Do You Believe Now?

Today’s Gospel from St. John is part of Jesus’ long discourses during the Last Supper. At the beginning of the discourses (which go on for four chapters), Jesus asks, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” And in the latter part of the discourse that we hear today, the disciples assert that now that Jesus has spoken plainly to them they now believe.

And Jesus replies, “Do you believe now?” When I hear those words, I hear in Jesus’ voice frustration, urgency and challenge. What I hear is: You’ve walked with me for three years. You’ve listened to my teachings. You’ve watched me heal and raise from the dead. You’ve watched me feed the multitudes with a few loaves of bread, calm the seas, walk on water. You’ve experienced my love.

Do you believe now? Jesus asks, knowing one will betray him.

Do you believe now? he asks, knowing one will deny him.

Do you believe now? you who will fall asleep in the garden when I ask you to say awake with me.

Do you believe now? you, all of whom save John, will abandon me as I hang on the cross.

Yet they say “we have come to believe.”

Jesus asks us the same question: Do you believe? After all you’ve seen and heard and all we’ve been through together, do you believe?

We are as quick as the disciples to say “I believe” or “We believe.”

The question is: does our belief mean something.

Do we say “I believe” and mean, “I’ll take the wedding feasts and the feeding of then multitudes and the healings, but not the cross”>

Do we say “I believe” and run from Jesus at the first sign of trouble?

Do we say “I believe” and live our lives in ways that look absolutely no different from those who disclaim belief?

What do you mean when you say “I believe.”

[This post contains excerpts from the reflection I will offer on the Gospel at Mass this afternoon at the Jesuit Retreat House in Osh Kosh, where I am one of the directors for a directed retreat.]

Update: Although I didn’t deliver it exactly as presented here, here is the text of my reflection at today’s Mass.

I Believe in Jesus Christ

One of the books I’m currently reading, in anticipation of a Mid-Day Reflection I and my friend and colleague Mark Osler will be offering at the University of St. Thomas next month on the subject of creeds, is Joan Chittister’s In Search of Belief. I have benefitted from several books written by Chittister and so was interested in her effort to explain what the various clauses in the Apostles’ Creed mean to her.

In the chapter titled, “I Believe in Jesus Christ…”, Chittister observes that Jesus asked his disciples two questions on this subject: “Whom do others say that I am?” and “And whom do you say I am?” Distinguishing the two, Chittister writes: “The first question is the substance of theological seminars, and someone should go on asking it, of course. But the second question is the one meant for me that no one but I can answer.”

The distinction is an important one. As Chittister recognizes, the theological question needs to be asked and it is helpful for us to have some understanding of the answer to that question. But ultimately, each of us has to answer for ourselves: Who do I say Jesus is? Who is Jesus for me? If we don’t reflect seriously on that question, saying “I Believe in Jesus Christ” becomes little more than intellectual assent to a theological proposition.

As I’ve observed before, the literal translation of “credo” is “I give my heart.” We don’t give our heart to an intellectual proposition. Chittister writes that for her, “It is the Jesus of my own life and the life of the world around me that I have come to confess in the Creed. It is that Jesus that I follow…It is that Jesus who captivates me completely.”

What is it that you affirm when you recite in the creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” Who is Jesus for you?

Faith and Belief

I just finished reading Brother David Steindl-Rast’s lastest book, Deeper than Words: Living the Apostle’s Creed. The Creed expresses faith in Christian terms, and Brother David doesn’t try to suggest otherwise. What he does suggest, however, the basic human faith expressed in Christian terms in the Creed is no different than the basic human faith expressed in Buddhist beliefs (or the beliefs of other religions) and the book is his effort to “make our divergent beliefs transparent to the one faith we share.”

I spent twenty years of my life as a Buddhist before returning to Catholicism. Although I consider myself a Christian and neither a Buddhist-Christian nor a Christian Buddhist, there is much I bring back from my Buddhism to my current Catholicism and one of the books I’m currently writing adapts Tibetan Buddhist analytic meditations for Christian pray-ers. Thus, efforts to explore the underlying dynamics that operate across different faith traditions are something I have great interest in. What Brother David does so skillfully in this books is to “dig down to the roots of basic human faith – the trust in Life we share with all our brothers and sisters in the human family – and from this perspectrive to understand the particular Christian expression of that shared faith.”

Nothing I could say about this book does would do it sufficient justice. Perhaps the simplest thing I can say is that the book has greatly deepened my appreciation of the Creed even as it has challenged me to think about some of the lines differently than I had done before. I recognize that some people will find it too great a challenge; Christians wedded to a view that only the Christian expression of faith is true or valid will be critical of Brother David’s efforts. But I believe the Dalai Lama is correct in the conclusion he expresses in the book’s Forward that Brother David succeeds in demonstrating “how it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment and yet be enriched” by the understanding and experience of other faith traditions.

If you are looking for a worthwhile book to bring along on vacation, this would be a good choice.

Credo

One of the books I’m currently reading is Deeper then Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed, the most recent book written by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk whose work I love. The book is his effort to illuminate that “the faith from which [beliefs] spring is one and unites.”

The first chapter focuses on the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in God. Brother David reminds us that in the original Latin, the phrase “I believe” is one word – credo – the literal meaning of which is “I give my heart.” In recalling the origin of the term, Brother David asks us to remember that “I give my heart” is an expression, not of belief, but of faith – of our faith in God.

This is a useful reminder. It is far too easy for us to view the Creed as a checklist of propositions to which we must give intellectual consent in order to consider ourselves good Catholics. Viewed that way, the Creed can far too easily become a tool of division.

Distinguishing “belief” and “faith,” Brother David observes that “there are many beliefs, but there is ultimately only one faith: faith in God.” Viewed as an expression of faith, I believe in God says: I give my heart in total trust, something that does not depend on a specific expression of religious belief.

Brother David suggests that actually giving voice to our faith in God – actually saying, “I have faith in God” is important. He writes:

To put this into so many words – even if I say them to myself in silence, can be a decisive step in my spiritual life, for every time I remember my belonging I drink from the Source of Meaning…Expressing faith in God gives a firm foundation to joyful, grateful, and creative living.

Credo. I give my heart. Give voice to that belief in whatever words seem right to you.

Why Do You Need to be a Catholic?

A friend of mine who has an enormous discomfort/distrust of organized religion said to me recently (I can’t remember the exact words, but these are close), “I can see that you are drenched in God. But why do you need to be Catholic?”

It is a good question, one that has been addressed by many faithful persons. (Garry Wills wrote an entire book called, Why I am a Catholic.) And the reality is that I don’t find it easy to give a comprehensible answer to that question to someone like my friend (who understands God, but isn’t all that comfortable with organized religion).

When I came back to God after my years as a Buddhist (during which time I disclaimed any belief in God), I came back to Catholicism. At the time it wasn’t God and then Catholicism, it was both at the same time. I don’t think I thought about the latter as much as I thought about the former, but it was there nonetheless.

I suspect part is simply a return to my roots. I was raised Catholic. I gave up Catholicism and God at the same time, and so it seemed natural to return there. And there are times when I think that maybe there really is something to the idea of the indelible mark of Baptism. I was baptized into this faith and there is simply no way to really completely separate myself from it. They got me at birth, so (like it or not at times) here I am.

But surely there is more than that? Surely something that makes me call myself a Catholic apart from the “accident” (in quotes because in truth I don’t really believe anything is accident) that I was born to Catholic parents who hauled me off to be baptized within months of my birth and raised me in the Catholic faith.

The truth is that (most of the time, at least) I know there is more than that that keeps me calling myself a Catholic (which I do despite the difficulty I have with certain teachings of the Church). There is something that has to do with the enormous reality of God becoming human, dying and rising. And there is something that has to do with the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ means, literally, that the entire world can be transformed into the fullness of Christ. (Michael Himes speaks eloquently on this in his chapter on the Eucharist in The Mystery of Faith.) For me, that is a reality worth hanging on to. And, as I explained in a previous post, it also has something to do with the meaning and power drawn from being part of an apostolic succession that stretches back to the time of Jesus, which keeps us united as one Body in Christ.

Does any of this mean I “need” to be a Catholic? Maybe not. And there are times when I struggle mightily with statments that come out of Rome or from the US Bishops Conference. Times when I’m not even sure I can answer satisfactorily to myself what it means to say I’m a Catholic, let alone whether I “need” to be Catholic, let alone provide a satisfactory answer of any of this to my friend with his mistrust of organized religion. From time to time this troubles me and I wrestle with the question. But other times, I look at God and let God look at me and I know I can just let the questions be.