Exercising FaithC.S. Lewis, the Bible and St. Therese of Lisieux
I am very honored to be here. Today has special meaning for me because two years and ten days ago, a month after my 19th birthday, I underwent open heart surgery. I suffer from Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder which causes aortic aneurysm. Growing up with a keen awareness of my mortality led me to pursue religious virtue and academic excellence, and two of the most important inspirations in my childhood were The Chronicles of Narnia and the lives of the Saints. C. S. Lewis, through The Last Battle and The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader“, gave me a wonderful vision of Heaven. And the Saints inspired me by their dedication to God, particularly by their holy deaths. In her moment of death, St. Thérèse of Lisieux — whose life exemplifies my topic in this paper — grabbed a Crucifix, kissed the image of Our Lord, and cried out “Oh, I love Him! My God, I love You!”
When I went on the operating table two years ago — a moment I had spent my entire life preparing for — all I experienced was darkness, void, oblivion: no great “out of body experience” or revelation of God. And I have always wanted to experience death as it happens, and not to die in my sleep. After the surgery, I underwent a deep spiritual crisis, growing from a deep-set fear of dying into nothingness. That crisis — combined with some appropriate studies which included my senior thesis on C. S. Lewis — taught me some important lessons about faith. We talk about faith in many ways, although the two most common, which Lewis discusses in Mere Christianity, are faith as a virtue and faith as a grace. My goal here is to discuss the idea of faith as a virtue, because I think that, if we understand what that really means, we can find solutions to many important issues in Christian theology.
Aristotle remarks that virtue is a kind of habit, pointing out the etymological connection between the Greek words ethike (“ethics”) and ethos (“habit”).1 This relationship is evident in English usage, through the difference between the terms “ethic”and “moral”.2 An “ethic” is an attitude ingrained by practice (a habit), but a “moral” is a principle taught by parents, teachers, ministers and books. Similarly, virtue in English is derived from the Latin virtus, which means “strength”. This is perhaps a more telling example: goodness is something we have to work at–to exercise–just as much as we exercise our bodies in order to gain physical health and strength. St. Paul teaches us this lesson, in I Corinthians 9, for example: “All the fighters at the games go into strict training. … [W]e do it for a wreath that will never wither.” In Mere Christianity, Lewis points out the difference between doing a moral act and being a moral person.3 What matters is not some sort of external score-keeping or obedience to a set of rules for its own sake, but rather the kind of character which comes from acting virtuously. To quote Lewis, “it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of ‘virtue.'”4
I turn to St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul for an example of how virtue is something we must practice. People today find a false consolation in the fact that this great saint experienced spiritual dryness. Yet the truth is, even in her darkest times, Thérèse still acted as if she was the most contented Christian in the world. Members of her community, while reading her memoirs after her death, were shocked that this saintly, God-loving girl lived in doubt for long periods of time. She did her best to put her doubts aside and act as if she believed, if only for the faith of her sisters. This should be anything but consoling for those who flaunt their skepticism.
But is not faith a “gift”? A “grace”? How can we say that it is a habit? Faith is not merely a “gift”: it is a “gift freely given”. God offers everyone the gift of faith, but He gives us the freedom to reject the gift. This is the formulation of the problem given by St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica (II-II, 2, 9): “Now the act of believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the Divine truth at the command of the will moved by the grace of God, so that it is subject to the free-will in relation to God; and consequently the act of faith can be meritorious.”5
This is why we call faith a “theological virtue”: it is a habit, something we “do”. Thérèse says that, “although I had not the consolation of faith, I forced myself to act as if I had.I have made more acts of faith in the last year than in the whole of my life.”6 She then says, “If you think of the poems I have written, … I must have seemed overwhelmed with spiritual consolation and like a child for whom the veil of faith is almost torn apart. But there is no veil, but instead a wall which towers to the sky and hides the stars.”7 Thérèse suggests that when Jesus speaks about faith the size of a mustard seed moving mountains, He means that miracles are worked for those who need them. The more faithful a Christian is (or claims to be), the less she needs a miracle, however much she wants one. Thérèse points out that the miracles Jesus worked for those closest to Him always came after a delay or a refusal — a small test to see if they really believed without the miracle. He tests the faith of Mary and Martha by letting Lazarus die, and works the miracle once they’ve proven themselves. 8
This is the solution to the issue of “faith versus reason.”Lewis sees no conflict.9 Modern science is based on its own kind of faith. Scientists assume certain principles of nature and of their own research methods, then they use those principles to establish hypotheses. Hypotheses, through experimentation and repetition, eventually become theories and laws. But nothing, in modern science, can ever be proven as absolutely true: new evidence may come along and provide a clearer, or much different, picture. Or the case may arise where the law does not apply. Scientists trust that the law will apply, at least generally, when put into use.
In both religion and science, one has faith in the accuracy and truth of the evidence and then uses reason to draw conclusions from the evidence. Then, those conclusions are held on the faith that the evidence was reliable and the reasoning was valid. “Faith,” says Lewis, “is the art of holding on to things your reason has accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” 10 Whether we are speaking of faith in God or faith in science, faith in atheism or faith in UFOs, the evidence can be tainted by our imaginations, and our emotional states can weaken our conviction in that which we hold, intellectually speaking, to be true.” [T]he battle,” says Lewis in Mere Christianity, “is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other. … Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.”11 This is why we must “train” our habit of faith.12 Lewis (correctly) points out that most people do not stray from God because they are convinced by intellectual arguments but because they “simply drift away.”13
So faith must be practiced, which brings us to the second issue, that of “faith versus works”. Like “faith versus reason”, it is an issue perpetuated mostly by misapplied terminology. Some Evangelicals reject all merit in works: they cry out “sola fide” and quote lines from St. Paul. Yet it is St. Paul who says, “that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character.”14Others falsely think that they can “tally up points” by this act or that act, but it is what lies in the heart that counts to God. And what lies in the heart of a Christian is faith. A Christian does good works with faith, hope and love. That is the meaning of the Poor Woman’s Mite: a charitable act only matters to God if it truly represents self-sacrifice. Since faith is a virtue, faith is itself “works”. That is why St. James tells us that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”15 Even if that work is nothing more than saying your prayers, being nice to people, and “acting holy” even when you feel spiritual darkness.
This is how faith can help us through suffering, the third issue I want to discuss. Thérèse says, “By letting my faith be tempted, God has greatly increased my spirit of faith which makes me see Him living in your soul and giving me, through you, His commands.”16This is what the Book of Job is all about. Dr. Kreeft writes that “Faith for Job is not primarily an act of the intellect but of the guts or the heart. Faith here is emeth, fidelity, trustability, promise keeping, reliability.”17 In “Obstinacy in Belief”, Lewis points to situations in which we ask other people to trust us: a surgeon asking the patient to trust his skill; a father asking a child to trust him on the bicycle.18 There is a cartoon in which a young boy is afraid of learning to ride his bicycle. His father says, “Trust me, OK?” The boy cries, “Trust you? I hardly know you!” “I’m your father!” “What, for six years? Call me when I’m forty and we’ll see how things are going!”19 Humanity’s relationship to God is that of the child to his father.
The thing which most disturbs Job is not the sores or the loss of his family and possessions. What upsets Job is his fear of losing God.20 Job, like the mourner in C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, questions whether God is good, but he never questions God’s existence.21 Job’s lament of the day he was born is echoed by Lewis:
No, my real fear is not of materialism. If it were true, we — or what we mistake for ‘we’ — could get out, get from under the harrow. An overdose of sleeping pills would do it. I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or, worse still, rats in a laboratory. … Supposing the truth were ‘God always vivisects?’ 22
But these are passing sentiments expressed in anger. It is our ultimate belief in God which helps all of us — Job, Thérèse, Lewis and myself — to bear the physical and emotional sufferings we endure. There are times when the pain in my chest, or in my head, or the numbness in my legs, is so terrible that I can’t bear it. And the only thing that keeps me from suicide is the fear of Hell. I cannot help but think that those who try to reject God on the basis of “human suffering” have not really experienced prolonged suffering. If we are truly mortal, as the atheist suggests, then death is “lights out”, and all our efforts of any sort are ultimately futile. That is the very terror I felt after the nothingness I experienced (or, rather, did not experience) during my open heart surgery.
To have such fears is a good thing. As Dr. Kreeft points out in the following quotation, it is a sign of our love for God when we fear losing Him.
God is infinite love, and the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Job’s love for God is infected with hate, but the three friends’ love for God is infected with indifference. Job stays married to God and throws dishes at him; the three friends have a polite nonmarriage, with separate bedrooms and separate vacations. The family that fights together stays together.23
The important thing about my experience is that I feared the loss of God. I did not come out of my surgery convinced that God didn’t exist becauseI didn’t have a “Near-Death Experience”: I simply feared that this might be cause for doubt.
In such times of desolation faith becomes most purely a virtue. When my spirit is most broken, the only choice I have left is to pray: to pray sincerely and desperately without any real “spiritual feeling”. To say, “Fine, God. Have it Your way. Despite the sorrow in my heart and the pain ravaging my body – despite the fact that I can’t concentrateon anything but my own depression – I will lay down on this bed in this darkened room and say my Rosary. But I don’t see what good it will do if I can’t truly put my heart into it.” . . . And what happens? Once that initial barrier is crossed – once the heart has surrendered itself – suddenly things become different. The heart softens. Spiritual consolation returns. God sends a sign – a kind word from a friend, an inspirational dream, serendipity of some sort – something small and unexpected, something most people wouldn’t think twice about. But that little hint, like Jesus’ foretelling Peter’s denial, reminds us that He is here. And our faith is suddenly strengthened.
Then we reach what Lewis calls the second stage of faith. It is the point at which we realize we are totally dependent upon God: even for the strength to believe in Him. Lewis says that, “It is like a small child goingto its father and saying, ‘Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.’ Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child’s present.”24 Lewis says that we learn this lesson only by discovering how truly “bankrupt” we are.
[T]he question of Faith in this sense arises after a man has tried his level best to practise the Christian virtues, and found that he fails, and seen that even if he could he would only be giving back to God what was already God’s own.25
The Christian who has reached this level of understanding learns how to work hard for certain goals in life, but also when to ask God for help. It is at this level that we can “leave it to God” and begin to imitate the perfect obedience of Christ to the Will of His Father.26
It is a difficult path. Even Christ had Gethsemane. As mature Christians, we must come to terms with our own nothingness, and realize that the best we can do is never good enough, and when things seem darkest we must always turn to prayer. I can think of no better closing than the words of St. Thérèse, the Little Flower: “I am no longer surprised by anything and I feel no distress at seeing my complete helplessness. On the contrary, I glory in it and every day I expect to discover fresh flaws in myself. In fact, this revelation of my nothingness does me much more good than being enlightened on matters of faith.”
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Ross translation), 1103a.
- Consider how “the Justice System” and “the Legal System” are synonymous terms, while the terms “just” and”legal” refer to different things. So with “ethics”and “morality” as opposed to “ethic” and “moral.”
- We might compare this principle to Lewis’s discussion of being “religious” and being “cultured” in “Lilies that Fester.”
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan PublishingCompany, 1960), 76-77.
- Aquinas Summa Theologica II-II, 2, 9; Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 155. C. S. Lewis saw Sehnsucht as thec hannel by which the gift of faith is offered: unfortunately, most people attempt to fulfill their longings by pursuing things that aren’t God.
- St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul (Beevers Translation; New York: Doubleday, 1989), 118.
- ibid, 119.
- Thérèse, 88. Once a miracle has occurred, as with Elijah and the widow, then it should not have to be repeated for people to believe (Cf. Lk 4:25-26). I recently observed, while listening to Jesus Christ Superstar, that when Jesus said to Peter, “You will deny Me three times,” He was giving a subtle reminder of His Divinity: in their darkest hours the Apostles would remember how Jesus accurately predicted Peter’s denial.
- Cf. C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1978), 39; Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Collier Books,1980), 91-92; Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (Orlando, Florida; Harcourt Brace & Company, 1987), 13. Lewis argues that human reason is itself proof of the supernatural, because our knowledge of nature is based on reason, yet according to science, nature is completely random (or deterministic, depending upon one’s philosophy of science). If humanity is ultimately reduced to atomic reactions, then the ruminations of scientists are as meaningless as any other occurrence.
- Mere Christianity, 122-123.
- ibid. 121-123.
- “The first step is to recognize the fact that your moods change” (Mere Christianity, 124). The second is to exercise the faith by keeping Christianity in mind through prayer, study and church attendance. Lewis says that the falls (or “dry periods”) we sometimes experience help us to become better Christians by keeping us humble and by encouraging self-examination. “God has been waiting for the momentat which you discover that there is no question of earning a pass mark in this exam. or putting Him in your debt” (Mere Christianity,124-125).
- This has certainly been my own experience, growing up as part of “Generation X”. All too often, the attitude is that religion “doesn’t really matter”. People my age tend to be influenced not by theology or ethics but by aesthetics and socialization. Unfortunately, the attitude of many in my generation, which I have encountered among many in my own family, is that “it doesn’t really matter; there’s no real difference.” To them, it’s all the same: just a bunch of ceremony that makes us feel good. God, they say, has in no way directly revealed Himself–Herself, or rather, Itself–to humankind: There was no Burning Bush, no Chariot of Fire, no Christ–Jesus was just a great teacher, like Socrates or Buddha.
- Romans 5:1-5.
- James 2:14-17.
- Thérèse, 121.
- Kreeft, 78.
- Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief,” 22-24.
- Bill Watterson, It’s a Magical World (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1996), 55.
- Kreeft, 95.
- Cf. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), 4-5; 33-35.
- ibid. 33.
- Kreeft, 89.
- Lewis, Mere Christianity, 125.
- ibid. 127.
- ibid. 125-127
- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. Translated by W. D. Ross. New York: Random House, 1941.
- Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica in The Master Christian Library, Version 1.0. CD-ROM Software. English Dominican Translation,1911. Albany, OR: AGES Software, (c) 1997.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
- Kreeft, Peter J. Three Philosophies of Life. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989.
- Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.
- — . “Is Theology Poetry?” The Weight of Glory and OtherEssays. New York: Collier Books, 1980. Pages 74-92.
- — . Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960.
- — . Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1978.
- — . “On Obstinacy in Belief.” The World’s Last Night and Other Essays. Orlando, Florida; Harcourt Brace & Company, 1987.Pages 13-30.
- — . The Problem of Pain. New York: Collier Books, 1986.
- –— . “Work and Prayer.” The Grand Miracle. New York: Ballantine, 1988. Pages 77-80.
- Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint. The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul. Translated by John Beevers. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
- Watterson, Bill. It’s a Magical World. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel 1996. Page 55.