us through the account of his self-revelation, and thus becomes capable of illuminating our passage through time by recalling his gifts and demonstrating how he fulfills his promises" (12). On the other, we see the greatest temptation against faith as idolatry; "in place of faith in God, it seems better to worship an idol, into whose face we can look directly and whose origin we know, because it is the work of our own hands" (13).
Both of these aspects find fulfillment in Christ and his death. There we find in the Resurrection the ultimate trustworthiness of God, who conquers death to be true to His promises to mankind. It also shows us how much faith brings us into a personal union with God, mirroring the faith of the "Father of Faith" - Abraham. "We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. But if this were the case, if God could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true, a love capable of delivering the bliss that it promises. It would make no difference at all whether we believed in him or not. Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection" (17).
This faith is ultimately a gift.It comes from the Author of Being as something that is totally unmerited. "The beginning of salvation is openness to something prior to ourselves, to a primordial gift that affirms life and sustains it in being. Only by being open to and acknowledging this gift can we be transformed, experience salvation and bear good fruit. Salvation by faith means recognizing the primacy of God’s gift. As Saint Paul puts it: "By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Eph 2:8)" (19). It is this same faith that brings us into communion with the Church and gives us a new life in the Spirit. Faith cannot be professed alone, but only together as the faith of the Catholic Church, in union of love and fellowship.
The Pope then looks at three ways faith has an "impact" in our lives. First, as it impacts our own selves, and especially our understanding. Second, as it impacts our communion with others in the Church. Third, as it impacts our world in our social life.
The first is highly problematic today. The world sees faith and reason as opposed. Faith is seen as a private feeling or subjective sentiment; not something I can base my life on. It is similar to how we see love today. Love is a "subjective" feeling that exists apart from and often in contradiction to truth. Nevertheless, "only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time. True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life" (27). Faith perfects our love and the union of the two is indispensable. Without faith, one cannot love. This is why faith can also perfect our understanding. "The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path" (25).
Faith also brings us together in the Church. Faith is not merely my beliefs, but rather a communion of love with others, united visibly in prayer, sacraments, belief, and principles of unity. The Church as an "institution" often gets contrasted against the "real, private" faith, where the Church is a corruption or oppressive to what "really" matters in our lives. Yet the experience of love shows us that a common vision is possible, for through love we learn how to see reality through the eyes of others, not as something which impoverishes but instead enriches our vision. This is also the great joy of faith: a unity of vision in one body and one spirit. Saint Leo the Great could say: "If faith is not one, then it is not faith" (47).
Finally, we can see how many ways faith can illumine our world today. It can do so because "faith does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time." Rather, it is indispensable to the common good. "Without a love which is trustworthy, nothing could truly keep men and women united. Human unity would be conceivable only on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear, but not on the goodness of living together, not on the joy which the mere presence of others can give" (51). Faith helps respect the family and marriage as the building block of society, giving ground for love of another. Faith builds an earthly city built on true love and respect of others. And faith also "helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good. Faith likewise offers the possibility of forgiveness, which so often demands time and effort, patience and commitment" (55).
Whereas I began with John Henry Newman's poetic vision of faith, the Pope ends with another icon of faith in the person of the Blessed Virgin. In a short prayer, he sums up our prayer to receive the faith of ages, a faith which truly leads amidst the encircling gloom, this gift which brings us the true Light of the World:
"Mother, help our faith!
Teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus, that he may be light for our path. And may this light of faith always increase in us, until the dawn of that undying day which is Christ himself, your Son, our Lord!"