“My faith is weak” – So what?

Dimensions of faith that lie beyond the personal

A lecture given in Cambridge in November 2010 by Fr George Guiver, Superior of the Community of the Resurrection

Today, one thing that we are all chasing after is experience. We hop from job to job at short intervals, to keep life fresh. The computer and software industries spend a lot of time and energy giving people ever-new experiences. The present-day obsession with sexuality is of course all about the desire for experience. We have a strong tendency to avoid long-term commitments because of the limitation we feel they would put on the quest for continually varied experience. We assess the value of things by the kind of experience they can give us.

In the life of the church today there is the same emphasis on experience. We might go to a service and think, "I got nothing out of that - I'm not going there again". Our response is to the experience. In the Church we inherit a long history of looking for experience. When we pray we expect, or hope, to have an experience. Many people are often disappointed and so they are discouraged from prayer. My prayer is dry - I wonder if God is there - I don't seem to get anything out of it - prayer can be like an unanswered phone call. There are people talk of personal experience of Jesus - but what can that be to someone who never experiences anything like that? Many people would say they don't pick up much of a signal when they try to pray. If I get nothing out of it, why bother?

The assumption that prayer should involve some kind of experience is of course correct. In prayer we should expect to grow in knowledge of God and in confidence in God. The problem is about the kind of experience it works out to be. There is a problem with prayer because we don’t know what kind of experience are supposed to be having and what we’re getting doesn’t seem to be what we think we ought to be getting. So we can be discouraged. It is as if we were looking at the map of a city. However hard we look, we can’t get an idea of the appearance of the street, or what the town looks like. It is as if we were to throw the map away in disgust. That is clearly ridiculous - we won’t know what the town is like until we are there. In just the same way, you can’t evaluate prayer from the experience you are getting - confidence in prayer needs to come from something else. 

There are some activities where an immediate experience is rightly expected. If you go to a concert, you are expectant about having a good experience now, in the concert. The same with a meal in a restaurant. You’re looking forward to enjoying the meal. Certain things in life are intended to give an immediate experience and often they belong to what you could call in a broad sense the world of entertainment.

Prayer and worship do not really belong with them. They belong with a different range of things where the payoff is not immediate but long-term. The obvious example for comparison is always family life - there are special moments, yes, but most of the time family life is fairly ordinary and humdrum. Or, to take another example, if you are a journalist, most of the work is drudgery, the scoops and excitements only come now and again. Running a voluntary organisation like a scout group is the same. In just the same way, prayer and worship are not entertainment: they belong with those kinds of things where the real payback comes in the long term and in the meantime the daily experience is one of  simply getting on with the job.

In prayer and worship we go by faith and not by sight. To go by faith is to travel without much in the way of  signs. This generation seeks a sign - what is uncomfortable for us is trying to travel by faith. 

Faith is not a comfortable vehicle By its nature, Faith, when left to itself, faith declines. In my office is an unusual armchair whose padded part is inflatable. It has a very slight puncture, so that every few days it needs a few puffs to fill it out again. That is how faith always is, even for the most holy person. Faith automatically deflates. This is a cardinal truth about faith. It is how it is made. If Faith  did not automatically deflate, it would not be faith but something else. How then is faith sustained? What do we have to rely on to keep it inflated? I can’t do anything about it on my own. Faith is never my lonely effort. It is always a partnership between my deflating cushion and an air supply from elsewhere.

This evening I am going to say something about two things that are absolutely essential if we are to remain firm in faith and firm in prayer: two sources of the air supply. Two things that build faith up and make it sustainable.

For the first I start with a recent art work by Tracey Emin: a neon sign put up over an arch in Liverpool cathedral: "I felt you and I knew you loved me". This is about our humanity - about our physical bodies, touch, human warmth and presence. We relate to one another with the whole of ourselves, body, mind, spirit, surroundings. All of them come into play. It is difficult to communicate properly without our bodies - think of the difficulty of trying to explain something complex and sensitive over the phone. Words going into ears are not enough. We need to see the person’s face and be in their physical presence. Even when we are with a person or persons, for instance in the family home, we don't sit down and try and concentrate on each other usually. We set about doing different things together. Watching TV, preparing and having meals and washing up, looking after the house and garden, going out together, moving around in the routines and unexpected events of a busy family. When all is well, Love is the undertow - it is just there, given. “I felt you and I knew you loved me”.

Compare that with a modern person attempting to pray. They would expect to quieten down, close their eyes, and try and tune in - to God. You may be surprised to learn that for a large part of Christian history people have prayed in quite a different way. In the early Christians centuries, for instance, people stood with their hands in the air, their face looking up and prayed aloud. Our approach to prayer is deeply subjective, theirs was very objective.

I can illustrate this from monastic life. You would think that in a religious community the members would find themselves on a great subjective journey. They do. Yet my experience is that the spiritual life becomes more and more objective. The many services, the many tasks, the chapter meetings, the bracing round, the eucharist, all of that is the great spiritual journey. You get on with it, doing the things that make up the life: it is as much part of the experience of walking with God as silent prayer is.

I think this might show us that we have lost something. What we have lost, quite a long time ago in our Anglican culture, is a faith in doing, touching, making, getting on with certain things in an objective way. Our great-great-grandparents lost something that we need to regain: which is a simple contentedness to get on with the praxis of being Christian, aware all the time that this, all of this praxis, is a profound part of the spiritual journey and essential to our spiritual formation and shaping. It is the world of the sacraments. We know Christ in the physical touch of these things. He becomes part of the undertow. In simply going about the things that are to be done. With our hands and feet and in our activities we feel Christ and know he loves us.

In this approach to prayer the sacraments set the tone. In baptism someone goes down under the water, or at least they have  water poured on them. There is no requirement to feel anything. The sacraments are concerned with the spirituality of our bodies. It is of course importance to try to engage with a sacrament with our hearts and minds but the effectiveness of the sacrament does not depend on that. The doing is the meaning. Just as in visiting relatives, or sharing a meal, or going for a walk together, the doing is the meaning. In these actions, company is enjoyed, relationships are built up, bonds are established.

In prayer, in just the same way, by saying the prayers, reading our Bibles, joining with others in church and in doing all the things that Christians do together and alone, company is enjoyed, relationships are built up, bonds are established. This is in part the prayer of pure faith: simply doing the Christian life in faith.

How does this work? It works on our deeper layers. We are like an onion. We take things in at many levels. Most of the time we do not recognise how we are affected by our life with other people. We do not recognise how we are being affected by life with God. We don’t register it. We assess things by their top layer. We ignore the lower layers. But that is where God does his main work.

There is my first dimension: forget the quest for experience - just get on with the practice of prayer, which is life with God. The deep, lasting experience will follow.

There is now a second dimension I would like to draw attention to. On your sheets is a photo-montage by Jerry Uelsmann, showing trees floating over a landscape with their roots dangling in the air below them. Is this us? We enjoy marvellous freedoms to day, free to float like these trees, to go where we want, have what we want - at least sometimes - and to feel the exhilarating liberty of free agents. Marvellous things lie at our feet all around us. The landscape is, however, cold and the trees will wither – they are not rooted in anything. They are alone. The price of our great individual freedom is an emptiness that comes from not being rooted enough in anything rich and nourishing. To be human beings fully alive we need to be rooted.

All this is to do with belonging. We were made for belonging - it is part of what it is to be human. We are incomplete without others. In a healthy culture there is a strong sense of this, a sense of our indebtedness, and our dependence on one another. In an unhealthy culture by long lean years week.

In contemporary western society a lot has been lost. People now expect to make themselves. Many people (though not all thank goodness) have an understanding of the human being as autonomous, in a pathetically exaggerated way that is stripped of all belonging, all mutual dependence, all faith in an inherited culture and tradition of life in the society of fellow human beings. Many young people live off a very slender base of individual questing for self-realisation. From the outside it looks so meagre, so much less than fully human. (I’m not going to mention the other side of the story – all the ways in which Christians benefit from the insights of the modern world – that’s another story).

This has been a long time in the making, going back at least to the renaissance and the setting-free of the individual from trammels that limited our individuality. It affected Christian prayer, so that, more and more, prayer was seen as an individual activity, dependent on the experience of the individual. That led to an exaggerated emphasis on a personal relationship with God separated from any sense of human belonging. If our prayer is purely private hotline to Jesus. Then we will be praying to a false Christ. Christ is only known in the body of Christ. When we pray, millions all over the world are praying with us, the departed are with us, and the saints in heaven. We are never alone. Ultimately for Christians there is no such thing as private prayer. We all carry one another.

Christian prayer presumes a strong sense of belonging in the Body of Christ. A sense of the church. If we pray with a sense of the Church, then we will be closer to Christian prayer. Faith happens between people - it is not something I can turn on, or turn up, or improve by myself. It is a complete waste of time to try to screw more faith out of ourselves. Faith grows when we are in amongst others, in the Church, the faithful company of all Christian believers. For that is the place where we find Christ. (This may sometimes be despite the Christians – often the life of people outside the church has more of Christ in it than that of Christians themselves. That is why our prayer needs to be checked against our experience of daily life. Christ is best discovered in the dialogue between the two – not a in prayer in a sealed balloon.) Therefore, one key implement that reflates our deflating faith is this – setting our prayer, and our self-awareness as Christians, in the context of the Body of Christ.

How do we do that? Knowing what the Church does (e.g. daily prayer), doing what the Church does (ditto), setting about our prayer and our daily life knowing that without the body of Christ I am exposed and naked but with it I am gloriously clothed and I am held up on all sides, all the while myself holding others up. It is a sort of patriotism for the heavenly country, a patriotism for Christ. A love and a passion for it. For many non-church people today, this would be utterly incomprehensible. That illustrates the challenge: we have to stick to it through thick and thin, in the face of an uncomprehending culture.

My second source of air for our deflating faith, then, is this belief in belonging in the Body of Christ, a sense of the Church.

Our faith automatically grows weak. Amongst all the riches of the Christian message, I have highlighted two things that build faith up: (1) an objective approach to prayer and worship in which we simply get on with it, knowing it is changing us through a long process that we can barely perceive and (2) looking to the practices of the Body of Christ. They will help us be less concerned about our lonely selves and more aware of how we are carried along and sustained by a measureless number of companions on earth and in heaven.

I end with some practical suggestions. In order to pray in faith we need to make some common practices habitual. Praying in front of an icon; lighting a candle in front of it; having a corner in our house which is set up for prayer; praying in the church building; having a discipline of daily prayer that you stick to through thick and thin; esp. the daily prayer of the church of England or whatever church you belong to; finding a way of saying your daily prayer with others; regular silent prayer, sticking to it whether it is uplifting or boring; regular silent prayer in a group; daily reading of the Bible, especially the gospels and so on – and always thinking of the church, the People of God , until it becomes second nature; nurturing our patriotism for Christ.

There is something important to add here - you can’t do all this in a balloon. It has to be in a dialogue with daily life. We are to be like tracker docs: we sniff Christ in our worship and then go out to sniff him out in the world around us. Christ is there, waiting to be recognised and to be served. It is a two-way dialogue: we begin to have a feel for Christ in our prayer and then go about seeking to recognise him in daily life but then daily life itself is a check on our prayer: it helps us keep our bearings and a sane sense of judgment in our religion.

Our walking in the way of Christ is always done with a faith that is weak, automatically deflating. Yet it is being strengthened all the time through our praxis. From this praxis follows an experience: The experience not of instant pleasure or gratification but the experience  of a gradual shaking-up of our molecules, a gradual realigning of our grain. That is the experience that matters.  

So if I feel my faith is weak, so what? When we set about our faith in the right way, our weakness becomes our strength.