Today at Mass we celebrated a votive Mass for Evangelization, a fitting beginning for the Year of Faith. The homily really caught my attention in a thought-provoking kind of way. The priest gave us his list of ten practical suggestions for how one could celebrate the Year of Faith. Somewhere down the list (actually, at number 9) I started having sirens and bells go off in my head.
Before I go into those sirens and bells, let me just say that I know I was born for such a time as this. My first memory of prayer that I offered to God after my initial childhood conversion (as a Lutheran, age 10) was to sort of wonder at God about whether there were any other people who ever went to church, warmed pews, but didn't really get, believe in, or care that much about what was being said. I felt compelled that it was the call of my life to find out and, if possibly there were, to help correct that.
Well, now I realize that there are plenty of folks like that in churches, and plenty of folks like that who used to go to churches, and that "getting" God, believing in Him and giving a rip (of charity) are things in which even the holiest people need continuous renewal. I was born at just the right time to be experiencing the New Evangelization right now. Funny how God works stuff like that out.
But back to the bells and sirens. The ninth item on the priest's list, after things like praying the creed and acts of faith mindfully, reading the catechism and speaking out to share truth, was "put your faith into practice by concrete acts of charity."
Now, you may wonder why this would send off sirens in my soul. It seems to me that right here is the real proof of the crisis of faith we are experiencing. And I don't mean that, oh, it's so shameful that we don't have more people to man the soup kitchens and visit the sick. We could always use more people to do those things, of course, but from where I sit in my parish, we don't do an absolutely horrible job with those things. What I do mean is this: For many people "put faith into practice" really means "be a generically nice person."
That's a big problem.
Following Christ is not about being a generically nice person; it is about a complete transformation of one's life through union with Jesus Christ.
I have nothing against people being nice and doing generic good. Recycling and donating used clothes and serving soup to the homeless and petting puppies and smiling at the cashier in the grocery store and teaching a fatherless child to read and lectoring at your parish and selling trinkets to raise money for hurricane victims are all wonderful things that everyone should do who can. But they can all be done while harboring wicked pride in your heart, and they can also be done by atheists. They do not have any necessary connection to faith at all.
In order to put faith into practice, one must first possess a personal faith. This personal faith is a response to encountering a personal God. This means that at a certain time, through certain events that one can tell about, God called you, and you answered. A personal faith means the call continues and the answer continues. And in the call continuing, God personally asks certain things of you. He asks for concrete steps. Do this. Go there. Say that. Give these.
Responding to those calls for those concrete steps is "putting faith into practice." They might be any number of things listed in the above paragraph under "generic good," but this time they won't just be generic good that I do to get an ego massage. They will be obedience to the voice of Christ, believing that He has asked it, and acting on that faith. As such, they will be actions that transform me and actions that bring Christ's presence into this world in a specific way He has designed.
The big, huge difference, is the reason why we do what we do. Putting faith into practice means listening to the Holy Spirit, discerning the Lord's voice (which we know, because that's how we came to encounter Him in the first place), and obeying. It is not primarily about wanting to look good to ourselves or others, meeting someone else's expectations, or trying to assuage guilt. It is the fruit of relationship.
Faith is not just knowing a set of beliefs. Of course I want to know everything about my Lord and His Church once I am madly in love with Him. Love! That's what God wants from us, and that is all we long for and need. Ok, I'm a hippie at heart. But it's true -- Love is all we need! Love is also like a magnet, and attracts all the right things into the right order, if we allow our love to be constantly purified. Love will attract right knowledge, right thinking, right action.
So, let's not try to "live faith" as if it were our own personal "I'm-a-good-person" project. Christian faith is a relationship with the Living God that changes everything for us.